by Kirk Woodward
[This is part 2 of Kirk Woodward’s series, “Re-Reading Shaw,” his commentary upon reading all six volumes of the playwright’s Complete Plays with Prefaces (Dodd, Mead & Company, 1963). The first section, covering plays written from 1885 to 1902, was posted on ROT on 3 July, and though there are some references to earlier parts of the series in later ones, each section substantially stands on its own. Nonetheless, I strongly recommend reading them in order to get a sense of the sweep of Shaw’s work over the 65 years of his playwriting career. (Even before the Irishman turned to writing for the theater, he had a significant career as a respected music and theater critic.)]
MAN AND SUPERMAN (1901-1903 / 1905) begins with the inscription “To Arthur Bingham Walkley” (1855-1926), drama critic for the Times of London, who Shaw says suggested that he write a play about Don Juan, the fictional womanizing libertine.
Shaw then goes on to write a preface of dumbfounding folderol, crammed with assertions like “It may seem a long step from [John] Bunyan to [Friedrich] Nietzsche, but the difference between their conclusions is merely formal” (like hell it is), and the claim that his Don Juan character is a direct descendant of the original fictional Don.
There are in fact only the small differences that he is neither a womanizer nor a libertine – he’s only a society radical who has written a book called The Revolutionist’s Handbook (which Shaw has written and attaches to the play, and in which Shaw, following his usual pattern, redefines the concept of Revolution into something unrecognizable).
The high-sounding nonsense of the preface leads into a lively comedy of social relations, mixed with a heavy dose of discussion and enough plot to make one think it might equally well have been a novel.
It is a four act play, and in Act III a famous “set piece” interrupts the plot, a discussion between four main characters of the original Don Juan story – Don Juan, Dona Ana, the Commodore (her father), and the Devil – that has become known as “Don Juan in Hell.” Hell, in Shaw’s vision, is the place where everyone is completely entranced by ideals.
The four characters are played by the actors who play their counterparts in the other three acts. (Some productions cut this act; occasionally the act has been performed by itself.) I had not realized until this reading of the play that the third act is not all that different from the others.
They are all filled with talk about ideas – if not Shaw’s ideas, at least ideas of interest to Shaw; but in Acts 1, 2, and 4 the ideas belong to their characters, and are not arbitrarily assigned to them.
I do not feel the same is true of Act III, “Don Juan in Hell.” In the rest of the play Jack Tanner, the Don Juan character, is so extreme that he comes across as a bit loony (“possibly a little mad,” Shaw says in his description). But in Act III he, as Don Juan, clearly speaks for Shaw.
I am not saying the scene is only a pamphlet – the dialogue is very clever – but from the time Don Juan begins his series of monologues on the subject of the Life Force and Woman as its instrument, I find myself increasingly irritated by the repetition of concepts that aren’t original, difficult to understand, or fundamentally very interesting, and are repeated so often that taking a swig every time a character says “Life Force” would make a potent drinking game.
What is this Life Force, exactly? I remember listening to a recording of “Don Juan in Hell,” as performed by Charles Boyer, Agnes Moorehead, Cedric Hardwicke, and Charles Laughton, with my friend Steve Johnson. When it was over, Steve said he didn’t think Shaw was clear whether the Life Force was personal or impersonal. Is it blind or mind?
It seems to me that Steve is correct and that Shaw wants to have it both ways – or at least to allow his audience to think that it could be either. In any case, the Life Force, Don Juan says, “needs a brain . . .” “The Life Force is stupid.” Personally I am not sure Don Juan is putting the blame in the right place.
“Every child,” Shaw says in another preface, “is an experiment by the Life Force.” But an experiment requires a scientist or an observer – an experimenter, one who stands above the experiment. Shaw does not appear to notice this.
The third act does not begin with the “Don Juan in Hell” scene, incidentally. It begins with an extraordinarily articulate group of brigands in the mountains of Spain. Of course they are articulate. In this play everyone talks. (At one plot point, the chief brigand exclaims, “A dramatic coincidence!”)
One sees in Man and Superman Shaw’s ability to draw on a huge range of reading and to synthesize what he reads.
In the case of this play, Walkley, I suspect, challenged Shaw to write a Don Juan play to goad him into writing something with more sex in it than Shaw usually chose to include. Shaw answers him by writing a play about the sexual instinct, which he sees as an instrument of the Life Force that uses woman’s manipulation of man to advance the species.
One can get tired, however, of Shaw’s continual insistence in the play on the sexual instinct and on how woman drags man along – or rather about the talk about it by John Tanner, the title character (both the Man and the Superman). At least I do.
Act IV seems to me a bit schematic, although I have not seen it performed and might feel differently if I saw it staged.
It was while reading Act IV that I realized that the play is Shaw’s version of what he thinks Shakespeare should have written in Much Ado about Nothing. (Matt Wolf made this same point in a review of a London production of Man and Superman in the New York Times, 11 March 2015.)
Shaw severely criticized the characters of Beatrice and Benedick:
Paraphrase the encounters of Benedick and Beatrice . . . and it will become apparent to the most infatuated Shakespearean that they contain at best nothing out of the common in thought or wit, and at worst a good deal of vulgar naughtiness. . . nothing more than the platitudes of proverbial philosophy, with a very occasional curiosity in the shape of a rudiment of some modern idea, not followed up. (The Saturday Review, 26 Feb 1898)
Shaw attempts to correct Shakespeare’s alleged insufficiencies by making his Ann Whitefield tricky, and his John Tanner full of complaints about being entrapped by women and the Life Force. As with the character of Julius Caesar, it seems to me that Shaw does not surpass Shakespeare here – rather the contrary.
About that “Superman”. . . not a bird, or a plane . . . Shaw took the term from Nietzsche’s “Übermensch,” but a better translation might be Over-Man, or perhaps Beyond-Human. Shaw uses the term to suggest that humanity might somehow outgrow itself and become something greater – “the ideal individual being omnipotent, omniscient, infallible, and withal completely, unilludedly self conscious: in short, a god.”
Shaw knows at some level how unappealing this sounds; but it’s the Devil, interestingly, who says, “Beware of the pursuit of the Superhuman: it leads to an indiscriminate contempt for the Human.” Shaw’s plays illustrate the Devil’s comment more than once.
The word “superman,” along with the concept, has lost its charm and now seems as ghastly as Nietzsche’s other futuristic idea, the “Eternal Return,” which Shaw nods to in Act III but doesn’t otherwise promote, being allergic to an “eternal” anything. Shaw uses “the Superman” aspirationally but fails to suggest any way it might actually be an improvement on our present condition.
As Shaw grew older and more frustrated with the pace of change in society, he appears to have begun to think he had discovered the Superman in real human beings – for example, in Lenin and Stalin. The size of his mistake is the measure of his desperation.
JOHN BULL’S OTHER ISLAND (1904) – Shaw’s play about Ireland, his homeland, written for and rejected by the Abbey Theatre because, as William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), the theater’s manager, said, it was technically too demanding to produce, but also, as everyone understood, because Shaw presented the Ireland of his day realistically:
It was uncongenial to the whole spirit of the neo-Gaelic movement, which is bent on creating a new Ireland after its own ideal, whereas my play is a very uncompromising presentment of the real old Ireland.
Shaw actually understates the matter. The play is an attack on everything an Irish audience could possibly believe about itself. Shaw claims that he gets his effects by telling the simple truth about things, but in fact he frequently goes out of his way to be as obnoxious about them as possible; his denials of this are disingenuous.
It makes sense that the play had to succeed in London before it could be performed in Dublin; success at least took a bit of the sting off it.
(As a tip of the hat to the Abbey Theatre, the third act includes a long scene in which a large group of people sit and talk – the kind of staging for which the Abbey was most noted.)
There are three prefaces to the play, less overbearing in tone than some of his more didactic introductions, dated 1912, 1906, and 1929. In the first, Shaw predicts how events will work out in Ireland; as he admits in a note, he was completely wrong. In the second, written for the play’s first publication, he analyzes the Irish and English national characters. In the third, he summarizes the ghastly historical events – the Easter Rebellion, the Black and Tans, partition – that shaped the Ireland we know today. In the course of these essays he makes trenchant observations on colonialism, for example:
A healthy nation is as unconscious of its nationality as a healthy man of his bones. But if you break a nation’s nationality it will think of nothing else but getting it set again.
Acquired rights are deduced from political constitutions; but political constitutions are deduced from natural rights.
A political scheme that cannot be carried out except by soldiers will not be a permanent one.
We settled the Irish Question, not as civilized and reasonable men should have settled it, but as dogs settle a dispute over a bone.
What is left of John Bull’s Other Island, now the Irish Question has been (more or less) settled? The play became famous when King Edward VII, at a special performance, laughed so hard that he broke his chair, and it was a commercial success for Shaw. But the humor is of a particular kind. It’s a comedy of reversals – in particular, reversals of the ideas that the characters have about themselves.
In this sense it resembles the plays of another Irishman, Eugene O’Neill, whoseThe Iceman Cometh (1939 / 1946) and Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1941-1942 / 1956) also dramatize the destruction of illusions. O’Neill is not a funny writer; Shaw’s tone here, of course, is comic, but also bitter. “My way of joking is to tell the truth,” says the former priest, Keegan, who has a lot of Shaw in him; “It’s the funniest joke in the world.”
Broadbent, the English businessman who in 24 hours manages to dominate an entire swath of Ireland, is a version of Undershaft, the arms dealer in Major Barbara, but without Undershaft’s self-awareness; and there is nothing humorous about Undershaft anyway. As the Irish character Larry Doyle says in the play, “I wish I could find a country to live in where the facts were not brutal and the dreams not unreal.”
There’s a fine line between illusion and poetry. Shaw tells us that our poetic image of Ireland is an illusion – and that the same is true of most of our lives. Whether or not that’s so, poetry is forbidden territory for Shaw, although Keegan’s “vision” at the end of the play sticks in the mind. I see it as a bleak play, a decade and a half before the melancholy Heartbreak House. One wonders what the King was laughing at.
“How He Lied To Her Husband” (1904) was written as a curtain raiser for “The Man of Destiny,” which wasn’t long enough for a full evening. It is a telescoped version of Candida, with a married woman and a younger man who idolizes her. When the poems he wrote about her are lost, and presumably found by her gossipy sister-in-law, she becomes utterly realistic, and the poet is disillusioned. Then the husband comes home...
“How He Lied,” like “The Glimpse of Reality,” is a marvelous short play, funny and smart, and well worthy of production.
MAJOR BARBARA (1905) – This play has an excellent reputation. When I first read it years ago, my impression was that it (like Saint Joan) was essentially a tragedy – that is, a play about a mighty conflict between powerful forces that will not yield.
I still feel that “tragedy” describes the play at its best. This time around, though, I see more clearly what Shaw is up to, and I can’t applaud it. It is in Major Barbara that Shaw shows among the first definite signs of the ugly pattern that will disfigure his later life – his admiration for dictators, primarily Stalin, at times Hitler and Mussolini as well, and others in theory.
“Major” Barbara is a Salvation Army officer, working to save the lives and souls of the poor, and her father, Andrew Undershaft, also dedicates himself to lifting the living conditions of his workers – except that his business is weapons and munitions, so he is equally to be credited for good working conditions, and for countless brutal deaths throughout the world. He offers to underwrite the work of the Salvation Army. Barbara finds this outrageous; the Army finds it a miracle. Barbara’s faith is shattered.
Undershaft’s position is that there is no active force in life except money; that poverty is the only evil, and abundance the only good; that the only moral question is whether one is well-off or not. Shaw astonishingly writes his preface to the play, not as though he were Shaw, but as though he were Undershaft – as though he believed exactly what Undershaft believes, even to the point that, as the arms czar says, a person doesn’t really believe in something until he’s ready – not to die, but – to kill for it.
For me, the effect of this is ghastly – not that the character of Undershaft should feel this way, because that’s appropriate, but that Shaw should appear to. This preface and play prefigure Shaw’s future fascination with dictators, and his cheerful acceptance of executions as a means of improving the world.
The critic Eric Bentley, in general an admirer of Shaw, called him out on this point, asking: is killing really the only way to improve the world? Are there no alternatives? Shaw becomes unsettlingly ready to accept the sacrifice of human life for the benefit of – human life! Reading the preface and play this time around made my skin crawl.
Murder is also the theme of “Passion, Poison, and Petrifaction” (1905), a lunatic farce in which the victim, among other actions, eats some of the ceiling. There is a whisper of a theme here about the role of ideals in our lives, but mostly you can’t hear the whisper over the knockabout farce.
THE DOCTOR’S DILEMMA (1906) – The first play in the collection is one I had always avoided on the understanding that it wasn’t top drawer Shaw. To my delight, it turns out to be a well-crafted melodrama about the dangers of being a Professional, whether in medicine or some other field (this play includes Shaw’s famous – and accurate – aphorism that “all professions are conspiracies against the laity”).
The core of the plot is a story of sexual desire – a doctor lusts after the wife of a potential patient, a dishonest, slippery con man who also happens to be a brilliant artist. Perhaps the doctor ought to save the artist’s life because of his potential for great contributions to society? On the other hand, the man is essentially a sociopath, and if his life is not saved, the doctor may be able to marry his wife! People who consider Shaw’s plays “bloodless” might want to consider what happens in this one. The dialogue is clever throughout.
“The Interlude at the Playhouse” (1907), written for the opening of a new theater, is a comedy sketch for the theater’s actor-manager, scheduled to give a speech, and his wife, trying to prepare the audience to like it. Except for a bit of preaching at the end, it is consistently funny, showing again that among many other things, Shaw was a fine comedy writer.
GETTING MARRIED (1908) has a preface on marriage almost a hundred pages long. Is there that much to say about marriage? “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” But that was Tolstoy, not Shaw. However, this is one of Shaw’s more agreeable prefaces, because it is one of his least utopian.
We shall in a very literal sense empty the baby out with the bath by abolishing an institution which needs nothing more than a little obvious and easy rationalizing to make it not only harmless but comfortable, honorable, and useful.
This is not always the note we hear in Shaw. (Another exception is the waiter's speech from You Never Can Tell quoted in the first article in this series.)
The preface is long, among other reasons, because Shaw doesn’t consider any social problem to be separate from society as a whole. “Until we abolish poverty,” he says, “it is impossible to push rational measures of any kind very far.” This perspective opens the door a good deal wider than does a simple proposal for the liberalization of divorce laws, which is Shaw’s basic recommendation.
The preface predictably contains numerous unsupported generalizations delivered as settled fact. But there are also shrewd observations. Among these are reflections on the advantages of large families; on the difference between the “what” of a problem (identifiable by popular opinion) and the “how” of its solution (probably requiring expert help); and on Othello’s feeling for Desdemona (“this is not what a man feels about the thing he loves, but about the thing he owns”).
Getting Married and its preface have a comfortable relationship: the preface illuminates the play, or the play illuminates the preface, take your pick. Shaw wrote the play in one long act, in which the characters try to figure out what marriage is and what they think of it.
There is a central situation – an engaged couple read a pamphlet about marriage just before their wedding ceremony, and it frightens them – surrounded by many other existing and potential marriages.
There is a lot of talk – too much for the play to support – and yet another female character entering toward the end to give the play a boost. “Marriage,” says a Wisdom character in the play, “is tolerable enough in its way if youre easygoing and don’t expect too much from it. But it doesn’t bear thinking about. The great thing is to get the young people tied up before they know what they’re in for.”
THE SHEWING-UP OF BLANCO POSNET (1909) – Blanco Posnet is a one-act play, set in the American West. A notable fact about Shaw is that, while his ideas remain basically consistent and reappear in play after play, the plays themselves have a great variety of forms and settings. In externals, one play by Shaw seldom resembles another one. Shaw certainly had never been in the American West, and his picture of it has been picked at, but it does the job.
Shaw being Shaw, of course, Blanco Posnet is not a typical Western, being a story of spiritual redemption. Posnet says, toward the end of the play:
By Jiminy, gents, theres a rotten game, and theres a great game. I played the rotten game; but the great game was played on me; and now I’m for the great game every time. Amen.
The play suggests that there are good points in Christianity, but that there is something greater; in this play, Shaw doesn’t make explicit what that is. We can guess he means the Life Force, but an audience member who knew nothing about his theories would have to work hard to extract specifics from this play. In any event, the basic effect of it is highly spiritual.
Blanco Posnet was submitted to the Lord Chamberlain’s Office – the censor of the stage – who denied it a license for performance, on grounds of blasphemy, unless Shaw agreed to make changes including removing references to God from the play – leaving in it, as Shaw pointed out, all the things one would expect God would oppose.
Shaw refused to make the changes; Yeats and Lady Gregory (1852-1932) arranged for the play to be produced unaltered at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, where the Lord Chamberlain could not block it.
The preface to Blanco Posnet tells the story of the battle with censorship and the attempt to have it abolished – an attempt that did not succeed until 1968, eighteen years after Shaw’s death. Since then the British theater, needless to say, has flourished. (Blanco Posnet finally had its U.K. premiere in 1909, but for only two performances, in a “private club,” not a licensed theater.)
“Press Cuttings” (1909) – Shaw burlesques the government’s treatment of the Women’s Suffrage movement in a nearly absurdist sketch demonstrating once again that women and men are practically different species, men being buffoons, and women, brilliant. Reading the sketch works best if one imagines the Monty Python troupe doing the all roles, including the women.
The Censor predictably refused to license the sketch if names resembling those of real politicians and military men were used. Shaw therefore changed the names of the General and Prime Minister to General Bones and Mister Johnson, borrowing them from minstrel shows and thereby making his point even more satirical.
“The Fascinating Foundling” (1909) was written for a charity event at the request of the Prime Minister’s daughter, and Shaw came through with a lively sketch that touches gently on a few social issues but mostly presents people trying to get what they want, totally oblivious to anything else. Fast and funny.
I am not saying that Shaw’s characteristic themes don’t ever pop up in these short plays. The title of the dashing “The Glimpse of Reality” (1909 / 1927) is almost a summary of Shaw’s entire output. The glimpse occurs to a nobleman about to be murdered by well-organized scoundrels; he understands for the first time who he really is, and ironically his insight makes the murderers think he is crazy, so they spare his life (for a price).
This is a really excellent little piece and I’m surprised it’s not more often performed. If you didn’t know the author was Shaw, I’m not sure you’d guess; but who else could the author be?
[As I said in the first installment of Kirk’s Shavian commentary, there are three more sections of “Re-Reading Shaw” and I’ll be posting them every couple of weeks. Part 3 of the series covers the plays Shaw wrote between 1909 and 1920; I hope you’ll come back to ROT at the beginning of August to read what Kirk has to say about the period of the great writer’s work.]