EXILES: LITERARY AND THEATRICAL BACKGROUNDS
Bloomsday in Melbourne’s Artistic Director Frances Devlin-Glass sketches out the context
of James Joyce’s only extant play
Joyce was on a roll as a published writer by the time the first edition of Exiles was in print (Grant Richards, 1917). It had been a long battle with censors to have Dubliners published in London in 1914, and it was quickly followed by A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, serially in 1914-5 and as a novel in 1916. Exiles is his only extant play. It was written in the plain direct style we associate with Dubliners and with Ibsen (and very different from the poetics and experimentalism of Ulysses). It’s a debate play with short, sharp, vernacular dialogue and it shares with Shaw a fondness for the steep argumentative turns, and an equivocal ending.
Exiles can be seen as a dry run for the adultery scenario in Ulysses. It perhaps served Joyce as a way of thinking through issues, he treats it markedly differently. Curiously, he wrote the play while also writing the first three chapters of Ulysses. And it certainly casts light on how Joyce was thinking about the major action of his magnum opus in those years that Ulysses was forming in his mind. In some ways, Exiles was also a return to the major long short story (novella?) of Dubliners, ‘The Dead’, in that both the short story and the play drew on Joyce’s knowledge of his partner, Nora Barnacle’s love affairs with two Galway youths in her teens before she met Joyce. The pain of jealousy and the risk of betrayal is a subject Joyce made peculiarly his own, exploring his protagonists’ surrender to necessary doubt about love’s purported certainties. Gabriel, Stephen and Richard were characters he had to renounce, or at least get some critical distance from, to write Ulysses.
Exiles upends two theatrical traditions: it is not drawing-room farce of the Oscar Wilde (A Woman of no Importance) variety, nor does it pay obeisance to Ibsen’s intensely moral, truth-telling plays, though Joyce was consciously reframing the former and acknowledging both of these dramatists whom he esteemed. Joyce, not inaptly, called Exiles ‘a cat and mouse in three acts’. Thriller is perhaps too strong a word for the flavour of it, but it is psycho-drama at an exhilarating pitch of intensity.
Joyce was at the vanguard of a movement to rethink sexuality. Contrary to how we often think of the sexually repressed Victorians, sex was not only a secretive pursuit but also the subject of intense scrutiny as ownership of sexual codes passed from churchmen and into the domain of medicos. The last quarter of the nineteenth century saw the rise of the new medical discipline of psychiatry, and its sub-branch sexology, and Joyce was especially responsive to this new zeitgeist. Exiles marks a stage in his own similar journey from theologically literate schoolboy to freethinker about how power is exercised in all manner of social institutions, including sexuality.
Exiles may be a play about adultery, but it does not conform to the genre very familiar to late nineteenth century bourgeois audiences, the plot-driven, well-made bedroom farces of such as Eugène Scribe or Georges Feydeau. It replaces their broad comedy (hidden lovers in wardrobes or behind screens, and outraged husbands) with a darker and more humane vision. He undermines the easy confident laughter of the adultery play, and in its place substitutes efficacious doubt as at the core of love relationships. In Joyce’s play, we’re offered the radically counter-cultural spectacle of a man who persuades his wife to bed his best friend and the audience is invited to hear why. Robert certainly fits the bill of the stereotypical male transgressor, but Richard is hardly the traditional cuckold. Bertha’s role is equivocal, and Richard’s even more puzzling: is his wife merely a catspaw for him, or ready to burst out of a passionless relationship? Does Richard and Bertha’s truth-telling risk eviscerating emotion and fellow-feeling? What does their gamesmanship prove? Who has integrity in it? How does Richard rationalise Bertha’s freedom to love Robert, and does she share his vision? And are the same sex friendships more than that? Does Richard’s sexual pathology masquerade as idealism?
It’s a play that invites the audience to be active interpreters: can we take Richard’s apparently ultramontane reasoning and his act of renunciation at face value? Is he archangel or devil? Does he perhaps have darker and self-interested motives that put friendship ahead of the bonds between man and wife? Are Richard’s demands, perhaps, a symptom of a sexual pathology masquerading as idealism?
What excites me about this play is the window it opens on a world that is more familiar now than it could ever have been in 1918: the very new freedoms (practised by the few) in the 1910s to be gay, or bisexual, or to experiment with new sexual identities and new understandings of the heterosexual partnerships. All of this was happening within a moral and legal world that was thinking very differently about extramarital and homosexual relations. Oscar Wilde’s trial was a scarifying event in Joyce’s life (Joyce was a vocal advocate for him), and adultery remained a ground for divorce. Homosexuality would not be decriminalised for another fifty years. Joyce would go on in Ulysses to critique and make fun of the marriage laws of the United Kingdom, and their even more repressive expression in Catholic Ireland.
The Strange Publication/Performance History of Exiles
The play was written in Trieste in the spring of 1914, on the edge of the outbreak of war. Joyce refined it until April of the following year, and at the end of June 1915 (when Italy joined the war), he relocated to Zurich. In September 1916, some months after the Easter Rising, Joyce sent the play to W. B. Yeats, who declined to give it an Abbey production. It was perhaps too hostile a portrait of Dublin; and if that was not offensive enough, its avant-garde sexual politics no doubt disqualified it. The official excuse was this:
I do not recommend your play to the Irish Theatre because it is a type of work we have never played well. It is too far from the folk drama; and just at present we do not even play the folk drama very well…. I do not think it at all so good as A Portrait of the Artist which I read with great excitement and recommended to many people. (Ellman, JJ, pp.401-2)
Yeats had little memory of the play and offered nothing by way of dramaturgical advice, though he did privately comment to Pound on 11 February 1917 that ‘the Abbey should face a riot for it’ (Ellmann, JJ, p.401). What exactly does that should mean? It seems he had internalised some of its sexual radicalism. George Bernard Shaw did not help the case, vetoed it and had it removed from the Stage Society programme on the grounds of obscenity, though later (in 1950) he disavowed this (Ellmann, JJ, pp.415n, 783n, p.443n). In 1925 he saw it staged by that same theatre group, and defended it in public debate.
One wonders about the impact on potential stage productions of its publication as a printed play. Grant Richards (the publisher of Dubliners in London in 1914) took up Exiles in
1917, and there was an American edition by B.W. Huebsch in the following year. Joyce
flirted with idea of theatre productions in translation - in France and Switzerland. It was very likely Stefan Sweig, literary celebrity, whose advocacy secured a German translator and a production in Munich on 7 August 1919. The Munich production was far from what Joyce hoped. It bombed, or as Joyce (defensively) put it, was a ‘fiasco’, a ‘flop’ (Ellmann, p.462).
To be fair, this first production of the play had to be closed down because of an incapacitated leading actor. Contrary to Joyce’s reports, reviews were contradictory, so some more positive than others. It got another production in New York in 1925, and again, reviews were mixed. The expectation that it would be technically experimental like Ulysses skewed more than one review. It seems too that the comedic possibilities of the script were missed. One critic commented on its style as being ‘ordinary writing. Very ordinary writing’ (John MacNicholas, ‘The Stage History of Exiles’, p.11), a demerit point in his view, rather than a distinguishing one. Another lauded its quality of a ‘psychological chess game’, hinting at its ‘flashes of terrifying profundity’ and finding its ‘self-vivisection’ complex and painful, and blamed any shortcomings on the acting. Many of the critics, though discomforted by it, discerned its ‘force’ and ‘psycho-pathology’. There is mention of ‘free love’ but other new sexual formations, especially same-sex attraction and potential bisexuality. Joyce had, in fact, far outstripped his audience’s capacity to deal with its strangely unfamiliar psychological sado-masochism, its lack of action, its debates, and its openness to
performing sexuality differently.
There is a difference too between the flat printed script and the play’s potential to be electric in delivery onstage. Although there were hints in the New York and London productions of its playability and of the way in which it leaps off the page, Harold Pinter’s production in 1970 at the Mermaid Theatre in London appears to have been a major turning point for the play’s reception.
A tricksy, provocative question is posed by Joseph Voelker (in ‘The Beastly Incertitudes: Doubt, Difficulty, and Discomfiture in James Joyce’s Exiles’): ‘Did Harold Pinter [w]rite
Exiles?’ and locates the new direction, Joyce writing like Pinter (who long postdated him as a
dramatist), at the end of Portrait. For the first time, in Pinter’s production, the simplicity of the language was recognised as a strength of the play, and Richard’s Machiavellian (or should that be Jesuitical?) and certainly very clinical testing of both his wife, Robert, and his former lover were foregrounded as never before and played for their menace. Furthermore, the ambiguity of the ending (typical of Joyce but not of Ibsen who was seen previously as underwriting Exiles) was appreciated. What’s more, Exiles was played for nuance, and was credited in teaching Pinter, who had not yet produced his major work, the uses of strategic pauses, and lengthy silences. Exiles had occasionally been admired for its playability, but for the first time, it looked like the work of a master rather than a bewildering puzzle of impenetrable motivations. MacNicholas notes that positive responses to this production outnumbered the negative four to one (p.17).
We hope Melbourne audiences will enjoy this Bloomsday version of the play, find themselves vastly more literate in its sexual politics which we think are of our time, and find it as exhilarating (and discomforting) as we do. We can’t wait to see what Carl Whiteside, our theatre Director and his talented team do with it. It will be an exciting ride.
Artistic Director of Bloomsday in Melbourne