James Joyce’s themes include Irish mores, art, sexuality, and aesthetic integrity. Within this pattern Exiles can be considered a part of the continuing development of his genius. The play’s importance lies in the fact that it is Joyce’s last portrait of the artist. Exiles marks a turning point in Joyce’s career.
Exiles is also generally regarded as Joyce’s least successful work. It never managed to succeed on the stage, and it attracted little critical or popular support. Critics found the play to be inert and dramatically static. One of the problems is the overly diagrammatic portrayal of the characters. Each of them clearly represents an intellectual position, and they are pitted against each other until they come to dramatically unsatisfying resolution.
Joyce described the dramatic form to be the highest to which the artist can aspire. It is to be achieved after passing through the lesser stages of lyric and epic. Joyce, however, does not seem at home in this form; it lacks the narrative voice that he uses with such effect in his fictional works. Without that voice, readers are left with the dogmatic and undramatic dialogue of Richard Rowan and other characters.
The play does have a model, however; it is a version of a problem play by Henrik Ibsen, who was Joyce’s earliest master. The play investigates the difficulty of having a relationship between man and woman while preserving the freedom of each. The protagonist, Richard, does not wish to abrogate the freedom of his wife, Bertha. He insists that she be free to accept an invitation to an assignation, even free to have an affair with one of his former friends. Indeed, Richard seems to feel that this betrayal is desirable. As Stephen Dedalus claims in Ulysses (1922): “There can be no reconciliation without a sundering.” Thus betrayal is a prelude to a reconciliation and a deeper and closer relationship.
The characters are clearly symbolic; Richard and Beatrice represent the spiritual, and Robert and Bertha represent the physical or material. Richard was close to Beatrice for years, and their union becomes closer; she will become the inspiration for his art as Beatrice was for Dante Alighieri. Robert tries to instigate a love affair with Bertha. Joyce sees the necessity of contraries coming together for a true relationship. The union of Richard and Beatrice would be sterile and that of Robert and Bertha debased. The play ends with Richard’s victory in Bertha’s affirmation of her love for him; however, he has...
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