A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions

James Joyce’s only play, in a stunning revival at the National Theatre, was a combination of poetry and realism that only a genius could achieve.  Eighteen-year-old Joyce’s first published work was an appreciative article on Ibsen’s “When We Dead Awaken,” for which Ibsen wrote him a letter of thanks.  Like Ibsen’s work, “Exiles” is a well-made play concerning twenty-four hours that explore and change the relationships in the lives of its four main characters.  Writer Richard Rowan returns to Dublin with his common-law wife Bertha and their young son after an absence of nine years, to be greeted by his former best friend Robert Hand, now a successful journalist, and by Beatrice, a former love interest of both men.   A revelation (as in Ibsen) surprises the audience and alters the course of the action.

Considering that the play was written in 1914-1916, between A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses, its frankness about sexuality and adultery caused its rejection by the Abbey Theatre in Dublin and the Stage Society in London.  Its first performance, soon withdrawn, was in Munich in 1919. It was produced only rarely after that, until Harold Pinter directed it in 1970 for the Royal Shakespeare Company, when the work’s artistry finally was understood and appreciated.

Directed by James Macdonald, the ensemble acting is excellent.  Peter McDonald, uptight, cynical, self-contained, and honest -- maybe too honest for comfort -- is an impressive Richard, looking like Joyce in a wrinkled suit.  Robert, played with aplomb by Adrian Dunbar, is Richard’s opposite, easy-going, affable, well-dressed, and slyly deceptive.  We are unsure whether he really wishes Richard well in promoting a university appointment for him, or whether his motive is to prevent the departure of Bertha, to whom he immediately makes advances, which she accepts.  She also seems to accept his request for an assignation that evening, during the hour he has cleverly arranged Richard’s university interview. Uneducated, luscious, and acquiescent, Bertha is played by Dervla Kirwan, who captures the essence of a woman beyond her depth yet with the shrewdness of a survivor.  As she tells Richard, most of the time she doesn’t even understand what he is saying – one of the ironies of the play is that his poetry is totally lost on her.

 Now comes the first shocker: to Richard, Bertha is reporting every seductive move Robert made. Richard pursues every detail, through hand-holding, kissing, embracing, and he asks each time for more: “and then?” The second surprise follows: Richard declares she is free to choose and to act; she must decide whether to keep the assignation with Robert.  In echoing the “fierce indignation” of Swift, to whom he is likened, Richard insists that Bertha make the decision.  Even if it hurts them both, he must pursue the truth at all costs.  But Bertha is incapable of deciding.  Says Joyce in his working notes for the play: “Her mind is a grey seamist amid which common objects – hillsides, the masts of ships, and barren islands - loom with strange and yet recognizable outlines.”  And so the end is ambiguous.  We do not know if there is a sexual encounter between her and Robert, who leaves the next morning, exiling himself, just as the others are exiles not only from
Dublin, but from each other.

Was Joyce himself in a similar situation with wife Nora Barnacle, the uneducated hotel chambermaid who ran off with him to the continent?  Richard Ellmann in his life of Joyce points out that in Trieste, Joyce first encouraged a Venetian journalist to pursue Nora and then prevented an affair.  And Edna O’Brien notes that Vincent Cosgrave, one of Joyce’s former drinking companions, depicted unfavorably in Portrait, claimed in revenge that he had an affair with Nora, and was meeting her on nights alternating with Joyce’s courtship.

The problem of adultery enters Joyce’s masterpiece, Ulysses,  as the Irish Ulysses, Leopold Bloom, in his journey through Dublin on a day in June 1904, worries that wife Molly is having an affair with “Blazes” Boylan, meeting him that very afternoon. Yet Bloom accepts it, along with more serious concerns, with equanimity.  Is that because the Joyce alter-ego in the book is not Bloom but young Stephen?  And Nora finally gets her say in Molly’s brilliant final soliloquy.