by Kirk Woodward
[Below is the third installment of Kirk Woodward’s series of articles on the theater writings of George Bernard Shaw, based on his reading of all six volumes of the Complete Plays with Prefaces (Dodd, Mead & Company, 1963). The first and second segments, covering, respectively, plays written from 1885 to 1902 and 1901 to 1909, were posted on 3 and 18 July. While it’s not necessary to read parts 1 and 2 before you read part 3, it’s helpful—and I recommend reading the whole series in whatever order in any case because, whether or not you’re a Shaw fan (as both Kirk and I are), he’s an endlessly fascinating figure and Kirk’s take on his work and ideas is more than worth reading.]
MISALLIANCE (1909-1910 / 1910) – The preface, “Parents and Children,” begins aggressively enough in tone to raise suspicions that Shaw wrote it out of frustration over his marriage and his wife Charlotte’s fear and revulsion (according to Michael Holroyd’s 1997 biography Bernard Shaw) at the idea of having children.
Whether this is so or not, the preface ferociously redefines all the aspects of childrearing that Shaw can think of – children are “slaves,” doctors are “quacks,” “the family ideal is a humbug and a nuisance.” Underneath one can feel Shaw’s pain from his own childhood.
The preface does calm down somewhat as it goes along, although Shaw continues to make statements that are, to say the least, arguable, for example that “families are not kept together at present by family feeling but by human feeling,” an assertion that to say the least takes in a lot of territory.
“We must reconcile education with liberty,” he says; urges toleration; and writes, “What is needed in dealing with children is not logic but sense.” Ultimately, “Fine art is the only teacher except torture.”
In a sense the preface is written backward; an acknowledgement that few families resemble each other comes toward the end, when it would have been more helpful at the beginning.
Misalliance, a long play in one act, although usually performed with one or two intermissions, is a play that Shaw does seem to have written by starting to write and seeing what happens, rather than by plotting it out first.
It and its preface have an interesting relationship: the preface expands on the themes and topics in the play in ways that the play only lightly suggests.
The play itself is a romp, or perhaps we should say, a ripping good time. Unfortunately the characters in the play are not really very interesting. Aristotle may have been on to something when he said that plot is the soul of the drama.
The play has precious little plot, so it sails along on the strength of its dialogue, but it’s hard to be interested in anyone in it. Nothing very good or bad is going happen to them. It feels like a Heartbreak House where no one is particularly worried, depressed, or threatened.
In the middle of the play, an airplane crashes; it turns out to contain, not a bomb, but a young female Polish acrobat, vibrant enough to stir up a great deal more talk about marriage. She is definitely a dea ex machina, if not for the storyline, at least for the play itself.
The extravagant ideas and incidents that cluster within the second part of Misalliance . . . all help to establish Shaw’s kinship with Ionesco . . . and show him to be, in R. J. Kaufmann’s words, ‘the godfather, if not actually finicky paterfamilias to the theater of the absurd.’ G.B.S. was familiar with early modernist experiments and had his own agenda for clearing away the dominance of the well-made play.
Shaw even comes close to “breaking the fourth wall,” the imaginary separation of the stage and the audience. We will see more of this kind of daring. I forgot to mention that there is also a mysterious intruder with a gun who hides in a Turkish bath.
The play, in other words, is not a model of tight construction. I wonder if Shaw, who was criticized for borrowing the plots of other plays, was irritated when people criticized him because he didn’t.
“The Dark Lady of the Sonnets” (1910) – Shaw knew Shakespeare’s verse, including the Sonnets, backwards and forwards. He wrote this one act “occasional piece” as part of an effort to create a British Shakespeare National Theater. In it Shakespeare, pursuing his “Dark Lady,” has an unexpected encounter with Queen Elizabeth.
At least the first half of Shaw’s preface, in which he describes why he decided to use Mary Fitton (1578-1647) as the “Dark Lady” in this playlet, is engaging, and the preface contains a line that sets him extremely high in my estimation.
He describes spending his days at the British Library reading, and making the acquaintance of an obsessed Shakespeare researcher named Thomas Tyler, a friendless and solitary man of “astonishing and crushing ugliness,” disfigured by two large goiters on his face.
Shaw struck up an acquaintance with Tyler because “I am not,” as he declares magisterially, “to be frightened or prejudiced by a tumor.” That surely is (to use W. S. Gilbert’s words from H.M.S. Pinafore) “greatly to his credit.”
Shaw had a remarkable ability to make friends, many that one would assume would be his enemies. He was also, of course, a handful, leading Oscar Wilde to call Shaw “an excellent man; he has no enemies, and none of his friends like him.” Friendship is complex; but Shaw did have many friends.
FANNY’S FIRST PLAY (1911) is the surprising answer to the trivia question: “Which play by Shaw had the longest initial run?” It ran for 622 performances, an astonishing number, and deserved its long run. It is a charming comedy.
The preface is short and one of Shaw’s best:
Mere morality, or the substitution of custom for conscience, was once accounted a shameful and cynical thing: people talked of right and wrong, of honor and dishonor, of sin and grace, of salvation and damnation, not of morality and immorality. The word morality, if we met it in the Bible, would surprise us as much as the word telephone or motor car.
Fanny’s first play – meaning the first play she has written – is a play within a play; she has invited several London critics to see her work (they don’t know she wrote it) and tell her what they think. Shaw has fun with this concept: he doesn’t name himself as the actual author, and he models the critics on reviewers of the time. (One of them, Arthur Walkley, who also suggested the idea that became Don Juan in Hell, liked this concept so much that he helped the actor who played “him” with his makeup and movement.)
The play within a play is the only one by Shaw to have a group of young people as its central characters. They and their parents make up most of the play. The young people have all been in jail recently for various hijinks, and those experiences have helped them reach authentic understandings of who they are. Their parents are shocked, and must do their own growing.
Although Shaw calls the play a potboiler – it certainly is an audience pleaser – it contains a number of his themes: women who are miles ahead of men; the way people pretend to be anything but who they really are; the idea that we are better off doing what we want to do, and taking the consequences, than spending our time doing what we think we ought to do in order to please others.
Shaw writes in the preface:
Is it any wonder that I am driven to offer to young people in our suburbs the desperate advice: Do something that will get you into trouble? . . . I hate to see dead people walking about: it is unnatural.
ANDROCLES AND THE LION (1912 / 1913) – Shaw said he wrote Androcles to “show what a play for children should be like.” With its dancing lion, it has reminded many of a British Christmas pantomime. It had a short initial run (55 performances), apparently because it was reported to be irreligious. In fact it characterizes its Christians fairly, if skeptically. The preface is another story.
Shaw’s hundred-page preface (for a two-act play, and seven more pages of explanation follow it!) is titled “Preface on the Prospects of Christianity: Why Not Give Christianity a Trial?” Christians excited by the title might want to calm down. Shaw seldom accepts anyone else’s definition of a concept, a belief, or anything else. He redefines everything.
In this case, he redefines Christianity, re-creating Jesus in his own image. This is not a unique phenomenon, as Fr. Raymond Brown, in An Introduction to the New Testament (Doubleday, 1997) has pointed out:
In The Quest for the Historical Jesus . . . A[lbert] Schweitzer passed judgment on more than a hundred years of such “historical Jesus” research. He contended that most of the investigation . . . told us more about the investigators than about Jesus, for they were describing their own mirror-image reflection.
Here is Shaw:
I must still insist that if Jesus could have worked out the practical problems of a Communist constitution, an admitted obligation to deal with crime without revenge or punishment, and a full assumption by humanity of divine responsibilities, he would have conferred an incalculable benefit on mankind, because these distinctive demands of his are now turning out to be good sense and sound economics.
Shaw’s preface can be intelligent. But it is limited both by his Enlightenment-based scholarship, which has been in many cases superseded; and by his assumptions, which rule out anything he would call supernatural – this from a man who champions the Superman and the Life Force! – who therefore has to assume that toward the end of his ministry Jesus became delusional.
Needless to say, Shaw has no belief in Jesus’ resurrection, which leaves him the problem of accounting for what motivated Jesus’ followers to have the effect they did on the world. He explains this by asserting that the apostle Paul basically invented a new religion using Jesus’ name. This explanation too is seldom today considered credible on the evidence.
Anyone creating a new Jesus story confronts the same problem: the gospel texts and the other New Testament books are the only source materials from the period (the gnostic writings come significantly later).
So anyone trying to pick and choose a Jesus story from those sources is like Dickens’ character Mrs. Todgers (in the novel Martin Chuzzlewit, 1843-44) “a dodgin’ among the tender bits with a fork, and an eatin’ of ‘em.” Making a “version” of the story means choosing the parts one likes, based on one’s own assumptions, and discarding the parts one doesn’t like.
Shaw buttresses his narrative with by now familiar overwrought assertions:
The attitude of the Roman Emperor and the officers of his staff towards the opinions at issue were much the same as those of a modern British Home Secretary towards members of the lower middle classes when some pious policeman charges them with Bad Taste, technically called blasphemy…
After the preface the play is a relief. Androcles shares with The Devil’s Disciple (and others of Shaw’s plays) the theme of a person – numerous persons in this case – who with death imminent finds out what she or he really believes. It is hardly a play for children.
But it is exceptionally well written. Shaw takes religion seriously. The theological discussions in the play emerge from the characters and their situations. Androcles is a wonderful character. So is the lion. The second act is a marvel of dramaturgy: everyone gets a moment.
“Overruled” (1912) – In his preface, Shaw writes about “my playlet, which I offer as a model to all future writers of farcical comedy.” “Overruled” is farcical in its situation: a man and woman, in love with each other on a ship, find that their spouses are also on the ship – and also in love with each other. Aside from this, the play is not a farce but a comedy, in which sex is thoroughly discussed and analyzed.
Shaw’s preface, remarkably serious-minded considering the play that follows it, begins with a discussion of what Shaw calls “polygamy” and most of us would call “infidelity;” jealousy as a learned response; the lack of statistical information on sexual behavior; revenge; farce; sex on stage; realistic stage scenery; the purpose of art; and the failure of farce to fully illustrate sex. It’s hard to think what he left out.
Noel Coward was familiar with Shaw’s plays (Shaw defended him when Coward was accused of plagiarizing the plot of You Never Can Tell for 1921’s The Young Idea). The situation in “Overruled” reappeared in 1930 in Coward’s brilliant play Private Lives.
PYGMALION (1912-1913 / 1913) – Shaw’s biggest popular success is not this or any of his plays, but the musical My Fair Lady (1956), based on this wonderful play about the dictatorial, oblivious language teacher Henry Higgins and the flower seller Eliza Doolittle whom he teaches to act like an upper-class lady.
Alan Jay Lerner, librettist and lyricist of My Fair Lady, took significant pieces of dialogue intact from Shaw’s play. He also brought Higgins and Eliza together at the end of the play, which Shaw would have strenuously objected to, except that he had died in 1950.
My own reading of the play is that Lerner is correct in his estimate of the trajectory of the plot, and Shaw is not; I find his notes about what happens to the characters after the curtain goes down unpersuasive. On this matter opinions, of course, differ.
What I think is unarguable is that Pygmalion is a brilliantly written play, a practically flawless comedy, with an original and engaging plot, vigorous characterization, and frequently hilarious dialogue based, not on gags or jokes, but on the characters themselves.
Shaw claimed that he didn’t work out the plots of his plays in advance, but wrote them as the words came to him, without any thought for structure, and this same comment is often made about his plays as an objection to them. For example, C. D. Warner, in The Library of the World’s Best Literature (1917), writes:
As a playwright, Shaw has never been particularly interested in problems of construction. In his earlier pieces, he was satisfied to pour new wine into old bottles. The content of these early plays was new, but the structure was based upon the pattern which Pinero had previously borrowed from T. W. Robertson. In his later plays, Shaw has introduced no notable improvements in technique. At times he has discarded altogether the pattern of “the well-made play”; at other times he has reverted to the loose and easy pattern of the Elizabethan “chronicle-history”: but in such experiments as these, he has merely revolted against the rigors of contemporary dramaturgy without offering any acceptable substitute for the structure which he has attempted to discard. As an architect of plays, Shaw is certainly inferior to Pinero and Jones, and possibly to Galsworthy. He has never made a pattern so remarkable as that of ‘The Thunderbolt’ or ‘Mrs. Dane’s Defense’; and he has never built a structure so self-sustaining and so rigorous as that of ‘Strife.’
The plays of Bernard Shaw may lose their potency within a score of years, because they were so novel at the time when they were written.
I see contradictions in this passage. In any case, it’s possible that Shaw wrote some of his plays by starting at one end and writing until he was finished, without prior calculation. It’s equally possible that he was so aware of the requirements of play structure that he didn’t have to think much about it.
But it’s just as likely that a number of his plays were carefully plotted in advance, whether on paper or in his mind. The structure of Pygmalion is impeccable. It’s just a marvelous play in every way.
“Great Catherine” (1913) is a raucous playlet about the Russian Empress and an English military man. It has no obvious purpose – Catherine is not even a superman! – beyond contrasting the presumably sexually uninhibited Catherine with the rigid Englishman for laughs; it premiered at London’s Vaudeville Theater. The preface begins by defending the play’s version of history, but gives that up and settles for observations on theater:
Playwrights do not write for ideal actors when their livelihood is at stake. . . . [But] in the long run, the actors will get the authors, and the authors the actors, they deserve.
“The Music-Cure” (1913 / 1914) was written as a curtain-raiser for Magic (1913), a play by G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936). A spindly young man who has had a breakdown, and can only play popular songs on the piano, is confronted by a brilliant, forceful lady classical pianist. They work out a sort of duet and decide to get married. Shaw subtitled the play “A Piece of Utter Nonsense”; it took him nine months to finish. From the preface:
This is not a serious play: it is what is called a Variety Turn for two musicians. . . . As a last desperate resort a pianola behind the scenes can be employed; but the result will lack spontaneity.
There is, however, no pressing reason why the thing should be performed at all.
“O’Flaherty V.C.” (1915 / 1917) – “V.C.” stands for “Victoria Cross,” England’s highest military honor. O’Flaherty, who has won it, is an Irish peasant lad who went to fight for England in World War I because his home life in Ireland was so frustrating, irritating, stultifying, and boring.
As a truth-telling experience the play ranks with John Bull’s Other Island, but Shaw tells us in his preface that it was designed as a recruiting poster for the Irish. In effect it says, “Join the English Army – your life in Ireland is so wretched that fighting for England can’t be any worse.”
Remarkably, England’s military was not enthusiastic about the play, particularly one in which a character says “It’s in the nature of governments to tell lies.” Eventually it was allowed to be produced, in 1917, for troops already in Belgium.
“The Inca of Perusalem” (1916) is Kaiser Wilhelm II, then fighting England in the World War. We see him in disguise, on a romantic errand. In the course of the play he makes it clear how little control he has over the actual war. One cannot imagine this approach was very popular at the time.
“Augustus Does His Bit” (1916 / 1917) is one of several short plays Shaw wrote during World War I. The play is a satire on the way England is conducting it, and it mocks everybody except the troops.
Augustus is a War Office official, a nincompoop and straight man to two comedians, one his clerk and one, a woman, trying to steal a confidential list on a bet, which she does. With the war in such hands . . . . Shaw knows how to write comedy scenes, and does.
“Annajanska the Bolshevik Empress” (written 1917, performed 1918), a variety show sketch, is a spoof on the Russian Revolution and to my mind remarkably unfunny. Annajanska is a princess who has escaped and become a Bolshevik. Good luck with that, honey.
Apparently it went over like a house afire because of its performers. Shaw says the only compliment he got on his writing was from a friend who commented, “It is the only one of your works that is not too long.”
HEARTBREAK HOUSE (1913-1919 / 1920) – Shaw had a hard time getting this play produced, despite his substantial reputation as a playwright. It was finally produced to, it appears, a number of critical yawns. My guess is that many in his audience were suffering from World War fatigue.
In any case, I find the play, which Shaw called a fantasia on Russian – that is, Chekhovian – themes, one of his most appealing. Heartbreak House is a play about weakness. Captain Shotover, the owner of Heartbreak House, is substantially insane, and his guests are all damaged goods; even the billionaire in the play is a timid fellow.
So many of the characters in Shaw’s plays strenuously try to justify themselves. The characters in Heartbreak House know that that effort is futile.
[For those who haven’t been following Kirk’s series, I’ll restate the plan (such as it is). There are five segments in the collection and I’m running them every couple of weeks. The next section, covering plays from 1918 to 1933, will appear (as if by magic—which, of course, is how computers work) in about two weeks. I hope you’ll come back to ROT to read Kirk’s further thoughts on the Irish playwright and his works.]