Translating a unique passage in English literature into a work for the stage is a tricky and challenging project, and a group of about 50 guests had the rare opportunity to get a behind-the-scenes glimpse of a unique example of this labor of love on Saturday afternoon at Robert Wilson’s Watermill Center.
Theater veteran Kate Mueth of East Hampton, an actor, director and choreographer, is an artist in residence at the Watermill Center. Her project is a stage adaptation of the final chapter of James Joyce’s “Ulysses”—the long, nearly unpunctuated internal monologue by Marion “Molly” Bloom, the earthy wife of the novel’s central figure, Leopold Bloom.
On Saturday, after just eight days of active collaboration with director Margot Lewitin and dramaturge Ronnie Geist, Ms. Mueth gave a staged reading of a portion of the chapter, a masterpiece of stream-of-consciousness writing. Following the piece, dubbed “In the Room with Molly Bloom,” the three collaborators then briefly took questions from the audience prior to adjourning for a reception.
The three have been working inside Mr. Wilson’s private apartment at the Watermill Center, spending more than a week simply reading and re-reading the difficult chapter aloud, coaxing meaning out of what is meant to be the sometimes random but often insightful thoughts that drift through a woman’s mind as she drifts off to sleep. It is the first step in a long process allowing Ms. Mueth to take the work to the stage.
“Ulysses” is largely a work of internal monologue, dominated by Mr. Bloom and another male character, Stephen Dedalus, over the course of a single day, June 16, 1904, in Dublin. But Joyce saved “the last word,” as he once put it in a private letter, for Molly Bloom—and it remains one of the most remarkable passages in the history of literature. Some 25,000 words divided only loosely into eight rambling “sentences,” with only two periods along the way as punctuation, the “Penelope” chapter “might in its utterly convincing realism be an actual document, the magical record of inmost thought by a woman that existed,” wrote British novelist and critic Arnold Bennett. He added, “I have never read anything to surpass it, and I doubt if I have ever read anything to equal it.”
But bringing the intensely private and brutally honest images to the stage presents a challenge for Ms. Mueth, the fourth artist in residence at Watermill Center and the first who lives and works in the community. Her husband is Josh Gladstone, artistic director of the John Drew Theater at Guild Hall in East Hampton, and her young son, August Gladstone, has appeared on the Broadway stage in Tom Stoppard’s “The Coast of Utopia.”
Saturday offered a peek at the creative process at a very early stage, when so much is still to be settled—including something as basic as whether the final stage performance will go outside the monologue and include a cast of actors. Ms. Mueth is clearly leaning toward the latter. “I’m not really a big fan of one-person shows,” she said on Saturday. “I love interacting with other actors. It’s more fun to play a character that way.”
Saturday’s reading, which covered just 13 of the text’s 68 pages, was in just a single voice, and the set included only a rustic desk and a floor lamp. A bed, a more literal setting, was planned but dropped for logistical reasons. Ms. Mueth, a choreographer and movement teacher, remained seated and was restricted to only small movements and subtle facial gestures, focusing her attention on the words themselves, delivered in a slight Irish brogue that seemed to come naturally to the redhead. The monologue includes sleepy thoughts, singsong nonsense, trivial asides, painful and happy memories, a few racy observations and remembrances, and snippets of song that would come to a turn-of-the-century songstress drifting off to sleep.
Ms. Lewitin said she is “enamored” of the text, saying that Joyce was “utterly successful in mapping how the human mind works. Utterly successful. The chapter is extraordinary.” At this stage in the women’s collaboration, the focus is on the words themselves—what they mean, and how best to bring them to life.
Ms. Mueth has been working on the project for some time: she previously tackled staged readings of the chapter at a Greenwich Village theater—which is where Ms. Lewitin first experienced the performance and agreed to collaborate. The Watermill Center assisted with a grant to allow Ms. Mueth a residency to work on the project.
Ms. Mueth said Saturday she has benefitted from Ms. Lewitin’s and Ms. Geist’s help in looking at the text from new vantage points, opening up the text and taking it off the page.
Saturday’s glimpse of the process shows there is not clear agreement on many elements of the work and how it should be staged; there was even playful disagreement between Ms. Mueth and Ms. Lewitin over just how successful a singer Molly is at the time of “Bloomsday.” Many questions remain: Will the work become more visual, perhaps even incorporating elements of film? How large a cast will be used?
For now, the questions themselves make for interesting theater. As for the answers, as Ms. Lewitin pointed out, “That remains for the next bit of the residency.”