Today is Bloomsday, that time-honored literary commemoration involving college professors, former English majors, and Irish people of the date on which all of the action of James Joyce’s Ulysses takes place (June 16, 1904). In New York City every year since 1981, Symphony Space has hosted a marathon Bloomsday event featuring all sorts of famous actors reading from the text, and radio station WBAI has broadcast the performances live on 99.5 FM. But The New York Times brings us news that tonight, for the first time since 1981, the theater and station “will go their separate ways as a result of apprehension about obscenity and government regulation.”
Apparently, WBAI had concerns “about some of Joyce’s words and descriptions.” The novel is a bit risqué at times (Who can forget the chapter in which protagonist Leopald Bloom, for whom Bloomsday is named, masturbates as he watches a trio of young women playing on the beach?), and it was censored when first published in 1922.
“We decided at Symphony Space that we didn’t want to get involved in the hassle and anxiety of censorship,” Isaiah Sheffe, Symphony Space’s artistic director, told the Times. “Each year in the past few years there have been worries about a word or two.” He added that “some workers [at WBAI] seemed to be on edge about the possibility of broadcasting phrases that could draw the ire of federal regulators.” WBAI producer Larry Josephson noted that there had never been any official complaints over Bloomsday, and that the racier material had traditionally been broadcast after 10 p.m.
“We’ve never cut anything,” he said. “I wouldn’t consider bleeping James Joyce. I think that would be an insult and an obscenity on its own.”
What WBAI listeners will miss this year are readings by Stephen Colbert; The Brothers McCourt (Frank and Malachy both: they’re doing the “Ithaca” chapter toward the end of the book); a musical interlude by the soprano Judith Kellock; and a concluding reading by Fionnula Flanagan of the book’s stream-of-consciousness style final episode featuring the nighttime musings of Leopold’s wife, Molly. WBAI will broadcast its own reading of her monologue, read by Irish actress Caraid O’Brien.
In the meantime, Symphony Space’s readings will be streaming on its Web site. Both performances begin at 7 p.m.