Joyce’s play is about an Irish writer, Richard Rowen, who is a self-portrait of the author. Richard Rowen’s first and last name begin with the same letter, just like James Joyce. Richard’s neurotic relationship with his wife, Bertha, is supposedly based on Joyce’s relationship with one Nora Barnacle. If so, I feel sorry for Nora (but then, no one forced her to marry James Joyce). Richard lived on the continent, but has returned to Ireland when the play begins; Joyce did the same thing in real life.
I will summarize the entire plot in the next three paragraphs. Custom demands that I warn of spoilers, although I doubt that anyone will go through the trouble of reading this obscure, dreary play.
Act I opens with Richard talking to Beatrice, his best friend Robert’s cousin and sometime lover, a woman Richard had an affair with when he lived in Italy. Beatrice has been giving Richard and Bertha’s eight-year old son Archie piano lessons. Their dialogue gives a lot of exposition, but is otherwise pointless. When Richard hears Robert Hand coming, he leaves because dredging up the past and his tortured relationship with his recently deceased Mother has upset him. Robert enters with roses intended for Bertha. Robert and Beatrice engage in small talk, then Robert chats with Archie. More small talk until Beatrice and Archie leave, then Robert pursues his real purpose of seducing Richard’s wife Bertha. He kisses her and makes an appointment for her to come to his house at 8pm that night. She is noncommittal and unenthusiastic, but she does not say no. Richard comes in and and Bertha leaves. (Entrances and exits are a frustrating technical problem for the dramatist. Characters need important and logical reasons to enter and exit. Joyce handles this problem clumsily throughout the play.) Robert and Richard talk about Richard’s past and about women. Robert tells Richard that the vice-chancellor has invited Richard to dine at his place at 8pm. After some business with Archie and Beatrice, Robert leaves with them. Richard and Bertha have the last scene of the act together. Bertha tells him everything that happened between her and Robert. She asks if she should go to Robert. Richard says it is up to her.
Act II is at 8pm that night at Robert’s house. Robert is in evening dress, expecting Bertha, when Richard arrives. Robert is remorseful and glad that Richard has stopped him from having an affair with Bertha. Richard talks about his guilt over cheating on Bertha. When they see Bertha coming, Richard says he will leave Robert and Bertha alone here. Robert leaves to get an umbrella (another clumsily handled exit). Richard tells Bertha to love Robert, then leaves. Robert and Bertha have the last scene of the act. Robert wants Bertha to love him, but she is still noncommittal and unemotional. Robert knows she loves Richard, but he asks if she also loves him. The act ends with the stage direction “She does not answer. In the silence the rain is heard falling.”
Act III is back at Richard’s house the next day. After business with the maid and Archie, Bertha and Beatrice talk in veiled terms about Richard, the man they both love (God knows why). They reach an understanding to be friends during the act. When Bertha and Richard are alone, she accuses him of destroying three women with his neurotic games, Beatrice, Bertha and Richard’s Mother. Robert comes and tells Richard that he failed with Bertha and is leaving for Surrey. Some confusing business with Archie, with implications that Robert might be the father. In the last scene Richard tells Bertha he has “a deep, deep wound of doubt” in his soul about her. “I have wounded my soul for you – a deep wound of doubt which can never be healed. I can never know, never in this world. I do not wish to know or to believe. I do not care. It is not in the darkness of belief that I desire you. But in the 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. And now I am tired for a while, Bertha. My wound tires me.” To which Bertha responds, “Forget me, Dick. Forget me and love me again as you did the first time. I want my lover. To meet him, to go to him, to give myself to him. You, Dick. O my strange, wild lover, come back to me again!” And then she closes her eyes and the play ends.
Naturalism, as Ayn Rand explains in The Romantic Manifesto, is based on the premise that man does not have free will. This is clearly the case with Richard. He is wracked with guilt about his past, but unable to do anything about it. He is hopelessly trapped in his guilt-ridden existence. The only thing he can think of to ease his pain is to urge his best friend to have sex with his wife, a neurotic solution at best. Because he has no goal, no plan of action, the play has no plot. The play ends with Richard moaning about an unhealable wound of doubt in his soul. There is no hope of happiness for Richard and Bertha.
Many of Ibsen’s characters are guilt-ridden like Richard, but they form a plan of action, sometimes a last-ditch effort to change. (Hedda Gabler, Ibsen's most horrifying monster, acts out of envy to destroy the joy she cannot know.) Ibsen’s plays have a plot that keeps the audience on the edge of their seat wondering what will happen next. Even Ibsen’s tragic characters have a larger than life quality that makes them fascinating to contemplate.
Just as Aristotle was not served by the medieval Aristotelians, Ibsen has not been served by the Ibsenites. He must be the most misunderstood playwright in history. He is a romantic realist who, because his plays are about middle-class people in drawing rooms instead of Spanish dons flashing swords, has been considered a naturalist. Ibsen complained that the actors in his day did not act his characters with enough passion because they were misled by the realism to think they had to make the characters life-size and subdued, the way most people act in their living rooms.
Chekhov, a real naturalist, was one of the few people intelligent and perceptive enough to understand Ibsen. During a rehearsal at the Moscow Art Theatre one day, he commented about an Ibsen play that real people did not act like that. By Chekhov's naturalistic standards, Ibsen's characters are unrealistic. Ibsen's characters are not statistical averages; they are not the girl next door; they are concretes that embody wide abstractions, like the characters of Schiller, Hugo and Dostoyevsky.
The thesis play that flourished in the early 20th century among second-rate playwrights such as Hervieu and Galsworthy is another misunderstanding of Ibsenism. These playwrights would take a concrete bound idea, such as “a mother’s love can be destructive” or “poverty leads to crime” and make a play proving that point. Ibsen’s plays deal with wider philosophical themes and are not built to prove a narrow political point. Feminists claim A Doll’s House for their own, but really the play is about individualism and free will; it is more than a feminist tract.
Joyce takes Ibsen’s style and fills it with naturalistic content. On the surface Exiles is Ibsen-like: tortured souls discuss their past in realistic interior settings, with much of the talk about individual freedom vs. a parochial, judgmental society. But the differences between Joyce and Ibsen demonstrate the fundamental importance of plot (or lack thereof). Ibsen’s characters do not just talk, they have goals and act to achieve them; Joyce’s characters have little else but talk because they are trapped in their guilt. Like the characters in Sartre’s existential play, there is no exit.
One passage, I believe, reveals James Joyce’s sense of life and his view of man:
Robert: You will give me a headache of you make me think today. I cannot think today. I feel to natural, too common. After all, what is most attractive in even the most beautiful woman?
Robert: Not those qualities which she has and other women have not but the qualities which she has in common with them. I mean… the commonest. I mean how her body develops heat when it is pressed, the movement of her blood, how quickly she changes by digestion what she eats into – what shall be nameless. [Laughing.] I am very common today. Perhaps that idea never struck you?
According to Robert, and probably to Joyce, what is most attractive in a woman is not her beauty or character or any spiritual qualities, only the fact that she shits.