James Joyce playing the guitar in Trieste, 1915 James Joyce: Music in the Novels and Poems

James Joyce Quote
No writer in English since Sterne has exploited the minute, unpromising material of his immediate experience so thoroughly as my brother did, using it to delineate character or complete his picture of an environment.
James Joyce Unquote

[ Stanislaus Joyce ]

Music in Exiles


After completing A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce wrote his one published play. Compared to what came afterward (and even in many respects what came before), Exiles is Joyce's most "conventional" work. For the author's purposes, it seems to have served as a sort of cleansing of the creative palate before embarking on the 18-course feast that was Ulysses. In his essay "Joyce," Ezra Pound characterized it as "a side-step, necessary katharsis, clearance of mind from continental contemporary thought."

Ironically, his poems, stories, and novels all somehow lend themselves aesthetically to out-loud reading and interpretation in the form of dramatic performance (and, yes, singing); while his only drama, intended explicitly for the stage, is best enjoyed in the quiet of one's study.* Here in spades is the "reality of experience" about which Stephen Dedalus wrote near the end of his journal, but presented without the elaborate linguistic fretwork that is the hallmark of Joyce's later books.

So it should come as no surprise that Exiles is also the least musical of Joyce's works. Only two pieces are mentioned by name: Carmen (which is talked about) and Tannhäuser (the first bars of which are played). Indeed, according to Ellmann, the latter was not an opera Joyce himself much cared for — "What sort of a fellow is this Tannhäuser who, when he is with Saint Elizabeth, longs for the bordello of Venusberg, and when he is at the bordello longs to be with Saint Elizabeth?" [p. 619]

Almost nothing in Joyce is quite accidental, and surely one could examine more closely his possible reasons for using these two operas in particular in the play. Outwardly, however, they do little to deepen or magnify the dramatic significance of the scenes in which they appear; rather, they serve in a minor role by adding a realistic accent to the action of the play.

In other words, they are "stage business," no more, no less, like the sound of Archie's piano lesson heard offstage in the first act.

*I saw Exiles performed in 1977 in New York City by the Circle Repertory Company, with Alan Jordan, Stephanie Gordon, Neil Flanagan, and Nancy Killmer in the main roles. As a Joycean, I found the play "interesting"; but it was no Sweeney Todd, that's for sure.

— The Webmaster

Exiles Playbill - Cover Exiles Playbill - Cast & Crew
Playbill for Circle Rep 1977 Production of Exiles
Source: Webmaster's private collection

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