Bloom Is on the Rosenbach

Even if you haven't finished reading it, join the Joyceans for the annual celebration of Ulysses.

By Katie Haegele
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"I've made friends this way. There are people I look forward to seeing every year at Bloomsday," says Drucie McDaniel, the Philadelphia-based stage and film actress who portrays Ulysses' Molly Bloom at the Rosenbach Museum and Library's annual Bloomsday celebration. "There's such a sense of camaraderie with the people who love the literature, who love the feeling of coming together, who have bonded over that sense of community."

You might think McDaniel was describing something more boisterous--a music festival, maybe, or an outdoor party. But she's talking about Bloomsday, the annual daylong reading of James Joyce's modernist masterpiece Ulysses, which happens to be one of the most important--and arguably one of the most difficult--novels of the 20th century.

"Ulysses is difficult in the way that so much modern visual art is difficult," says Mike Barsanti, associate director of the Rosenbach Museum and Library, which hosts the celebration. "It calls into question the basic assumptions of what an artist is supposed to give a viewer, what the basic ground rules of a certain genre of art are."

When it was published in 1922, Ulysses challenged the very idea of what a novel could be with both its content and its form. One look at the book's punctuation-less soliloquies and layers-deep historical, literary and religious references has put off many a casual reader.

But then there's Bloomsday, the surprisingly rollicking occasion that McDaniel--who was in the movies Twelve Monkeys and Girl, Interrupted--has been a part of for the 13 years the Rosenbach has hosted it.

The word "Bloomsday" comes from the book's protagonist, Leopold Bloom, and the fact that his 783-page "odyssey" through Dublin, Ireland, takes place on just one day: June 16, 1904.

According to yes I said yes I will Yes, a book about Ulysses and Bloomsday out last month from Vintage Books, Joyce's Paris publisher Sylvia Beach coined the name for the celebratory day when she threw her best-selling author a party one June 16. Joyce-heads picked up where Beach left off, creating a frenzy of devotion to the author that includes the yearly celebration and maps of "Joyce's Dublin" that detail the places his characters visit.

Today Bloomsday is celebrated in cities around the world. It can consist of a complete reenactment of the events of Ulysses (as it does in Dublin), a festival-like outdoor reading (as in Philadelphia) and nerdy insider references and jokes (which seem to be universal).

"It gets bigger every year," said McDaniel of Philadel-phia's celebration. "Delan-cey is a little street, so the chairs fill up. A lot of people come knowing they won't be able to see, but it doesn't matter. It's about the language anyway."

Outside of Dublin, New York boasts the largest Bloomsday celebration. Isaiah Sheffer's Bloomsday on Broadway production at Symphony Space features the finest stage actors in the world giving it their Joycean best and drinking whiskey (occasionally at the same time).

But though New York may have cornered the market on theater, we here in Philadelphia have the atom bomb: The original Ulysses manuscript lives at the Rosenbach. The manuscript--in Joyce's handwriting, with all his obsessive scribbles in the margins--is so difficult to read that, as the legend goes, there's still never been a completely error-free edition.

Barsanti thinks the book's myriad difficulties are one reason it's such a personal experience for readers.

"In order to figure out what's going on, you have to eavesdrop on the gossip, pick up the newspaper and pay attention to hundreds of little cues and signals and maybe even do a little research," Barsanti says. "Readers who enjoy this experience become like citizens of this virtual city, and--like Trekkies, arguably--seek out experiences that recreate it."

Thirteen years ago Philadelphia's first Bloomsday hardly recreated anything. It was a small, ordinary bookstore reading with McDaniel and actor (and "Irish-phile," says McDaniel) Michael Toner reading from the book. The reading was so surprisingly popular that the Rosenbach, which organized the event, relocated it to an auditorium at the Curtis Institute of Music the following year, where it was standing-room only.

This year will likely draw the most people yet, since 2004 is the centenary of Bloom's fictional day in Dublin. In honor of the anniversary the Rosenbach will also host a pub crawl and screenings of two films about Joyce.

Other readers include John Glover, filmmaker Mark Moskowitz, and Chumley and Carlota, whose antics should provide a nice counterbalance to more heavy-duty readers like Irish writer Galway Kinnell. There's even a version of Ulysses for kids called Potable Joyce, Sebastienne Mundheim's performance that dramatizes the themes of Ulysses and the Odyssey using puppets and wordplay.

So how did such a fun event become associated with Ulysses, the book that's synonymous with difficult reading in the same way "rocket scientist" is used as a joking shorthand for "brainiac"?

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