(Drama Criticism)

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.

Major Themes

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 Reception

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.”

Principal Works

(Drama Criticism)

*Exiles 1918

Chamber Music (poetry) 1907

Dubliners (short stories) 1914

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (novel) 1916

Ulysses (novel) 1922

Pomes Penyeach (poetry) 1927

Finnegans Wake (novel) 1939

Stephen Hero: A Part of the First Draft of “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” (novel) 1944

*Exiles was published in 1918.

†First published serially in Egoist, February 2, 1914–September 1, 1915.

Benedict Nightingale (review date 1971)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Nightingale, Benedict. “Frontiers.” New Statesman 82 (October 15, 1971): 518.

[In the following review, Nightingale responds unfavorably to Harold Pinter's production of Exiles at the Mermaid Theater.]

Last autumn, I was part of the critical consensus that almost unreservedly applauded the revival of James Joyce's Exiles at the Mermaid; this, I'm not so sure. Harold Pinter's production hasn't been improved by partial recasting and removal to the Aldwych. The introspective tone has become somewhat mechanical; the silences, too studied and self-conscious. Where it was meditative and even profound, it now often seems merely downbeat. On the...

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Harold Clurman (review date 1977)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Clurman, Harold. A Review of Exiles. The Nation (11 June 1977): 732–33.

[In the following review, Clurman asserts that the lack of believability of Exiles supports the notion that Joyce was “no playwright.”]

Extraordinarily intelligent, supremely self-conscious, James Joyce did not wholly understand himself. What eluded him was the fact that he was seeking within himself the essence of godhood that could not be found there. A lapsed Catholic, he believed himself an enemy of the Church, when in truth he never ceased being deeply, ineradicably Irish Catholic. His formidable intellectual equipment served on the personal level to addle...

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Ezra Pound (review date 1916)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Pound, Ezra. “Mr. James Joyce and the Modern Stage.” Drama 6, no. 2 (February 1916): 122–32.

[In following review, Pound declares Exiles to be unstageable in the atmosphere of the contemporary theater.]

Two months ago I set out to write an essay about a seventeenth century dramatist. As I had nearly finished translating one of his plays into English, my interest in him must have been more than that of a transient moment. His own life was full of adventure. The play had a number of virtues that one could quite nicely mark out on a diagram. It was altogether a most estimable “subject”; yet, when I began to ask myself whether my phrases really...

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Times Literary Supplement (review date 1918)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Mind to Suffer.” Times Literary Supplement (25 July 1918): 346.

[In the following review, the critic makes a plea for the production of Exiles.]

Many men have written interesting books about their childhood and youth, and never succeeded again in the same degree. Not only was esteem for Mr. James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man subject to this discount, but it unfortunately raised both friends and enemies whose excitement about it was unconnected with its merits: here brilliant, there tedious, the book itself rendered the stream of opinion yet more turbid. An unacted problem play is not the book to clear the public mind. Yet this...

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Desmond MacCarthy (review date 1918)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: MacCarthy, Desmond. “James Joyce's Exiles.” In Humanities, pp. 88–93. New York: Oxford, 1954.

[In the following review, originally published in 1918, MacCarthy enthusiastically discusses the published version of Exiles.]

Exiles is a remarkable play. I am more sure of this than of having understood it. I could never undertake to produce it unless the author were at my elbow; and when a critic feels like that about a play which has excited him it means he has not quite understood it. What I can do is to give an account of the play and show where I was puzzled. But first I must come to terms with a misgiving. It is a treat to be puzzled by a...

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John Rodker, Israel Solon, Samuel A. Tannenbaum, and jh (essay date 1919)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Rodker, John, Israel Solon, Samuel A. Tannenbaum, and jh. “Exiles, A Discussion of James Joyce's Play.” Little Review 5, no. 9 (January 1919): 20–27.

[In the following essay, four authors discuss their own opinions about Exiles.]


Again in this play Mr. Joyce exploits that part of mind merging on the subconscious. The drama is one of will versus instinct, the protagonist Richard Rowan, a writer. This particular psychological triangle is one of barely comprehended instincts, desires for freedom (equally undefined), emotions that hardly crystallise before fading out. Inter-action of thought and will is carried...

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Francis Fergusson (essay date 1932)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Fergusson, Francis. “Exiles and Ibsen's Work.” Hound and Horn 5, no. 3 (April–June 1932): 345–53.

[In the following essay, Fergusson discusses Ibsen's influence on Joyce.]

In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man we read of Stephen that “as he went by Baird's stonecutting works in Talbot Place the spirit of Ibsen would blow through him like a keen wind, a spirit of wayward boyish beauty.” This spirit blows through Exiles with a super-Ibsen keenness over a colder-than-Ibsen structure of cut stone. Professor Rubek, in When We Dead Awaken, asks Irene with weariness and bewilderment, “Do you remember what you answered when I...

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Bernard Bandler (essay date 1933)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Bandler, Bernard. “Joyce's Exiles.Hound and Horn 6, no. 2 (January–March 1933): 266–85.

[In the following essay, Bandler discusses the conflict between artistic ideals and man's human nature in Exiles.]

The note of exile recurs frequently in our age. It is the one constant among the voices which have most engaged contemporary attention in literature, dissimilar as those voices otherwise are as in Proust, Eliot, and Joyce. Yet the note is not new: it has been sounded in the occident from the time of the Orphic mysteries and the Pythagorean order and magnificently by the youthful Plato. Similar circumstances everywhere prompt it. When the...

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James Farrell (essay date 1948)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Farrell, James. “Exiles and Ibsen.” In James Joyce: Two Decades of Criticism, edited by Seon Givens, pp. 95–131. New York: The Vanguard Press, Inc., 1948.

[In the following excerpt, Farrell discusses how Joyce was influenced by Ibsen in writing Exiles.]

It is commonly known that James Joyce, in his youth, was influenced by Ibsen's plays. Formally, this influence is most clearly revealed in Joyce's play Exiles; in fact, Exiles has often been criticized as being too imitative of Ibsen. However, the influence Ibsen exerted on Joyce was more than merely formal or technical, for Joyce's attitude toward Ibsen was very complex: it was profound, and...

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Hugh Kenner (essay date 1956)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Kenner, Hugh. “Exiles.” In Dublin's Joyce, pp. 69–94. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1956.

[In the following essay, Kenner discusses the pseudo-liberation of Exiles.]

Gabriel Conroy yearned for the snows. Exiles—an austere ungarnished play—inspects that pseudo-liberation; its Richard Rowan is a Gabriel Conroy liberated by Ibsen, the Ibsen with whom Joyce had been flirting for a dozen years. Having abolished Dedalus—rebellious superbia—as a point d'appui for art, Joyce now abolished him as an ethical theory.

Exiles is not an apologia for Richard Rowan; we should be prepared to find him suspended...

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Marvin Magalaner and Richard M. Kain (essay date 1956)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Magalaner, Marvin and Richard M. Kain. “Exiles.” In Joyce: The Man, the Work, the Reputation, pp. 130–145. New York: New York University Press, 1956.

[In the following essay, Magalaner and Kain discuss reviews and varying opinions about Exiles.]

Joyce's sole surviving drama, Exiles, was composed during the spring of 1914. Gorman considered it the author's “farewell to the past” in that it represents his final allegiance to traditional literary form.1 As a young man in Dublin at the turn of the century, Joyce naturally evinced great interest in the drama. His “Day of the Rabblement” essay protested the parochial tendencies...

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Francis Fergusson (essay date 1957)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Fergusson, Francis. “Joyce's Exiles.” In The Human Image in Dramatic Literature, pp. 72–84. New York: Doubleday, 1957.

[In the following essay, Fergusson examines the place of Exiles in Joyce's oeuvre and from an historical perspective.]

Exiles was written during the spring of 1914, the year in which Dubliners was published, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man completed, and Ulysses begun. It is a play of the end of youth, or the knowing threshold of maturity,

En l'an trentiesme de mon aage
Que toutes mes hontes j'ay beues.

Joyce was in complete possession of himself and...

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D. J. F. Aitken (essay date 1958)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Aitken, D. J. F. “Dramatic Archetypes in Joyce's ‘Exiles.’” Modern Fiction Studies 4, no. 1 (spring 1958): 42-52.

[In the following essay, Aitken discusses the relationship between Exiles and Joyce's Ulysses.]

James Joyce's play, Exiles, is clearly an additional exploration of the situation which confronts Stephen Dedalus at the beginning of Ulysses. Its hero, like Stephen, has just returned from his self-imposed exile, presumably prepared to forge the uncreated conscience of his race. He is now faced with the problem of reconciling his hard-won freedom and the conflicting necessity that he continue to live among men, to communicate...

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William York Tindall (essay date 1959)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Tindall, William York. “Exiles.” In A Readers Guide to James Joyce, pp. 104–22. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1959.

[In the following essay, Tindall discusses the autobiographical nature of Joyce's works, with a focus on Exiles.]

However simple its surface, Exiles is one of the more difficult of Joyce's works. Questions of theme, motive, and general meaning plague audience or readers, whatever their chairs, in pit or closet. As Stephen Hero is the poorest, so Exiles is the most painful, of Joyce's works. Critics have found it of little or no value and so have most producers. But Joyce, lost in admiration of his...

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Maurice Harmon (essay date 1965)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Harmon, Maurice. “Richard Rowan, His Own Scapegoat.” James Joyce Quarterly 3, no. 1 (fall 1965): 34-40.

[In the following essay, Harmon examines the main character in Exiles.]

In James Joyce's Exiles it is easy to see Richard Rowan as a dominating figure. In scene after scene his probing, inquisatorial mind exposes the other characters in a merciless manner. And it is true that in the process he shows superior courage and integrity. But a highminded, dominating Richard, similar to the Stephen Dedalus of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, is only part of the full characterization. Exiles does more than unmask Richard's associates...

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Earl John Clark (essay date 1968)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Clark, Earl John. “James Joyce's Exiles.James Joyce Quarterly 6, no. 1 (fall 1968): 69–78.

[In the following essay, Clark outlines the critical reception of Exiles.]

The golden anniversary of the appearance of James Joyce's only surviving play,1Exiles, is an occasion to note the relative and odd neglect accorded to this play in its first half century. An examination of the best Joyce bibliography2 shows that only twenty-three of nearly 1500 entries are concerned with the work. Of these nearly half are limited to fewer than three pages of review of performances and the most elementary analysis of theme and character....

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B. J. Tysdahl (essay date 1968)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Tysdahl, B. J. “Exiles.” In Joyce and Ibsen, pp. 87–101. New York: Humanities Press, 1968.

[In the following essay, Tysdahl discusses the influence of Ibsen on Exiles.]

In appearance Exiles is like one of Ibsen's realistic dramas from beginning to end. Joyce's stage-directions begin, as if copied from A Doll's House or An Enemy of the People, with a minute description of the drawing-room; then follows, in a new paragraph, a sketch of the persons we see on the stage. Throughout the play stage-directions are frequent, often in the form of an adverb to indicate the tone of a speech. Words like ‘heartily’ or ‘shyly’ are...

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Bernard Benstock (essay date 1969)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Benstock, Bernard. “Exiles: ‘Paradox Lust’ and ‘Lost Paladays.’” ELH 36, no. 4 (December 1969): 739–56.

[In the following essay, Benstock analyzes the structure of Exiles.]

Between the completion of his Portrait and the inception of Ulysses James Joyce undertook to create the only extant drama of his literary career, the enigmatic play entitled Exiles. No Greek maiden between two Norse gods, Exiles is more often thought to be a strange Norse maiden between Grecian gods, an Ibsenesque interlude between Joyce's Icarian-Dædalian and Odyssean transplantations; yet in innumerable ways it bears the indelible imprint...

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Edward Brandabur (essay date 1971)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Brandabur, Edward. “Exiles: A Rough and Tumble Between de Sade and Sacher-Masoch.” In A Scrupulous Meanness: A Study of Joyce's Early Work, pp. 127–59. Urbana, Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1971.

[In the following essay, Brandabur discusses the themes of Exiles.]

“When you are a recognized classic people will read it because you wrote it and be duly interested and duly instructed, … but until then I'm hang'd if I see what's to be done with it.”

Ezra Pound to James Joyce, 6-12 September 1915, Pound/Joyce.

Exiles is the final...

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R. A. Maher (essay date 1972)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Maher, R.A. “James Joyce's Exiles: The Comedy of Discontinuity.” James Joyce Quarterly 9, no. 4 (summer 1972): 461–74.

[In the following essay, Maher compares Exiles to Hamlet and examines the relationships of the characters in Exiles.]

Joyce described Exiles as “three cat and mouse acts” (Exiles 123); he also called it “a comedy in three acts” (Letters I, 78). The comedy of Exiles will not be felt, however, if we mistake the play for a drama of ideas. If we do, we are the mouse being teased by Joyce. The play is an extraordinarily tactile and auditory play: it shows everything and states nothing....

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John MacNicholas (essay date 1973)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: MacNicholas, John. “Joyce's Exiles: The Argument for Doubt.” James Joyce Quarterly 11, no. 1 (fall 1973): 33–40.

[In the following essay, MacNicholas examines Exiles on its merits as a play, rather than in relation to Joyce's other works.]

James Joyce wrote two prose plays: the first he dedicated to his own soul and then destroyed; the second receives attention perhaps only because of its association with its more magnificent siblings. Even though many people have recognized its brilliance, few have conceded that Exiles is a good play.1 Much of the criticism betrays the fact that it has been read primarily as a commentary...

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Theo Q. Dombrowski and Lester B. Pearson (essay date 1978)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Dombrowski, Theo Q., and Lester B. Pearson “Joyce's Exiles: The Problem of Love.” James Joyce Quarterly 15, no. 2 (winter 1978): 118–27.

[In the following essay, Dombrowski and Pearson examine the problematic characters in Exiles.]

Long considered an inferior work of largely curiosity value, Exiles has increasingly been recognized as a significant, if problematic, part of Joyce's works. Indeed, as some have begun to realize, part of the play's very significance depends upon the problems it raises and fails to solve. John MacNicholas, for one, has effectively argued that the uncertainty surrounding Bertha's relationship with Robert Hand is...

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Carole Brown and Leo Knuth (essay date 1979)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Brown, Carole, and Leo Knuth. “James Joyce's Exiles: The Ordeal of Richard Rowan.” James Joyce Quarterly 17, no. 1 (fall 1979): 7–20.

[In the following essay, Brown and Knuth attempt to take a fresh view of Exiles as a literary piece.]


This essay is born out of dissatisfaction with what the critics have said about Exiles heretofore. Many evaluators would seem to be in the position of Bertha at the end of the play—barely having a clue as to what Richard Rowan has been trying to say—and, with very few exceptions,1 the critiques on this drama strike us as singularly...

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John MacNicholas (essay date 1981)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: MacNicholas, John. “The Stage History of Exiles.James Joyce Quarterly 19, no. 1 (fall 1981): 9–26.

[In the following essay, MacNicholas outlines the stage production history of Exiles.]

It is generally agreed, perhaps especially among Joyceans, that Exiles is a bad play, opaque to both reader and viewer. Various explanations have been proffered to account for this failure: Joyce was a narrative prose stylist whose talents were not suited to write realistic drama; Joyce did not sufficiently wean his play from Ibsen; Joyce could not prevent that crucial distance separating art and autobiography from collapsing; the relentlessly dianoetic...

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Raymond Williams (essay date 1982)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Williams, Raymond. “Exiles.” In James Joyce: New Perspectives, edited by Colin MacCabe, pp. 105–110. Bloomington, IN: The Harvester Press, 1982.

[In the following essay, Williams examines Exiles as dramatic fiction.]

This is a reconstruction of the later part of a lecture, the earlier parts of which were based on the essay The ‘Exiles’ of James Joyce, written in 1947 and now contained in Drama from Ibsen to Brecht (London: Chatto & Windu, 1968). An explanatory link has been written for the present publication.

The play Exiles has usually proved difficult for...

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Bernard Benstock (essay date 1985)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Benstock, Bernard. “A Drama in Exile.” In James Joyce, pp. 73–93. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1985.

[In the following essay, Benstock discusses the characters and their relationships in Exiles.]

The outbreak of the Great War in 1914 caught the Joyces in Austrian Trieste as British nationals, yet Joyce forged ahead after a lapse in completing A Portrait and beginning the writing of Ulysses, until he was allowed to leave for neutral Switzerland a year later. He interrupted the work on Ulysses, however, to undertake a third dramatic work—and the only one to survive—the play Exiles. Throughout his life thereafter...

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Suzette A. Henke (essay date 1990)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Henke, Suzette A. “Interpreting Exiles: The Aesthetics of Unconsummated Desire.” In James Joyce and the Politics of Desire, pp. 85–105. New York: Routledge, 1990.

[In the following essay, Henke provides an analysis of Exiles and its characters.]

Where does desire come from? From a mixture of difference and inequality. … It is inequality that triggers desire, as a desire—for appropriation.

(Hélène Cixous, “Sorties”)


Exiles, Joyce's single dramatic work, served as an important...

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Further Reading

(Drama Criticism)


Adams, Robert M. “Light on Joyce's Exiles? A New MS, a Curious Analogue, and Some Speculations.” Studies in Bibliography 17 (1964): 83–105.

Reexamines Exiles in light of a newly discovered manuscript containing additional fragments of the play.

Esslin, Martin. A Review of Exiles. Plays and Players 18, no. 4 (January 1971): 38, 59.

Favorably discusses the aspects of Exiles that mirror Harold Pinter's writing.

Kenner, Hugh. “Joyce and Ibsen's Naturalism.” Sewanee Review 59, no. 1 (1951): 75–96

Discusses and compares the...

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