Ulysses was the first novel to become a celebrity in the mass media age. Its reputation was ‘enhanced’ by its alleged scurrility, its banning in the Anglophone world in both serial and book form, its having engendered legal proceedings centred on obscenity and copyright, and its notoriety as a wilfully difficult text. James Joyce wrote a novel that aspired to map its author’s home city – he claimed its success would be founded on the ability to reconstruct Dublin brick by brick from the novel, should the city cease to exist – and to ‘keep the professors busy for centuries’ (so far successful, one would have to say). George Bernard Shaw called it ‘a revolting record of a disgusting phase of civilization’, while many other writers and critics dissented, claiming Ulysses to be the wonder of the literary world, a work of genius elevated beyond the ephemera of provincial morals and pearl-clutching citizens’ committees. It encompassed a world in its pages, and created it anew. The novel re-imagined modernity, drawing myth and epic and tragedy into its field of vision, and provided readers with the means to see their lives in the same milieu as that of Leopold Bloom, Stephen Dedalus, Molly Bloom, Blazes Boylan, and all the rest. It changed everything.
It is a theatrical truism that Samuel Beckett remains good box office: the Sydney Theatre Company recently announced its intention to take the 2013 production of Waiting for Godot to the Barbican in 2015, with the original cast. Another truism – adapted from a remark once made by Edward Albee – is that at any moment a Beckett production occurs somewhere in the world. The centenary of his birth in 2006 gave renewed focus to this sustained interest in Beckett’s work, but the Blue Angel/Gate Theatre Beckett on Film Project of 2001 and James Knowlson’s authorised biography of 1996, Damned to Fame, helped set the tone for this new wave of popularity.