by Kirk Woodward
[About two months ago, Kirk Woodward wrote me that he was “going to read all six volumes of [Shaw’s] ‘Collected Plays and Prefaces.’” He was taking notes as he read, he said, and “almost certainly have a Shaw article in my future.” Well, a month later, Kirk sent me not one article on the great Irish playwright, but five, all based on his close reading of the six- volume Bernard Shaw: Complete Plays with Prefaces, (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1963). He arranged the sections in chronological order according to the years in which Shaw finished writing the plays (the years of first productions are often much later); the first installment is published below. I’ll post the remaining four articles of “Re-Reading Shaw” over the next two months (more or less), one every couple of weeks or so.
[I see no point in telling you, even in précis, what Kirk found to say about the writings of Shaw. As regular ROTters will know, Kirk’s a longtime fan of Shaw, even as he recognizes the playwright’s shortcomings and deficiencies. I’ll let you all discover for yourselves what Kirk has come up with. Besides, Kirk’s comments are all tailored to each play and its preface—though some themes do emerge. I will add that one of the wonderful benefits of Kirk’s somewhat monumental task is that we all get to learn something about the many Shaw plays we haven’t read or seen ourselves—of several of which, I’ll admit, I’d never even heard. Beyond that, I hope you’ll read Kirk’s remarks here with the same relish I did (it was piccalilli), and that you’ll come back for the next four installments. ~Rick]
I’ve recently finished a lengthy and surely noteworthy task: I’ve read all six volumes of Bernard Shaw: Complete Plays with Prefaces (Dodd, Mead & Company, 1963 – from here on I will call it the Plays), including, as the introduction to the first volume says, “some sixty plays and playlets, ranging from three-page Beauty’s Duty to four-hundred page Back to Methuselah. . . . His Prefaces, Notes, Handbooks, Postscripts and other ancillary prose total almost as many words and pieces as the plays themselves.”
All in all we are talking about some 4,600 pages of material. Remarkable enough, and Shaw, of course, over the course of his long life (1954-1950), wrote a great deal more than that.
I have always enjoyed reading Shaw, but I realized that my reading was spotty: some plays I had read, some I had not, some I had only read pieces of.
My impression is that Shaw is not an academic favorite – that professors of literature tend to think of him as a journalist, an impression with some justification, since he worked as a journalist for years, a brilliant one, and the prefaces to his plays, in particular, give the impression that he writes them to promote ideas he’s got about various problems in society.
Every year or so I hurl at [the reviewers] a long play full of insidious propaganda, with a moral in every line. They never discover what I am driving at: it is always too plainly and domestically stated to be grasped by their subtle and far flung minds; but they feel that I am driving at something: probably something they had better not agree with if they value their livelihoods. (From the Preface to “The Six of Calais”)
However, although the point has been made before, it’s worth noting again that Shaw’s prefaces and plays don’t necessarily have a one-to-one relationship to each other. Occasionally a preface will clearly be written in support of a play, but frequently it either tangentially relates to the play being discussed, or it carries a polemic far beyond what the play suggests.
Eric Bentley has pointed out in his book Bernard Shaw (New Directions, 1947), for example, that although Shaw was a Socialist and frequently wrote supporting his position, there is little direct championing of Socialism in the plays themselves.
Shaw’s major rhetorical game in his prefaces is to make his points with such energy that both readers and opponents find him difficult to answer. Bentley, in his essay on Shaw in Thinking about the Playwright (Northwestern University Press, 1987), accurately writes:
The very tone of Shaw’s writings . . . shames the reader or listener into feeling he is the deluded ignoramus who needs to have his consciousness raised by this engine of enlightenment [Shaw himself]. It is odd that Shaw is held to be fond of discussion, since what his rhetoric tends to do is: put topics beyond discussion. Brilliance after all doesn’t make one see. It dazzles. Clever rhetoric bewilders.
As we go along I will note exceptions to Bentley’s comment, where Shaw’s tone in a preface is more genial, but I will also note places where his prose has the effect of a battering ram.
On, then, to the plays, in chronological order of the year their writing was completed. Shaw’s spelling and punctuation are unusual (he does not put a period after abbreviations or, often, an apostrophe in contractions); when I quote him I reproduce them.
TRIFLES AND TOMFOOLERIES is Shaw’s title for a collection of six of his short plays:
. . . there is a demand for little things as well as for big things, and . . . as I happen to have a few little things in my shop I may as well put them in the window with the rest.
He wrote a number of these. In these pieces the titles of the shorter plays will contain lower case letters.
Releasing himself now and then from the requirement to improve the world, he is able to be just a working playwright, at his most human. For example, in many of the plays he exercises his enthusiasm for silly names. My favorite, a character only referred to, is Roosenhonkers-Pipstein.
The dates after the name of each play indicate first the year in which it was written, then the year it was first performed. In Shaw’s case both dates matter: sometimes he could not get a play produced for years after it was written.
I am not aiming for completeness in these essays. To be thorough about Shaw would require a book, or more likely a library. I will simply record points that interest me. This is not, so to speak, a six month residency abroad, just a city bus tour with a chatty guide.
WIDOWERS’ HOUSES (1885-1892 / 1892) – Shaw’s first play, originally a collaboration with the drama critic William Archer, who gave Shaw a plot for a three act play that Shaw used up by early Act III. Archer didn’t like what Shaw had written and the project languished for seven years, until the newly established Independent Theatre needed material and Shaw dusted off and completed his old manuscript.
The atmosphere of the play is upper class (the first line is “Two beers for us out here”). The drama is somewhat primitive; in particular, the male lead, Dr. Trench, has a companion or confident unfortunately named Cokane who appears to exist only so people will have someone to talk to. Act III is somewhat hard to follow.
But the resolution is clear: everyone decides there is no alternative to accepting the income generated by the unscrupulous slumlord Sartorius. All of us, in other words, are at fault for poverty and its conditions. The play was performed two evenings by the Independent Theatre and caused quite a fuss.
THE PHILANDERER (1893 / 1905) – Shaw wrote in 1930 about his second play:
There is a disease to which plays as well as men become liable with advancing years. In men it is called doting, in plays dating. . . . I make no attempt to bring the play up to date. I should as soon think of bringing Ben Johnson’s [sic] Bartholomew Fair up to date by changing the fair to a Woolworth store.
With the passage of even more years, The Philanderer doesn’t seem dated at all, because it’s now definitely a period piece, and a good one.
It is a heady mix of elements: a man who effortlessly attracts women, and two women who are attracted to him; a doctor who has discovered a disease by dissecting animals, and is crushed to find that it isn’t really a disease at all and that his patient is going to live; an Ibsen Club, where the members (men and women) try to apply the Norwegian’s lessons to everyday life; and so on.
Shaw was 39 when he wrote this play, and his skill is already noteworthy. It is produced now and then, and the roles in it are terrific; actors must love to perform it. Shaw knew how to write for them.
MRS WARREN’S PROFESSION (1893-1894 / 1905) – that is, prostitution; she’s a madam, a businesswoman who provides well for her staff. If that sounds like Undershaft in Major Barbara, that’s because the situation is the same – except that in this earlier play Shaw doesn’t try to pretend that money is the only value in the world. From the preface:
Mrs Warren’s defence of herself is not only bold and specious, but valid and unanswerable. But it is no defence at all of the vice which she organizes. It is no defence of an immoral life to say that the alternative offered by society collectively to poor women is a miserable life, starved, overworked, fetid, ailing, ugly. Though it is quite natural and right for Mrs Warren to choose what is, according to her lights, the least immoral alternative, it is none the less infamous of society to offer such alternatives. For the alternatives offered are not morality and immorality, but two sorts of immorality.
At this point Shaw’s focus is humane. That will change; he will come to put systems above individuals, the very thing he originally sets out to attack.
The first act of the play briskly – too briskly – sets up the kinds of character reversals Shaw will develop throughout his writing, but they lack the clarity he will later achieve. There is an early “hidden secret” in Vivie, the daughter’s, parentage: because of her mother’s occupation, the men don’t know who her father is, so who can she safely marry?
However, this issue largely evaporates. The dramaturgy is creaky: everybody has to be brought together, everybody has to say things that set the others off, and in the last section of the play Vivie starts to sound like an automaton.
A widely repeated quotation comes from a character in this play:
I don’t believe in circumstances. The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and, if they can’t find them, make them.
This statement, like Hamlet’s “To thine own self be true,” is rousing, but it too is ironized by its context in the play, which is written to demonstrate that poor women often cannot choose their circumstances. The play raises that subject, but it doesn’t seem to me to really dramatize it.
ARMS AND THE MAN (1894) – set in Bulgaria, during and immediately after a Balkan war; but the setting is domestic, and the events so romantic that they were later turned into an operetta (The Chocolate Soldier, 1908, with music by Oscar Straus, which Shaw hated). [editor’s note: I posted a report on Arms from a visit I made to Canada’s Shaw Festival; see “Two Shaw Plays (Shaw Festival 2006),” 25 September 2012, and “The 2006 Shaw Festival (Part 2),” 11 December 2015. ~Rick]
Some of Shaw’s plays feel like school assignments, not surprisingly since he always has a didactic purpose somewhere in mind. Arms and the Man, however, is a delightful play about the gap between ideals (that is, illusions) and facts, and it does not feel like an assignment at all. Shaw certainly never aimed to make an audience happy – heaven forbid! But I can’t think of any play that makes me happier. It is, to put it colloquially, a peach.
CANDIDA (1894-1895 / 1897) – Shaw’s continuing theme of the struggle between romantic ideals and concrete reality takes an interesting turn in this play about a romantic triangle. The three are a Christian Socialist minister; his wife, the Candida of the title; and a poet, Eugene, more than a decade younger than Candida and intensely in love with her. Eugene tries to disabuse Candida of her illusions about her husband so she will leave the minister for him.
But does she have illusions about either man? And doesn’t the poet desire her in order to replace one set of illusions with another? At the end of the play he seems – perhaps – to have found a way to live without romance. But we must figure out what that means for ourselves. Shaw subtitled the play “A Mystery.”
Shaw had a hard time getting the play produced, but once it succeeded (first in the United States, then in England) it became a sort of craze. The character Candida is charming, and more than that, she is maternal. Grown men with careers are mere babies in her hands. This fact surely has one kind of appeal to men, and another kind to women.
Candida is not the first or last play of Shaw’s we will see where the woman is wise and the men are more or less fools.
The dialogue and characterization are first rate, and there is plenty of comedy. It seems to me that the minister’s early uncertainties about his wife, and Candida’s compulsion to choose between the two men, are extreme; but the play as a whole sparkles.
It is, inevitably, one episode in the continuing saga of Shaw’s struggle with religion. Since the play is about idealistic illusions, the minister’s Christianity must be seen to be mistaken, no matter how much the minister claims to believe it (as previously occurred in Major Barbara); even his Socialism is used for laughs.
THE MAN OF DESTINY (1885 / 1897) – Shaw wrote The Man of Destiny with the famed actress Ellen Terry (1847-1928) in mind. “The man of destiny” is Napoleon, and Shaw wrote that role for Henry Irving (1838-1905), the actor-manager of London’s Lyceum Theater, where Terry was its, and Irving’s, leading lady. Irving, infuriated by things Shaw said about him in reviews, pretended for a long time to be interested in the play, strung Shaw along, and never produced it.
The description below of Lady Cicely in Captain Brassbound’s Conversion may be applied to the Lady, the role intended for Ellen Terry in The Man of Destiny, except that the Lady is nowhere near as entertaining as Lady Cicely. Neither is the play, which reads as a not very interesting attempt to write a “vehicle” for two performers, without much else going on in it – and that’s what it is.
YOU NEVER CAN TELL (1895-1896 / 1899) – Shaw was the drama reviewer for The Saturday Review when The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) opened in 1895. Shaw’s review was unenthusiastic about the play, asserting that it was heartless and that he hated being tickled into laughter.
However, it must have made an impression on Shaw, who knew Wilde and frequently promoted his work. You Never Can Tell distinctly shows the influence of Wilde’s play. The tone of the first act, and the rapid delivery necessary to play it, are distinctly Wildean, and the story shares many plot elements with Earnest.
MRS CLANDON [relentlessly] On your honor, Mr Valentine, are you in earnest?
VALENTINE [desperately] On my honor I am in earnest. Only, I have always been in earnest; and yet - ! Well, here I am, you see.
MRS CLANDON That is just what I suspected.
From the second act on, the play is more Shaw than Wilde, but it does not lose the brightness of the first act. The young people who make up the core of the play are irrepressible and outspoken, and William, the waiter, has a knack for being at exactly the right place at the right time with the right thing to say.
I saw this play performed once, years ago, and I remembered it as mostly conversation. I was wrong; there is plenty of plot. Reading the play by myself, I laughed out loud when I saw one particular plot twist coming. In fact I laughed through most of the play from there on. It is a thrill to watch a master craftsman at work.
BOHUN. . . . It’s unwise to be born; it’s unwise to be married; it’s unwise to live; and it’s wise to die.
WAITER. Then, if I may respectfully put a word in, sir, so much the worse for wisdom!
Shaw’s theme of the Life Force working through Woman makes a couple of appearances, and at this point in my reading it is hard to get excited about it, but so what. This wonderful play should be performed regularly for the sheer fun of it. And I second the last words of the play:
Cheer up, sir, cheer up. Every man is frightened of marriage when it comes to the point; but it often turns out very comfortable, very enjoyable and happy indeed, sir – from time to time. I never was master in my own house, sir; my wife was like your young lady: she was of a commanding and masterful disposition, which my son has inherited. But if I had my life to live twice over, I’d do it again: I’d do it again, I assure you. You never can tell, sir: you never can tell.
THE DEVIL’S DISCIPLE (1896-1897 / 1897) – in his earlier plays Shaw often borrowed forms of theater popular at the time, and inverted them. Here the popular form is melodrama; Shaw says he used as many elements of it as he could – the black sheep brother, the reading of the will, the downtrodden scullery maid, the threatened hanging, the last minute escape, and so on – in this play set during the American Revolution.
But the core of the play is pure Shaw: at least two people, maybe more, find out in the moment of decision who they really are, and who they are not.
The first I knew of this play was watching the 1959 film version, in which Laurence Olivier plays General Burgoyne with such style and ease that I fell in love with it. Nothing quite matches the high comedy of the Burgoyne scenes that dominate the third act of the play; but the other scenes are highly satisfactory as well.
One sentiment in the play resonates throughout Shaw’s career: “You see, men have these strange notions, Mrs Anderson; and women see the folly of them.”
CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA (1898 / 1901) – Shaw complained that Shakespeare’s Caesar says nothing at all that a great man would say. I think that statement is misleading. Shakespeare’s Caesar just doesn’t say as much as Shaw’s does.
Although Caesar is the title role and although his influence permeates Shakespeare’s play, he is actually in it only briefly. All he needs to do in order to appear “great” is to carry the name of a great person, and not say anything really stupid.
Shaw’s Caesar says:
He who has never hoped can never despair. Caesar, in good or bad fortune, looks his fate in the face.
Shakespeare’s Caesar says:
Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Shakespeare, it seems to me, wins that contest hands down.
The play, of course, is based on historical events. One element of Shaw’s brilliance is that out of those events he chooses the strongest and most interesting for his play. (One would think that’s de rigueur, but it’s not.)
Alan Jay Lerner borrowed the setup of the first act, where Cleopatra meets Caesar in a lonely place without knowing who he is, for the opening scene of the musical Camelot (1960), and it is the strongest scene of that musical.
Most of Caesar and Cleopatra is as entertaining today as it was over a hundred years ago. The only parts that may have dated are some of the gags – continually mispronouncing the name of Cleopatra’s frightening lady-in-waiting Ftatateeta, and characterizing Caesar’s British slave Britannus as the antecedent of a Whitehall gentleman.
Caesar is an early Shaw portrait of what he will come to call the Superman – the person who has grown past our everyday world and lives above it. Caesar is much more complex than that brief description makes it sound, but he’s a start. Caesar, Shaw says, is “simply doing what he naturally wants to do.”
CAPTAIN BRASSBOUND’S CONVERSION (1899 / 1900) – This delightful play is not often performed, perhaps because the lead role, Lady Cicely Waynflete, requires a particular type of actress to play it. I saw Ingrid Bergman in the part in a short-lived Broadway production in 1972. Ms. Bergman was lovely but entirely wrong for the part. She was all too genuine (and the rest of the production was much too unfocused).
Lady Cicely is one of Shaw’s best representations of a woman who both fascinates and frustrates: she cheerfully agrees with men on everything, while knowing that everything they say is foolishness and acting accordingly. She is maddening; but she is wonderful, and extremely funny.
“The Admirable Bashville, or, Constancy Rewarded” (1901 / 1902) was based on a novel, one of five that Shaw wrote, called Cashel Byron’s Profession, Byron’s profession being boxing. All five novels were financial failures – until Cashel Byron began to sell in the United States, causing Shaw to fear that he would lose his copyright.
He wrote “The Admirable Bashville” in a week to preserve his rights. It has an old-fashioned romantic plot, and no lesson about society’s faults to teach.
And Shaw wrote it in blank verse – because that was easier than prose, he says. As with “Cymbeline Refinished” (part 5 of this series), I don’t feel that the verse has much relation to poetry. But it keeps on coming in waves, and after a while it begins to create a kind of manic charm.
[The next section of “Re-Reading Shaw” covers the plays written between 1901 and 1909. I hope you’ll come back to ROT in about two weeks to read the second part of Kirk’s series.]