IRISH VOICES

by Pauline Kael

The announcement that John Huston was making a movie of James Joyce’s “The Dead” raised the question “Why?” What could images do that Joyce’s words hadn’t? And wasn’t Huston pitting himself against a master who, though he was only twenty-five when he wrote the story, had given it full form? (Or nearly full—Joyce’s language gains from being read aloud.) It turns out that those who love the story needn’t have worried. Huston directed the movie, at eighty, from a wheelchair, jumping up to look through the camera, with oxygen tubes trailing from his nose to a portable generator; most of the time, he had to watch the actors on a video monitor outside the set and use a microphone to speak to the crew. Yet he went into dramatic areas that he’d never gone into before— funny, warm family scenes that might be thought completely out of his range. He seems to have brought the understanding of Joyce’s ribald humor which he gained from his knowledge of Ulysses into this earlier work; the minor characters who are shadowy on the page now have a Joycean vividness. Huston has knocked the academicism out of them and developed the undeveloped parts of the story. He’s given it a marvellous filigree that enriches the social life. And he’s done it all in a mood of tranquil exuberance, as if moviemaking had become natural to him, easier than breathing.

The movie is set on the sixth of January, 1904, the Feast of the Epiphany. The Morkan sisters and their fortyish niece—three spinster musicians and music teachers—are giving their annual dance and supper, in their Dublin town house, and as their relatives and friends arrive the foibles and obsessions of the hostesses and the guests mesh and turn festive. The actors—Irish or of Irish heritage—become the members of a family and a social set who know who’s going to get too loud, who’s going to get upset about what. They know who’s going to make a fool of himself: Freddy Malins (Donal Donnelly)—he drinks. Even before Freddy shows up, the two Misses Morkan—ancient, gray Julia (Cathleen Delany), whose fragile face seems to get skinnier as the night wears on, and hearty Kate (Helena Carroll)—are worried. They’re relieved when their favorite nephew, Gabriel Conroy (Donal McCann), arrives, with his wife, Gretta (Anjelica Huston); they can count on Gabriel to keep an eye on Freddy for them. It’s the reliable, slightly pompous Gabriel—a college professor and book reviewer—who has an epiphany this night, and we, too, experience it.

During the party, Gabriel tries to entertain Freddy’s excruciating old bore of a mother (Marie Kean), a self-satisfied biddy who smiles a sweet social smile at Gabriel but treats her son with contempt. Mrs. Malins wears an evening hat perched on her white ringlets and sits with one hand on her fancy walking stick; she’s so old she seems to have the bones of a little bird, yet Freddy looks to her for approval, like a child. When he sees her expression, he’s left openmouthed, chagrined, and with a faint—almost imperceptible—stutter. He shrinks. She thinks she would like him to be like Gabriel, but she and Freddy match up beyond one’s saddest dreams. She sneers at him for not being the manly son she can be proud of, and turns him into a silly ass. Ever hopeful, he’s crushed over and over again, his mustachioed upper lip sinking toward his chin.

Gabriel looks more authoritative than he feels. A stabilizing presence, and the man whose task it is to represent all the guests in a speech thanking the hostesses, he’s like an observer at the party, but he’s also observing himself, and he’s not too pleased with how he handles things— especially his response to a young woman who chides him for spending his summer vacations abroad and for not devoting himself to the study of the Irish language. He would like to be suave with her, but he’s so full of doubts about himself that he gets hot under the collar. And Gabriel feels his middle-aged mediocrity when he’s speechifying. He plays the man of literary eminence, toasting Aunt Julia and Aunt Kate and their niece, Mary Jane (Ingrid Craigie), after calling them the Three Graces of the Dublin musical world. But when the assembled guests drink to them he sees the ladies’ gaiety go beyond gaiety. They can’t contain their pleasure at being complimented; Julia’s hectic, staring eyes fill with tears, and a high flush appears on her ancient girlish dimples. And he gets a whiff of mortality.

The movie itself is a toast to Irish hospitality and to the spinster sisterhood of music teachers, which has probably never before been saluted with such affection. Starting with the sound of an Irish harp under the opening titles, and with frequent reminders of the importance of the pianists who play for the dancing at the party, the picture is about the music that men and women make, and especially about the music of Irish voices. At supper, the characters go at their pet subjects: opera past and present, and famous tenors, dead and alive. They know each other’s positions so well that they taunt each other.

One of the guests—a tenor, Mr. D’Arcy (Frank Patterson)—has declined to sing, but after most of the others have left he succumbs to the pleading of a young lady he has been flirting with, and sings “The Lass of Aughrim.” Gretta Conroy, who has been making her farewells and is coming down the stairs to join Gabriel, stands hushed, leaning on the bannister listening. Mr. D’Arcy’s voice, resonating in the stairwell, has the special trained purity of great Irish tenors; the whole world seems still while he sings, and for a few seconds after. And Gabriel, seeing his wife deeply affected, is fired with sexual longing for her. He hopes to awaken her passion. But in the carriage she’s sad and silent, while he makes clumsy conversation. When they reach the hotel where they are to spend the night, she falls asleep in tears after telling him about her youth in Galway and about a consumptive young boy, Michael Furey, her first love, who sang that song, “The Lass of Aughrim.” Michael Furey had left his sickbed to come see her on a rainy night in winter, and died a week later, when he was only seventeen.

In the course of the evening, Gabriel has been evaluating how he’s doing, and feeling more and more like a solemn stuffed shirt. Now every­thing he thought he knew about Gretta and himself has been sent whirling. He feels that his own love for her is a dismal thing compared with the dead boy’s, and he gets beyond his own ego—he’s moved by the boy’s action. He thinks about carnal desire and about “the vast hosts of the dead.” He sees Aunt Julia as she had looked a few hours earlier when she danced with him, and imagines that she will be the next to go. And Huston, having intensified our vision of the family life that the final passages of the story come out of, implicitly acknowledges that he can’t improve on them music. In the story, these passages are Gabriel’s thoughts. Here Huston simply gives over to them, and we hear them spoken by Gabriel, as the snow outside blends the living and the dead. Joyce’s language seems to melt into pure emotion, and something in Gabriel melts.

Huston moved to Galway in the early fifties, and it was his home base for roughly twenty years—it’s where Anjelica Huston and his son Tony Huston, who wrote the script, grew up. But when he made this movie he shot the Dublin interiors in a warehouse in Valencia, California, and the snow was plastic. Huston wasn’t strong enough to travel; he completed the film early in the summer, and died in August, after his eighty-first birthday. The picture he left us is a tribute to Joyce, whose words complete and transcend what we’ve been watching. But the humor is from the two of them, and from the actors.

The movie is a demonstration of what, in Huston’s terms, movies can give you that print can’t: primarily, the glory of performers—performers with faces that have been written on by time and skill, performers with voices. It’s as if Huston were saying, “Making a movie of a classic isn’t anything as simple as just depriving you of the work of your imagination. Your imagination couldn’t create these people for you. Only these specific actors could do it.” And, of course, they could do it only with Huston guiding their movements and Tony Huston providing their words. And, yes, your imagination is now’ tied to these actors, but they bring a spontaneity and joy into the movie which you don’t experience from reading the story.

It isn’t simply that they physically embody the characters; they embody what the movie is saying. When Aunt Julia, once a respected local soprano, is prevailed on to sing, and comes out with “Arrayed for the Bridal,” the quaver in her thin voice is theme music. So is her vaguely rattled look. Poor, effusive Freddy tells her that he has never heard her sing so well, then goes even further and tells her he has never heard her sing half so well. That’s right out of the story, but it’s different when we can see and hear the woman he’s praising so idiotically. Cathleen Delany is superb as Julia, w’hose memory is fading, and who sometimes forgets w’here she is. There’s a moment at the beginning when she’s in the re­ceiving line and looks at someone blankly; asked if she doesn’t remember the person from last year, she rallies with “Of course, of course.” She’s leaving this world, but she’s still a firm social liar. Donal Donnelly isn’t just a great drunk; he knows how to play a drunk sobering up. By the end of the party, Freddy is almost a man of the world. Marie Kean’s Mrs. Malins is such a smiley little dragon she makes you laugh; the performance is high clowning. And Helena Carroll’s Aunt Kate is wonderfully obstreperous when she berates the pope for turning women (like her sister) out of the choirs and putting in little boys. Ingrid Craigie’s Mary Jane, the peacemaker, soothes Aunt Kate’s sense of injury (you know it’s an oft-indulged sense of injury) and steers people to safe ground; Mary Jane has a softness about her, a loving docility. Dan O’Herlihy is the Protestant Mr. Browme, a florid old gent who is delighted to hear Kate lashing out at the pope; he fancies himself a gallant and jovially pianists who play for the dancing at the party, the picture is about the music that men and women make, and especially about the music of Irish voices. At supper, the characters go at their pet subjects: opera past and present, and famous tenors, dead and alive. They know each other’s positions so well that they taunt each other

One of the guests—a tenor, Mr. D’Arcy (Frank Patterson)—has declined to sing, but after most of the others have left he succumbs to the pleading of a young lady he has been flirting with, and sings “The Lass of Aughrim.” Gretta Conroy, who has been making her farewells and is coming down the stairs to join Gabriel, stands hushed, leaning on the bannister listening. Mr. D’Arcy’s voice, resonating in the stairwell, has the special trained purity of great Irish tenors; the whole world seems still while he sings, and for a few seconds after. And Gabriel, seeing his wife deeply affected, is fired with sexual longing for her. He hopes to awaken her passion. But in the carriage she’s sad and silent, while he makes clumsy conversation. When they reach the hotel where they are to spend the night, she falls asleep in tears after telling him about her youth in Galway and about a consumptive young boy, Michael Furey, her first love, who sang that song, “The Lass of Aughrim.” Michael Furey had left his sickbed to come see her on a rainy night in winter, and died a week later, when he was only seventeen.

In the course of the evening, Gabriel has been evaluating how he’s doing, and feeling more and more like a solemn stuffed shirt. Now every­thing he thought he knew about Gretta and himself has been sent whirling. He feels that his own love for her is a dismal thing compared with the dead boy’s, and he gets beyond his own ego—he’s moved by the boy’s action. He thinks about carnal desire and about “the vast hosts of the dead.” He sees Aunt Julia as she had looked a few hours earlier when she danced with him, and imagines that she will be the next to go. And Huston, having intensified our vision of the family life that the final passages of the story come out of, implicitly acknowledges that he can’t improve on them music. In the story, these passages are Gabriel’s thoughts. Here Huston simply gives over to them, and we hear them spoken by Gabriel, as the snow outside blends the living and the dead. Joyce’s language seems to melt into pure emotion, and something in Gabriel melts.

Huston moved to Galway in the early fifties, and it was his home base for roughly twenty years—it’s where Anjelica Huston and his son Tony Huston, who wrote the script, grew up. But when he made this movie he shot the Dublin interiors in a warehouse in Valencia, California, and the snow was plastic. Huston wasn’t strong enough to travel; he completed the film early in the summer, and died in August, after his eighty-first birthday. The picture he left us is a tribute to Joyce, whose words complete and transcend what we’ve been watching. But the humor is from the two of them, and from the actors.

The movie is a demonstration of what, in Huston’s terms, movies can give you that print can’t: primarily, the glory of performers—performers with faces that have been written on by time and skill, performers with voices. It’s as if Huston were saying, “Making a movie of a classic isn’t anything as simple as just depriving you of the work of your imagination. Your imagination couldn’t create these people for you. Only these specific actors could do it.” And, of course, they could do it only with Huston guiding their movements and Tony Huston providing their words. And, yes, your imagination is now’ tied to these actors, but they bring a spontaneity and joy into the movie which you don’t experience from reading the story.

It isn’t simply that they physically embody the characters; they embody what the movie is saying. When Aunt Julia, once a respected local soprano, is prevailed on to sing, and comes out with “Arrayed for the Bridal,” the quaver in her thin voice is theme music. So is her vaguely rattled look. Poor, effusive Freddy tells her that he has never heard her sing so well, then goes even further and tells her he has never heard her sing half so well. That’s right out of the story, but it’s different when we can see and hear the woman he’s praising so idiotically. Cathleen Delany is superb as Julia, whose memory is fading, and who sometimes forgets where she is. There’s a moment at the beginning when she’s in the receiving line and looks at someone blankly; asked if she doesn’t remember the person from last year, she rallies with “Of course, of course.” She’s leaving this world, but she’s still a firm social liar. Donal Donnelly isn’t just a great drunk; he knows how’ to play a drunk sobering up. By the end of the party, Freddy is almost a man of the world. Marie Kean’s Mrs. Malins is such a smiley little dragon she makes you laugh; the performance is high clowning. And Helena Carroll’s Aunt Kate is wonderfully obstreperous when she berates the pope for turning women (like her sister) out of the choirs and putting in little boys. Ingrid Craigie’s Mary Jane, the peacemaker, soothes Aunt Kate’s sense of injury (you know it’s an oft-indulged sense of injury) and steers people to safe ground; Mary Jane has a softness about her, a loving docility. Dan O’Herlihy is the Protestant Mr. Browme, a florid old gent w’ho is delighted to hear Kate lashing out at the pope; he fancies himself a gallant and jovially drinks himself to sleep. Huston never before blended his actors so intuitively, so musically.

The change in his work is in our closeness to the people on the screen. Freddy is such a hopeful fellow, always trying to please, that we can see ourselves in his worst foolishness. We can see ourselves in Julia and Kate and in the stiff, self-tormenting Gabriel. And when Anjelica Huston’s Gretta speaks of Michael Furey and says “0, the day I heard that, that he was dead,” we hear the echoes of the pain that she felt all those years ago. We hear them very clearly, because of the fine, unimpassioned way that the actress plays Gretta, leaving the tragic notes to Gabriel. Gretta’s is only one of the stories of the dead, but Joyce wrote the work right after his Nora told him of her early great love, and it’s the most romanticized, the most piercing. The stillness in the air during Frank Patter­son’s singing of the melancholy “Lass” is part of the emotional perfection of the moment. But the film finds its full meaning in the stillness of Donal McCann’s meticulous tones at the end—in Gabriel’s helpless self-awareness. He mourns because he is revealed to himself as less than he thought he was. He mourns because he sees that the whole world is in mourning. And he accepts our common end: the snow falls on everyone.

New Yorker, December 14, 1987