On 30 August 1900 Joyce sent his play, A Brilliant Career, to William Archer.
Written around the time Joyce was in Mullingar during the summer of 1900, Joyce dedicated his first play to his own soul. Archer did not dismiss the play entirely and his comments on it were very encouraging. Even so, Joyce himself soon dismissed the play, and he destroyed it in 1902.
John Joyce had been employed to revise voting lists in the Mullingar area and took his eldest son with him to spend the summer of 1900 there. Joyce completed his play before returning to Dublin in August. A drama in four acts, the title page bore the dedication: ‘To My own Soul I dedicate the first true work of my life.’
According to Stanislaus Joyce’s admittedly vague recollection of it, the play was a realistic drama that centred on Paul, a young doctor, who abandons the girl he loves and his youthful idealism in order to marry another woman and to pursue his career. He is successful and ends up as the popular mayor of a port-town. He manages to prevent an outbreak of plague becoming an epidemic with the assistance of a woman who turns out to be Angela, the girl he had loved, and Paul realises that his brilliant career is ‘dust and ashes.’
Stanislaus, who was given the play to read once Joyce had completed it, described it as a rehash of elements from Ibsen’s plays When We Dead Awaken, A Doll’s House, and The League of Youth. Stanislaus recalled the manuscript was written in Joyce’s firm handwriting, with violet ink for the stage directions, and with hardly a correction. Though he admired it at first, Stanislaus was later disappointed at its resemblance to Ibsen’s plays.
Stanislaus also felt that the dedication ‘to my own soul’ was too flamboyant, though he felt that what Joyce meant by this was that he, unlike Paul in the play, was not about to sell his soul for the sake of a career. In his response to the play, William Archer criticised Joyce for filling the stage with a host of un-individualised characters, but Stanislaus claimed many of them were identifiably modelled on friends and fellow students at university.
By the time he replied to Archer, Joyce had also turned against his own play and he destroyed it in 1902. The only extant pieces are the title page and a four-line song.
Sources & Further Reading:
Ellmann, Richard: James Joyce – new and revised edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.
Joyce, James: Letters of James Joyce, vol. II edited by Richard Ellmann, London: Faber & Faber, 1966.
Joyce, Stanislaus: My Brother’s Keeper, edited with an Introduction by Richard Ellmann, Preface by TS Eliot, London: Faber & Faber, 1958.