U 15.60-2: Private Carr and Private Compton turn and counterretort, their tunics bloodbright in a lampglow, black sockets of caps on their blond copper polls.
Perceptions of the English Players, the theatrical company founded during the First World War in Zurich by James Joyce and Claud Sykes, have been dominated by the misunderstanding between Joyce and actor Henry Carr at the Players’ first performance and the protracted legal proceedings over the following months. Carr himself was vilified by Joyce for long past his lifetime as the English soldier who strikes Stephen in “Circe”. Yet there is much more to be told about the English Players, who were for two years an active part of the cultural life of Zurich and a significant component of Joyce’s life, and whose traces turn up in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. A history of the company’s activities can be constructed from archival sources, including the Pfauen Theater records from the Zurich City Archive, period newspapers, Joyce collections at Southern Illinois, Tulsa, Cornell, the Harry Ransom Center, and the Otto Luening papers at New York Public Library. At the end of this piece is a listing compiled from these sources of the Players’ repertory with brief extracts from contemporary reviews: nineteen plays produced in fourteen performances in Zurich and additional performances in perhaps a dozen other Swiss cities during 1918 through 1919. Though Joyce’s level of involvement in these performances varied, he participated to some degree with all in choosing plays, assisting Sykes in directing rehearsals, and working as diction coach, prompter, business manager, donor, and singer.
Sykes had left an acting career in London’s West End to work at the British consulate in Zurich during the war. He befriended Joyce in 1917 and later that year typed some of the early Ulysses manuscripts. In early 1918 he and Joyce cooked up the idea of starting a company specializing in English language plays in a city that had plentiful performances in German, Italian, and French, and, though it included a sizable population of British ex-patriates, nothing in English. Their motives were several: to promote English culture in support of the consulate’s efforts at propaganda during the war years, to find a venue for Joyce’s play Exiles, and to generate a small income.
The choice of The Importance of Being Earnest as a debut was a clever business decision. It had established itself as a crowd pleaser in many performances in London and elsewhere and required little in the way of props. Actors and actresses were a mix of professionals—Sykes and his wife Daisy Race had acted in London, Tristan Rawson was recruited from the opera—and amateur volunteers, including Henry Carr.
The Players performed in only two theaters in Zurich, both of which were heavily used venues. The Theater zur Kaufleuten was a large space in a building owned by a private business organization. The Pfauen-Theater was loosely affiliated with the city government and the neighboring Opernhaus. Both of these exist today in much the same form—venues that hold audiences of several hundred, easily accessible in the city center.
A planned performance of Earnest in Basel had to be cancelled due to the Carr dispute (although it did go on to Lausanne and Geneva in July), but within a month after Earnest the Players were able to organize a performance at the Pfauen of three short plays: Barrie’s comedy The Twelve-Pound Look, Synge’s drama Riders to the Sea (with Nora Joyce in one of the roles), and Shaw’s politically-driven historical comedy The Dark Lady of the Sonnets. The Players returned to the Kaufleuten in the summer with Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession, at that time still banned in London.
Circumstances in Zurich later in 1918 slowed performances. Severe inflation during the war years was raising consumer prices dramatically. The resulting nation-wide General Strike in November kept many theaters closed. The Spanish Flu epidemic caused widespread illness throughout the city as throughout Europe. Nevertheless, in December the Players produced Houghton’s Hindle Wakes, a dramatic comedy of an unmarried woman who spends a weekend with a boyfriend and then dumps him—a remarkable theme for the day. Joyce’s idea to stage a performance of plays from three languages—Cavallotti’s Il cantico dei cantici, de Banville’s Le Baiser, and Browning’s In a Balcony—might have been an attempt to attract a broader audience during this time of social stress. The Browning play was Joyce’s only involvement as a performer, as he sang a 17th-century air to the guitar accompaniment of Paul Ruggiero. Otto Luening found it “a light voice, a cross between an Irish tenor and an Italian lyric tenor. His diction was impeccable and his interpretation expressive. He was applauded during the opening scene at the premiere.”
The British Consulate’s hostility towards Joyce resulting from the Carr affair led him to minimize active involvement in the Players. Nevertheless, he maintained a role as prompter for all Zurich performances and as a vocal coach. 1919 brought the Players a remarkable series of productions. A feature of Chesterton’s Magic: A Fantastic Comedy was its stage tricks. Martyn’s The Heather Field was a social drama, examining the issue of land reclamation in Ireland’s west. The Players returned to comedy with Davies’ The Mollusc and Sargeant and Morrison’s That Brute Simmons. Their most ambitious performance was Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer, the only historical selection of the repertory, requiring a cast of eleven speaking parts and a chorus of pub-goers that sings a drinking song. June that year saw a trio of comedies, a revival of The Twelve-Pound Look and two new performances, Houghton’s Dear Departed and Shaw’s Overruled. October saw a revival of The Importance of Being Earnest with, in the role of Worthing, the then well-known actor Arnold Korff, who went on to have a notable career in Hollywood. This was the last play that Joyce participated in, as he left for Trieste a week later. For the rest of the year, the Players performed a series of comedies.
A related coincidence to the deal negotiated by Ford and Simmons is in “Ithaca”, where the narrator suggests that the reward that might be offered by Molly for the return of a husband who had “strayed” is—£5! (U 17.2001)
Also in Ulysses, actor Harry Compton appears as Private Carr’s associate. Although Richard Ellmann claims that Compton was consigned as an English soldier along with Carr in “Circe” for having “bungled” the affairs of the Players, Compton’s continued appearance as a featured and well-reviewed actor in most of the 1919 performances undermines this claim.
The Players’ performances were a prominent feature of Zurich’s cultural life in 1918 and 1919. They were well-attended and each was reviewed—generally favorably—by major newspapers such as the Neue Zürcher Zeitung or the Tages-Anzeiger. Equally, Joyce’s collaboration in producing the Players and his engagement with the plays that they performed were a significant component of his life in Zurich and of the creative process that resulted in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake.
The English Players Repertory
Note: These performances have been verified from primary sources mentioned above; it is likely that there were others in other Swiss cities. Cast lists are given as available in playbills or other publicity and may vary in form. Misspellings have been corrected. Excerpts from reviews, with English translations by the authors, follow many of the play listings.
“Der Saal war bis auf den hintersten Platz besetzt, und das Publikum lachte im allgemeinen an den richtigen Stellen.” Neue Zürcher Zeitung (1918), 3 May. (The hall was full to the last seat, and the audience generally laughed in the right places.)
[Regarding Riders to the Sea] “Man hätte gerne bei diesem Stück … ein helleres Streiflicht in die irische Seele gewonnen, leider kamen diese Eigenschaften bei der Darstellung nicht recht zum Vorschein.” Neue Zürcher Zeitung (1918), 24 June. (One would have liked to get a better glimpse into the Irish soul in this piece …, but unfortunately these qualities did not really come through in the performance.)
“Une excellente troupe de la comédie anglaise viendra prochainement jouer au théâtre de la Comédie. Ça sera un événement artistique tout à fait extraordinaire.” Journal de Genève (1918), 8 July. (An excellent English comedy troupe will soon be performing at the Théâtre de la Comédie. It will be an extraordinary artistic event.)
“Die englischen Künstler wurden vom zahlreich erschienenen Publikum sehr freundlich aufgenommen; selbst an Blumendank fehlte es nicht.” Züricher Post) (1918), 6 December. (The English artists were very warmly received by the large audience; even bouquets were presented.)
[Regarding In a Balcony] “Bemühend war der Auftakt des Stückes: die Liebenden halten sich, Bühnenminuten lang, fast regungslos wie ein Maikäferpärchen umschlungen, dazu Musik und romantische Beleuchtung. Welch ein Einfall, sich auszudenken, eine Umarmung, die scheinbar fünf Minuten dauert, sei fünfmal inniger als ein kurzes glühendes Umschlingen. Vielleicht schrieb Browning diese Szene so vor; auf jeden Fall wohnten hier edelste Kunst und Kitsch schwesterlich unter einem Dache.” Neue Zürcher Zeitung (1918), 17 December. (The prelude to the piece was awkward: two lovers hold each other almost motionless like a pair of May bugs for a full few minutes on stage, accompanied by music and romantic lighting. What an idea, to think that a five-minute long embrace should be five times more intimate than a short fervent hug. Perhaps this was Browning’s intention; in any case, the finest art and kitsch lived here united under one roof.)
Advertisement in the Tagblatt der Stadt Zürich (1918), 11 December
“Gespielt wurde ausnahmslos gut.” Neue Zürcher Zeitung (1919), 4 February. (Everyone, with no exceptions, acted well.)
Advertisement in the Tagblatt der Stadt Zürich (1919), 1 February
“Die Schauspieler waren, alles in allem, dem Stück gewachsen; das Publikum weniger; die Aushorchung des erkranken Tyrrell durch zwei Aerzte erweckte trotz tragischem Grundton hellste Heiterkeit.” Neue Zürcher Zeitung (1919), 14 March. (All in all, the actors were equal to the play; the audience less so; the two doctors’ questioning of the sick Tyrrell aroused the brightest cheerfulness despite the tragic basic tone.)
Advertisement in the Tagblatt der Stadt Zürich (1919), 10 March
“Reicher Beifall lohnte den Spendenden; es war ein sehr vergnüglicher Abend.” Neue Zürcher Zeitung (1919), 22 April. (The rounds of applause were copious; it was a very enjoyable evening.)
“Häufiger und spontaner Beifall ließ auch auf den Brettern eine von Grund auf vergnügliche Stimmung aufkommen.” Neue Zürcher Zeitung (1919), 11 May. (Frequent and spontaneous applause created a thoroughly enjoyable atmosphere.)
“Vor fast ausverkauftem Hause ... wurde ... ‘Sie demütigt sich, um zu erobern’ munter und mit Erfolg auf die Bretter gebracht.” Neue Zürcher Zeitung (1919), 30 May. (In a nearly sold-out house … She Stoops to Conquer was cheerfully and successfully brought to the boards.)
“Drei Einakter von drei verschiedenen Autoren! Schon gut; aber das geistige Band fehlte. Die ‘English Players’, denen wir so manchen anregenden und aufschlußreichen Abend verdanken, hatten bei ihrer Auswahl für Saisonschluß keine glückliche Hand ...” Neue Zürcher Zeitung (1919), 26 June. (Three one-acters by three different authors! All right; but the intellectual connection was missing. The “English Players”, to whom we owe many a stimulating and instructive evening, had no lucky hand in their selection for the end of the theatre season …)
Advertisement in the Tagblatt der Stadt Zürich (1919), 23 June
“Ein fast ausverkauftes Haus begrüßte dankbar das Wiederauftreten der in Zürich gut eingeführten English Players. … es war ein sehr munterer Abend. Man lachte Tränen fröhlicher Anteilnahme …” Neue Zürcher Zeitung (1919), 10 October. (A nearly sold-out house gratefully welcomed the reappearance of the well-established English Players in Zurich. … it was a very lively evening. We laughed tears of cheerful sympathy …)
“Les interprètes sont très bons, tous quatre.” Tribune de Lausanne (1919), 16 October 1919. (The actors are very good, all four of them.)
[Regarding The Title] “Mr. Owens … Redefluß floß zu sehr … . Er beherrschte aber seine Rolle, er brauchte nicht, wie seine Kollegen und Kolleginnen, der Vorsehung ein Dankopfer zu bringen, die, als sie die Bretter der Bühne legte, auch den Souffleurkasten zimmerte.” Neue Zürcher Zeitung (1919), 15 November. (Mr. Owen’s speech-flow flowed too much … but he knew his role well and did not, like his colleagues, have Providence to thank for, when laying down the boards, also constructing the prompter box.)
“Il est toutefois regrettable que … la troupe des “English Players” ait donné de cette pièce une interprétation insuffisante. … C’est précisément parce que les English Players ont à jouer un rôle utile et important en faisant connaître en Suisse les chefs-d’œuvre du théâtre anglais que nous avons le droit d’être exigeant.” Gazette de Lausanne (1919), 1 December. (It is regrettable that the “English Players” gave an unsatisfactory interpretation of this play. … It is precisely because the English Players have a useful and important role to perform in promoting the English theatre's masterpieces in Switzerland that we have the right to be demanding.)
“Die Schauspieler boten diesmal ihr Bestes; … Allen Schauspielern lohnte verdienter Beifall.” Neue Zürcher Zeitung (1919), 14 December. (The actors delivered their best this time. … All the actors received deserved applause.)
William Brockman and Sabrina Alonso
Advertisement in the Tagblatt der Stadt Zürich (1919), 8 December
1 Otto Luening, The Odyssey of an American Composer: The Autobiography of Otto Luening (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1980), p. 190.
2 George Bernard Shaw, Androcles and the Lion; Overruled; Pygmalion (London: Constable, 1916), pp. 81-82.
3 Richard Ellmann, James Joyce, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), p. 459.
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