Ulysses: A European Odyssey begins in Athens on 19 September 2022
“All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players”, declares Jacques in Shakespeare’s sylvan comedy As You Like It. In his still controversial masterpiece Ulysses, James Joyce chose to define his own world stage by the streets and entries and hotels and shops and taverns of Dublin, around which his central characters Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus perambulate in the course of a single day.
Writing from his homes in Zurich, Trieste and Paris, in the aftermath of the Great War and the Spanish flu pandemic, Joyce was inspired, both in the structure and thematic content of his novel, by Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey, which records the immense human catastrophe that was the Trojan War.
Homer cast his geographical net considerably further as he followed Odysseus, king of Ithaca, on his ten-year journey home at the end of the war. Odysseus wanders hither and thither across the ancient Mediterranean world and is portrayed not as a heroic warrior but as a mere man, prone to human frailty and flaws, who encounters and overcomes many apparently insurmountable difficulties as he goes.
A centenary after the publication of Ulysses, arts entrepreneurs Liam Browne and Seán Doran of Arts Over Borders Ireland, have combined these two seminal texts to construct a parallel epic journey across Europe.
Ulysses: A European Odyssey will be presented by a network of creative partners, companies and individual artists in eighteen cities – Athens, Vilnius, Paris, Budapest, Trieste, Marseille, Berlin, San Sebastian, Copenhagen, Istanbul, Cluj, Zurich, Gronigen, Eleusis, Oulu, Lisbon, Dublin and Derry – one for each of the eighteen episodes in the novel.
The project has just been awarded a grant of 1.78 million Euros from Creative Europe’s large-scale funding category. AOB is the lead artistic partner.
“Creative Europe is the European Commission’s only dedicated arts funding stream and the only one capable of supporting a project of such huge reach and scale,” says Doran, who pinpoints as a “transformative moment” Holland-based producer Claudia Woolgar’s agreement to come on board as AOB’s initial producer.
“Claudia and I had worked together on projects back in the 1990s. She is now based in another European country and has her own company, appropriately called Brave New World. She was the one who pragmatically began to open up her contacts in the different cities and to push open doors into potential partnerships. It subsequently made perfect sense for her to be the lead partner in terms of the application and for us to be the lead partner in terms of the artistic vision and oversight of the whole project.”
Browne and Doran have delivered a string of what they call bio-festivals, multi-media, multi-arts responses to the work of a single author. To date, the list comprises Samuel Beckett, Brian Friel, Oscar Wilde, TS Eliot and, in 2023, Robert Graves. In this, AOB’s 10th anniversary year, the month of July will see the return of the Beckett and Friel festivals in Ennsikillen and Glenties respectively.
But, for obvious reasons, 2022 is very much the year of Ulysses.
“About three years ago, we starting thinking about the centenary of Ulysses and that there would be a lot of things coming out of Ireland”, says Browne.
“From the beginning, the strongest thing for us was that we saw Ulysses as a great European work of art. At the very end of the book are the words ‘Trieste-Zurich-Paris’, so it couldn’t be clearer.
“It’s easy to forget that in Joyce’s mental landscape, he was completely in Dublin but in his day-to-day living, where he ate, where he slept, the streets he walked along, he was in mainland Europe and that fed into the novel.
“When we started to talk to potential partners what was wonderful was that they felt exactly the same. Even those who had not actually read the book felt it was a major part of European culture. We set up Zoom meetings with organisations and individuals across Europe, who, but for Ulysses would never have met. Even at those early stages, it was marvellous to explore and develop ideas coming out of this one work, and to feel mutual trust emerging as new partners joined”.
The importance of human interaction within the confines of a city is a recurring theme in Joyce’s work and constituted a crucial part of the Creative Europe application.
“We always felt the project was a fascinating way to explore the European city, says Browne.
“As we were working on it, Covid struck and there was a lot of discussion about what was going to happen post-Covid. What are cities going to be like, how are people going to be living? A core element in the application was the fact that so much of the novel is set in public places and that public space was so important to Joyce.
“We built into the requirements that every partner had to use a public space within their own city, something that became quite poignant when, suddenly, there was no social interaction within cities. We were all having to review how we lived and interacted as human beings and the project seemed very pertinent in that respect”.
As they began to plot a virtual course across Europe, Doran and Browne unearthed an invaluable resource, the detailed schema devised by Joyce to explain the thinking behind what he called “my damned monster novel”. It consists of an elaborate table, linking each of the eighteen episodes of Ulysses with its corresponding episode in Homer’s Odyssey. It provided them with a useful road map.
“We thought it would be interesting if we could develop a similar schema that would help us identify a particular city by seeing matches with the episode. We would then go in search of potential partners,” says Browne.
“Building on our own bio-festival template, we developed against each episode a word cloud, to give our partners a sense of the range of the possibilities, of how you might respond through other art forms. Some of them had never worked in this way – or even thought about it. One or two said they just took the word cloud and worked from it.
“We also wanted to look at issues affecting Europe today and bring them into the mix – migration, urban renewal, social media, food distribution and consumption, sexual identity, mental wellbeing. It was extraordinary to find in the novel so many elements of contemporary Europe that could be matched to a particular city and project.”
A patchwork of fascinating collaborations and pairings began to evolve. The Lestrygonians episode will be located in the Basque city of San Sebastian, famous for its gastronomic culture and its pinxtos/tapas tradition, which echoes Bloom’s fussy eating habits. The nocturnal Circe episode will be delivered in Oulu in Finland, where the Lumo Light Festival will explore mental health issues through dramatic use of light and darkness. For Chapter 9 of Ulysses, Joyce’s father/son Hamlet episode (Homer’s Scylla and Charybdis), Copenhagen’s Grob Theater is exploring related themes through its festival of mono-dramas.
“When we alighted on the journey in Athens, that was a lovely moment,” says Doran. “The involvement of the Onassis Cultural Centre was a wonderful gesture of validation. In a Homeric sense, we pushed the boat out from Athens. And then, to turn it on its head and see Ireland as Ithaca, the homecoming … that was amazing.”
“In June 2024 Dublin will host the 309 Questions, the catechism that Joyce emulated. Questions about arts and society in the future will have been submitted by the partners to be discussed at a 3-day symposium. And then each of the cities will send a female artist to Derry for a final climactic performance, which is so suited to the city, in terms of its love of a big public event and spectacle”.
“We always felt that Derry was the natural place to finish with the Penelope episode”, says Browne.
“It’s a city of women, going back to the days of the shirt factories and women being at the heart of the city. And there’s a lovely play on words in that in Derry, when people greet each other, they say ‘Yes!’ and that, of course, is Molly Bloom’s famous last word in the novel, ‘… yes I said yes I will Yes’.
“You can’t guarantee a legacy from a project like this but we’ve built in so much interaction through artists’ exchanges and the different symposia. We’re creating a climate for the exchange of ideas and knowledge and the development of friendships across Europe. We hope that other things will flow from this in future years”.
From Athens, the European Odyssey will travel to Budapest, Trieste, Marseille, Berlin, San Sebastian, Copenhagen, Istanbul, Cluj, Zurich, Eleusis, Oulu, Lisbon and Dublin, ending in Derry on 16 June 2024.
This article first appeared in The Irish Times on 9 April 2022.