Dance of the hours

Bloom recalls another time when he and Molly stood around at home making their toilette (she was "Washing her teeth"), on the "Morning after the bazaar dance when May's band played Ponchielli's dance of the hours." The work is a 10-minute ballet for orchestra, excerpted from Amilcare Ponchielli's opera La Gioconda (1876). It proved hugely popular as a stand-alone work, eventually inspiring parodies as diverse as the dance of the animals in Walt Disney's Fantasia and the popular song "Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah" (the latter of which, ironically, contains a reference to Ulysses). Its inclusion in Bloom's thoughts seems significant chiefly as a comment on the narrative structure of Ulysses.

The ballet is performed at the climactic end of the third act of the opera, as part of a series of entertainments at the palace of Alvise, a nobleman married to one of the two female leads, Laura. He has forced Laura to marry him but she remains in contact with her lover Enzo and plans to escape with him. When Alvise discovers the betrayal he insists that his wife poison herself. The palace celebration ends abruptly as a passing bell sounds and the body of Laura is revealed. The contrast between light and darkness in the ballet thus manages to suggest the struggle between forces of good and evil in the opera. It is possible that Joyce expects his reader to do something with this, since Boylan too was present at the dance and Molly has been asking interested questions about him. ("Is that Boylan well off? . . . I noticed he had a good rich smell off his breath dancing.") By this logic the well-off Boylan might stand in for Alvise somehow.

§ But the text gives no indication that Bloom (or Joyce, for that matter) knows anything about the operatic context surrounding the ballet. He thinks only about the dance itself and how it represents the passing of hours throughout the course of one day. Molly may have asked him about the significance of this work played the night before, because he thinks, "Explain that: morning hours, noon, then evening coming on, then night hours." Several sentences later he is still thinking about the work's significance: "Evening hours, girls in grey gauze. Night hours then: black with daggers and eyemasks. Poetical idea: pink, then golden, then grey, then black. Still, true to life also. Day: then the night."

The more promising hermeneutical application of the allusion, then, is to the writing of a fiction such as Ulysses, which begins with dawn and follows the course of one day. Bloom has been reading Philip Beaufoy's story in the newspaper and has "envied kindly Mr Beaufoy who had written it and received payment of three pounds, thirteen and six." He thinks that he himself (aided by Molly's felicitous expressions) "Might manage a sketch. By Mr and Mrs L. M. Bloom. Invent a story for some proverb. Which?"

Bloom has no further thoughts about which proverb to illustrate, but much later in the novel, in Eumaeus, he realizes that the events of June 16 have given him material that he could turn into a story. Meeting Stephen and descending with him into Dublin's nighttime underbelly inspires him to wonder whether he could write "a miniature cameo of the world we live in," and by thus imitating the writer who has created him earn some extra cash: "he wondered whether he might meet with anything approaching the same luck as Mr Philip Beaufoy if taken down in writing suppose he were to pen something out of the common groove (as he fully intended doing) at the rate of one guinea per column. My Experiences, let us say, in a Cabman's Shelter."

The dancers in Ponchielli's ballet represent first the hours of dawn, then daylight, then evening, then night, and finally morning again, by means of variously colored costumes and lights. It thus resembles the shape of Ulysses, which begins with the sun starting to warm Dublin in Telemachus and Calypso, moves through the hours of the day, shows evening coming on in Nausicaa, devotes several chapters to the night, and anticipates the reappearance of the sun late in Ithaca. The novel's allusion to the dance of the hours thus self-referentially reflects on its way of structuring action, which is designed to be "true to life."

JH 2017

4 May 2014 performance of Ponchielli's Dance of the Hours by the Arts Ballet Teatre of Florida, choreographed by Vladimir Issaev. Source: YouTube.

Allan Sherman's Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah (1963). Source: YouTube.