irish repertory theatre the dead

A New Holiday Tradition In New York? Seeing “The Dead, 1904”

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It appears that the run is entirely sold out, but if you can get your hands on a ticket, here is your chance to travel in space and time, from New York City in the present day to Dublin in 1904, and you have until January 7th to make it happen.  There are $19.04 tickets available through TodayTix, so it can’t hurt to try.

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We have the Irish Repertory Theatre to thank for this opportunity to attend one of the most famous holiday parties in literature, the one depicted in James Joyce’s story “The Dead.” I’d heard about the show last year, and thought it sounded intriguing, but didn’t have a chance to attend; some months later Pauline Turley told me how much she’d enjoyed it, and so when I saw it was back for a second year, I purchased a pair of tickets ahead of time, and attended a few days before Christmas.

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It’s not a traditional theatrical experience, but an immersive one: if you go, you shall find yourself among the party guests at the Morkans’ home for dinner, drinks, and entertainment.

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If you are leery of James Joyce, and put off by modernism and its experimentation with form, fear not. Dubliners, the collection of stories which ends with “The Dead,” is Joyce at his most accessible. And “The Dead” is widely considered to be one of the greatest short works ever written.

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So what happens at this party? What is this show about? One way to answer is to say–not very much, rather like most parties. The event takes place in real time…the audience is escorted up the stairs at the headquarters of the American Irish Historical Society (a Beaux-Arts townhouse on Fifth Avenue) and offered drinks straightaway. There are musical performances, some dancing, limited seating, social awkwardness, students, family and friends, a very drunk man, a political argument, a sit down dinner, a speech, small talk, discussions about opera singers, talk of the weather, funny old stories about people long gone, sherry and port after the meal. Finally the guests take their leave, and a married couple, Gabriel and Gretta Conroy, staying overnight, retire to their room. (The maid invites the audience into their bedroom in the last scene.)

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There’s a better, and truer, way to answer the question of what the show is about, though. It’s about family, about national identity. About hospitality, and graciousness. About jealousy and extraordinary kindness. Friendship. Mortality. Romance. The inadequacy of our words. Loss. Love at 17. Married life in middle age. Alienation. The realization that there are mysteries in all of our hearts, even those we think we know entirely. Secrets. Pain. Generosity. Disappointments. Life itself, in all of its wonder and mystery, and rare glimpses of beauty.

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Melissa Gilbert is very moving as Gretta, particularly in the final bedroom scene, as she describes a heartbreak of her youth. And Rufus Collins is excellent as her husband Gabriel (often considered to be a fictional stand in for Joyce himself) particularly in his moving final monologue while his wife sleeps. It’s slightly adapted from the original, some of the most beautiful words in the English tongue:

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, on the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

We see some of this snow at the window at the end of the show (it’s made only of electric light, unfortunately, but it’s a fine component of the transporting experience), and it’s a very good way to end an evening, heading back down the stairs and out again into New York City at Christmastime.

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A few words of advice if you’re going to attend:

I’d spring for the extra money and pay to have the dinner served, to be closer to the action, and more involved with the event. Tickets are $125 for a seat and a glass of wine, but $300 for the full meal. (There’s no point, in my opinion, of spending still more for the privilege of sitting right among the actors, although if you are so inclined to pay $1,000, you will be doing your part in supporting the arts, which is never a bad thing.)

If you have any interest or inclination to dress up, do so. I didn’t have a Victorian-era gown, unfortunately, but I dressed for a party. (You may wish to wear comfortable shoes, though, there’s a good amount of standing around and stairs to climb.)

They do a nice job with the food (thanks to Great Performances catering) with the inspiration taken directly from the story, with the exception of subbing turkey for goose. The drink is plentiful as well. There’s no need to eat after the show, although you may well be in the mood to hit an Irish pub for a nightcap, conversation, and literary analysis.

If you aren’t familiar with the story, you just might appreciate the performance and the raw emotions more, due to being new to them. Or perhaps you’d rather know what to expect. If you are familiar with the story, you can enjoy and appreciate just how very clever the adaption is.

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If you do want to check out the story, it’s long enough to be a stand-alone novella, but it won’t take much time to read. And it’s well worth reading. Or re-revisiting, as the case may be.

There is also an exquisite movie version of this story, The Dead, from 1987. It was John Huston’s last film (he was dying while he directed it) and stars Anjelica Huston and Donal McCann. Much like the theatrical production, it’s a very faithful adaption, achingly beautiful, and I recommend it highly.

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I’m rather hoping that The Dead, 1904 will become an annual holiday tradition in New York and that there will therefore be additional future opportunities to participate in this lovely performance in its beautiful setting. If you prefer a little bit of melancholy in your Christmas celebration, this show will set the tone just right.

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Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.

Laura can be contacted at laura@newswhistle.com.

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Lead-In Image(Melissa Gilbert & Rufus Collins) Courtesy of Irish Repertory Theatre