It was a seminal literary trial in which a book itself – not its author or publisher – was the defendant.
The United States v One Book Called Ulysses, as the case was termed, put James JoyceSy skone dame, which had been banned for obscenity, on trial in a New York courtroom in 1933. The landmark ruling in favour of Ulysses resounded across the world and helped lift bans in other jurisdictions, Dit sou die herstel terughou.
The victory for freedom of speech eventually faded into history, a dusty footnote, but now it has been turned into a play that will be performed in Dublin to mark the centenary of the publication of Ulysses.
“A history play is never about history it’s always about today, and this seemed a good time to be talking about cancellation and censorship,” said the author, Colin Murphy. “I like stories that can flip how we think about things today.”
The performance of The United States v Ulysses at the Pavilion theatre in Dún Laoghaire will be one of dozens of events on Thursday to celebrate Bloomsday, named after Leopold Bloom, the hero of Joyce’s novel, which recounts his wanderings around Dublin on a single day, 16 Junie 1904.
The annual celebration – a mix of tours, readings, concerts, screenings, reenactments and tributes – has additional resonance this year as it marks a century since the book’s publication in 1922, a keystone for modern literature.
The Museum of Literature Ierland – its acronym MoLI is an homage to Bloom’s fictional wife Molly – collaborated with 35 Irish embassies and consulates to make a short film, titled Hold to the Now, that mixes scholars and actors, including Stephen Fry. It will premiere on YouTube on Thursday morning.
The day will also mark the first public staged performance of Murphy’s play, which draws on case files, other historical material, en Set at Random, a novel by Declan Dunne about the trial.
“I thought I knew the Joyce story but this had completely passed me by,” said Murphy. “For us Joyce is an Irish story so it was surprising to find this American leg, and this leg is crucial. The verdict creates the possibility of Joyce as a part of mass popular culture.”
Alienated by what he saw as Ireland’s parochialism and spiritual impoverishment, Joyce went into self-imposed exile to continental Europe in 1904, though his native Dublin still rooted his writing. A seven-year labour channelled Homer’s Iliad, and revolutionary literary methods, into Ulysses.
Its depiction of sex and sexual thoughts – at one point Leopold Bloom masturbates – scandalised authorities, who banned it in Ireland, the UK, the US and elsewhere.
After a decade the US publisher, Random House, brought a test case to the US southern district court of New York, pitting the book’s defence counsel, Morris Ernst, against a district attorney, Samuel Coleman.
Judge John Woolsey regeer that Ulysses was not pornographic. “In spite of its unusual frankness, I do not detect anywhere the leer of the sensualist. I have not found anything that I consider to be dirt for dirt’s sake. Each word of the book contributes like a bit of mosaic to the detail of the picture which Joyce is seeking to construct.”
Murphy’s dramatisation recreates the courtroom battle and Joyce’s triumphant vindication. “It puts him on the cover of Time magazine," hy het gesê. “This makes Joyce and Ulysses household names in America. This makes possible what we have today.”
Murphy has turned other historical events, insluitend die 1921 Anglo-Irish treaty and Ireland’s 2010 economic bailout, into plays. He originally turned the Ulysses trial into a short dramatic piece, then a radio version for RTE that aired in January, before transforming it into a stage drama for Bloomsday. This week’s performances are billed as rehearsed readings of a work in progress. Murphy hopes the full version will tour Ireland, the UK and the US next year.