James Joyce’s The Dead, from Dubliners, is one of the most beautiful novellas in English or any language. In some 60 pages, it evokes a handful of individuals at a Christmastime party with precision and sympathy, placing them with masterly suggestiveness inside a milieu, a society, an era, the world. Fin-de-siècle Dublin may not seem all that prototypical, yet when the writer’s eye and ear are this sharp, they push through to the penetralia of the soul, no matter how parochial its trappings.
The humor and melancholy of these intersecting lives are apportioned with the minuteness of apothecary measures, balancing contrary ingredients with the care usually reserved for life-and-death matters. The work’s two poles are the fading from life of the elderly Julia Morkan, a spinster music teacher, and the crumbling marital bliss of her nephew, Gabriel Conroy, the authorial alter ego. Gabriel discovers that Gretta, his wife and the mother of his children, will never love him with the pure intensity of the platonic feelings she harbors for Michael Furey, a sickly youth who defied a long-ago chilly winter night to serenade her, thereby courting death more successfully than he’d courted her.
At the party given by three music teachers – the aging Morkan sisters and their niece, Mary Jane – another Michael, a music student, sings for the guests, rekindles Gretta’s repressed memories, and sparks in Gabriel a newfound jealousy of that long-buried swain. Out of this and the sketches of other party guests, plus the snow falling over Ireland that night, Joyce conjures a portrait gallery that looms larger, and penetrates deeper, with every magisterial sentence.
Here the fine amateur singer, the graceful lyric poet, and the master fictionist in Joyce combine to write prose whose final paragraphs, almost unbearably sad and beautiful, sing out in a bittersweet simplicity available only to supreme artists. Which is why The Dead should be left on the page, where it has built itself an impregnable home.
But fools will rush in. The gifted John Huston could not make his movie version work, despite a tremendous performance by Donal McCann as the writer Gabriel Conroy at his career crossroads and conjugal cul-de-sac. Even so, the film was only a shortfall; the new musical play, with Christopher Walken as Gabriel, is a deadfall that traps and kills the spirit. Walken walks through the piece as part robot, part zombie, or, most kindly put, the stage manager, who, in Walken’s absence, is walking through a rehearsal, script in hand.
The others are all good or better. Sally Ann Howe’s Julia and Blair Brown’s Gretta are lancinatingly moving, followed closely by Marni Nixon, Paddy Croft, and Brian Davies, too long absent from the stage. Scarcely behind are Emily Skinner, Alice Ripley, and especially Stephen Spinella, who, as the erratic and excitable Freddy Malins, gives a performance to be lovingly pressed into the album of the memory. David Jenkins’s savvy sets, Jane Greenwood’s dignified costumes, and Jennifer Tipton’s tactful lighting likewise deserve warm praise.
But there are also the instantly forgettable music of Shaun Davey, the cobbled-together lyrics of Richard Nelson, and the “book” by Nelson, who, not missing an eye like his heroic namesake, should not have purblindly undertaken the impossible. And even if the music were not negligible, not dragged in all too sporadically and arbitrarily, it would still prevent us from savoring the far greater music of Joyce’s words.