The Rosenbach’s Joyce Celebration Goes Virtual Again With a New Film

Every year all around the world on June 16, fans of James Joyce’s landmark novel Ulysses celebrate Bloomsday, the day on which the author’s 1904 novel takes place. On that particular day, The Rosenbach, an iconic Philadelphia museum and library on Delancey Place, hosts live readings of the novel, among many other events. It’s a tradition spanning 25 years. However, the pandemic threw a wrench in The Rosenbach’s live activities. 

“The Bloomsday Festival planning has to start in January to get everything in place for June,” says Ed Pettit, a program manager at The Rosenbach. “And there was no way to tell in January how open everything would be. So we figured we would just go all-virtual again this year.” 

This is the second year in a row that the Bloomsday Festival goes online—a change of pace for an outdoor street festival that typically attracts around 2,000 people. In addition to celebrating on the web, The Rosenbach offers yet another twist for its 2021 celebration.

Last year, Pettit explains, “we had nine hours of video readings that would play throughout the day on our social media that people could watch. But we didn’t want to repeat ourselves this year.” 

Instead, the Rosenbach will premiere a new documentary film on Bloomsday titled I Said Yes: A Celebration of Bloomsday at the Rosenbach.

Pettit explains, “We didn’t want to do another day-long schedule of readings, so we thought it would be best to do a shorter documentary about Ulysses and about celebrating Bloomsday.”

The film includes more than just readings from Ulysses. Pettit says, “There are snippets of passages being read throughout, and then around those passages we have commentary talking about the novel and what it means and how Joyce wrote it. We have our librarian talking about the manuscript and what we have in our collection. And I’ve included lots of images from the collection, from Joyce’s Dublin and images of the manuscript.” 

The Rosenbach is, in fact, home to a complete manuscript of Joyce’s Ulysses, which is part of why celebrating Bloomsday is so important to the museum. 

“The manuscript of Ulysses is such a key part of our collection,” says Pettit. “There are lots of places that have pieces of Ulysses because of the way Joyce wrote it—he kept redrafting chapters and rewriting them. So a lot of places have these pieces, but we have a complete manuscript.” 

Along with the complete manuscript, The Rosenbach also has a great lineup of experts on Joyce who will be providing commentary throughout the film. 

Pettit explains, “We have some commentary throughout from Joycean scholars. People like Robert Berry, Vicki Mahaffey and Darina Gallagher are all included in the film. Darina is a part of the Joyce Center in Dublin and she talks about Joyce’s music in the documentary.” Indeed, music plays a huge role in Joyce’s novel, so live music is a large component of Bloomsday celebrations at The Rosenbach. 

Including live music in all virtual celebrations can pose a challenge, but there are musical elements in the documentary. Pettit says, “There are some musical performances in it, too. We usually do that on the street during Bloomsday, but there are so many references to songs and song lyrics in the novel and Joyce was a musician himself, so we have included music in the documentary as well.” 

If you watch the trailer for I Said Yes ahead of the documentary’s premiere, you’ll notice there are some very animated performances from people reading from the novel. These performances worked so well in the film partly because Pettit and his collaborators already had a rapport. 

“I was able to trust the people doing them because it’s the Lantern Theater Company and the Philadelphia Artist Collective,” says Pettit. “I’ve worked with both of those places in the past and I was able to ask them to put together a group of actors who could read some passages cold because actors can do that. I talked to the artistic directors, Charles McMahon and Damon Bonetti, and I can trust them to direct their actors to do the reading.” In pre-covid years, everyday Joyce fans did the readings during the street festival, so having professional actors doing the readings is just another new twist on the Bloomsday tradition. 

When asked about his favorite part of the documentary, Pettit declines to choose any one actor’s performance as they all did a great job, but he did want to highlight the topic of music. 

“Darina Gallagher talking about Joyce music is a real standout,” he says, “especially because she is coming to us from Dublin. She is coming to us from the city envisioned in this novel where they do celebrate every year by walking around the city and reenacting scenes. So it was great to have Darina involved in the project.”

For all fans of Joyce looking for a new way to celebrate Bloomsday, the 90-minute documentary, I Said Yes: A Celebration of Bloomsday at the Rosenbach premiered June 16 on The Rosenbach’s website, where it remains available (in case you missed it). The film is also available on The Rosenbach Museum’s YouTube channel.

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