On this day…23 September

On 23 September 1930 Joyce wrote to George Antheil about Cain.

Earlier in September, Joyce had suggested to composer George Antheil that he write an opera based on Byron’s play Cain. On 23 September Joyce wrote in more detail about how he imagined the opera might work, but in the end the project came to nothing.

Byron’s Cain – A Mystery (1821) was a ‘closet drama’ (written to be read rather than performed) based on the biblical story of Cain and Abel, but taking Cain’s point of view. Joyce thought it would be perfect material for a libretto for an opera, and on 7 September 1930 he sent the play to Antheil to read.

Antheil came to Europe from America in the 1920s determined to become the ‘bad boy’ of music. He arrived in Paris in 1923 and took up lodgings in a room above Sylvia Beach’s bookshop Shakespeare & Company. Through Beach he was introduced to an influential circle of writers including Joyce. In October 1923 Joyce attended the first performance of works by Antheil in Paris, which broke up in a riot, and he also attended the premiere of Antheil’s Ballet Mécanique in June 1926.

Antheil planned an opera based on Ulysses though he only got around to setting part of the ‘Cyclops’ episode, and he set Joyce’s ‘Nightpiece’ to music for the Joyce Book in 1932. It also seems that Antheil was planning a symphony based on Anna Livia Plurabelle, and in his letter of 23 September Joyce asks how the symphony is progressing.

Joyce’s aim in suggesting Cain to Antheil probably had less to do with either Byron or Antheil than with John Sullivan, the tenor whose career Joyce was determined to promote. Joyce suggested to Antheil that he go to Marseilles to hear Sullivan who was performing there in Halévy’s opera La Juive. Joyce agreed with Antheil that Byron’s drama was not perfect, but he thought the first and third acts would produce an impressive effect.

Inevitably, Sullivan, a tenor, would take the role of Cain, but Joyce thought that Abel would also be a tenor. Adam would be a bass and Lucifer would be a baritone. Joyce wasn’t sure how Antheil might score the part of the Angel of the Lord, suggesting that maybe he could borrow the loudspeaker from the railway station in Rouen.

It seems that Joyce started editing the text of Byron’s play with Herbert Gorman in Zurich in November 1930 but apparently that didn’t get very far, and Joyce made it clear to Antheil that his name could not be used in connection with the piece. From another side, Ezra Pound, who had written a book about Antheil’s music in 1924, advised Antheil against the project, suggesting instead the Antheil seek an original libretto by Joyce himself. Joyce declined to provide such a libretto and gave Antheil an ultimatum, saying that if Antheil didn’t want the Cain project he would offer it to Stravinsky. (Antheil had been heavily influenced by Stravinsky but they had fallen out not long after they met, so Joyce’s threat to go to Stravinsky was intended as a provocation to Antheil.)

As it happened, nothing further was heard of the project, though in a letter to his son Giorgio in 1934 Joyce claimed that Antheil had miss the chance of a lifetime by not composing the Cain opera for Sullivan, and suggested that perhaps Antheil hadn’t been capable of writing an opera.


Sources & Further Reading:

Antheil, George: Bad Boy of Music, New York: Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1945.

Ellmann, Richard: James Joyce – New and Revised edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Joyce, James: Letters of James Joyce, vol. I edited by Stuart Gilbert, vol. III edited by Richard Ellmann, London: Faber & Faber, 1957, 1966.