Playboys of Ireland: Tying Joyce to the Duke
What do James Joyce and John Wayne, Irish lads with a conflicted view of manhood and penchant for eye patches, really have in common? The Virginia Festival of the Book seemed a good place to ask that question of two local gentlemen who had come to promote their respective patron saints.
First, we consulted our resident expert on the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, who got the two together in three steps but had less success tying them to the hero of Footloose. Next we did a search on Lexis-Nexis and found that the number-one magazine for dual references to Joyce and Wayne within a single thought pattern is... Playboy.
Then, and only then, did we set out for a meeting with Jim Heffernan, a Dartmouth English Professor who read excerpts of Ulysses on Wednesday, March 24, and Larry Wieder, a poet who recited from his collection Duke: The Poems later that day. Here's what we learned:
Hook: So we've got the Irish connection, "The Quiet Man" and all that ...
HEFFERNAN: Joyce was very interested in the movies. He tried to start a cinema in Dublin in the early 1900s. It didn't work out.
WIEDER: Well there was no sound. I can think of another overlap: John Huston directed The Dead, and he also directed John Wayne in The Playboy and the Geisha.
HEFFERNAN: Sure– The Dead is a wonderful Joyce short story. So yeah, it's at least conceivable that Wayne would at least have heard about James Joyce.
WIEDER: But not the other way around.
HEFFERNAN: No, no, no, not the other way around.
Hook: Was Wayne a reader?
WIEDER: Yes, he was. In fact, his favorite subject in school was Latin. He was an amateur classicist.
HEFFERNAN: He was much more cultivated and citified than his public image. He hated wearing riding gear and all that.
WIEDER: He hated horses.
HEFFERNAN: He's totally different, I guess, from the persona.
Hook: What do you plan to do when you read these selections for Read-Joyce, Read-Joyce at the Book Festival?
HEFFERNAN: I want to recreate, after a fashion, the launch of Ulysses that took place on December 2, 1921, at the bookshop "Shakespeare and Company" in Paris... The book was formally introduced to the public by a French writer and critic, Valery Larbaud, and was followed by a series of readings by an American actor named Jimmy Light– I love that name... It's an aural [spells out] presentation of Joyce... He had a wonderful sense of the musicality of the language. Joyce was a gifted singer himself, a tenor who, at one point, aspired to be a professional singer.
Hook: Did John Wayne have a sense of musicality?
WIEDER: He was originally hired by Republic as the first singing cowboy. I can't remember his name, but the tag-line was "when (whoever it was) sings, somebody's gonna die."
HEFFERNAN: To paraphrase, you can't die until John Wayne sings.
Hook: Your poetry, The Duke– tell me what it is.
WIEDER: It's called "Duke, The Poems as told to Laurence Wieder." In 1989, Jimmy Stewart published a volume of his poetry. I was reading the book review, and they quoted liberally from the work, and I turned to my wife and said, "John Wayne was a better poet than Jimmy Stewart." Having said it, I had to prove it.
HEFFERNAN: So the John Wayne who's the reputed author of all these poems is in fact the screen persona, right?
WIEDER: Actually, he said, "It's okay to confuse me with the parts I play." A good actor becomes the part, and the part becomes him.
Hook: Does that make you a poetry ghost-writer?
WIEDER: A poetry ghost writer... I have no idea. What you have is the work. Presumably it will be there when I'm long gone. But yes, because he's talking to, in this case not a figurative ghost, but a literal ghost– that's what we see on the screen– light and sound... Do I channel John Wayne? No, I can't "do" John Wayne the way an actor does, although there are moments when I'm reading that it's more his voice than mine.
Hook (to Heffernan): And how much of a dramatic gift do you have? Do you feel Joyce when you do Leopold Bloom? How about when you do Molly?
HEFFERNAN: I confess that I'm an incurable ham. And, yes, it takes a certain amount of chutzpah for any man to read Molly's monologue, but my precedent is Jimmy Light.
WIEDER: I suppose, to bring it back to Duke, I'm more in the position of Samuel Beckett. He was the typist for Finnegan's Wake.