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The United States vs Ulysses review: A clever courtroom drama entertainingly brought to life

Colin Murphy’s script explores the 1933 legal battle to allow US publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses

The United States vs Ulysses

The United States vs Ulysses

Pavilion Theatre, Dún Laoghaire


F**k. During a pause in proceedings, lawyer Morris Ernst (Mark Lambert) exclaims it bluntly. The word’s effect in the courtroom, and Ernst’s discussion around suggestions of offensiveness or obscenity, teasing out language and context and how things change, are key to this story of the trial of a single book. The word still has power to provoke; witness our asterisking of it here in this paragraph to protect readers’ sensibilities in 2023.

The court scene is central in this new play about a footnote in literary history – the 1933 legal battle to allow US publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses, liberating it from censorship and allowing newish publisher Random House to print and distribute the modernist classic. It is a footnote for sure, but it raises issues of control, obscenity, judgment and intent, much of it teased out in a somewhat eccentric New York courtroom.

Colin Murphy’s script cleverly knits together the court case and its build-up, the human stories surrounding it, and parts of the novel itself to create a fast-moving, multi-charactered 90-minute piece. His journalistic and documentary skills (seen previously in A Day in May, Haughey/Gregory, Bailed Out!, Guaranteed!) knock the historical records into an exciting narrative (where we know the ending but not the detail of getting there), and it is staged with verve and 1930s-esque style by director Conall Morrison, satisfyingly balancing the fact-fiction story throughline along with its many meanderings.

The United States vs Ulysses
The United States vs Ulysses

Murphy uses a perfect motif for telling the tale, wrapping it into a radio live news dramatisation, an episode of The March of Time (which did apparently broadcast a re-enactment of the case). Within that deliciously 1930s radio-serial framework the terrific ensemble of six tumble through the detailed legal arguments and the lawyer-publisher-novelist interactions, interweaving it with Ulysses characters and incidents. The lawyer’s dream becomes an extended riff on the Circe episode, with the surreal trial-fantasy of the novel counterpointing what is happening in court.


The six actors each play probably tens of characters, real and fictional. Janet Moran’s Nora/Molly interjects variously-toned “Yes!” exclamations as commentary throughout (to comic effect). Ross Gaynor balances both fresh-faced publisher Bennett Cerf and the state lawyer arguing for censorship. Jonathan White ranges from a slice of Americana as the radio host holding it all together, to delicious, lascivious intoning of Joycean phrases. Morgan C Jones is both Jimmy Joyce and Judge Woolsey, dying to get to the Molly section in evidence but ultimately deciding to “Let Ulysses be admitted into the United States”.

Helen Norton’s comic timing shines, particularly in a string of characters delineated by her rapidly changing hats. Mark Lambert as civil rights lawyer Morris Ernst teases out the legal arguments and the life lessons of Ulysses: the book is troubling rather than pornographic; it reflects the nature of all of our streams of consciousness; and it is not just Ulysses, life itself is obscene.

In Once Off Productions’ play, Liam Doona’s radio-studio set is readily adaptable to settings from courtroom to Nighttown, and Catherine Fay’s ‘30s costumes allow flourishes to indicate multiple character changes.

Murphy’s courtroom drama is cleverly structured, drawing on documentation and commentary but also imagination, and it is entertainingly and skilfully brought to life by Morrison’s shape-shifting cast.

At Pavilion Theatre Dún Laoghaire until November 11th and at Town Hall Theatre Galway on Tuesday, November 21st

Deirdre Falvey

Deirdre Falvey

Deirdre Falvey is a features and arts writer at The Irish Times