On this day…25 August

On 25 August 1909 Joyce attended the premiere of The Shewing-Up of Blanco Posnet.

George Bernard Shaw’s play The Shewing-Up of Blanco Posnet had been banned in England by the Lord Chamberlain. But the Lord Chamberlain’s remit did not extend to Dublin theatres, and the Abbey Theatre agreed to stage the play. The Lord Lieutenant in Dublin tried unsuccessfully to stop the performance going ahead, and Joyce was in the audience for the first performance on Wednesday 25 August 1909.

There was quite a bit of excitement around the premiere of Blanco Posnet. It was Horse Show week in Dublin with visitors gathered from all over the world, and the Lord Chamberlain’s ban and the Lord Lieutenant’s efforts to prevent the Abbey’s performances combined to make it the theatre event of the year in Dublin.

Joyce had been at the Abbey on 24 August to see performances of Synge’s Playboy of the Western World, and Lady Gregory’s The Rising of the Moon, and he had chatted with Joseph Holloway, a theatre enthusiast and architect. Tickets for Blanco Posnet sold out quickly and the high demand made it unlikely Joyce would have been able to afford a ticket.

Instead, Joyce wrote to Roberto Prezioso, editor of Il Piccolo della Sera in Trieste, suggesting that he would write an article about the performance for the Piccolo. Prezioso replied, telling him to go ahead, and Joyce used Prezioso’s letter to persuade the manager of the Abbey to give him a free press pass to attend the premiere.

On the night of the performance the audience probably anticipated a play that contained something appalling enough to have attracted the Lord Chamberlain’s ban, and policemen were deployed around the theatre to keep order. Instead, the audience was treated to a story set in the ‘wild west’ about Blanco Posnet who is on trial for stealing a horse, and about Posnet’s determination to amend his bad life by turning to God.

Joyce wrote his article for Prezioso immediately after the performance and sent it to Stanislaus in Trieste asking him to show it to Francini Bruni to correct it as he’d written it in haste. The article, ‘La Battaglia fra Bernard Shaw e la censura: “Blanco Posnet smascherato”’ (‘The Battle Between Bernard Shaw and the Censor: “The Shewing-Up of Blanco Posnet”’), was published in the Piccolo della Sera on 5 September.

Joyce starts his article with an account of the Lord Chamberlain’s and Lord Lieutenant’s efforts to ban the play, and gives an account of the performance on 25 August. He notes that there was no trouble at the performance, because no one could see anything offensive in the play. Joyce was disappointed by the play and criticised Shaw for his didactic approach, making out that he was more of a preacher than a playwright.

Stanislaus sent copies of the published article to Joyce in Dublin on 5 September, and Joyce showed off copies of the article in the offices of the Freeman’s Journal and Evening Telegraph. As a result an article about Joyce’s article appeared in the Evening Telegraph on 8 September.

The Telegraph article notes that Joyce is ‘one of the few Irishmen on the Italian Press,’ and focuses on the concluding remarks of Joyce’s article: ‘…that perhaps this drama, unimportant and inartistic in itself, coincides with a crisis in the mind of [Bernard Shaw]… and now, it may be, some divine finger has touched his brain, and at that touch he, like his own Blanco Posnet, unmasks himself.’


Sources & Further Reading:

Ellmann, Richard: James Joyce – new and revised edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Joyce, James: Letters of James Joyce, vol. II, edited by Richard Ellmann, London: Faber & Faber, 1966.

– -: Occasional, Critical, and Political Writing, edited with an Introduction and Notes by Kevin Barry, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Norburn, Roger: A James Joyce Chronology, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.