I first started writing a series of plays around the theme “1904” about 10 years ago, in 2004. What got me thinking about this was the coincidence of two important events happening in 1904 – firstly, that James Joyce placed his novel Ulysses on June the 16th, 1904, and that Anton Chekhov’s play The Cherry Orchard was written and performed in that same year, also the year he died. We had just performed Chekhov’s play in Newton Dee and I was very taken up with his life, having loved his plays and stories for a long time.
So I started researching other cultural events that took place in 1904 and came up with a whole series of artistic milestones that I could personally relate to; such as Henri Matisse creating the first truly modern painting in that year in the south of France, called The Gulf of St. Tropez; or Sigmund Freud in Vienna producing his highly-influential book The Interpretation of Dreams; or Gustav Mahler composing his “Tragic” Sixth Symphony in Klagenfurt, Austria, that would herald the beginning of modern music; or Antonio Gaudi’s early architectural breakthroughs in Barcelona. These and other completely unrelated events seemed to me to be somehow mysteriously connected with a change in the consciousness of western artistic endeavour that came to be known as the birth of Modernism.
I never expected to be able to put them all on at once – each play being between 20 and 40 minutes long – so I divided them into a short-ish opening piece, longer, more substantial middle piece and a much shorter concluding piece; altogether 4 acts, each taking maybe an hour and a half. Then I chose three of the little plays that might be most accessible – in this case “Kafka”, “Proust” and “Joyce”.
Since Franz Kafka wrote his stories and novels in Prague, I decided to do most of his play in the style of the Black Light Theatre of Prague, based on his earliest story “Description of a Struggle”, combined with some actual historical detail from his life – a real hodge-podge. The whole thing is quite baffling as a story, but portrays the surreal and dreamlike qualities Kafka brought to his later masterpieces, especially the novels The Trial and The Castle, and his famous short story Metamorphosis.
“Proust” was a lot of fun to write. After I chose to base it on the early films of Jacques Demy, such as The Umbrellas of Cherbourg from 1964, a highly stylised musical where everyone sings all the time, it just took off. Luckily I found the perfect Proust in Hugh Cameron, who could not only act very well, but was an accomplished musician, and he wrote all the music perfectly, with great “joie de vivre”. The story is just about Proust remembering his past, which is all he ever did really, as in his monumental novel In Search of Lost Time, with lots of comic and nostalgic flourishes from turn-of-the-century Paris.
As for “Joyce”, I just wanted to bring alive that moment in 1904, on the 16th of June, when the 22-year-old unpublished writer meets the love of his life Nora Barnacle on a Dublin dock, where they have rather fumbling and innocent sex that became for Joyce the pivotal moment in his life; so much so, that he placed his influential later Modernist novel Ulysses – called “the greatest novel of the twentieth century” – on that very day and year.
So, that is what is behind the three little plays of “1904”. Staging them in 2014, one-hundred and ten years after their actual inception, has been a great joy and fulfilment for me. All the creativity shown by the many co-workers and villagers involved in the three productions has proven to me that it is possible to realise these fleeting dream-scapes as theatre pieces that everyone can enjoy. But there are nine more plays – so let’s see what the future brings!