Mistaken identity

Mistaken identity

In Brief

As the constables arrest Bloom in Circe, he claims that he has been confused with someone else: "Mistaken identity. The Lyons mail. Lesurques and Dubosc. You remember the Childs fratricide case. We medical men. By striking him dead with a hatchet. I am wrongfully accused. Better one guilty escape than ninety-nine wrongfully condemned." Life here imitates art, which imitates life: a play performed in London in the late 1870s presented the real-life story of a French man who was wrongfully accused of a crime, condemned, and executed. And Bloom's protestation closely echoes Stephen's paranoia in Proteus.

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In 1854 Charles Reade adapted The Courier of Lyons from an 1850 French original, and in 1877 he rewrote it as The Lyons Mail for performance by Henry Irving at London's Lyceum Theatre. All three plays tell the story of Joseph Lesurques, who was one of six men arrested in 1796 for the ambush robbery of a mail coach leaving Paris for Lyons, a major heist that resulted in the murder of the driver and the armed guard. Three of the six men, including Lesurques, were guillotined after the trial, despite the testimony of one of the robbers, Étienne Couriol, that Lesurques had been misidentified because he closely resembled one of the actual accomplices, André Dubosq. Couriol's testimony resulted in the arrest, trial, and execution of Dubosq as well as three more accomplices.

Despite the conviction of Dubosq, Lesurques was never exonerated by the government and his case became a famous example of miscarriage of justice in France, inspiring the 1850 play and a 1937 film. Reade's adaptation made the story famous in English-speaking countries as well: a silent film re-told the story in 1916, and a talkie came out in 1931. In the London stage production, Henry Irving's performance of the parts of both Lesurques and Dubosc (the spelling in the play) was widely acclaimed.

As Bloom reminds the constables, the French story chimes with the Childs murder case, in which the brother of a murdered Dubliner was acquitted because of doubt about the testimony of a witness who identified him as having been present at the scene. It also makes for one more uncanny link with Stephen Dedalus, who in Proteus recalls having attended a play in order to secure an alibi against being accused of murder—on a date, 17 February 1904, on which an Irish newspaper reported on an English adaptation of a French play about a man wrongfully accused of murder. At this point the entanglements of art and life, Stephen and Bloom, Paris and London and Dublin, become almost too intricate to follow.

John Hunt and Senan Molony 2021
Program for Henry Irving's 1900 revival of The Lyons Mail at the Lyceum Theatre, London. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
1870s postcard, colorized by Senan Molony, showing Henry Irving as both Lesurques and Dubosc in the London production. Source: Senan Molony.