U 12.1226-8: - Twenty to one, says Lenehan. Such is life in an outhouse. Throwaway, says he. Takes the biscuit, and talking about bunions. Frailty, thy name is Sceptre. [...]
Lenehan’s jokey style abounds in wordplay and comic allusion. One expression that has passed the annotators undetected is "talking about bunions". This apparently nonsensical and Lenehanesque expression dates back to the theatre of the 1860s, and is another link between Joyce and Lord Dundreary (of the celebrated "dundrearies" or long side whiskers: U 14.889) and the punning burlesque-writer Henry James Byron (see Shine on, Harvest Moon).
Lord Dundreary made his first appearance on stage in October 1858, on Broadway. The character of a foppish English lord with eccentric dress, manners, and speech was intended as a minor attraction in Thomas Taylor’s Our American Cousin. The part was offered to the jobbing and not particularly successful English actor – then seeking fame and fortune in America – Edward Askew Sothern. Sothern reluctantly took the part and had little impact during the first few weeks of the play’s run at Laura Keene’s Theatre. But it is said that he grew into and shaped the part, building up the whimsical fop by writing amusing new lines, developing his stammer, lisp, and skipping walk, and gradually emerging as the star of the show.
Sothern’s success with the character was repeated in Britain and Ireland, and also in New Zealand – but not in France. The eccentric English gentleman puzzled the Parisians. Such was the success of the character elsewhere that Sothern wrote or co-wrote or cajoled others to write sequels which were essentially vehicles for his Dundreary character.
Edward Askew Sothern as Lord Dundreary (Wikimedia Commons)
Sothern was back at the Gaiety in Dublin (managed by Michael Gunn) ten years later in 1884, with Our American Cousin, Sam Dundreary’s Brother, and the "screaming farce" Dundreary Married and Settled, just a couple of column inches above a report of the Misses Flynn’s annual concert at the Antient Concert Rooms, at which Bartle McCarthy and “Mr. J S Joyce” (Joyce’s father) were performing.3
The expression is an amusing device for introducing a new topic which is apparently (and typically whimsically) linked to the previous one. In extended use it moves from meaning "while we are on the subject of …" to "apropos of nothing…"), in line with Dundreary’s distracted and "innocent" style. Dundreary links bunions and his mother-in-law; Lenehan follows bunions with an oblique reference to women in general and to the ill-fated five-year-old mare Sceptre in particular (“Frailty, thy name is woman! – A little month, or ere those shoes were old […]).
So Lenehan’s "talking about bunions" can be traced back to the Dublin and New York stage. It turns out to be another of the evocative expressions that Joyce put into the mouth of Lenehan from the world of comic theatrical entertainment.
1 A published version of the short sequel has not yet been located in the standard bibliographical sources.
2 Cf. Zoe’s apparently nonsensical expression in Ulysses: “thank your mother for the rabbits”.
3 For further information on the career of Sothern see Lord Dundreary: A Memoir of Edward Askew Sothern by T. Edgar Pemberton, with a brief sketch of the Career of E. H. Sothern: the Knickerbocker Press, New York (?1908), and F. G. De Fontaine, Birds of a Feather Flock Together or Talks with Sothern (G. W. Carleton & Co.: New York, 1878). Michael Hart, on whom Joyce drew for Lenehan’s character, was involved with Gunn and the Dublin theatre world (see Gallant Michael Hart).
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