(Rory Carroll’s article appeared in the Guardian, 6/16/22; Photo: James Joyce in Zurich in 1915. Photograph: Granger Historical Picture Archive/Alamy.)

1933 trial that vindicated ‘pornographic’ James Joyce novel made into play to be staged in Dublin

It was a seminal literary trial in which a book itself – not its author or publisher – was the defendant.

The United States v One Book Called Ulysses, as the case was termed, put James Joyce’s masterpiece, which had been banned for obscenity, on trial in a New York courtroom in 1933. The landmark ruling in favour of Ulysses resounded across the world and helped lift bans in other jurisdictions, including the UK.

The victory for freedom of speech eventually faded into history, a dusty footnote, but now it has been turned into a play that will be performed in Dublin to mark the centenary of the publication of Ulysses.

“A history play is never about history it’s always about today, and this seemed a good time to be talking about cancellation and censorship,” said the author, Colin Murphy. “I like stories that can flip how we think about things today.”

The performance of The United States v Ulysses at the Pavilion theatre in Dún Laoghaire will be one of dozens of events on Thursday to celebrate Bloomsday, named after Leopold Bloom, the hero of Joyce’s novel, which recounts his wanderings around Dublin on a single day, 16 June 1904.

The annual celebration – a mix of tours, readings, concerts, screenings, reenactments and tributes – has additional resonance this year as it marks a century since the book’s publication in 1922, a keystone for modern literature.

The Museum of Literature Ireland – its acronym MoLI is an homage to Bloom’s fictional wife Molly – collaborated with 35 Irish embassies and consulates to make a short film, titled Hold to the Now, that mixes scholars and actors, including Stephen Fry. It will premiere on YouTube on Thursday morning.

The day will also mark the first public staged performance of Murphy’s play, which draws on case files, other historical material, and Set at Random, a novel by Declan Dunne about the trial.

“I thought I knew the Joyce story but this had completely passed me by,” said Murphy. “For us Joyce is an Irish story so it was surprising to find this American leg, and this leg is crucial. The verdict creates the possibility of Joyce as a part of mass popular culture.”

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