Exiles James Joyce
The following entry presents criticism on Joyce's play Exiles (1918). See also Araby Criticism, The Dead Criticism, James Joyce Literary Criticism, James Joyce Short Story Criticism, and James Joyce Poetry Criticism.
Joyce wrote Exiles (1918), his only existing play, while finishing his first novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), and beginning work on Ulysses (1922). He was influenced by the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, and Exiles, in many respects, echoes the themes and characters of Ibsen's last play, When We Dead Awaken. Described by Joyce as “three cat and mouse acts,” Exiles follows a group of individuals who are struggling with idealistic principles that are in conflict with their own passions.
Plot and Major Characters
The major characters in Exiles are Richard Rowan, a writer; Bertha, his common-law wife; Robert Hand, an old friend of the couple; and Beatrice Justice, another old friend who is more intellectually equal to Richard than is Bertha. Richard is an artist who rebels against convention. When he refuses to either pursue or marry Bertha, she decides to accompany him to Rome, become his common-law wife, and bear him a son. Richard is unfaithful to Bertha, and after confessing his infidelity, he encourages her to follow her own desires.
When the play opens, the couple has returned to Dublin after a nine year absence because Richard has been offered a teaching position at the university. Their old friend Robert admires Richard, but secretly attempts to seduce Bertha. Beatrice, who also thinks highly of Richard, has come to give piano lessons to Archie, Richard and Bertha's son. When Richard openly enjoys Beatice's company as an intellectual equal, Bertha becomes jealous and tells him of Robert's advances. Richard responds by telling Bertha that she must feel free to follow her own desires. Bertha becomes upset by his answer, wanting Richard to become faithful and express his need for her. Instead, Richard—who is torn by the thought that he may be holding Bertha back from her own fulfillment—gives Robert complete freedom to try to take Bertha from him. Robert and Bertha have a tryst, but the exact details of what happened between them is never made clear. The conflicts that surround each character's view of freedom, how each chooses to exert their free will, and the expectations that the characters have of each other creates confusion for all of them about their principles, passions, and intellect.
Because of the complexity of Exiles, there has been disagreement about the primary themes of the play. One theme is that of exile—man exiled from man, man exiled from woman, man exiled from society, and man exiled from internal peace. Another primary theme is that of personal freedom. Richard's ideal of complete freedom within personal relationships is challenged by his own passions and desires. As he tries to force Bertha into the freedom he envisions, he finds himself betrayed by his own need for love and friendship.
Critical reaction to Exiles has been decidely mixed. Ezra Pound, one of Joyce's most ardent supporters, wrote “Mr. Joyce's play is dangerous and unstageable because he is not playing with the subject of adultery, but because he is actually driving in the mind upon the age-long problem of the rights of personality and of the responsibility of the intelligent individual for the conduct of those about him, upon the age-long question of the relative rights of intellect, and emotion, and sensation, and sentiments.” Pound was not alone in his belief that the play was unproducible, and it was extremely difficult for Joyce to get it staged. In fact, the first production, in 1919, was in Munich in a German translation, and the public was warned that the play was not appropriate for a general audience. Following the example of Ibsen, Joyce had written a play that was so outside the conventions of the theater of the day that audiences found it incomprehensible.
The first English language production of Exiles was at New York's Neighborhood Playhouse in 1925, and the show received mixed reviews. The next year, it was produced in London. Reviews were unfavorable, but George Bernard Shaw admired the play and defended it in a public debate. It was not staged again until 1950, when Esmé Percy produced it in London at the Q Theatre. This time the reviews were kind, but not enthusiastic. T. C. Worsley was the first reviewer to criticize Exiles on its merits as a play, saying that he liked the dialogue and action. The most successful production was staged by Harold Pinter in 1970 at the Mermaid Theatre, and it was almost universally praised. This production was partially re-cast and moved to the Aldwych under the auspices of the Royal Shakespeare Company in October of 1971, but it was considered inferior to the previous production. Exiles was finally produced in Dublin in 1973 to favorable reviews. However, the play received a mixed reception for a 1977 production in Dublin and a similar reaction for a 1977 production at New York's Circle in the Square.
Over time, as conventions both in and out of the theater have changed, Exiles has come to be considered a less radical drama than it was when it was originally written, although its message is still complex. Theo Q. Dombrowski commented: “Long considered an inferior work of largely curiosity value, Exiles has increasingly been recognized as a significant, if problematic, part of Joyce's works … part of the play's very significance depends upon the problems it raises and fails to solve.”