Saturday, 5 May 2001
James Joyce: The Exiles (1918)
Review number: 816
Of all Joyce's mature writing, his only play is probably the least well known. It is also one of his least successful pieces, never having had much success on the stage. Displaying an unusual lack of confidence, it shows its influences strongly.
The Exiles manages to simultaneously be dull enough to seem longer than it is and unsatisfying enough to seem shorter. This is because Joyce gives all the real character to the part of Richard; neither he nor any of the others are interested in understanding anyone except himself. But even with Richard we do not come to understand the motivation behind his encouragement of his wife's potential infidelity, the principal dramatic content of the play; hints are made that it springs from some kind of misogynistic impulse, but that is not really a proper explanation (where did the impulse come from?).
The main model for the style of the play is Ibsen, as refracted through George Bernard Shaw's commentary and William Archer's translations. The introduction in this edition cites An Enemy of the People as a particular model, but I found it quite hard to see parallels between the two plays - especially as politics is extremely important in one and hardly mentioned in the other. The main aspects of the play which are copied from Ibsen are the ways in which characters interact (those these are less successful dramatically) and frankness about controversial issues in home life.
Joyce's preoccupation with the relationship of the Irish to Ireland is muted here, but is the reason for the title; the background event of the play is the Rowan family's return to Ireland from life abroad. Perhaps a drama more reflecting his other concerns as a writer would have drawn out more of his genius; as it is, The Exiles is probably his most disappointing work.