First edition of Exiles, 1918.
|Subject||Famous writer returns to Dublin after nine years of exile|
|25 May 1918|
|Media type||Print (hardback & paperback)|
|Pages||96–159, depending on edition|
Exiles is a play by James Joyce. It draws on the story of "The Dead", the final short story in Joyce's story collection Dubliners, and was rejected by W. B. Yeats for production by the Abbey Theatre. Its first major London performance was in 1970, when Harold Pinter directed it at the Mermaid Theatre.
In terms of both its critical and popular reception, Exiles has proven the least successful of all of Joyce's published works – only Chamber Music (1907) runs it close. In making his case for the defence of the play, Padraic Colum conceded: "...critics have recorded their feeling that [Exiles] has not the enchantment of Portrait of the Artist nor the richness of [Ulysses]... They have noted that Exiles has the shape of an Ibsen play and have discounted it as being the derivative work of a young admirer of the great Scandinavian dramatist."
The basic premise of Exiles involves a love triangle between Richard Rowan (a Dublin writer recently returned from exile in Rome), Bertha (his common law wife) and his old friend Robert Hand (a journalist). (There are obvious parallels to be drawn with Joyce's own life – Joyce and Nora Barnacle lived, unmarried, in Trieste, during the years the fictional Rowans were living in Rome, while Robert Hand is roughly the same age of Joyce's friends Oliver St. John Gogarty and Vincent Cosgrave, and shares some characteristics with them both.) This arrangement is slightly complicated by a second love triangle, involving Rowan, Hand, and Hand's cousin Beatrice Justice. (The fictional Beatrice, who in the play has recovered from a life-threatening illness, is just two years younger than Joyce's cousin Elizabeth Justice, who died in 1912.)
However, Exiles is by no means straightforwardly autobiographical. Rowan's complicated relationship with his dead parents is subtly different from that of Joyce: Rowan's mother is characterised by her "hardness of heart", in contrast to the generosity of his "smiling handsome father". This hard-heartedness manifests itself in two significant antipathies towards women in Rowan's life: first towards his childhood friend Beatrice (whom his mother calls "the black Protestant, the pervert's daughter"), and second towards Bertha herself, particularly for giving birth to their child out of wedlock: "There were tongues [in Dublin] ready to tell her all, to embitter her withering mind still more against me and Bertha and our godless nameless child."
Rowan, Hand and Beatrice have been friends since childhood. Hand and Beatrice became secretly engaged as teenagers, which Hand admits to Rowan some years later, when the two men share a house in their early twenties. Those house-sharing years are remembered by Hand as "wild nights" involving "drinking and blasphemy [by Hand]... and drinking and heresy, much worse [by Rowan]." On one of those nights, the two friends meet Bertha, who from the very first night chooses to be with Rowan, despite the attentions of Hand.
Rowan and Bertha soon elope, and head to exile in Italy. Hand has tried to dissuade them both, suggesting to Rowan that he should go first alone ("to see if what he felt for [Bertha] was a passing thing") in the hope (as he later admits to Bertha): "that you might turn from him when he had gone and he from you. Then I would have offered you my gift. You know what it was now. The simple common gift that men offer to women. Not the best perhaps. Best or worst-- it would have been yours."
Once in exile, Rowan has physical relationships with other women ("grossly and many times") while he continues to live with Bertha. He also begins regularly writing letters to Beatrice, and sends her the chapters of his novel. For her part, Beatrice recovers from a life-threatening illness and begins to feel "a coldness" towards Hand, whom she now regards as "a pale reflection" of Richard Rowan. This is the background of the characters who meet again, in the suburbs of Dublin, on Rowan and Bertha's return from exile in the summer of 1912.
The action of the play is very simple. Bertha is jealous of Rowan's relationship with Beatrice, and Hand is jealous of Rowan's relationship with Bertha. Joyce himself described the structure of the play as "three cat and mouse acts", and the action mostly involves Robert Hand's attempts to pounce on Bertha. In the first act, at Rowan's house, Hand kisses Bertha "with passion" several times "and passes his hand many times over her hair". He asks her to come to his own house for a second meeting later that evening. Bertha tells Rowan about this invitation, and asks if she should accept it. Rowan tells her to decide for herself.
In the second act, Hand is expecting Bertha at the appointed hour, but instead it is Rowan who appears. Rowan calmly explains that he knows all about Hand's wooing of Bertha. After some minutes of what for Hand is clearly a very awkward conversation, Bertha herself knocks at the door. Hand goes tactfully into the garden, while Rowan explains to Bertha the conversation he has just had with Hand. Rowan then goes home, leaving his wife alone with Hand. Hand again begins to seduce Bertha. The act ends inconclusively, with Hand asking if Bertha loves him, and Bertha explaining: "I like you, Robert. I think you are good... Are you satisfied?"
The third act begins in Rowan's house at seven o'clock, the following morning. Bertha tells the maid that she hasn't slept all night. The maid tells her that Rowan has left the house an hour earlier, to go walking on the strand. In the morning newspapers, Hand has published a favourable article about Rowan, written the previous evening. Exactly what has happened the previous night is not entirely clear. Hand and Bertha have shared "a sacred night of love", although the specifics of this are not explicitly stated, and both characters agree that it was "a dream". Hand supplies more detail in his account of the night to Rowan, although of his time with Bertha, he admits only that "she went away". He then claims to have gone to the Vice-Chancellor's lodge where he drank claret, returned home to write the newspaper article, and then gone to a nightclub where he picked up a divorcée and had sex with her ("what the subtle Duns Scotus calls a death of the spirit took place") in the cab on the way home. Hand himself leaves "for foreign parts" (his cousin's house in Surrey), while Rowan and Bertha are reconciled. Bertha admits that she longs to meet her lover, but asserts that the lover is Rowan himself.
The resolution of the play lies precisely in the sense of doubt about what occurred between Hand and Bertha between Acts Two and Three. Rowan is wounded by the sense of doubt that he admits he longed for. Indeed, he sees this sense of doubt as what enables him "to be united with [Bertha] in body and soul in utter nakedness".
- Poems and Exiles at themodernword.com
- Online text of Exiles at Robotwisdom.com
- Resources page for Exiles at Robotwisdom.com
- "The ogre of betrayal", Edna O'Brien on Exiles, The Guardian, 29 July 2006
- "Revaluing James Joyce's Exiles" James T. Farrell, the New York Times
- Exiles public domain audiobook at LibriVox