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January 01, 2013: A Feast of “The Dead”

January 1, 2013

deadtable[One of the luxuries of blog-writing is the ability to write an article far ahead of publishing it. I fell in love with John Huston’s last film, “The Dead” when it first came out in theaters in 1987. Seeing it was one of the last pushes to get me to finally visit Ireland in 1988. The story by James Joyce is considered, by some, to be one of the best short-stories of the English Language and it has always been one of my most favorite Christmas-time stories. “The Dead” took forever to come out on DVD, being released finally in 2009. Thank you to the Hudson Public Library for ordering it for me. I write this almost one month before publishing.]

It is a brave undertaking, attempting to make a film of one of the best and most-beloved of short stories of English literature. It would take an accomplished and confident director and one who understood the story’s concern for the impermanence of the human condition and the frailty of one’s best endeavors. The story: “The Dead” by James Joyce from “The Dubliners.” The director: John Huston. It was Huston’s last film.

The story of “The Dead” is deceptively simple. If you are not a fan of subtext, you will be bored to tears by this film. On the surface, “The Dead” is a dinner/dance party in Dublin on a snowy night of The Feast of the Epiphany” (January 6th) 1904. Two older sisters and their niece, all musically inclined, are putting on the event for family, students, and friends. It is a hodgepodge mix of people of all types and ages. In the center of a maelstrom of food, drink, dancing, music, and recitation are a couple: Gabriel, who is the nephew of the older hostesses and his wife Gretta. Gabriel is a university English professor and his main role of the evening, outside of carving the goose, is an after-dinner toast to the hostesses, which appears to be an annual responsibility for him. Gabriel takes this duty very seriously. Throughout the evening he sneaks peeks at his notes and ruminates on the appropriateness of his lines.

Gabriel Rehearses.jpgAs the evening progresses, the audience is introduced to every person at the party, in turn. Despite our technological advances since, society itself has changed very little since 1904, so the audience is assured of finding familiar characters of this group of drunkards, fools, sycophants, and bores as well as those of a more talented, sophisticated, and erudite leaning.

I hope someday to have an Epiphany meal for friends or family. I would most certainly flesh this out more with a soup, salad and more veggies, but I have devised a menu, from as far as I can determine, from both story and film of the basics.

Menu from  James Joyce’s “The Dead”
Roast Goose and Stuffing           Baked Potatoes
Spiced Beef          Red Currant Jam         NO APPLESAUCE!!!!
Blancmange          Christmas Pudding          Chocolate
Toasted Almonds          Raisins          Celery (“capital for the blood”)
White Wine          Port          Sherry          Stout

As well as being concerned with the language of his speech, Gabriel is plagued all night by his failings of his spoken language. [Torture for an English professor. Doubly so, for an Irish one, who value language above all arts. Some surmise that Gabriel is a projection of Joyce of himself, if he had remained in Ireland: a fussy and prim no-talent.] It is interesting that at the early stages of the feminist movement, that the challenges to Gabriel all come from women. The first is from the serving girl, who Gabriel has known since she was young, and when he insinuates that she must be close to being married, she bitterly replies, “The men that are today are all palaver and what they can get from you.” The word “palaver” is  little archaic to our ears but means “idle or worthless talk.” Essentially, the girl is saying (in modern terms) “Men are rats!” A statement that automatically includes Gabriel.

The second challenge comes from a colleague. Molly Ivers is strong-minded, political, and far from shy, fellow teacher. While dancing with Gabriel, she accuses him of writing for an English-sympathizing newspaper and labels him a “West Briton” a shameful term at the time for an Irishman with English sympathies. Gabriel is ignorant of the term, and Molly points out that he is also ignorant of his own language and taunts Gabriel by saying “Good Night” to him in Irish.Grett Contemplates2

The last…and worst…is a rebuff from his wife, while driving home. Gretta has been distracted all night. It is clear she has a secret and Gabriel is anxious to know what it is. He uses jokes and stories to try to wheedle out what she is thinking about…all of which fall very flat.

“The Dead” is a subtle fable of a supposition about humanity: that despite all our surface trappings of tradition, pleasant company, intellectualism, and comforts, in reality all that is truly important is totally out of our control. Our loves, our creative ability, and even life itself, must finally pass.

jj_the_deadBut, this supposition has an inherent flaw, which is evident in the very story itself. Joyce, through this wonderful creative endeavor has captured the life of people (or at least archetypes) that he most certainly knew. Even Gretta must have been based as much on his wife, Nora Barnacle, as Gabriel is based on himself. This creative endeavor inspired one of the best directors of the 20th Century to reproduce it in fine form. In one of the most poignant endings of cinema, Huston gently reshuffles Joyce’s words to mark his own creative endeavor, in order to speak for himself…and for us all:

“Think of all those who ever were, back to the start of time. And me, transient as they, flickering out as well into their gray world. Like everything around me, this solid world itself which they reared and lived in, is dwindling and dissolving. Snow is falling…falling in that lonely churchyard where Michael Furey lies buried, falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living…and the dead.”

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