Interview With a VoiceGeek: Patrick Horgan

From whence comes artistic immortality for the actor?

I suppose we should be glad to take it where we can get it, but the great fantasy of being the next Marlon Brando or Meryl Streep with triumphs registered in the historical archive under The Godfather, Sophie’s Choice, etc. is rather hard to shake. God forbid we should go down as, say, Nazi-guy-in-helmet standing behind Leonard Nimoy in this scene from Star Trek season 2 episode 21: Patterns of Force:

Patterns of Force still Helmet-Guy-Number-Two is probably leaning to the left in order to make certain he’s in the shot, completely unaware that he is in fact over-compensating and that the frame is cropping him off at the left eyeball. I should know – I’ve been there:

LongmireLongmire, season 2, episode 1, approx. 7½ minutes in.

That’s me peeking out fuzzily from behind actress Nicki Aycox, damn near cracking a rib over that counter-top trying to get my mug into the shot.

Comparatively speaking, I have nothing to complain about at all – the Longmire episode wound up being pretty good, and even “Cropped-Eyeball-Nazi-Guy-standing-behind-Nimoy” has joyful anonymity protecting him. I shudder to think what Nimoy himself – who was raised orthodox Jewish – could possibly have been thinking while wearing that SS uniform, probably something like “Please God don’t let me be remembered for this.” Well, as the present deluge of warm eulogies for Nimoy clearly testify, the man’s legacy won’t be terribly tarnished by Patterns of Force, or Spock’s Brain, or Transformers: Dark of the Moon for that matter.

No: Nimoy has much less to worry about on that account than the actor in the foreground of the above Trek still. Patrick Horgan’s number-one Google hit happens to be Patterns of Force – a laughably bad Trek episode – and his most memorable line comes near the end of the episode, with:

Patterns of Force 3“Wait, soldier. There’s been enough killing.
Now we’ll start to live the way the Fuhrer meant us to live.”

Ugh. For this to be what Mr. Horgan is primarily remembered for would be one of popular culture’s single greatest travesties. So it’s high-time for a corrective: Patrick Horgan had a helluvalot more to say than this, and at the age of 86, retired and living with his wife, Susan Bedsow-Horgan in rural Connecticut, he still does. I can personally verify this – for very much to my shock and honor, he allowed me to interview him last week.

HorganIn many ways, Mr. Horgan’s acting career simply dwarfs that of Nimoy’s: in addition to his steady television work and extremely prolific stage career, he recorded somewhere in the neighborhood of 1800 audiobooks (his account) – mostly for the National Foundation for the Blind. Sitting atop these achievements is perhaps the greatest single audiobook accomplishment of all time: his 1985 NFB recording of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. I argued in a previous blog that this is and will probably remain for eons to come the only accurate and completely unabridged recording of the book.

Inexplicably, however, obscurity threatens even this accomplishment. Here it is sitting atop its original packaging:

Horgan PackagingUgh. Worse, Mr. Horgan’s name is nowhere to be found on it. Flip the cartridge over, and the only thing printed there is “Property of U.S. Government – further reproduction or distribution is prohibited.” That’s right: as if the injury hadn’t been insulted enough, this recording is not legally available to the general public – I had to sign up for volunteer work at the New Mexico State Library just to have access to it.

I’ve gushed about this recording quite a lot, so the best thing to do here (and to Uncle Sam’s big stick I have but two words: FAIR USE) is to simply let it speak for itself. Below is Mr. Horgan’s reading of one of the Wake‘s most notoriously challenging passages: question #9 from chapter 6, found on page 143:

9. Now, to be on anew and basking again in the panaroma of all flores of speech, if a human being duly fatigued by his dayety in the sooty, having plenxty off time on his gouty hands and va­cants of space at his sleepish feet and as hapless behind the dreams of accuracy as any camelot prince of dinmurk, were at this auc­tual futule preteriting unstant, in the states of suspensive exani­mation, accorded, throughout the eye of a noodle, with an ear­sighted view of old hopeinhaven with all the ingredient and egregiunt whights and ways to which in the curse of his persis­tence the course of his tory will had been having recourses, the reverberration of knotcracking awes, the reconjungation of nodebinding ayes, the redissolusingness of mindmouldered ease and the thereby hang of the Hoel of it, could such a none, whiles even led comesilencers to comeliewithhers and till intempes­tuous Nox should catch the gallicry and spot lucan’s dawn, by­hold at ones what is main and why tis twain, how one once meet melts in tother wants poignings, the sap rising, the foles falling, the nimb now nihilant round the girlyhead so becoming, the wrestless in the womb, all the rivals to allsea, shakeagain, O disaster! shakealose, Ah how starring! but Heng’s got a bit of Horsa’s nose and Jeff’s got the signs of Ham round his mouth and the beau that spun beautiful pales as it palls, what roserude and oragious grows gelb and greem, blue out the ind of it! Violet’s dyed! then what would that fargazer seem to seemself to seem seeming of, dimm it all?
Answer: A collideorscape!

…and the whole thing is this good. Talk about content outweighing form. According to Mr. Horgan, the project took less than a month:

I would record two to four hours a day, about five days a week. I don’t think it took more than three or four weeks.

Harrison Sherwood

Harrison Sherwood

Incidentally: Harrison Sherwood, the main recording engineer and producer for Mr. Horgan’s Finnegans Wake project, verified in an email to me that it all went by quite smoothly with nary a flub: “It was a pretty money-oriented environment for a nonprofit organization. The Library of Congress (our benefactors) were willing to put up X dollars for a recording of the Wake. We had to come in at or under that dollar amount. So there was an upper limit on the number of hours we could spend.” Sherwood, by the way, offers some great anecdotes about his experience with Mr. Horgan in a blog of his own. This blogpost is actually best if read in tandem with his. Why duplicate, after all? Here’s the link:

So this is clearly a man with super-human talent, yet somehow “talented” doesn’t really do Patrick Horgan justice as a descriptor – enthusiastic comes more to mind than anything else. When I started by asking him where (and if) he received any formal actor training, it took him all of fifteen seconds to start talking about the Wake:

Not really. I learned by doing it. It seems to me that acting is a very hard thing to teach. I was actually a medical student for 4½ years. Everybody in my family were all doctors, so I kind of had to do it. But I packed that up – I got sensible and realized there was a better way to go. And I think that was the first time I picked up a copy of Finnegans Wake – when I was a medical student – so I must’ve been, oh, 19, 20. I couldn’t understand a word of it – I got to about page 16 and I thought, I don’t even know what accent it’s in! Of course it didn’t need an accent, but I put it away for years and years and years.

Rita Gam

Rita Gam

Then I was looking at somebody’s books – they happened to be Rita Gam’s books. She was married to the head guy at Viking, so she had all the books that had anything connected with the Wake that were published at that time. I reckon I’ve been working on it for 42 years now – 1972 was when I first started work on it. And I had thought that after 42 not doing it, and then 42 years doing it that I would drop dead, but I didn’t. I’m still sort of clawing my way at it, finding new things every day.

Bear in mind that, in 1972, publication of the first edition of Roland McHugh’s Annotations to Finnegans Wake was still nine years away – and woefully sparse by today’s standards once it did come out. So Horgan was researching the Wake in a manner that we of the generation can hardly fathom: He relied mostly on his own storehouse of personal knowledge to gloss the text and make judgements concerning pronunciation. If you open McHugh to his acknowledgements page, you’ll find Horgan listed there among the others, Fritz Senn, Adaline Glasheen, Louis Mink, Brendan O’Hehir, et al.

To call Mr. Horgan’s reading of the Wake “flawless” would be wrong of course, for the Wake itself is in many ways a study in the art of flaw-making, and Mr. Horgan’s own attitude towards his 1985 recording reflects the kind of eternal dissatisfaction any artist has towards a completed work. He cited a number of examples:

I had various things that I wanted to change. Sometimes you find that the passage doesn’t mean what you thought it meant. A case in point of particular interest to me lately has been the end of the fifth chapter, the one where it’s telling you what the alphabet is about. Joyce says “very potably so” (p. 118 line 15), and I thought it meant “very possibly so” from the phrase before it, and I’ve discovered since then – and this is in McHugh’s book – that there is a whole bunch of [Rabelais’s] Pantagruel and Gargantua in that. Pantagruel was looking for a book which had the oracle called “Bacbuc” (and Bacbuc is there with “bacbuccus”). So it’s not “very possibly so”, it’s “very drinkably so”. The oracle is giving the thing in the form of drink. And that’s made very clear in the actual text of Gargantua. And I hadn’t realized that, I was saying “o very potably so” [short “O”] but it’s saying “o very potably so” [long “O”] saying how tremendously good it was, rather than just “ho-hum”. That sort of thing crops up all the time. You’ll find a sentence that you’ve been saying one way and thinking of one way that isn’t necessarily that way. But then anything can be at least two ways, any word in my view.

I remember having problems with one of the first words in the book: “Violer d’amores” (page 3 line 4). Now should that be a violer (short “I”, pronounced like viola, the musical instrument), or should it be a violer (long “I”), someone who is raping someone? I didn’t know which one to do. And I found that sort of thing throughout the book – where you can’t be sure which one Joyce intended, so how are you to do it?

I found one the other day :“Tuwarceathay” (490.28) It looks like tu-WARK-a-thigh, but it isn’t – it could be “cathay” at the end, etc. But actually it’s “tuar ceatha”, which is “rainbow” in irish. Now I think McHugh has that one, but to look it up you find that it really means an “omen of mist” in Irish. And how would you pronounce it? Should it be pronounced Irish? Nobody speaks Irish that listens to the recording, so they wouldn’t understand it.

Another Irish one: the pronunciation of the word “devious” – in this case “devious” is just a word or two before “the original document” (p. 123.31). And “the document” refers to the one produced during the trouble between the Irish and the English at the end of the war; the English had a peace treaty, and that was the original document, and De Valera made a new document and called it “document number two.” So clearly “devious” has to indicate De Valera a little bit. You could say “devious” (short “E”) and it would sound peculiar, but on the other hand it’s up to the reader to make it anything they want. Anybody who’s reading it can put any interpretation they like on it. I think everybody should have that right.

The Irish stuff in Finnegans Wake is indeed quite troublesome for an actor, as anyone who’s worked on Thunderword #8 can attest. I should point out, though, that Mr. Horgan takes great delight in recounting his pronunciation conundrums; he didn’t indicate even slight regret at a single decision he made during his recording. And his fascination with unlocking the puzzles of Finnegans Wake goes far beyond anything that an audiobook reader ever need concern himself with:

I find everyday more stuff to add to my pile, and at the moment I’m working on something I started on five or six years ago when I discovered that there was DNA mentioned in the Wake. Joyce hides it very subtly, but it comes up several times. I found that always where there’s DNA, there was an alda as well. So you’ve got the three trees. – the Irish alphabet is all trees, and “D” “N” “A” means “oak” “ash” and “elm” in the Irish alphabet! It’s there on page 503 [line 32] with “Oakley Ashe’s elm”, but the Wake actually begins with: “The oaks of ald now they lie in peat yet elms leap where askes lay.” Now there you’ve got your oak and your ash and your elm, and now somehow an alda has crept into it as well. And I looked up the books on all this sort of thing and I found that the received wisdom was that “ald” just meant old, but I found that in the Norwegian mythology, Odin went along a beach with his pals, and he discovered a couple of tree branches and he decided to make people out of them. Now everyone says that they were an ash and an elm because embla sounds like elm, but it isn’t an elm; it means an alda! So there’s a great fight between the trees as to whether the elma is the one thing or the another. So each time you’ve got DNA, you’ve got it being an ash and an elm (regular), but every time it occurs there is also an elda somewhere lying around in the vicinity. And over the passage of time I discovered that they were there forming a diagram like the floor-plan of a cathedral, with seven of them on each side and a dome at one end and a portal at the other end! I discovered that just this morning and I feel pretty excited about it.

I can’t say that I was completely able to follow Mr. Horgan’s line of thinking all the way to the very end here, but this was something he had only just started formulating that very morning, after all, and I’m sure that he would have fleshed it out better given more time. Besides, enthusiasm is often a language all its own, and if there is one thing I would impart about our chat above all else, it would be his extraordinary enthusiasm – he has every right to let it get the better of him.

So I suppose all that stuff I said at the beginning of this blog-post about legacy, i.e.:Trek Trading Card…doesn’t amount to much. If you can claim at the age of 86 the kind of vitality and exuberance Mr. Horgan has, the rest can’t possibly matter one rattling damn.

The HorgansThe Horgans as photographed by Fenella Pearson

Crossing the Deadly Line: an Overdue Rant

Something I’ve come to understand about creating and understanding art: Deadlines can really suck. If you’re not careful, they can suck the precision right out of your work, making it sloppy, inattentive to detail, and prone to snap judgements & outlandishly foolish interpretations.

Granted, no artwork invites snap judgement and outlandish interpretation quite like Finnegans Wake, but even the Wake has its limitations. Take for example Patrick Healy’s interpretation of the following rather lengthy Wake sentence (FW 51.21-52.7):

It was the Lord’s own day for damp (to wait for a postponed regatta’s event­ualising is not of Battle­cock Shettle­dore-Juxta-Mare only) and the request for a fully armed explan­ation was put (in Loo of Pat) to the porty (a native of the sisterisle ⎯ Meathman or Meccan? ⎯ by his brogue, ex­race eyes, lokil calour and lucal odour which are said to have been average clownturkish (though the capelist’s voiced nasal liquids and the way he sneezed at zees haul us back to the craogs and bryns of the Silurian Ordovices) who, the lesser pilgrimage accomplished, had made, pats’ and pigs’ older inselt, the south­east bluffs of the stranger stepshore, a regifugium persecutorum, hence hindquarters) as he paused at evenchime for some or so minutes (hit the pipe dannyboy! Time to won, barmon. I’ll take ten to win.) amid the devil’s one duldrum (Apple by her blossom window and Charlotte at her toss panomancy his sole admirers, his only tearts in store) for a fragrend culubosh during his week­ensd pastime of executing with Anny Oakley deadliness (the con­summatory pairs of provocatives, of which remained provokingly but two, the ones he fell for, Lili and Tutu, cork em!) empties which had not very long before contained Reid’s family (you ruad that before, soaky, but all the bottles in sodemd histry will not soften your bloodathirst!) stout.

There’s so much to say about this reading – the stammering, the monotonous drone, the break-neck speed at which he mumbles out the text, etc. – but notice at around the 00:55 mark: Healy reads the perfectly comprehensible and surprisingly undistorted phrase: “executing with Annie Oakley deadliness” as “executing with Annie Oakley deadlines“, rendering it completely nonsensical and ludicrous.

Well, nonsensical and ludicrous if you’re trying to understand where Joyce is coming from; understanding Healy’s perspective is easy enough if you read producer Stephen Rennicks’ liner notes to the 17 CD  “unabridged recording” box-set:

It was important to [Patrick Healy] that [his Wake recording] should be done in as little time as possible in order to maintain the momentum and rhythm of his performance. […] There were no rehearsals. There were no retakes. The performance took four days to record.

Whatever is meant here by “momentum and rhythm”, it’s clear the four-day timetable is a point of great pride for Healy and Rennicks – even a selling point – so with this ambition at the forefront of Healy’s mind as he reads, his omission of the second “s” from “deadliness” can be easily understood, even treated with sympathy…

Actually, No.

This kind of nonsense is totally inexcusable. According to Rennicks, “Over the course of the past ten years [Healy] has given one-day readings of the entire text of Finnegans Wake in front of small audiences in in several European cities”. Ten years, huh? Such an obvious straightforward phrase can be misread for that long a time only by someone who has no interest whatsoever in the content of what he is reading.

Published by Rennicks Auriton in 1992, this abominable recording remains largely misunderstood to this day – nearly 23 years later – either by people who, never having opened the book themselves, admire Healy’s reading by default, or worse: by Wake nay-sayers who argue that lovers of Finnegans Wake are nothing more than intellectual narcissists, that the reason for our irrational attachment to the book is that it serves as a kind of linguistic Rorschach ink-blot whereby we can gaze at ourselves. Healy’s uber-Freudian “deadlines” slip gives this last group precisely the fuel they seek.

Incredibly, Joyce scholars have wound up making the situation even worse. Excitement over the advent of what was falsely advertised as the first-and-only unabridged audio recording of the entire book (Patrick Horgan [see below] had it beat by seven years) was apparently intoxicating enough to garner nearly universal acclaim from a number of Joyce scholars who clearly should have known better: Peter Costello, David Hayman(?!?!), Allen Ruch, etc. Perhaps they were under deadline pressures of their own, and so didn’t have time to listen to any of the 17+ hour recording. I wish they had – it would have saved me $350.

I suppose I should admit at this point that I have a dog in this fight, for I too have made a specialty of performing Finnegans Wake and hope one day to lay down a few tracks of my own. But I would never be possessed of such hubris as to claim that the whole book could be done in four days.

For one thing, the whole book wasn’t done – not really. Healy completely omitted one of the Wake‘s most celebrated sentences: “And low stole o’er the stillness heartbeats of sleep.” (FW403.5):

…and his garbled and prattling attempt at even the simplest thunderword (#5 on p.113) bears almost no resemblance to what Joyce wrote:

…not to mention the other nine. Just one example should suffice, but they’re all just as bad. Here’s Healy’s attempt at thunderword number one:

…and there are places, such as FW369.2-21, where his reading is so rushed as to be downright comical:

Enough. The crimes against Joyce in this recording are absolutely ubiquitous. If you want to listen to more you can go to ubuweb, where the entire recording has been archived and is available for download. If, like me, your ears actually hurt after listening to this, I’d like to make amends by offering all of the above snippets rendered by people who actually know what they’re doing:

Joseph Campbell – reciting (from memory) paragraph 3 from the first page:

     The fall (bababa­dalgharagh­takam­minar­ronnkonn­bronn­tonner­ronntuonn­thunntrovarrhoun­awnskawn­toohoohoor­denenthur­nuk!) of a once wallstrait oldparr is retaled early in bed and later on life down through all christian minstrelsy. The great fall of the offwall entailed at such short notice the pftjschute of Finnegan, erse solid man, that the humptyhillhead of humself prumptly sends an unquiring one well to the west in quest of his tumptytumtoes: and their upturnpikepointandplace is at the knock out in the park where oranges have been laid to rust upon the green since dev­linsfirst loved livvy.

Jim Norton – giving a truly unabridged reading of the opening section of part 3 on page 403:

     Tolv two elf kater ten (it can’t be) sax.
     Pedwar pemp foify tray (it must be) twelve.
     And low stole o’er the stillness the heartbeats of sleep.
     White fogbow spans. The arch embattled. Mark as capsules. The nose of the man who was nought like the nasoes. It is self tinted, wrink­ling, ruddled. His kep is a gorse­cone. He am Gascon Titubante of Tegmine – sub – Fagi whose fixtures are mobil­ing so wobiling befear my remembrandts. She, exhibit next, his Anastashie. She has prayings in lowdelph. Zeehere green egg­brooms. What named blautoothdmand is yon who stares? Gu­gurtha! Gugurtha! He has becco of wild hindigan. Ho, he hath hornhide! And hvis now is for you. Pensée! The most beautiful of woman of the veilch veilchen veilde. She would kidds to my voult of my palace, with obscidian luppas, her aal in her dhove’s suckling. Apagemonite! Come not nere! Black! Switch out!

Simon Loekle – taking twice as much time as Healy did to recite the passage on p. 369:

     With however what sublation of compensation in the radifi­ca­tion of interp­retation by the bye­boys? Being they. Mr G. B. W. Ash­burner, S. Bruno’s Toboggan Drive, Mr Faixgood, Bell­chimbers, Carolan Crescent, Mr I. I. Chattaway, Hilly Gape, Poplar Park, Mr Q. P. Dieudonney, The View, Gazey Peer, Mr T. T. Erchdeakin, Multiple Lodge, Jiff Exby Rode, Mr W. K. Ferris-Fender, Fert Fort, Woovil Doon Botham ontowhom adding the tout that pumped the stout that linked the lank that cold the sandy that nextdoored the rotter that rooked the rhymer that lapped at the hoose that Joax pilled.
     They had heard or had heard said or had heard said written.
     That there first a rudrik kingcomed to an inn court; and the seight of that yard was a perch­y­pole with a loovah­gloovah on it; last mannarks maketh man when wandshift winneth womans: so how would it hum, whoson of a which, if someof aswas to start to stunt the story on?

Patrick Horgan – executing the paragraph given at the top of this post with real Annie Oakley deadliness:

And finally:

You at Home can recite the fifth thunderword yourself – it’s easy. If you really think you need help with it, you can always take a tutorial.

Actually, you’re free to work on reciting any passage you like, but there’s no point in trying to do the whole book; Patrick Horgan’s unabridged recording for the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped has already done that (more about this extraordinary recording in a future post). And for God’s sake, take your time with it.

It’s not like anyone’s holding a gun to your head.Annie Oakley

Addendum: 3/15/2015

This blogpost has something of a surprise sequel.