Speaking the Unspeakable:
 Using the Techniques of the Theater to Express Unvoiced Thoughts in Ulysses

by Nicholas Frangipane

In an odd stage direction in “Circe,” the fifteenth episode of Ulysses, we are told that “the women’s heads coalesce”(15.4578). Certainly, their heads, by which I mean their minds, could metaphorically coalesce—but this doesn’t work as a stage direction—it isn’t something we could make physically happen. It isn’t something we could see, literally see, before us on a stage. It is a stage direction meant only for a reader. It is meant for our mind’s eyes, rather than the eyes of an audience. It is meant to tell us something about what is going on in Bloom’s mind, in a novel that scrupulously avoids letting a narrator tell us what’s going on.

“Circe” is written in the form of a play; however, it is both practically (due to, for example, costume changes) and theoretically (due to coalescing heads, for example) impossible to perform. But it is precisely this unstageable play that grants us some of the keenest insights into Bloom’s mind and his past. The incongruity of this chapter is exemplary of Ulysses’ paradoxical relationship with theater and mind: the novel uses theatrical techniques—a generally verbal and external art—to reveal its characters’ innermost thoughts to us, just as the other sections of the novel use language, the externalization of thoughts, to reveal their minds.

Martin Puchner, who has written about “Circe,” views this section as antitheatrical, by which he means that it should be “understood that the prefix ‘anti’ does not signify a simple negation of the theater. Rather, it signifies a struggle against the theater in which the theater leaves its mark on literature.” He explains, “modernist antitheatricalism [is] a field dominated by struggle with and against the theater which is the motor of much modernist writing” (177). Another major motor of modernist writing was the attempt to achieve a kind of psychological realism. Dorrit Cohn, in Transparent Minds, a book heavily focused on narration in Ulysses, translates and paraphrases Kate Hamburger, who argues “narrative fiction is the only literary genre, as well as the only kind of narrative, in which the unspoken thoughts, feelings, and perceptions of a person other than the speaker can be portrayed.” Cohn contends that modernists saw themselves as engaged in an “inward turn,” writing “modernist writers of Joyce’s generation themselves thought of the history of the novel in this fashion” (8) and that “it seems likely that Joyce himself aimed at an accurate representation rather than an artful stylization of mental language” (93). I think that these two impulses are connected, and that Ulysses argues that these modernist aspirations can be achieved by employing theatrical techniques.

Joyce tries to avoid what Cohn calls psycho-narration, which she defines as “the narrator’s discourse about a character’s consciousness” (14), or the type of narration in which an omniscient narrator tells us what a character is thinking. The way in which Joyce presents these “unspoken” thoughts while avoiding traditional omniscient narration, or psycho-narration, is decidedly theatrical. Puchner notes that techniques like interior monologue reveal traces of the dramatic influence on Ulysses. He writes that “This was the opinion of Edouard Dujardin (who Joyce credits with the ‘invention’ of the interior monologue), who emphasized the theatrical quality of the interior monologue, attributing it to the desire to avoid a controlling and organizing narrator.

But a cursory look at Dujardin’s influential novel shows that there was a lot of work to be done. Take, for example, this setup on the first pages of We’ll to the Woods No More: “The time and place, an April evening, Paris” or, on the next page, “Here is the house I have to enter, where I shall meet someone” (6). These passages strike a false note because we do not generally say things to ourselves like the month or make general statements about the house we are about to enter. Dujardin frequently resorted to narrating thoughts that one would never actually think in order to alert the reader when Daniel was engaged in an activity that required no thought.

Joyce’s engagement with the theater was much more complex. Rather than avoiding a controlling narrator, Joyce creates a new kind of narrator, who gives us something more akin to stage directions than narration. This is obvious in “Circe,” and still apparent in “Calypso.” “Penelope” is often referred to as a “monologue” or “soliloquy,” both of which evoke theatrical connotations. There is very little movement and, therefore, little need for stage directions, but it is an important part of this antitheatrical reading because it uses the techniques of the theater to go beyond the theater. “Penelope” could never be faithfully reproduced by a speaking voice, as the two film adaptations inadvertently demonstrate. Like “Calypso,” the presence of theatrical techniques in “Penelope” allow Joyce to reveal Molly’s mind without resorting to techniques like psycho-narration that highlight writerly mediation.

An Unstageable Play in “Circe”

“Circe” is unstageable for a number of reasons, which Puchner summarizes:

Reading ‘‘Circe’’ as not only drama but also theater, we must ask how it envisions its relation to the stage: how it could, in principle, be transformed into an actual production. Such a perspective demonstrates that ‘‘Circe’’ does not easily lend itself to being produced in a theater. With too many characters, too many concurrent events, parallel plots, and plays within plays, with sudden transformations of characters, scenes, and settings into hallucinatory sequences, ‘‘Circe’’ partakes in the tradition I call the phantasmagoric or exuberant closet drama.

Indeed, several things that would be immensely difficult, and sometimes impossible, to stage happen. Among other things, Bloom “bears eight male yellow and white children” (15.1821-2), “members of the Dublin Fire Brigade by general request sets fire to Bloom” (15.1930-1), and “Virag unscrews his head in a trice and holds it under his arm” (15.2636). When Bloom sees the image of his dead son, the stage directions read, “wonderstruck, calls inaudibly” followed by the dialogue “Rudy!” (15.4962). If the actor playing Bloom were to “call inaudibly” no one, except perhaps the lip readers of the audience, would know what he was saying. But the appearance of Rudy also reveals something about what is going on in Bloom’s mind.

While many of these directions are playful, towards the end of the chapter the stage directions allow us to see what Bloom is imagining, allowing us, in a sense, to see what he sees, without the encumbrance of psycho-narration. Reading multiple drafts of “Circe,” Puchner notes “Joyce came to the realization that a dramatic stage direction was nothing but a particular form of present tense narration.” He argues that stage directions that are not intended for a director (who could manipulate them, if he or she chose) can have more authority than a narrating voice: “it is because these stage directions are no longer directed at a stage director that their authority is in fact increased beyond all limits.” The combination of stage directions and characters voices give us images and words while ostensibly avoiding the manipulating perspective that is always inherent in narrating. The stage directions provide a frame and context for the characters’ words, the frame that a narrator would provide in other texts. While Puchner focuses on the way that these closet dramas resisted the theater, I am specifically interested in the way this antitheatrical mode is used to refine narrative techniques for looking into characters’ minds.

Take, for example, Bloom’s imagined exchanges with his parents. These conversations can only come from Bloom’s own mind since they are both dead; they can’t appear on the street as some of the characters seem to. The image of Bloom’s father is a collection of racist stereotypes about Jews. It is unlikely that his father, who lived in Ireland all his life and who converted, actually looked the way he is described. This is not a reflection of Rudolph himself but, rather, a reflection of Bloom’s mind, since he has been thinking about his religion and his outsider status throughout the novel. We get to imagine Rudolph as Bloom images him—and, since he imagines him as a visual image, a stage direction is the only way to present this without resorting to descriptive narration. Rudolph talks of another pressing concern on Bloom’s mind: paternity. “Are you not my son Leopold, the grandson of Leopold? Are you not my dear son Leopold who left the house of his father and left the god of his fathers Abraham and Jacob?” (15.260-2), Rudolph asks.

The word “son” is used three times in his comments as he enumerates Bloom’s lineage, painfully reminding him that he doesn’t have a son. The format of the play is quite possibly the only way that this imagined conversation between father and son is possible: the back-and-forth would be too confusing in free indirect style or interior monologue, without awkward markers like “I said” and “you said.” Furthermore, we wouldn’t be able to see how Bloom sees his father, revealing his own shame of his past. Although this play is unstageable, it illuminates Bloom’s psyche in a way that neither the novel form nor a traditional play form could do alone, because we are able to share Bloom’s thoughts and see his parents as he sees them.

The stage directions are especially adept at presenting mental images. Shortly after this exchange we have a costume change. Bloom is “in a youth’s smart blue Oxford suit with white vestslips, narrowshouldered, in brown Alpine hat…coated with stiffening mud” (15.269-72). The chastising Bloom has just received has made him feel like a child and he is show in a way that reflects how he feels. The device of a play allows us to see Bloom here how he sees himself, without cumbersome narration explaining how Bloom looked.

Turkish costumes. Picture from Joyce Images

Shortly thereafter, when Molly appears in the next exchange, it is not the real Molly but Bloom’s ideal version of Molly. She is in “Turkish costume” (15.298), but in the novel so far, we haven’t even seen her dressed. We know Bloom is attracted to what he views as her exotic nature (he has mentioned her “Spanishy eyes” in the bar in “Sirens,” for example). The Molly we have on the stage here is not the real Molly, but Molly as Bloom likes to imagine her. When he shows Stephen a photograph of Molly in the next chapter, we are told that he sees a “large sized lady” (16.1428). Although he can’t have sex with her, Bloom still desires his wife sexually, from the bedwarm flesh of “Calypso” to the kiss he plants on her bottom in “Penelope.” The technique here of using the format of a play gives us the picture of Molly as Bloom sees her, in greater detail than his mere thought of her “spanishy eyes” could allow.

An Eton school suit (pictured here is Prince Henry). From Wikipedia.

When Bloom’s imagined version of Rudy appears on the stage we are allowed to see him as Bloom’s mind’s eye sees him. The use of stage directions allows Joyce to circumvent a narratorial description of Rudy, yet Rudy can still be shown with authority “beyond all limits,” as Puchner puts it, because of the authority of the stage directions. We finally see Rudy as Bloom sees him. Bloom has mentioned the “Eaton suit” before, but not the “glass shoes and a little bronze helmet.” We also get to see Rudy “holding a book in his hand. He reads from it right to left inaudibly, smiling, kissing the page.” (15.4958-60). Through this stage direction it is revealed to us that Bloom imagines that he has raised his son Jewish, for Hebrew is read right to left. This is another example of an unstageable direction—only those in the very front of the audience would be able to see the movement of Rudy’s eyes. Bloom hasn’t said that he would raise his son Jewish; as we learn, in “Ithaca,” that he has been baptized three times. This theatrical mode allows us to see the things that Bloom is uncomfortable thinking, the things he can see in his mind’s eye but that he cannot put into words.

Free Indirect Style and the Theatrical Techniques in “Calypso”

The influence of the theater is not limited to “Circe.” It is apparent in the split between the narratorial sentences and the fragments of thoughts in “Calypso,” which take on a stage direction/dialogue dichotomy. When Bloom first appears in “Calypso” we get to know him through his actions, which are presented as separate from his consciousness, and his linguistic thoughts, presented to us with little mediation through free indirect style. As Bloom prepares to leave the house to buy a pork kidney from Dlugacz’s the narrator tells us, “his hand took his hat from the peg over his installed heavy overcoat and his lost property office secondhand waterproof” (4.66-7). The way the anonymous voice presents the simple action it almost seems as if Bloom’s hand is doing it on its own. It is like a stage direction.

In Peculiar Language, Derek Attridge calls this type of narration a phenomenon of autonomous organs. Ulysses, he writes,

Frequently fails to conform to…widespread syntactic expectations. Take, for example, the narrative statement ‘his hand accepted the moist tender gland and slid it into a side pocket’” (4.181). Such a sentence, in which the transaction between Leopold Bloom and the pork butcher Dlugacz becomes a transaction between two organs, hand and kidney, challenges momentarily our untroubled belief in the human subject as unitary, unconstrained, and capable of originating action from a single center of consciousness.

So this shows us that physical actions can occur without accompanying thoughts, something that Dujardin was unable to show us in We’ll To The Woods No More. Bloom did not think “I am putting this kidney into my pocket” and so those words don’t appear on the page. Instead, we get a line that seems to come from outside Bloom that describes the action. Cohn writes that in Ulysses “the narrating and the figural voice now cohere to a point where only close inspection can determine which sentences are Bloom’s monologue, which are the narrator’s report,” implying that if we look closely we can see two distinct voices here. In this way, the narration is split into actions, or stage directions, and Bloom’s thoughts, or mental dialogue. These statements of action from the narrator stand in contrast to the thoughts that come from Bloom’s mind, in terms of tone word choice and sentence structure.

This can also be seen in Robert Berry’s online graphic novel adaptation of the novel, Ulysses Seen. In the scene I have mentioned above the words that I have called stage directions appear in yellow boxes at the bottom and top of the frame, and describe what is happening in the illustration. Looking at slide 22 of “Calypso” in the comic, we see Bloom putting the kidney into his pocket. In a sense, the picture and the text make each other redundant because the pictures visualize the image that is described, further emphasizing the visual nature of the stage direction style narration in this chapter.


Image from Ulysses Seen, click on picture or follow link here.

The next line comes from Bloom’s mind. “Stamps: stickyback pictures” Bloom thinks, “Daresay lots of officers are in the swim too. Course they do” (4.67-8). These free floating sentence fragments are connected to Bloom’s thoughts in the previous paragraph about Major Tweedy, Molly’s father. These thoughts are just placed on the page, via free indirect style, without what James Wood calls “authorial flagging.” In How Fiction Works he explains that with free indirect style “internal speech or thought has been freed from its authorial flagging; no ‘he said to himself’ or ‘he wondered’ or ‘he thought.’ Note the gain in flexibility. The narrative seems to float away from the novelist and take on the properties of the character, who now seems to ‘own’ the words” (9), just as characters in plays own their own words. With the authorial flagging removed, the author’s voice seems removed in the same way that a playwright can disappear behind his actors. To the viewer, the people on stage seem to own their words, just as Bloom owns his words here.

As Bloom glances at his hat before he puts it on, he sees that the label has faded: “The sweated legend in the crown of his hat told him mutely: Plasto’s high grade ha” (4.68-70). Here Joyce has left off the “t” because the letter has been worn away; the prop is not explained but left to speak for itself, at the risk that a reader might not notice it or assume it is one of the many typographical errors for which Ulysses is notorious. But this choice of showing rather than telling once again reveals Ulysses’ narrative mode as theatrical. Ulysses relates with an audience in the same way as a play does. Walter Benjamin writes “a work of fiction can relax the reader who is enjoying it. The common image of a man attending a theatrical performance is the opposite: one pictures a man who follows the action with every fiber of his being at rapt attention” (147). While most readers of fiction may not generally have to sit in rapt attention but Ulysses’s theatrical style requires this of its readers.

The Anti-Theatrical Soliloquy of “Penelope”
Molly’s stream of consciousness interior monologue in the final chapter of Ulysses is frequently referred to as a “soliloquy” or a “monologue.” In a sense, the label is accurate; we are given Molly, alone, with no interruptions, her thoughts shared only with the reader. However, Joyce uses soliloquy to go beyond the theater, making this chapter, like “Circe,” an example of the antitheatrical impulse used to reveal a narrator’s consciousness. While a narrating voice isn’t necessary here—so there are no stage directions—we get yet another example of how the techniques of the theater allowed Joyce to portray a character’s thoughts.

When characters speak in a play, we generally overhear them speaking to each other. Giving a soliloquy, characters speak directly to the audience, the effect being that the we  are no longer being given an insight into a character’s thoughts; rather, we are seeing a premeditated speech, meant for the audience’s ears. Joyce, rather, lets us eavesdrop on Molly’s thoughts, giving us a peek inside her mind, using a technique from the theater to go beyond what is possible in theater. Yet this piece could not work as an actual soliloquy—both major film adaptations of Ulysses, Joseph Strick’s 1967 version and 2003’s Bloom, directed by Sean Walsh, incidentally attest to this fact.

In both versions Molly’s voice speaks to the audience in voiceover, and this causes a different effect than Joyce’s text for two reasons. First, when we read the book we hear Molly’s thoughts in our own heads, just as Molly hears her thoughts in her own head, allowing us to share Molly’s thoughts, rather than listen to them. Reading the chapter allows us to replicate her experience in our own heads. Furthermore, when a human voice speaks it will have a changing inflection and it will be punctuated with pauses, adding back in the punctuation that Joyce left out of his book, and further putting us outside of Molly’s head.

In order to examine why Ulysses must use techniques from the theater that go beyond the capabilities of the theater, I am going to look closely at two film adaptations of the novel. The way that each version falls short is instructive: they remind us what theatrical literature can do, and what theater cannot. In Bloom, Molly’s interior monologue sounds like a dramatic soliloquy. If we listen carefully to the opening lines, there is a long pause after the first word, “yes,” as if Molly is collecting her thoughts. Then she rolls on quickly though the next bit of text, “because he never did a thing like that before, but then she pauses again, as if once again stopping to think about what to say next, she goes on: laid up with a sick voice, doing his highness…” but in the middle of this phrase Molly pauses, as if to catch her breath. She goes on to complain about Mrs. Reardon, sharply emphasizing the word “faggot.” These pauses, these breaths, the vocal emphasis all undermine what Joyce was trying to give us in this passage. We should not hear Molly stop to collect her thoughts, we should be experiencing her disorganized thoughts as she forms them; we should not hear her stop to take a breath, because these thoughts should be in her mind, we should not be listening to a voice.

Molly in Sean Walsh’s Bloom. Photo from Cineplex.com

At one point Molly speaks to herself in the mirror, symbolizing the nature of self-reflection in this portion of the novel. However, this symbolic representation, though clever, puts us further outside of Molly’s head. It almost looks like she is practicing a speech she is planning to give. This quite visually similar to a scene from Strick’s 1967 film adaptation, when Molly practices singing in the mirror. It seems like she is preparing for a performance, not thinking to herself. Towards the end of the monologue, Molly has to squat over a chamber pot, and as she does this we hear a strain in her voice to correspond with the physical strain of squatting. If, of course, this were Molly’s interior monologue we would not hear the physical strain because the vocal cords, and all other muscles are left out of the process.

During portions of the narration we see flashbacks. These are intended to show us what Molly is seeing in her mind’s eye, but these also alienate us from Molly’s mind. In one scene Molly is visualizing herself having sex with Blazes Boylan, hearing her moans and passionate yells, and also speaking about them simultaneously. This seems unnatural. Shortly after, Molly remembers giving birth to Milly, and it is presented in a similar way: we hear her screaming out in pain beneath her narration. While this works beautifully cinematically, it does not ring true to the way we think. We may remember pleasure or pain, or the sound of our screams, but we wouldn’t narrate them to ourselves as we heard them in our heads simultaneously—this is precisely the sort of thing Joyce intentionally leaves out of “Calypso” by having a separate voice narrate Bloom’s movements.

Throughout the scene Molly also narrates over views of herself lying in bed, which further places us outside her mind because we are now looking down on her. We see Molly wiggling away from Bloom’s feet or staring at the ceiling. We also see her, at times, arching her back and moving her hips beneath the blankets, her left arm above, and her right arm somewhere below. Here, Walsh is hinting at the oft-discussed idea that Ulysses ends with an orgasm for Molly; however, he doesn’t get it quite right.

Overhead shot from Strick’s Ulysses. Photo from ica.art

In the last few lines of the novel the pace seems to be building, speeding up—perhaps due to the lack of punctuation, perhaps due to the excitement of being so near to the end of this giant novel, or perhaps because of the increasing emphatic repetition of the word yes—and when we hit that final and deafening yes there is a feeling of catharsis, of release—sexual or otherwise. When we finally get here in the film there is no rushing, fevered pace, no orgasmic thrill in Molly’s voice but once again, her measured, almost calm words, sounding thoughtful rather than passionate. It takes Molly a full eight seconds to say the final “yes I said yes I will Yes,” which, as we read the text should be taken in, perhaps, in two seconds. Dorrit Cohn notes that “Molly probably thinks faster than most readers read her thoughts, and certainly faster than anyone can recite them” (220). The final moments of the film are quite beautiful and moving, but they do not work the same way as they work at the end of the novel, and are not nearly as effective.

Joseph Strick’s 1967 version is similar, but some elements of it are different enough to warrant their own examination. In this version the Molly on the screen does not speak to us. We do not see her lips move in the bedroom the way that Bloom’s Molly does. Her monologue is preformed entirely in voiceover, using the common cinematic convention of using voiceover to show a character’s thoughts, and, similar to Walsh’s film, we see Molly’s memories through her mind’s eye.

Molly remembers—or in the case of the film, tells—the story of when she confessed for letting a man touch her, and she reports her dialogue with the priest. The voiceover is edited so when Molly gives us both sides of the conversation it has the pace and rhythm of a conversation between two people; however, they are both in her voice. This is not how Molly would have heard it in her head: she would have heard her voice when she spoke, and the priest’s voice when he spoke. Similarly, when a reader reads the passage, we would hear Molly’s voice when Molly speaks, and the voice we assign to the priest in our own minds when the priest speaks. When Molly says all the words, she is reporting the speech, and not just remembering it. In her head, Molly is hearing a chorus of voices, the voices of everyone who speaks to her, and as we read we experience it the same way, but in the film this is not possible. Molly voices everyone who speaks, and she becomes a storyteller rather than, as she is in the novel, a rememberer, a thinker.

When Molly speaks she has several flashbacks, and we see what she is envisioning in her mind. Even though we, as viewers, see what she is seeing we are now one step removed from Molly’s mind. If we read the final passages we hear Molly’s thoughts in our own heads, and create the images in the same manner that Molly’s mind would also create the images. Now, as more passive viewers we are not creating—our minds are not doing the same work as Molly’s mind. This is the power of the written word: we hear Molly’s thoughts inside our own head, as if they were our own thoughts—our minds are moved the same way as hers, we follow the same trains of thought. The reader’s mind and Molly’s, or perhaps Joyce’s, are joined, by sharing thoughts. Film allows us to see through another’s eyes, but the novel, through well executed, theatrical stream of consciousness, lets us into someone’s mind.

Although Joyce’s method borrows soliloquy from the theater, it could not be produced in a theater, as the film adaptations of this section of the novel demonstrate. In its attempt to render Molly’s mind on the page, Ulysses uses techniques of the theater to go beyond the theater. By combining novelistic and dramatic forms, Joyce is able to delve deeply into his character’s minds, participating in the modernist project of turning inward. Ulysses uses a theatrical style to avoid psycho-narration and create something that goes beyond where the novel or the theater alone could go before. The elements of the theater in “Penelope,” like those in “Calypso” and “Circe,” are essential elements of Joyce’s psychological novel because they show us that the modernist psychological novel should be a play for the reader’s mind’s eye.