review by Rosalie Gancie

John Macandrew, Mary Ellen Bute & William Tindall

Mary Ellen Bute
Camera Three Interview
concerning the film Passages from Finnegans Wake
with host James Macandrew & William Tindall, Joycean scholar

Creative Arts Television 1965
VHS tape 27 minutes

"One great part of every human existence is passed
in a state which cannot be rendered sensible by the
use of wide-awake language, cut-and-dry grammar,
and go-ahead plot."
                                                            --James Joyce

"he dug in and dug out by the skill of his tilth
   -- for himself and all belonging to him"
                                   --from Finnegans Wake

The television program Camera Three started in the early 1950's as a collaboration between WCBS and the University of the State of New York's Education Department.[1]   The host, James Macandrew, believed strongly in using television as a means of cultural education.

"If the airwaves can tempt us to laugh and to dance," Mr. Macandrew once
 said, "they can also tempt us to think."[2]  

Over the years the program came to include such topics as discussions of Robinson Jeffers' poetry and interviews with John Cage.  By the time of the Mary Ellen Bute interview in 1965 the show was well entrenched nationally as a Sunday morning cultural affairs program on CBS.  Professor William York Tindall, the noted Joyce scholar and author of A Reader's Guide to Finnegans Wake, was invited to participate in the discussion.

The Camera Three interview provides a rare opportunity to hear Mary Ellen Bute discuss her film, so in that alone it's a welcome piece of film history.   According to film historian Cecile Starr (who was also the Finnegans Wake film's distributor), Mary Ellen Bute was a "friendly, energetic & enthusiatic" person.  Those qualities come through clearly in her appearance on this tape. Though Passages from Finnegans Wake was in preparation for seven years  (though with only 32 days of actual filming), she maintains her delight in the project and in the Joycean language that inspired her.

Bute was an abstract film pioneer, putting abstract shapes & music together on film starting in the 1930's.    She admired the modernist aesthetic & was a fervent fan of James Joyce & of Finnegans Wake in particular.  She was a long-standing member of the James Joyce Society and did much of her research for the film from the Society's archives.  Founded in 1947,  the Society met regularly at the celebrated Gotham Book Mart in New York City.

Mary Ellen Bute Gotham Book Mart


©Southern Illinois
University Carbondale

Frances Steloff,
Padraic Colum, and
Mary Ellen Bute

Production still from a sequence filmed in the Gotham Book Mart[3]

Frances Steloff of Gotham Book Mart had been an early & ardent promoter of Joyce's work, selling serializations of "Work in Progress" and later hosting a Wake  publication party with Viking in 1939 (The Dead Come to Life at Finnegans Wake) in which "scores of literary celebrities participated as mourners and Frances herself as the bereaved widow."[4]  Word from Eugene Jolas was that Joyce was "amused at the unique wake and pleased with the photographs."   Gotham Book Mart became a central clearinghouse for writings by and about Joyce, with the Society forming in 1947 as a method of bringing together anyone with a passionate interest in Joyce, from the neophyte to the experts.[5]  

In his Joyce Society memoir, Zack Bowen recalls that:

  "For ten years or more, avant garde film maker Mary Ellen Bute sat on the front row of Society meetings. Her full-length film, Passages from 'Finnegans Wake,' was adapted from the Barnard College production of Mary Manning's work by the same name. Conceived and carried on in concert with Frances Steloff, Padraic Colum, and other Joyce Society members, it remains the most innovative cinematic interpretation of the spirit of Joyce 's last work ever attempted. "[6]  

Bute addressed her response to those who questioned her apparent shift from abstract film to Joyce in the biographical note for the New York Film Association:

  "I am often asked how I moved from abstract films to Finnegan's Wake? It's plausible...Joyce's premise: 'One great part of every human existence is passed in a state which cannot be rendered sensible by the use of wide-awake language, cut-and-dry grammar and go-ahead plot' is, like abstract films, about our 'inner' landscape. Joyce, like Whitman, and much Art, is about the essence of our Being; so, we're traveling on the same terrain."
                                                                                      -- ( notes written by Bute), n.d.

And in an interview about the film with Gretchen Weinberg for Film Culture in 1964 she described herself as:

"a Finnegans Wake girl . . . I may never do another Joyce work but I would like
to make several films on different aspects of Finnegans Wake, . . Several people
have already prepared treatments which could easily be adapted for this , . . Joyce
loved the movies and hoped his works would be filmed." (Weinberg 1964, 26-9)[7]

In the Camera Three interview we have the opportunity to hear Bute recount her interest in the Wake directly.   She explains that she was "first exposed" to the Wake at a friend's ranch in Texas and was immediately drawn to the singular response each reader could bring to the  work, and that she was immediately struck by its visual potential.  

"The whole feeling that you were on your own in Finnegans Wake was very encouraging," she says.

She took Professor Tindall's course and eventually saw the Barnard production of Mary Manning's play "Passages from Finnegans Wake".   Manning, a childhood friend of Samuel Beckett's, was a founder of The Poets' Theatre in Cambridge.  Bute was attracted to the humor of the play & realized that, for copyright reasons, it would be easier to produce her film from the play than from the original Wake.  Eventually Manning helped co-write the film treatment and the script.

The interview also affords a chance to see the noted scholar Tindall discuss Finnegans Wake as well as his reactions to Bute's film.   Before the start of the Joyce Society, Frances Steloff had arranged for Tindall and noted book collector James Gilvarry to offer unofficial instruction to those who were new to Joyce's work.

When host Macandrew asks him to describe Joyce's Finnegans Wake to the t.v. audience, Tindall replies that:

"Nothing could be easier to describe. It's about everything and everybody at all times...
Read it closely, scratch your head, and there it is."

Bute the Joyce aficianado comes through clearly as she discusses not only the time commitment to completing the film but the nuances of Joyce's text.  When Tindall discusses Finnegans Wake as being a story about a family she explains that:

 "We did take this family story that Mr. Tindall spoke of just now. . .You see, Shem and Shaun, as well as being Finnegans sons, are also conflicting parts of himself. He has to come to terms with these parts--realize the excesses--in order to wake up. I was very eager to do the waking up part of Finnegans Wake--you know, the part where Joyce says 'it's the problem passion play of the millentary going strong since creation.'"

Tindall is complimentary about Bute's film and explains that even though Finnegans Wake "appeals to the ear,"  Bute has "translated, transformed and transfigured it into visual form."   And that the problem of "selection and condensing the material took fortitude."

But in spite of this "fortitude," one later senses that Tindall can't dismiss his respect for the written text so easily.   In a particularly compelling part of the interview, Macandrew asks Bute if the language used in the film was a problem, because the actors were essentially 'speaking words that had never existed before.'

Bute replies that she was delighted with the cast:

"You see it's an Irish cast. Most had had great experience. And you know how Joyce, among other things, wrote the Irish dialect into many of the words. If they're pronounced the way they're spelt they come out with a bit of an Irish brogue with a Dublin lilt.

And this cast was theater trained--none of them had been under the camera before and that was very nice. We took the shooting script and rehearsed it like a play from start to finish and for quite a while til they got the rhythm and the whole thing going. Then I broke it down into sequences and shots and put it under the camera.

By that time they were ordering coffee and discussing groceries in Joycean."

When John Macandrew comments that he feels that the use of subtitles is a "tremendous bridge" for the audience, Bute pleasantly responds with:

"It makes it so much more entertaining when you see..if one of the celebrants says 'tis really the truth' and you see 'Tis (she spells out) 'R,' 'A,' 'R,' 'E,' 'L,' 'Y' the truth.' It's much funnier than if you just think it's a British pronunciation of 'really.' You see?

And throughout if it's a 'wallstrait oldparr'[8] then you know that the actors are saying what you think they're saying."

Bute laughs delightfully, but at this point the discussion becomes a bit energized as Tindall the literary scholar objects and we perhaps get a sense of the mentor the Joyce initiates experienced at the Gotham Book Mart: "But how are you going to understand what 'oldparr' means? That takes 15 minutes of contemplation and this goes right by...."

Bute interrupts: "But now you know how we do that--we have him falling out of bed so it's visual, it's being said...."

Tindall interrupts: "Wall Street.....falling off a wall.....wall street crash....par value stocks....'oldparr?'"

Bute shakes her head: "Oh now please, we had to simplify it a little. But we did have a montage of all that."

Tindall still objects that the viewer "cannot get more than a little fleeting part of this tremendous whole and that's the problem."  

At this point Mary Ellen Bute concurs, but we know from watching the film with its energized editing techniques & inclusions of such modern day images as television screens & rockets that she took seriously her belief that one could come to Finnegans Wake on their own terms.   In her 1964 Film Culture interview with Gretchen Weinberg she pointed out that "the film is not a translation of the book but a reaction to it."

The interview contains other tales of her experiences with the film. She says she had one typical "Joycean" calamity after another, and describes calling Erik Barnouw of Columbia University to come down for a screening.  She apologized that the film took so long to make--after all it was in preparation for 7 years.   But she is obviously delighted in relating Barnouw's response that "it would be presumptious to do Joyce too fast!".

The interview concludes with a few segments from the film.  Mary Ellen Bute must have been satisfied with the outcome of the film, because in that same year it won a prize at Cannes for best feature film debut.


1. from TV Obscurities:

Initially a local New York City program, Camera Three premiered on Saturday, May 16th, 1953 as a co-production between WCBS-TV and the State Education Department of the University of the State of New York, with James Macandrew as moderator/host[4]. At first, the series ran from 2-2:45PM. Its panel of experts covered all manner of topics, from Shakespeare to economics and everything in between. In April of 1954 it won a Peabody Award in the Television Education category, shared with with station KNXT in Los Angeles for its Cavalcade of Books series [5].

The series also dramatized classic works of literature, including Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and over the course of eight weeks in November and December of 1955, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. On December 18th, 1955, The New York Times reported that CBS had decided to broadcast Camera Three nationally beginning Sunday, January 22nd, 1956 at 11AM

2.  James Macandrew Leader in New York In Educational TV
By WOLFGANG SAXON, Published: Monday, January 18, 1988, The New York Times.

3.  Southern Illinois University Carbondale has 17 production still images in their Morris Library online digital collection.  Search String "finnegans wake".

4.  Wise Men Fish Here, The Story of Frances Steloff and the Gotham Book Mart
W.G. Rogers, Harcourt Brace, NY 1965 as quoted online in Zack Bowen's memoirs, The New York James Joyce Society by Zack Bowen. Frances Steloff compiled a scrapbook of the Wake event, The Dead Come to Life at Finnegans Wake, which is now archived as part of the Gotham Book Mart papers at the New York Public Library.

from "I never said no to anything"

One day, one of my nice customers who was a lawyer, a very fatherly sort of person, said, 'How are things and what are your problems?'

'I've always had problems', I said chuckling, 'Well you know, there ought to be a study group for Joyce because all these young ones come in and ask questions and we ought to find answers for them.'

He said, 'Well do you know anybody?'

'Yes, I've asked them but they're not willing to take it on.'

He said, 'Give me their names and telephone numbers.' And I did. In a week he called up and asked, 'Would it be all right to come over this evening?' 'Why yes of course.'

After conferring with Steloff they asked if they could return on February 3rd, 1947, which was the day after Joyce's birthday. She concurred and the James Joyce Society had officially begun.

6.  The New York James Joyce Society
by Zack Bowen Joyce Studies Annual, Volume 12, Summer 2001
© 2001 the University of Texas Press, P. O. Box 7819, Austin, Texas 78713-7819
Posted to The James Joyce Society webpage ( by permission of the author.

7.  Weinberg, Gretchen. "An Interview with Mary Ellen Bute on the Filming of
 Finnegans Wake."  Film Culture 35 (1964-1965).

8.  Finnegans Wake, by James Joyce Page 1, lines 15 through 24, from Finnegans Web:

The fall (bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonner-
nuk!) 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 dev-
linsfirst loved livvy.

Videotape Information:  Creative Arts Television
Title: Mary Ellen Bute films “Finnegans Wake”, Reference: 651128
"A portion of the feature film "Passages from James Joyce's Finnegans Wake" is shown, with discussion by its producer-director Mary Ellen Bute and William Tindall, Professor of English at Columbia University, New York City, author of "The Reader's Guide to James Joyce." 1965." As a side note, Creative Arts also offers Anthony Burgess explains Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake”.

For further information on
 "Passages From Finnegans Wake"
Kit Basquin
Introductory Notes on the Screening
& our
Special Mary Ellen Bute feature in FlashPoint12