Gaiety Theatre

In Brief

Of the large conventional theaters operating in Dublin in 1904, only "the Gaiety" still operates today, the Theatre Royal and the Queen's Theatre having both closed their doors in the 1960s. This theater is mentioned more times in Ulysses than the other two combined, partly because Bloom considers attending a performance there on the night of June 16, and partly because, in Dublin's less than highbrow theatrical milieu, the Gaiety staged a greater number of reputable productions than the competition. It hosted many distinguished actors, four of whom surface in Bloom's and Molly's thoughts.

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The Gaiety stands on South King Street, one block west of the corner where Grafton Street runs into St. Stephen's Green. After five short months of feverish construction, the 2,000-seat theater opened its doors on 27 November 1871 to a production of Irish playwright Oliver Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer. In his Encyclopedia of Dublin, Douglas Bennett notes that the proprietors, John and Michael Gunn, were given letters patent for a "well regulated theatre and therein at all times publicly to act, represent or perform any interlude, tragedy, comedy, prelude, opera, burletta, play, farce or pantomime."

Bennett notes that pantomime "appears to have been staged from the start, and the tradition is still carried on." In Ithaca, we learn that Bloom has seen at least one such show at the Gaiety, the "grand annual Christmas pantomime Sinbad the Sailor" performed in December 1892. After sitting through the show Bloom dreamed of writing a song, "commissioned by Michael Gunn, lessee of the Gaiety Theatre, 46, 47, 48, 49 South King street," to be included in its "second edition (30 January 1893)."

Operatic performances began as early as 1872, and Eumaeus suggests that Bloom may have attended one of those as a very young man. Sinbad reminds him "a bit of Ludwig, alias Ledwidge, when he occupied the boards of the Gaiety when Michael Gunn was identified with the management in the Flying Dutchman, a stupendous success, and his host of admirers came in large numbers, everyone simply flocking to hear him." William Ledwidge, an Irish baritone who took the stage name Ludwig, performed the leading role in this opera with the Carl Rosa Opera Company to huge acclaim in 1877, when Bloom was 11 years old. Commentators disagree about which version of The Flying Dutchman was performed: Wagner's seminal work of 1843 or a later, lesser musical.

As the funeral carriage passes some advertising posters in Hades, Bloom thinks that he could attend a performance of Leah, the Forsaken at the end of the day, and he contemplates cadging a free ticket: "Martin Cunningham could work a pass for the Gaiety. Have to stand a drink or two. As broad as it's long." At the end of the day he regrets his failure "to obtain admission (gratuitous or paid) to the performance of Leah by Mrs Bandmann Palmer at the Gaiety Theatre, 46, 47, 48, 49 South King street." But when he crawls into bed with Molly, one of several dishonest responses to her "interrogation" noted by the narrator of Ithaca is a fabricated visit: "he included mention of a performance by Mrs Bandmann Palmer of Leah at the Gaiety Theatre, 46, 47, 48, 49 South King street."

It turns out that his thoughts of visiting the Gaiety in the evening began well before the mention of that theater in Hades, and even before the moment in Lotus Eaters when Bloom first learns about the show: "Hello. Leah tonight. Mrs Bandmann Palmer." It traces back to a discussion with Molly that the book never represents, though it must have occurred between Calypso and Lotus Eaters. In Penelope Molly remembers what her husband said just before leaving the house in the morning: "he said Im dining out and going to the Gaiety." Bloom lies, then, to validate a promise that he made to his wife in a conspiratorial effort to let her know that he would not be interrupting her reception of Blazes Boylan.

The American Millicent Bandmann-Palmer was a respected actress who resisted the demand for musical comedy at the turn of the century, dedicating much of her career to performing Shakespeare and other substantial writers. Among more popular plays, the poster for 13-18 June 1904 reproduced here advertises her performances in Hamlet and an adaptation of Schiller's Maria Stuart.

Many other distinguished actors appeared on the Gaiety stage in the decades following its founding. Molly thinks of being "in the pit at the Gaiety for Beerbohm Tree in Trilby," referencing English actor and theater manager Herbert Beerbohm Tree, who likewise balanced performance of popular works with a steady diet of Shakespeare and other classic plays. She recalls too a time when Bloom succeeded in "working a pass for the Gaiety" by the kind of trading that he imagines in Hades: "the one and only time we were in a box that Michael Gunn gave him to see Mrs Kendal and her husband at the Gaiety something he did about insurance for him in Drimmies." Like Beerbohm Tree, Dame Madge Kendal and her husband William were English actors and theater managers who balanced devotion to Shakespeare with willingness to feed the appetite for popular comedies. 

Bennett observes that in the 1890s the Gaiety "was completely redesigned by the theatrical architect Frank Matcham, and his layout has survived to the present day." Allowing for superficial changes, then, this theater offers Joyceans an opportunity to imagine Dublin as it was in 1904.

JH 2020
Poster advertising Mrs. Bandmann-Palmer's six performances at Dublin's Gaiety Theatre during the week of 16 June 1904. Source: chem.engr.utc.edu.
The house at the Gaiety Theatre today. Source: canningdesign.ie.