Local colour

Local colour

In Brief

Stephen starts his Shakespeare talk by painting a scene. "It is this hour of a day in mid June," he says, but the year is 1601, and the scene is not Dublin but the south bank of the River Thames. Several concrete features of the scene around the Globe theater follow, after which Stephen thinks, "Local colour. Work in all you know. Make them accomplices." He has lifted this expression, and some of his details, from Georg Brandes' William Shakespeare: A Critical Study. The phrase is useful for thinking not only about Shakespeare, but also about Joyce.

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The 1898 English edition of Brandes' book, translated from the Danish by three collaborators and revised by the author, uses the phrase "local colour" several times to suggest that literary art becomes more believable when it represents a particular place and culture in concrete detail. In Book I, chapter 16 Brandes speculates that Shakespeare may have visited northern Italy at some point, because some of the plays he sets there contain "definite local colour, with such an abundance of details pointing to actual vision that it is hard to account for them otherwise." In Book I, chapter 12 he finds evidence of this kind of scene-painting in Hamlet: "when, in the first and fifth acts, he makes trumpet-blasts and the firing of cannon accompany the healths which are drunk, he must have known that this was a specially Danish custom, and have tried to give his play local colour by introducing it."

Stephen's Southwark scene begins as follows: "The flag is up on the playhouse by the bankside. The bear Sackerson growls in the pit near it, Paris garden. Canvasclimbers who sailed with Drake chew their sausages among the groundlings." Brandes is the most likely source of these details. Book I, chapter 15 mentions the flag and the bear-pit: "The days of performance at these theatres were announced by the hoisting of a flag on the roof. The time of beginning was three o'clock punctually....Close to the Globe Theatre lay the Bear Garden, the rank smell from which greeted the nostrils, even before it came in sight. The famous bear Sackerson, who is mentioned in The Merry Wives of Windsor, now and then broke his chain and put female theatre-goers shrieking to flight." Sir Francis Drake's naval expeditions are mentioned in Book I, chapter 22 and Book II, chapter 2. The groundlings are mentioned at various points. In Book III, chapter 11 they have sausages: "They were called 'nutcrackers' from their habit of everlastingly cracking nuts and throwing the shells upon the stage. Tossing about apple-peel, corks, sausage ends, and small pebbles was another of their amusements."

(Historical note: all the London-area theaters in Shakespeare's time flew flags to announce that there would be a show in the afternoon. It was the best way of getting the word out quickly and drew crowds to the site quite effectively. Brandes' observation that the plays started promptly at 3:00 PM is also worth noting, as Stephen has said that "It is this hour of a day in mid June." Scylla and Charybdis takes place between 2:00 and 3:00 PM, just the time when people would have been making their way to the theater, as Shakespeare is at the beginning of Stephen's talk.)

Stephen, then, has taken Brandes' idea of Shakespearean scene-painting and used some of Brandes' own details to color his fanciful account of Shakespeare's life and work. The results may not be very impressive as literary criticism, but the phrase he borrows from William Shakespeare: A Critical Study has a broader application. In Scylla and Charybdis Stephen is not only exploring the actions and psychological forces that produced one of humanity's greatest bodies of literary work. He is also trying out the literary skills that may enable him to become such a writer, just as he did at the end of Aeolus. These two chapters represent his self-conscious determination to become the kind of writer who might produce Ulysses.

And what is Ulysses but a towering example of "local colour"? Joyce did not so much create the novel as compose it from thousands of already existing bits of life. (For a time in Joyce criticism, it was fashionable to speak of the author as "the Arranger.") The book teems with local streets, buildings, people, speech idioms, religious beliefs, history, newspaper stories, poems, songs, sights, sounds, smells, food, drink, topography, weather. To become the magpie of genius that he was destined to be, Joyce had to observe his Dublin with the kind of eye for detail that Brandes detects in Shakespeare. Stephen is apprenticing himself to that craft.

JH 2022
Contemporary drawing of the Globe Theatre showing the flag that announced an impending performance. Source: www.gettysburgflag.com.
"Sackerson loose," an illustration by Robert Buss on p. 160 of The Pictorial Edition of the Works of Shakspere, vol. 1 (1839). Source: Wikimedia Commons.
20th century drawing (by C. Walter Hodges?) of a player making noise for the groundlings. Source: www.youtube.com.