Exiles: James Joyce's play returns to the stage

James Joyce's obsession with losing his lover Nora Barnacle inspired the love triangle in his only play, Exiles, now revived at the National Theatre. Paul Taylor reports
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James Joyce and the theatre are connected in most people's minds through Travesties, the Tom Stoppard play that creates intellectual high jinks from the coincidence that the author was in exile in Zurich during the First World War at the same time as Lenin and the Dadaist Tristan Tzara.

Stoppard was stimulated by the fact the Irish genius was the business manager of Zurich's English Players, whose first production was The Importance of Being Earnest. Joyce was later taken to court by Henry Carr, a young consular official who wanted reimbursement for the trousers, hat and gloves he had purchased to wear as Algernon Moncrieff - and who becomes, in the anecdotage Stoppard invented for him, the reminiscing impresario of Travesties. From a farcical footnote in Joyce's biography sprang a contemporary stage classic.

It's much less widely appreciated that Joyce composed a play of his own. Not given a major outing in London since the acclaimed 1970 production by Harold Pinter (whose subsequent plays it arguably influenced), Exiles was written in 1914-15, around the time Joyce was embarking on Ulysses. It received its belated premiere in Munich in 1919, after having been turned down by Dublin's Abbey Theatre and the Stage Society in London.

James Macdonald, director of a new production at the Cottesloe, attributes the rejection to the fact that Exiles was "wildly ahead of its time in its treatment of sexual freedom within marriage" and he ascribes the drama's subsequent failure to enter the repertoire to the problem that "it's a difficult read. It plays a lot better than it reads."

As well as throwing highly revealing light on the psychology that permeates Joyce's more acclaimed works, Exiles, Macdonald argues, is an insufficiently acknowledged link between Ibsen (on whom Joyce wrote his first paid article) and the plays of later dramatists such as Samuel Beckett, Pinter, Sam Shepard and Sarah Kane.

"Joyce admired Ibsen's extreme obsession with pursuing the truth - and a personal truth - at all costs, and the struggle of his characters to escape dead moral conventions," explains Macdonald. "That's the idea he picks up and runs with in Exiles."

The play focuses on the semi-autobiographical figure of Richard Rowan, a writer who has returned to Dublin with his much less educated common-law wife, Bertha, and their eight-year-old son, after nine years' exile in Rome. In addition to Beatrice, the woman who has corresponded with the author and acted as his remote-control muse during his time abroad, Richard re-encounters Robert Hand, his best friend from boyhood who is now a prominent journalist.

Robert is keen to rehabilitate the returned prodigal in the eyes of the censorious community and to help him secure the post of professor of romance languages at the university. He is also keen on seducing Bertha, to whom he makes explicit clandestine overtures. These she accepts passively but then, in a scene of creepy theatrical surprise, we see that she is making detailed reports on the development of the friend's would-be adulterous advances to her husband.

The play turns, startlingly, on Richard's refusal to guide, defend or bind his wife in her handling of this predicament. He neither encourages her nor dissuades her from going to meet Robert at the assignation which the latter has proposed. And it is left studiedly ambiguous as to whether the relationship was consummated. Not for nothing did Joyce describe the play as "three cat-and-mouse acts".

Exiles has an autobiographical starting point in Joyce's relationship with Nora Barnacle, his untutored lover, partner and, after many years, wife. As the Irish dramatist Conor McPherson notes in his excellent introduction to a new edition of the play (just published by Nick Hern Books), Joyce "enjoyed the attention that other men paid to Nora, but it could also cause him intense anxiety".

In his magnificent life of Joyce, Richard Ellmann points out that Joyce - "in an experiment at being author of his own life as well as of his work" - partly engineered the ugly situation in 1911 or 1912 that fed into the play. Having encouraged Roberto Prezioso, a dapper Venetian journalist who was one of his best friends in Trieste, in the role of Nora's admirer, he then rounded on him publicly when Prezioso tried to convert the intimacy into a love affair.

"Clearly, Joyce was a masochist," says Macdonald. Even potential rivals who had had the decency to die before Joyce came on the scene could stir powerful feelings of possessive jealousy, as is evident from the ending of his great short story The Dead, which draws on Joyce's disturbed retrospective reaction to Nora's early love for Michael "Sonny" Bodkin, a Galway boy who died of TB after leaving his sickbed to serenade her.

Richard Rowan, a wishful self-projection, decides to take radical measures against these tendencies. "It is not in the darkness of belief that I desire you," he tells Bertha in the final moments of the play, "but in restless, living, wounding doubt. To hold you by no bonds, even of love, to be united with you in body and soul in utter nakedness - for this I longed." Joyce, in the notes he made for the play, stipulated that "Richard must not appear a champion of woman's rights".

Part of the fascination of the play is the elusiveness of Richard's real motives. Bertha suspects that she is being granted her freedom so as to clear the way for his assault on Beatrice. There are heavy suggestions that Bertha is the surrogate through which the two men express their own mutual attraction. "You are so strong that you attract me through her," says Robert, who feels that he is the one who has been betrayed by the secret collusion between husband and wife.

This is an extraordinary anticipation of the relationship of the two men in Pinter's Betrayal. As well as prefiguring the latent homosexuality that features in a great deal of modern drama, Macdonald argues that, in the Richard-Robert duality (with Richard the masochist and Robert the sadist), Joyce pioneered "the idea of two characters who are both opposing halves of the writer's own psyche".

In his own eyes, Richard's project is (as McPherson puts it) the attempt "to create a whole new kind of honesty, a sort of 'existentialist' authenticity".

But honesty can be cruel as well as cleansing, and deployed for self-deceived as well as for noble reasons. Macdonald says: "I think the audience will have to buy into Richard, otherwise the play is unbearable: three people being tortured by this impossible man. What you have to admire in him is how much he's prepared to risk for his own notion of idealism and how much he's prepared to torture himself."

The play, he suggests, is fundamentally a comedy "because nobody bloody well understands his kind of unimaginable, paradoxical notion of total closeness - particularly not his partner."

"Why the title Exiles?" Joyce writes in the notes. "A nation exacts a penance from those who dared to leave her - payable on their return." But the deeper meaning is that we are all unbridgeably exiled from one another.

You could argue that the ruthless rigour of the protagonist's project is pushed to such a self-defeating extreme that the play liberated Joyce from one aspect of his own mentality and enabled him to create a character who, unlike Richard, knows for certain that he is a cuckold and responds to this plight with a far greater emotional maturity.

Step aside Richard Rowan and enter Leopold Bloom, hero of Joyce's masterpiece, Ulysses.

National Theatre Cottesloe, South Bank Centre, London SE1 (020-7452 3000; www.nationaltheatre.org.uk) 3 August to 26 October