Hearing and Seeing (Beyond) Finnegans Wake

Roaratorio and the Revitalization of Cage’s and Cunningham’s Experiential Aesthetic

  • Rena Roussin


A diversity of meaning that includes the option that there be no meaning at all, an ongoing invitation to the audience to participate in the creation of art by choosing where to focus their attention, and the experience of multiple ways of experiencing are all aspects that have come to define the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s aesthetic inspiration and vision. Yet in Cunningham’s 1983 choreography Roaratorio, performed alongside John Cage’s 1979 musical composition Roaratorio: An Irish Circus on Finnegans Wake, several other aspects and influences become apparent, namely: James Joyce, his 1939 novel Finnegans Wake, connection to a central (if multivalent) textual narrative, and a loose sense of place joined to placelessness. These narrative and thematic elements make Roaratorio an anomaly within the Company’s output. Yet Roaratorio’s differences and incorporation of Joycean elements expand and revitalize, rather than depart from, Cage’s and Cunningham’s experiential aesthetic. By outlining the features of Finnegans Wake and tracing its fingerprints across Cage’s writings on it, Irish Circus’s sound world, and Roaratorio’s choreography, this paper demonstrates how Cage and Cunningham allowed their audience to see and hear Finnegans Wake through the artistic languages of multivalent music and movement. Yet by interpreting the many meanings and possibilities of the novel through multiple artistic genres, Cage and Cunningham also hear and see beyond it—and widen their own experiential aesthetic in the process.