By Rick Curtiss, Dramaturg
“he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and dream him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I say yes I will Yes.”
That is the last—I hesitate to call it line—phrase from James Joyce’s Ulysses. It finishes a thirty page, punctuation free, stream of consciousness section which consists of the thoughts of Molly Bloom as she lays next to her husband. The last thing she remembers before the novel ends is the moment her husband proposed to her.
Which is, I guess, what one could call a spoiler—
But a benign one I assure you. Not that all spoilers are benign. Most novels are better when experienced without any pre(conceived)peratory information about the end, but I could go through the entire plot of Ulysses in a couple of paragraphs, every major detail displayed, and I wouldn’t consider it an offense, or even an enhancement. It is just the facts.
Joyce didn’t seem concerned with the “is,” the course of action that led from one event to the next, a rubegoldbergian set up of potential disaster triumphantly avoided or tragically brought to pass. Rather, the novels richness is found in the profound internal experiences of the everyday. The experience of reading is the reward, not knowing what happens.
You could be told everything about going to Glacier National Park, but that doesn’t diminish going there. Tasting food isn’t spoiled by being told what it tastes like. It’s almost impossible to spoil Joyce’s novel by only describing its contents.
But Ulysses is often spoiled. It’s been called among others things: difficult, confusing, nigh-impenetrable, not for high-schoolers, not for undergrads, hard to follow, obscene. I have little evidence to confront any of those qualifiers, but instead of being spoiled by giving away too much information, Ulysses is spoiled by not giving enough. When initially described, it becomes an esoteric icon to be read about but not to read. What is left unsaid is that Ulysses benefits from context, and preparation. Every moment in the novel doesn’t need to be understood to be enjoyed, and pausing to think, re-reading, and skipping around are not signs of incompetence in the writer or the reader. It’s difficult, yes, but a challenging read can be immensely rewarding.
Ulysses is not unique in this regard.
When someone asks me to sum up Travesties (full disclosure, no one has) I hesitate. I don’t want to spoil it. I want to say one hundred things, but not come across overwhelming. I want to warn of potential attitudes that could inhibit enjoyment, but don’t want create those attitudes in doing so.
I don’t want to tell them the plot. Not because I want the twist to be a surprise (spoiler: there isn’t a twist), but because the plot doesn’t drive the show—not traditionally.
I do want to point them to a couple of Wikipedia articles that could be helpful.
And if forced to sum up Travesties in a one sentence it would be: Rarely has being completely lost been this delightful.
If given two sentences, then the second would be: Rarely is a show so rewarding on each successive viewing.
And If I had the luxury of a third, I would add: and hey, at least it ain’t Ulysses.