The Dead, John Huston’s last film, is a work of love, a statement of last respects not only to James Joyce, who wrote the story as the culmination of Dubliners (1914), but to the West of Ireland, where Huston lived for some years. Joyce’s general intention in Dubliners was, as he said, “to write a chapter of the moral history of my country.” He chose Dublin for its scene “because that city seemed to me the centre of paralysis.”
I have tried to present it to the indifferent public under four of its aspects: childhood, adolescence, maturity, and public life. The stories are arranged in this order.
But there is some evidence that in “The Dead” Joyce wanted to acknowledge an element in Dublin life hardly compatible with moral paralysis: the hospitality of its social life, especially on its high occasions, Christmas, the New Year. In Recollections of James Joyce (1950), his brother Stanislaus writes of “The Dead”:
The last story, which serves as the final chorus of the book, presents holiday life, the celebration of Christmas. In England and Ireland ghost stories are still told about the fire at Christmas time…. The story “The Dead” is also, in its way, a story of ghosts, of the dead who return in envy of the living.
But Stanislaus’s reference to envy is misleading: in his brother’s fiction, ghosts rarely have reason to envy the living. In “The Dead,” the ghost of Gretta Conroy’s lover, Michael Furey, is far more tellingly alive than any character in the story, except for Gretta, who holds him secure in her heart and memory.
Joyce completed the story in September 1907. Huston sets it in the Dublin of 1904. There is textual justification for his choice, although two or three details here and there suggest that Joyce has been recalling events in Dublin a few months later than the first days of 1904. Huston may also be alluding to June 16, 1904, the day of the events of Joyce’s Ulysses. In any case, the setting is richly implied—the streets, the quays, the Liffey, the house at 15 Usher’s Island where the three Misses Morkan hold their annual Christmas dance, the O’Connell Monument, and the Gresham Hotel, where Gabriel Conroy and his wife spend the night and she tells him about Michael Furey.
The form of Joyce’s story is simple: from a web of domestic or social custom, a revelation arises. It need not be a great revelation, but it is enough to cause an “epiphany,” to rend the veil of a minor temple. In “The Dead” the web is composed of the dance, the hospitality, the food and drink—Freddy Malins arrives late and if he is not drunk he has drink taken. The dinner talk turns upon Dublin’s musical and operatic life; there is mild disagreement about a performance of Mignon, and great singers of a gone time—Tietjens, Ilma de Murzka, Campanini, Zelia Trebelli, Giuglini, Ravelli, Aramburo. In the film, a Dublin English professor, Mr. Grace—Huston’s invention, he does not appear in the story—tries to start an argument about politics and Parnell, but is suppressed by Aunt Kate. He gives a dramatic recitation, “Broken Vows,” a tale of heartbreak translated by Lady Gregory, which draws from Gretta the first flicker of a ghost recalled.
During the dancing Gabriel is taunted by a nationalist and socialist, Molly Ivors, for reviewing books in the imperialist Daily Express: he should be going to the West to maintain his sense of Gaelic Ireland, and to Galway, where Gretta and her people have their roots. Hearing of the little quarrel, Gretta says: “O, do go, Gabriel, I’d love to see Galway again”: the second stirring in her of a vivid time. There is talk, too, of Freddy Malins, who is to go to Mount Melleray, the Cistercian abbey to which heavy drinkers repair in search of a cure. It is a blemish in the story that Freddy’s mother should refer to Mount Melleray and her son; it isn’t likely that an anxious mother would disclose the matter to a table of acquaintances.
Near the end of the evening, one of the guests, the singer Bartell D’Arcy, sings “The Lass of Aughrim,” and Gretta, dressed for leaving, stays on the stairs to hear the song. Later, in the hotel bedroom, she tells Gabriel that Michael Furey, a boy she used to walk out with in Galway, sang that song, and that he died when she went away. Gabriel, in the last scene of the story, stands at the window reflecting on his own puny desire in the light of Gretta’s love, Michael Furey’s passion, the young man’s wish not to live if he could not be with Gretta. The story ends:
It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
I can’t imagine how Huston thought he could register that swoon, but he has done well by it, showing Gabriel as if dissolving in the westward landscape. The images allude in a vague but sufficient way to monastic Ireland, to Monasterboice and Clonmacnoise and the Shannon not mutinous but frozen. It is heartrendingly beautiful. The difficult sentence—“The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward”—is not adverted to in the film, but subsumed within the larger westward cadence.
Nobody really knows what to make of the sentence. Richard Ellmann took it literally, as if Gabriel now intended making a visit to Gretta’s Galway and Oughterard and the Aran Islands; to the region of passion which Gabriel has never known. The Harvard critic John V. Kelleher has argued against Ellmann that the sentence acts upon a level of intuition and desire other than that on which the quotidian details are to be found. I agree with Kelleher that the ending of “The Dead” is pointing beyond its companion stories to the more vagrant, Symbolist procedures which Joyce was about to develop in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The “dark mutinous Shannon waves” are to be found in Shelley’s or Byron’s English, not in a notably placid river wending its way through the center of Ireland.
After seeing the film, I remembered Wallace Stevens’s poem “Our Stars Come from Ireland,” the poem that he wrote in response to postcards he received from the Irish poet Thomas McGreevy, who spent every summer in Malbay and Tarbert, villages on the Shannon estuary; and the second section of which is indeed called “The Westwardness of Everything”:
These Gaeled and fitful-fangled darknesses
Made suddenly luminous, themselves a change,
An east in their compelling west- wardness.
But I don’t suppose it helps much; except to move the reading of Joyce’s last paragraph away from axioms of verisimilitude toward the velleities we find in Symbolism from Baudelaire, Pater, and Mallarmé to the early poems of T.S. Eliot.
Huston’s film is not flawless, but even its flaws are generous. The entire film is suffused with a sense of values vulnerable but not yet gone, of eloquence not yet disabled by irony. Huston’s touch was not always sure, he was capable of being loud or gauche, but his feeling for Joyce’s story was especially warm and just. I have only one quarrel and a minor complaint. The complaint is that the talk about Mount Melleray, in the dinner scene, is rough where it ought to be delicate and funny. My quarrel is with the staircase scene. Huston should have taken Joyce at his words:
Gabriel had not gone to the door with the others. He was in a dark part of the hall gazing up the staircase. A woman was standing near the top of the first flight, in the shadow also. He could not see her face but he could see the terracotta and salmonpink panels of her skirt which the shadow made appear black and white. It was his wife. She was leaning on the banisters, listening to something. Gabriel was surprised at her stillness and strained his ear to listen also. But he could hear little save the noise of laughter and dispute on the front steps, a few chords struck on the piano and a few notes of a man’s voice singing.
He stood still in the gloom of the hall, trying to catch the air that the voice was singing and gazing up at his wife. There was grace and mystery in her attitude as if she were a symbol of something. He asked himself what is a woman standing on the stairs in the shadow, listening to distant music, a symbol of. If he were a painter he would paint her in that attitude. Her blue felt hat would show off the bronze of her hair against the darkness and the dark panels of her skirt would show off the light ones. Distant Music he would call the picture if he were a painter.
In the film, this picturesque effect is lost. Gabriel is shown in full light. Gretta seems to be standing on the stairs about four feet away from him, she too in full light. There is no question of distant music, or of a woman seen as if she were in a painting, before Gabriel recognizes her as his wife. Gretta’s absorption in the song is harshly complete, in severely full focus: from that posture, only a grim secret could emerge, rather than a tragic glow. It makes a difference, I think, because in the scene in the Gresham Hotel Gretta should emerge from a picture before moving into a tragedy. Gabriel, too, should emerge from a too ready sense of the picturesque, if he is to be worthy of tragic suffering, and of dissolving in an even greater, universal, fate. Merely to go from one bright light to another is to incur a different fate.
But the film is superb in the most comprehensive regard: it respects its origin. No talk of moral paralysis has diverted Huston from acknowledging the merit of the sentiments, foibles, and passions he depicts. He never even considers making himself superior to them. In a peculiarly personal sense, The Dead, with a screenplay by his son Tony Huston, is his film, and the actors assent to his vision of it. Anjelica Huston, his daughter, is superb, her West of Ireland accent entirely convincing: she looks the part, too. Perhaps her flinging herself on the bed is a little excessive, but I cannot otherwise fault her demeanor. Donal McCann as Gabriel doesn’t look right; in the story he wears glasses, parts his hair in the middle. In the film, he looks modern, much as he does in a contemporary Abbey play. But his acting is not anachronistic: he catches, without fuss, Gabriel’s insecurity. Dan O’Herlihy as the sinister Mr. Browne is splendid, a Protestant at once obsequious and awkward among his Catholic fellows, the fellowship of the enemy compromised by definition and history. Donal Donnelly plays Freddy Malins: no two witnesses will ever agree that an actor has played a drunk well. Donnelly’s verbal timing was exact but he seemed to me notably steady on his feet when his official carriage required him to sway. Marie Kean, playing his mother, narrowed her eyes and pursed her lips with well-justified exasperation, a lifetime’s settlement upon a hard road.
But the finest performance, and the one directed with most convincing tact, was Cathleen Delany’s as Aunt Julia. The scene in which she is persuaded to sing “Arrayed for the Bridal,” George Linley’s version of an aria from Bellini’s I Puritani, is a choice instance of finesse. It could have been dreadful: it would have been easy to parody the old woman and show her singing as an absurdity. But Huston presented her as the ruin of a once fine voice and still enough of a musician to know what a better performance of the aria would be. When she is extravagantly complimented by Freddy Malins and Mr. Browne, she is not diminished by these attentions: she knows the little that she can do, and knows that it is still worth doing, if only as a reminder of better times. Huston allows her voice to quiver, the high notes to remain a little beyond her reach, but he cherishes her and will not have her mocked.
March 3, 1988