On Poetry and Culture Shock

Adam Harvey and Finnegans Wake

Please don´t let the following line scare you. Keep on reading.

riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.

That was the opening of Finnegans Wake, James Joyce's last work. It is normally called a novel, but I don't think it is one. This experimental book takes the English language and a few dozen others, twists and bends them to create somthing in which every word has layers and more layers of meaning. For example that first word: "riverrun", is evidently composed of "river" and "run". It is no exactly "the river runs", the S is missing. But besides, you have riv(ERR)un. Err means both to wander and to make a mistake. So, you have four words and infinite possibilities of interpretation in a single word.

This week I have attended a performance of section II.1, called "Children's Games", "Night games", or "The Mime of Mick, Nick and the Maggies", which is the title that the actor Adam Harvey chose. All I knew before I went to watch it was that it wouldn't be a reading or a recitation but a performance. So I decided to attend. I have read little bits and pieces of Finnegan's Wake, but not a lot. Having read this entry so far you nearly know as much as I do about it.

So, there I was at the theatre and a man in loose clothes with a stocking on his head storms in and starts to talk in the style characteristic of Finnegans Wake in a way that suggests a playbill. Something close-to-but-not-quite English, meaning maybe "Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to our show, this is the cast". But he was all the cast! I can only compare it to a one-man performance of a "normal" play. So imagine a man doing all the appropriate voice and gesture changes for the complete cast of Hamlet. Now imagine that you are watching that, in a language that you don't understand, but that is close to one you know. If you are Spanish, think Portuguese, maybe. That was just about my level of comprehension of what was going on on the stage: a one-man performance of a play that uses a vaguely familiar plot in a vaguely familiar language.

It is hard to explain how something so difficult to understand was so appealing. I guess it is all in the acting. Adam Harvey, the actor, is very expressive and has a great control of body language and movement. Audiences of his three Finnegans Wake pieces are always in awe of his ability to memorise such long pieces of text; he is already tired of explaining that there is nothing special about his memory and that any actor should be able to do that sort of thing. He has been working on making sense of the book for very long, so it is not in any way an empty exercise in memorising something meaningless.

Any one who has had the patience to sit through a whole performance of Harvey's then praises him to the skies. I think that the problem with performing Finnegans Wake is that no one would dare criticise Harvey's interpretation under risk of seeming petty. For example, we can argue to what extent we think Hamlet's mother is guilty, that's an open topic, but since Finnegans Wake is such a hard work no one who knows and likes it tries to argue about Harvey's take on it. As I said, I'm not qualified to give an opinion on it in that sense.

So, what next? I think that lots of people should watch this strange performance, that I found at times very funny and amusing (Harvey thinks it is very confrontational and terrible and not light and amusing at all). Children have enjoyed small fragments of it and it looks like something that avant-garde theatrical audiences would love. The way Adam moves onstage wouldn't need many words to be expressive, anyway.

Now that I have had time to digest it, and that the performance had a discussion afterwards and I think I know more about reading, and acting, and music, and dance, and Literature, I would love to see "The Mime of Mick, Nick and the Maggies" again. Since I'm going back to Spain soon, I don't see that happening in the near future, but who knows? Maybe when Adam Harvey is rich and famous I can boast that I knew him now. Heh.

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