James Joyce’s only play The Exiles is little performed because, well, it isn’t really very good. If it hadn’t been written by Joyce (who begged Ezra Pound to help him get it staged), the play would have probably never had a single staging, let alone the repeated (and almost entirely failed) performances it has enjoyed in the past 90 years. The play is highly autobiographical (another reason for continued interest in the play) and is comprised almost entirely of confessions between a husband (Richard) and wife (Bertha), Richard’s long-time friend and unrequited love interest (Beatrice) and Beatrice’s ex-fiancé/first-cousin/Richard’s former roommate/Bertha’s current pursuer (Robert).
Needless to say, the relationships are complex and are not helped at all by the similarity in names when one is reading as opposed to watching the play. The confessional nature of the work has been well documented by scholarship on the play and is, I believe, the primary reason that the play fails in performance. Rather than being a play composed of dialogue, the confessional mode means that each “conversation” looks much more like a confessor provoking a confession from a penitent, an experience that the disillusioned-Catholic Joyce would have known quite well. Thus, rather than being dialogue, the confessions are merely a way of dramatically framing interior monologues (something for which Joyce is quite famous).
But what comes of all these confessions? Very little, really. While the many overlapping relationships remain intact and have some semblance of honesty or stability at the plays conclusion, the confessions really don’t achieve anything over the course of the play―no one is changed by the act of confession.
The Catholic practice of confession with which Joyce was so familiar is not intended to simply provide voyeuristic pleasure for the priest, or to make the confessing individual feel particularly bad about themselves, nor is it designed to serve as a form of social control, although it has perhaps filled all these roles at one time or another. Confession, understood within the Christian tradition, is ultimately about communion―it is about an honesty that clears away the detritus of human life and mistakes, making possible a real connection, a real sharing of the self between God and humanity and between people. The great promise of confession is the opportunity to be totally and completely honest about who we are, in all our brokenness and incoherency of our selves and to know that God and others will not reject us. It is this honest recognition of our brokenness before God and others that allows us to be truly known as individuals and that allows us to know others as themselves. In knowing and being known―and what is more, being loved despite ourselves―we find the great hope and promise of Christian faith: that God loves us not as abstract ideas but as real, broken individuals.
Joyce’s characters, despite their three-hours’ worth of confessions, never manage to achieve this sort of recognition of each other (or of God). The intended outcome of confession ― communion ― is never reached. Instead, we are left with honestly broken individuals longing for each other but never actually able to connect with each other. And this is, perhaps, why the play usually fails in performance. Somewhere, deep down, we know that voyeuristic confession, forced confession, performed confession are all pointless. We long for true confession and its true result: communion with God and each other.