On 29 April 1918 the English Players gave their first performance.
The English Players was an amateur drama group formed by Joyce and Claud Sykes in Zurich. The group’s first performance, Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, took place at the Theater zu den Kaufleuten on Pelikanstrasse on Monday 29 April 1918.
Claud Sykes was a professional actor making a living teaching English in Zurich. He and Joyce met around August 1917 and they became good friends. Joyce had just had an operation on his right eye and had decided to move to Locarno in hope of milder weather. He was working on the first episodes of Ulysses which Sykes offered to type for him. The typewriter was borrowed from another friend and in November 1917, Joyce started sending Sykes the manuscript of the first three episodes.
The weather in Locarno turned out not to be any better than Zurich and the Joyces returned to Zurich in January 1918. At the end of February Joyce received the first of several instalments of a gift from Mrs Edith McCormick, and Claud Sykes suggested Joyce invest some of his new-found wealth in a theatre group that would perform plays in English. Joyce jumped at the opportunity in part because he saw it as a way of getting his play Exiles performed.
The plan was that Sykes would act as producer and director and look after the artistic side while Joyce would be the business manager. Joyce suggested calling it the English Players and Sykes suggested their first production should be of Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.
While Joyce booked the Theater zu den Kaufleuten on Pelikanstrasse and got the tacit approval of the British consul-general, A Percy Bennett, Sykes set about assembling a cast. Evelyn Cotton, who was to become a lifelong friend of Nora Joyce, played the part of Gwendolen; Tristan Rawson played John Worthing; Henry Carr played Algernon Moncrieff; Ethel Turner played Miss Prism; and Cecil Palmer played the butler.
The performance was a success. The house was full and the partners made a profit. However, the next day a bitter argument about money erupted between Joyce and Henry Carr that was to lead to an acrimonious series of court appearances.
The English Players went on to give several more performances, including JM Synge’s Riders to the Sea in which Nora Barnacle played Cathleen.
Sources & Further Reading:
Ellmann, Richard: James Joyce – New and Revised edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.
Maddox, Brenda: Nora – A Biography of Nora Joyce, London: Hamish Hamilton, 1988.
Norburn, Roger: A James Joyce Chronology, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.