Radio Ulysses

Jon Day

On Saturday, for the 90th anniversary of Bloomsday, Radio 4 broadcast a seven-part ‘dramatisation’ of Ulysses, possible now that copyright in Joyce’s work has lapsed. The broadcasts were slotted into the schedule to coincide with the timing of the novel.

Perhaps to stress the real-time nature of the enterprise, everything was recast in the present tense. There were many other changes to the text, too, some required by the limits of the form, others more arbitrary. At the beginning of each section (which didn’t always correspond to Joyce’s episodes) an announcer set the scene and told us the time of day. For ‘Oxen of the Sun’, in which Joyce describes a birth in forty different pastiches representing the history of English literature, a narrator flagged the literary style that each section was a pastiche of (accompanied by the sound of a clattering typewriter, which drew attention to the ‘authored’ nature of the enterprise).

Several contributors to the discussions which topped and tailed the episodes gleefully admitted to never having read Ulysses, though that didn’t stop them giving their views on it. Fi Glover called it ‘rather rude’ and insisted that ‘said aloud it works, it really does’. Lots of people were, unsurprisingly, keen to stress the ‘aural qualities’ of the novel. Niamh Cusak, who read ‘Penelope’, told Clive Anderson it was ‘a book that should be read out loud’. The broadcast left me with the opposite impression. Much of the sense of Ulysses depends on the interplay between sound, sight and meaning – the reader, like ‘Bald deaf Pat’, ‘seehears lipspeech’ – but imagining the sounding out of words isn’t the same as sounding them out.

Things that can be read often can’t be heard, so on the radio it was necessary to identify characters by name throughout. There were plenty of ‘he saids’. Ambiguities of voice and tone were resolved: ‘In a dream, silently, she had come to him’ became ‘and now, in dreams she comes to me.’ I’ve always read Stephen’s teaching manner in ‘Nestor’ as uninterested and disengaged, but on the radio he was sensitive and attentive. His discussion with the headmaster later in the episode was heated; I’ve always read it as at cross-purposes.

In The Mechanic Muse, Hugh Kenner wrote:

Though print is always and everywhere potentially ambiguous, fiction dominated by a narrator contrives to minimise ambiguity to the point of concealment. Joyce, as his work progressed, was at pains to maximise ambiguity, to throw back on us all the implications of the fact that the signs we decipher can be maddeningly mute.

Adapting Ulysses for the radio, where nothing can be mute, undoes all that. As Kenner says:

Joyce’s most radical, for that matter his most un-Irish act, was dispensing with the storyteller. He forces us to confront printed pages, and make what we can of them.


  • 19 June 2012 at 10:15am
    Simon Wood says:
    This is subtle. The radio adaption had a fair measure of the spirit of the book. You learned how dry and subtle Stephen Daedalus is, how loveable and bumbly Bloom is and how listenable to and generous Molly is, in some contrast to some of her in the book, going on as she does.

    I did "Ulysses" twice, once for S Level and once for University. If you've read "Ulysses", examiners think you're a genius. It is an excellent text for a student to choose.

    Radio 4's text was technically not "Ulysses", true, but it was a good advertisement for the book.