Robert Sherard, in his biography of Oscar Wilde, remarks that the great cosmopolitan aesthete resembled the actor Henry Irving. When Irving arrived in the United States, he found to his irritation that Americans made much of the resemblance (it was "the only unkind thing" said of him, Irving's biographer stated). At this period, Sherard writes, "Wilde...was still masquerading and mumming; and if there is one person in the world for whom the hardworking and conscientious actor, the sincere artist, has a dislike, it is the man who acts, as an amateur, by grimace and posture on the stage of life." The resemblance became less marked as the years went by, yet the faces merged once again in Sherard's mind when he watched a performance of the Victorian play The Lyons Mail, telling of a real-life Frenchman named Joseph Lesurques who in 1796 was mistaken for a highway robber and beheaded on flimsy evidence. Here Sherard describes Irving's performance of the lead role:
In the scene where Lesurques, having been denounced by the witnesses from the inn, makes his pathetic appeal to one of the women to speak the word which admitting her mistake shall absolve him from the horrible charge which has been brought against him, and the witness turns mournfully but resolutely away, Lesurques' face assumed a look of agony and horror, as the vista of what lay before him opened out—a look in which the blood rushed to the face and made it turgid and vultuous, there was at the same time a distending of the eyeballs, which seemed about to leap from their sockets, a twisting and contortion of the mouth roughly kneaded into a mass of agony by torturing hands, while the face lengthened as though by two crushing and simultaneous blows on each cheek it had been flattened downwards .... At that moment Irving presented the exact facial picture of Oscar Wilde, as looking sideways at the foreman of the jury from his place in the dock in the Old Bailey he listened to the verdict that meant to him ruin, shame, and death.
At the center of the inebriated, phantasmagoric "Circe" chapter of Ulysses is the Trial of Leopold Bloom, in which literature's average man par excellence is accused of all manner of bizarre crimes — of being nothing less than the "archconspirator of the age." This spectacle was probably meant to reflect in part the persecution of the European Jews, a subject that Joyce had pondered as early as 1906, when he was reading tracts on anti-Semitism in Rome. But it also echoes the persecution of Oscar Wilde, at his sodomy trail of 1895. You can find many signs that Joyce was thinking of Wilde when he wrote this scene — for example, the rather campy line "I have moved in the charmed circle of the highest ... Queens of Dublin society" (ellipses are Bloom's own). Then there's a brief reference to The Lyons Mail, and the accusation scene in Sherard's biography (which Joyce owned) provides an interesting subtext for it:
(scared, hats himself, steps back, them, plucking at his heart and lifting his right forearm on the square, he gives the sign and dueguard of fellowcraft) No. no, worshipful master, light of love. Mistaken identity. The Lyons mail. Lesurques and Dubosc. You remember the Childs fratricide case. We medical men. By striking him dead with a hatchet. I am wrongfully accused. Better one guilty escape than ninetynine wrongfully condemned.
The shade of Henry Irving shows up later in "Circe," behind another hallucinatory figure, that of Bloom's sex-obsessed grandfather Lipoti Virag. This apparition enters with Henry Irving's characteristic gait — a sideways movement, often likened to the crawling of a crab. He possesses Irving's spider-like legs and high, nasal voice. He is outfitted in multiple overcoats, which a reminder of Irving's most famous entrance — as the burgomaster Matthias, bundled in fur coat, cap, and muffler, in The Bells. This play, based on a French melodrama The Polish Jew, was Irving's principal vehicle, even more than Hamlet; it first made his reputation in 1871. Matthias is a man haunted by a murder he committed fifteen years before; one Christmas Eve, he hears sleighbells, which remind him of the sound that accompanied his original crime. Like Bloom, he is tormented by hallucinations; they eventually drive him to his death. In the play's extensive dream sequences, an imaginary court summons a mesmerist to draw out Matthias' confession. Matthias conducts his own defense — "is it a crime to dream?" — and, like the character in The Lyons Mail, protests gross injustices and false accusations; but he yields to the prosecution's questions under hypnosis. Here again a man is on trial, except that this time he has actually committed the crime in question. The man he murdered was the Polish Jew of the title. What all this has to do with the cryptic figure of Lipoti Virag is anyone's guess, but it's telling that Joyce should have filigreed his chapter with these stories of grueling trials and unspeakable acts; they seem an essential part of Bloom's frame of reference, his way of living in a politely hostile world.