It’s the eve of the Epiphany, 1904, Dublin. You arrive for an elegant dinner party at the comfortable home of two retired musician sisters and their charming niece. The caretaker’s daughter Lily, who has been “literally run off her feet,” greets you at the door and you step inside.

For those of us who read James Joyce’s “The Dead” in college, the scene is familiar.

For a fortunate few however, the scene will “literally” come to life next winter.  

The Dead, 1904 is a new adaptation of Joyce’s most celebrated novella by acclaimed novelist Jean Hanff Korelitz and her husband, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and Joyce scholar Paul Muldoon.

In a world premiere eight-week run from mid-November until early-January, a limited number of audience members will have the opportunity not just to watch “The Dead,” but to attend the story’s party themselves. The production will be set in a gracious turn of the century mansion on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, the home of the American Irish Historical Society. Guests will mingle with the actors, move from room to room, and enjoy the music and dancing described by Joyce, as well as a sumptuous Victorian-inspired feast.

“The Dead” has been hailed by The New York Times as “just about the finest short story in the English language.” But, Korelitz, author of Admission and a long-time friend of Women’s Voices for Change admits that she isn’t an expert on Joyce. “I made it through Ulysses by listening to it, and barely at that,” she laughs. “I don’t have a love of Joyce, but I do love this story. My husband has written a whole book about ‘The Dead,’ and believes it’s the essential Irish text . . . There are things in the story that go right past most people: symbolism, imagery. Everything that came before in Irish culture, let alone Irish literature, is in ‘The Dead;’ and everything that came afterwards came out of ‘The Dead.’”

RELATED: Book Review: ‘You Should Have Known,’ by Jean Hanff Korelitz

The final story in Joyce’s 1914 collection, Dubliners, describes a holiday gathering on January 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany, in the home of elderly sisters, Kate and Julia Morkan, and their niece, Mary Jane. At the party are family, friends, a tenor, a nationalist, an alcoholic, and a young couple, professor Gabriel and wife Gretta Conroy. During a most hospitable dinner party, there are conversations, speeches, debates, music, dining and dancing. As the evening ends, Gretta is entranced by the tenor’s rendition of  “The Lass of Aughrim.” Gabriel, seeing his wife for perhaps the first time, questions his own life and understands the thinnest layer between the living and the dead.

The concept for the project came to Korelitz when she attended a reading of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol at the American Irish Historical Society at the end of 2014. “The idea hit me over the head and then I thought, ‘Oh wait. Now I have to drop everything and do this.’ Because when you get an idea like that — it’s like the idea for a novel — you have a responsibility to do something with it.”

She approached Chris Cahill, the Executive Director of the American Irish Historical Society, and found that her enthusiasm for the idea was shared. “I’ve always wanted to do this,” he told her over lunch. “And, suddenly I’m a producer!” Korelitz remembers. Together with her sister and fellow theatre-enthusiast Nina Korelitz Matza, she created Dot Dot Productions, specifically to bring her concept of The Dead, 1904 to fruition.

The new adaptation will be produced by The Irish Repertory Theatre, renowned for its staging of Irish and Irish-American works, and directed by Ciaran O’Reilly. “The Dead” has been staged before, as a one-act play in 1967 and a limited-run musical in 1999. A 1987 movie was John Huston’s last film and starred, among others, his daughter Anjelica. Huston directed it from a wheelchair in the final months of his life, succumbing shortly afterwards to emphysema and heart disease. As a hushed meditation on the nature of life and death, it remains a haunting and most fitting tribute.

Or, as Korelitz explains, “Nothing happens and everything happens. Life, death, marriage, love, memory, religion, politics . . .  it’s all there.”

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  • Lysa Rohan April 12, 2016 at 10:42 am

    Thank you for letting us know about this!