Behind the Scenes of James Joyce’s ‘Exiles’

L to R: Soren Jensen as the lover, Lucy Payne as the wife, and Doug Lyons as the writer/husband. Photo by Jody Stitt and Mark Harper.

by Frances Devlin-Glass

Those who have been following Bloomsday for a very long time may remember the palpable thrill of seeing Exiles for the first time in a humble moved reading at Gasworks Theatre (in South Melbourne) twenty years ago in 2003. I was in Japan and unhappily missed it. The audience reported a frisson resembling electricity and surprise at its content. This play (published in 1918 and produced in German in Munich after the war and at the height of the Spanish Flu) was very far ahead of its time. It’s even more accessible now than it was in 2003 in the light of the revolution in thinking about gender and sexuality.

Although this is Joyce’s only play, his credentials for becoming a playwright are strong. He had a superb ear for the vernacular (everywhere attested in his fiction), a talent for putting character and ideas into trenchant exchange, and a delight in revealing character slowly, deliberatively. All good ingredients for a playwright. In 1918, Joyce was the published author of Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and he was writing and publishing serially episodes of Ulysses. Those earlier books had been hard-won and it was no wonder he sided with the champions of free speech. Unflinching honesty is his trademark, whatever the cost.

Joyce had a need for heroes and among them were the avant-garde playwrights of his era. Among his early heroes were Parnell and Wilde (interestingly less for his plays than for his persecution as a gay man), and a little later Ibsen was added to the teenager’s list . He valued his moral courage. In 1899 just before his seventeenth birthday and while still a schoolboy, Joyce defended Ibsen from his detractors (who alleged immorality). A few weeks later, after a bold approach to the editor of the Fortnightly Review, his review of When We Dead Awaken (Ibsen’s latest play) caught the attention of Ibsen himself who wrote to praise its author. Joyce, precociously gifted linguistically, learnt Norwegian and sent him a birthday greeting/fan letter in March 1901. So, Ibsen and Shakespeare were part of his mental machinery, and drama in his pantheon was the most high-ranking of the arts. So, it’s not at all surprising he turned his hand to play-writing.

The gender politics of his play Exiles were radical and modern in 1918. If Ibsen’s Nora or Hedda were an affront, how much more a man (in a loving but tired relationship with his wife) who offers her sexually to his best friend, seemingly not anticipating the fallout? And who then agonises over the best friend’s lack of honesty and the loss of the friendship? There’s a searing honesty in Joyce’s writing which emulates Ibsen: Joyce takes the new post-Christian (?) morality into entirely new territory, and complicates it psychologically as well. If an audience has little knowledge or experience of the new modern paradigms of gayness and morally serious free love, or was uninterested in the new sexually-informed psychiatry, then in 1919, Exiles must have been baffling, despite its simplicity at the level of writing and its plainness of expression.

The Melbourne Production of Exiles

When Carl Whiteside, the theatre director, read it and timed it, he was dismayed by its length and, knowing contemporary audiences, urged the Bloomsday scripters to reduce it. At first, we were dubious about the wisdom of cutting it, but cut it we did, from close to three hours (with two intervals) to two hours (and reduced two intervals to one – maybe theatre seats are less soft than they were, or posteriors less cushioned). It was at first daunting to see how or where to cut, but the reliable advice one always gives to oneself as a writer is that the slack will be in the opening, and there it was: unnecessary back-story, repetition and more melodrama than modern taste willingly accommodates. Joyce, of course, never had the benefit of an editor, and when it was attempted, he stoutly resisted it. It has proven energising to put an audience in media res, and what emerged from that vicious haircut was dialogue as crisp and razor-sharp as one would hope for from a writer of Joyce’s calibre. What survived of this severe cut is 100% Joyce’s words, and closer to the clarity of Dubliners than to Portrait or Ulysses. It is lucid, questioningly anti-romantic. It takes the adultery triangle play and gives it a complete makeover, with currents of dark comedy and even moments of tragedy. The stakes are high for all the protagonists.

Director, Carl Whiteside

At one stage, in our desperation to excise length, we considered reducing the cast from six to four. The child character survived the cut, and a role we considered doubling was not doubled because we had some exceptionally strong actors we could not decide between, so there remained six actors. The real test is handing a script over to the director and actors. The actors were on the floor in the first rehearsal just before Easter, something I’ve never seen happen in 30 years of Bloomsday rehearsals.

What is emerging in Carl Whiteside’s direction are strong characters, and often ones with murky motives – especially in the trio that constitute the leads. There are two characters in Joyce’s script whom I consider underdrawn, and curiously, the most inoffensive of these emerged in the very first rehearsal as a surprisingly vulnerable female character with a great capacity to push back, thereby demonstrating indomitable self-esteem. It was a surprise for me, and a pleasant one. Often putting a script into action is to reveal unexpected angles, nuances, possibilities for playing.  And Joyce’s and our Director Carl’s method is to systematically examine facets of character and put them into debate with others and themselves.

What has been consistently exciting about working on Exiles is the way in which it resonates with today’s gender politics. There are for instance, women who would comfortably underwrite ‘Me Too’ and a big conflict between friendship and passion which raises homosocial questions. One wonders what the first 1920s audiences could have made of it. It is about new ways of doing gender and love relationships and it is subtly subversive of pre-existing genres, a thematic that Ulysses would take to interstellar lengths. I’m relishing too how the play allows one to chart how the hyper-educated Stephen of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man morphs into a character who must be abandoned in favour of a radically different leading character, Leopold Bloom of the streets in Ulysses. Bloom ‘gets’ relationships and how provisional they necessarily are,  and does them, if not perfectly, then with more insight than Joyce’s abandoned alter ego, the hapless Stephen D. who has his own avatar in this play, Richard Rowan.

Bridie Turner, Designer and Costumier.

Another behind-the-scenes glimpse of the forthcoming production that excites me as an onlooker is that the production has a highly creative designer on board – Bridie Turner. The play invites a traditional proscenium arch treatment, but it is getting something very much more imaginative. Bloomsday in 2023, for its thirtieth year, is back at fortyfivedownstairs, that gem of a black-box theatre that elicits creativity from designers. The hyper-realist origins of the play will be honoured, but Bridie’s sense of its possibilities will be given very contemporary values. There is much scope for varying seating in this theatre, and for this production the audience will be seated in the transverse and opportunities to increase tension will be maximised by cut-aways. My guess is that some Joyce tragics will want to see it from different angles as they did for Holy Cow! in 2018 which was performed in the round.

All power to the team that is taking the risk of making available this rarely-seen gem of a Joyce artefact available in Melbourne.

Bookings for the play are open at fortyfivedownstairs; and for the annual lunch and seminar at the Imperial Hotel from Bloomsday in Melbourne. Papers will be given by Steve Carey and Philip Harvey, both Joyceans well known to the Joyce community in Melbourne.

Frances Devlin-Glass

Frances chalks up 30 years of Bloomsday productions on three continents in 2023. She is Artistic Director of Bloomsday, and has been involved with the script-editing team, and marvels year by year in the transformations of Joyce’s writing by inspired theatre professionals.