02 September 2016

Re-Reading Shaw – Plays from 1934 to 1950

by Kirk Woodward

[This is the final installment of Kirk Woodward’s series of commentaries on George Bernard Shaw from his reading of the Complete Plays with Prefaces (Dodd, Mead & Company, 1963).  The four previous parts, covering the plays written from 1885 to 1902, 1901 to 1909, 1909 to 1920, and 1918 to 1933, were posted on ROT on 3 and 18 July and 8 and 23 August, respectively, and I recommend going back, either before reading part 5 or afterwards, to catch up on Kirk’s thoughts on the great playwright—not so much because part 5 is informed by what came before but because Kirk’s considerations are more than worth reading for their own sakes.  (In my introduction to part 4, I noted that Kirk’s written on ROT before about GBS and listed his past blog articles. I also recommend having a good look at those as well.)]

THE SIMPLETON OF THE UNEXPECTED ISLES (1934 / 1935) – People in society are known by the company they keep, and Shaw’s plays are often known by the prefaces they consort with. This play suffered because of the reputation of its “Preface on Days of Judgment.”

It begins calmly enough, with Shaw’s usual sleight-of-hand switching of categories:

When we refuse to believe in the miracles of religion for no better reason fundamentally than that we are no longer in the humor for them we refill our minds with the miracles of science, most of which the authors of the Bible would have refused to believe.

Religion is the mother of skepticism: Science is the mother of credulity. There is nothing that people will not believe nowadays if only it be presented to them as Science, and nothing they will not disbelieve if it be presented to them as religion. I myself began like that; and I am ending by receiving every scientific statement with dour suspicion while giving very respectful consideration to the inspirations and revelations of the prophets and poets.

This mild scrambling of preconceptions suddenly takes a sharp turn:

But what of the people who are incapable of restraint except that of intimidation? Must they not be either restrained or, as the Russians gently put it, liquidated.

Then Shaw, for not the last time making a fool of himself over the Soviet Union, gives a merry and sanitized rationale for the state murders carried out by Lenin and Stalin, which gives an unpleasant punning quality to the term “Days of Judgment.” This effect spilled over into Simpleton, and many saw in it a similar enthusiasm for improving the world by killing people.

The Simpleton itself has no explicit relation to its dire preface, except in one ugly passage:

If the angels fail us we shall set up tribunals of our own from which worthless people will not come out alive. When men no longer fear the judgment of God, they must learn to judge themselves.

Aside from its enthusiasm for governmental murder, The Simpleton is Shaw at his most avant garde. It must have been quite a novelty for its first audiences. “Why don’t you do The Simpleton?” Shaw once asked a producer. “It is a lovely play.”

It is certainly a most interesting one. Not to keep harping on age, but Shaw was nearly eighty when he wrote it. It is unusual, imaginative, daring; for the time its ideas about polygamy and mixed-race marriage were shocking. The dialogue is consistently clever.

Three little scenes (the Prologue) introduce us to the Isles – tropical lands that have recently emerged from the sea – and we observe their oddness and unsuitability for normal British ideals. A place, in other words, where strange things can happen.

We then see the Simpleton – a nebbish of an Anglican clergyman – explore what the Isles, in succeeding years, have become. Four people – two English, two not – have become the group parents of four children, to all appearances the most beautiful young people imaginable.

But the Day of Judgment arrives, and it turns out to be the day of Shaw’s judgment:

The Day of Judgment is not the end of the world, but the end of its childhood and the beginning of its responsible maturity.

The four children are among those who just disappear. They were Ideals – their real names were Love, Pride, Heroism, and Empire. So there is a thematic relation between the play and the preface after all. Those who do not work and produce, as Shaw sees they should, ought to and will disappear – however that happens.

“The Six of Calais” (1934) dramatizes Jean Froissart’s (c. 1337-c. 1405) story of the six merchants who surrender to King Edward III to be hanged in return for his lifting the siege of their city, and whose lives are spared through the queen’s intervention (from Froissart’s Chronicles). Shaw adds a twist to the story that gives it a lively comic ending.

In his fine preface Shaw claims that in this play “I am not driving at anything more than a playwright’s direct business,” which is that

Life as we see it is so haphazard that it is only by picking out its key situations and arranging them in their significant order (which is never how they actually occur) that it can be made intelligible. . . . All interpreters of life in action, noble or ignoble, find their instrument in the theatre; and all the academic definitions of a play are variations of this basic function.

Despite Shaw’s disclaimer, it is worth noting that the play does present a revolt of the proletariat of the time against the ruling power structure, and that the religious expressions of the six burghers are distinctly Protestant.

THE MILLIONAIRESS (1935 / 1936) – in his “Preface on Bosses,” Shaw identifies, but does not solve, an issue that afflicts Democratic societies but equally bedevils Socialist thought: the fact that some people rise to the top, whatever that “top” may be, regardless of the obstacles, and often the laws, around them.

Both Socialism and Democracy promote equality; but the fact is that some people cannot help triumphing over circumstances. They seem to make money in spite of themselves; or they get into higher and higher positions of power, or both. (This can even happen in the United States!)

The tyranny of the talented individuals will remain. Again I ask what are we to do with them in self-defence? . . . The problem is how to make sure that the decisions shall be made in the general interest and not solely in the immediate personal interest of the decider.

It comes as a shock to realize that Shaw, who has solutions for everything, has no solution for this problem, except that we become more aware of the situation and its dangers. “What are we to do with such people?” he keeps asking.

Worse, he can’t help admiring them, as his descriptions of Mussolini and Hitler in the preface make clear. Hasn’t he urged the Superman on us? Could they by any chance be Supermen?

The Millionairess uses money as the arena for demonstrating this dilemma – it stays out of politics, although the same points apply. Epifania, the title character, finds herself required to raise a large amount of money out of almost nothing, and she does. Shaw calls the play:

a comedy of humorous and curious contemporary characters such as Ben Jonson might write were he alive now.

The comparison with Jonson (1572-1637, author of Volpone and The Alchemist) is apt in the sense that Jonson wrote comedies that are forceful but difficult to stage successfully. So is The Millionairess. Katherine Hepburn, Shaw’s ideal for the role, did play it on stage, and must have been perfect for it with her brittle voice and angular bearing. Aside from Hepburn’s performance, the play has proven problematic.

Epifania, the title character, is driven, focused, and humorless. “There is nothing one can get,” she says, “but more money.” She ignores any other values. She is a parody of Shaw’s women who are miles ahead of the men around them. Epifania is miles ahead of everyone, but not in the service of Life, just in the service of herself.

Does she remind the reader of anyone?

SAGAMORE. He is taking an action against you.
EPIFANIA. An action! Very well: you know my invariable rule. Fight him to the last ditch, no matter what it costs. Take him to the House of Lords if necessary. We shall see whose purse will hold out longest. I will not be blackmailed.

If you read the role in the voice of, say, a billionaire you envision, you will understand the feel of the whole play. At the end of the play, Epifania has gotten everything she wants; some people have benefited from her activities, some have suffered from them; but she is indifferent to all results except that she is on top.

I am surprised at how highly I think of this play, contrary to my expectations. Shaw isn’t preaching, he’s presenting, and, like Ben Jonson, presenting without sentimentality. Productions that offer the play as a fun evening of theater probably won’t work. But if Shaw isn’t offering easy solutions, he’s identifying a problem, or trying to. All the more credit to him.

“Cymbeline Refinished” (1937) – Shaw scorned the last act of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline for years as jumbled and confusing. When he was invited to write a new fifth act for a production, he read the play again.

I began by reading the authentic last act carefully through. I had not done so for many years, and had the common impression about it that it was a cobbled-up affair by several hands, including a vision in prison accompanied by scraps of quite ridiculous doggerel. For this estimate I found absolutely no justification nor excuse. . . . My notion that it is a cobbled-up pasticcio by other hands was an unpardonable stupidity. The act is genuine Shakespear to the last full stop, and late phase Shakespear in point of verbal workmanship.

However, Shaw also realized that the only way to do the act successfully is to do it full-out, in particular the masque, which requires special handling. So he wrote an alternate ending that does not require unusual staging.

To my ear his verse, although it scans as iambic pentameter, is not otherwise poetic. But the act is efficient, and Shaw excuses himself: “All I can say is that the temptation to [rewrite someone else’s play], and sometimes the circumstances which demand it, are irresistible.”

GENEVA (1939) again looks at politics, but this time the setting is the League of Nations instead of Downing Street, and the cast of characters features the dictators of the time, stand-ins for Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco (but not, notably, Stalin).

The preface, on the other hand, was written in 1945, six years later, after World War II was over.
It seems to me to go off the rails after a while, in its summary of Hitler’s and Mussolini’s careers (“those poor devils”), and in its repetition of the hope that the human species will achieve longer life spans.

Shaw could hardly resist drawing morals not based on experience, and making predictions based on the idea that everyone else thought the way he did.

But it is fascinating to see how the war and the world looked to an intelligent man in 1945, and much of the preface is highly quotable:

England will do nothing outside her routine until she is thoroughly frightened; but when England is frightened England is capable of anything.

The drawback to England’s capacity for doing impossible things when in danger is her incapacity for doing possible things (except repeating what was done last time) in security.

It is sometimes better not to think at all than to think intensely and think wrong.

Ethical victories endure. Discoveries cannot be guaranteed for five minutes.

At the age of 89, Shaw seems less certain of his ideas about the Life Force than in earlier years. He writes for example that

Civilizations have never finally survived: they have perished over and over again because they failed to make themselves worth their cost to the masses whom they enslaved.

Do the “experiments” of the Life  Force have any value if they can’t be passed on? Shaw says, in fact:

All the evidence available so far is to the effect that since the dawn of history there has been no change in the natural political capacity of the human species.

On the other hand,

            It is life that is natural and infinite.

Infinite? Really? In that case – but I digress.

Shaw says that he found the key for the tone of Geneva in a translation of the comedies of Aristophanes by his friend Gilbert Murray. The result is a play of remarkable vigor for any playwright, much less one 83 years old. It is a farce, and the characterizations, as is the case in On the Rocks (part 4), have no depth, nor are they meant to.

Played with energy and speed, it must have delighted its first audiences, with its topical references to current international relations that Shaw kept rewriting as the news changed. The first production ran for a remarkable 237 performances in London, followed by a tour.

Then World War II broke out, and the play plummeted in popularity. It is hard to read it today, with its back and forth debates of rational concepts. It was not robust enough to account for the activities of dictators who turned out to be both brutal, irrational, and genocidal.

“IN GOOD KING CHARLES’S GOLDEN DAYS” (1939) is a title taken from the old satirical ballad “The Vicar of Bray.” The play brings together on stage not only Charles II but, among others, Isaac Newton, Charles Fox (the founder of the Quakers), the actress Nell Gwynn, and the artist Godfrey Kneller (who was included because Shaw’s first choice, William Hogarth, could not quite be fitted in the play’s date of 1680).

I can hardly express the pleasure this play gives me. That an 83-year-old wrote it is remarkable; that anyone can write such a warm, smart, sparkling play is little short of miraculous.

It began as a film script, and I think it would be better known if it had been used as one. It would have been a sort of seventeenth-century My Dinner with Andre, with dialogue and relationships between characters as the focus.

On stage, its two acts are of drastically different lengths, and there is no dramatic climax. Reading the play this time, I felt that the second act, a dialogue between Charles and his Queen, is stronger than I previously thought. However, it doesn’t give us anything much that we didn’t know after Act I.

Beatrice Webb, reading the play while it was being written, said, “If he can bring in some sort of striking incident into the play and not limit himself to sparkling talk, it may turn out A.1.” He did not, but perhaps he felt that inserting that kind of incident would be artificial.

However, if Shaw could repair the last act of Cymbeline, I can repair at least the last moments of Good King Charles. After [The clock strikes five.], insert:

VOICE. (Offstage) Your Majesty! Your Majesty! Would it please you to come out as soon as you can? Your brother has got himself in a bit of mischief!

CHARLES. Odsfish! And I have a Council meeting. I must go, etc.

That would help.

In any case, the play is by no means a failure on stage. It is lovingly revived periodically, and in 1957 it was a surprise off-Broadway success, running for almost two years. For actors it is a delight; and it has a glow and a kindly spirit unique in Shaw’s work. “Golden” is an appropriate word.

Which is not to say that the play is all sweetness and light. There are ferocious arguments over art, religion, science, and politics; there is a fist fight; there is much discussion of the perils of being a king. Charles is thinking about his own death, which does not seem to him to be too far off.

“The world must learn from its artists,” Kneller says, “because God made the world as an artist.” Shaw wrote this play as a great artist.

“Playlet on the British Party System” (1944) is an imaginative visualization in dialogue form of the rationale of the British parliamentary system, included in Shaw’s book Everyone’s Political What’s What. At the age of 88 he could, apparently effortlessly, devise an informative, well-crafted piece like this. Remarkable.

BUOYANT BILLIONS (1946-1948 / 1948) – Shaw finished this play in his early nineties, and, remarkably, wrote three more shorts ones after it. The play is brief, the plot disconnected, the themes familiar. There are Shavian mots but they sometimes seem formulaic, for example: “I am never happy. I dont want to be happy. I want to be alive and active. Bothering about happiness is the worst unhappiness.”

“Shakes Versus Shav” (1949) – a Shaw contribution to the Malvern Festival, where many of his later plays were first performed. This is a play for puppets acting out a rivalry between Shaw and Shakespeare, including the two of them thwacking each over the head.

The little play shows Shaw’s professionalism: he knew just what was expected in a puppet play. The dignified preface includes an answer to people who feel the man from Stratford was too low-class to have written Shakespeare’s plays.

FARFETCHED FABLES (1949-1950 / 1950) has a preface that reprises Shaw’s favorite themes, including the Life Force, equality of income and talent, official lying, miracles, the Roman  Catholic and Anglican churches, Marxism, Democracy, leadership testing, education, the atomic bomb – it’s a long preface – and art:

As events as they actually occur mean no more than a passing crowd to a policeman on point duty, they must be arranged in some comprehensible order as stories.

The play itself consists of six scenes (one a long monologue), each set further in the future than the one before, none that make one want to be there. Shaw’s fecundity at the age of 93 is impressive.

“Why She Would Not” (written 1950) is the last play Shaw wrote; opinions differ on whether he completed it or not. It’s a straightforward set of five short scenes tracing the relationship of a woman who likes her well-to-do life and a man who, as he succeeds in business, changes her situation in ways she doesn’t like. Whether Shaw thought the playlet was finished or not, it could use a concluding punch at the end.


Most of my conclusions about Shaw’s plays are included in the survey above. The variety of settings, plots, and characters in his plays is astonishing. Critics have pointed out areas of life that he does not include; but look at how much he gets in! He is, as I said, a professional writer: he can produce a serious play, a comedy, a farce, a sketch, an occasional skit, even on demand.

Certainly not all his writing is equally successful; he lived a long time and wrote a great deal. He has many successes, and some of them are successes indeed. In particular I was surprised at my positive response to several of his later plays. I felt this reading project introduced me to gems I either was not familiar with or had underappreciated.

Obviously Shaw was not a typical commercial playwright. He wasn’t just writing plays; he was creating a theater that at that time really didn’t exist, and along those lines he intended to do what he could to improve the world through his writing. Shaw’s major themes are easy to spot, including:

·         The clash between ideals and reality, and the related conflict between what people profess to believe, and what they really believe when the chips are down.
·         The Life Force as an always-developing instrument working in human life, and the obsolescence of traditional religion, particularly Christianity and its beliefs as traditionally understood. (We should note however that Shaw’s objections to orthodox Christianity do not stop him from frequently using its language.)
·         Woman as the primary instrument of the Life Force, and their general superiority to men.
·         The importance of the superior person, the Superman. (Why “man”? Why not “woman”? In his plays they are usually the ones leading the advances.)
·         The need for Socialism (noted mostly in prefaces), and the futility of Democracy in the face of the inequalities of individual ability. (This dilemma is the context of The Millionairess.)
·         The basic lack of worthiness in the professions, including medicine, law, politics, the military, and the clergy.
·         The importance of work as the supreme value in life.

Shaw isn’t a thinker with a lot of depth. After a while one notices his favorite points appearing over and over, almost reflexively, like pebbles in a pudding. I began to wish that some of these themes would not pop up so often – they seemed rote, and I began to get bored by them. 

However, it makes sense to me that Shaw’s themes might be themes of interest to a writer of comedy, as Shaw unquestionably was. For instance:

·         Comedy is always about the clash between the ideal and the real. “Take my wife – please!” contrasts the ideal of marriage and its reality. And so on.
·         Comedy thrives on energy – a slow comedy is probably not a comedy at all – so life could easily be conceived of as the Life Force by a comedian.
·         Comedy is usually about sexual relations. Ralph Cramden’s wife Alice on The Honeymooners (U.S. television sitcom, 1951-55) could be a character out of a Shaw play.
·         Comedy often includes Supermen – and then typically knocks them down, as Shaw also sometimes does.
·         Comedy, in the form of satire, frequently mocks the professions; Molière in particular was a master of this.

What can we learn from Shaw’s plays today? Obviously the task is not to be like Shaw. His era and generation are gone. More to the point, few of us can match his humor, his intelligence, and his enormous curiosity about everything in life.

And we don’t want to emulate Shaw’s faults, not that that hasn’t been done. He is the master of special pleading, of assumptions snuck into an argument as though they were facts, of straw men, of mistaken and misapplied “factual evidence.” He uncritically accepts the obsolete and misleading “facts” Marx embodies in Capital (1867); his Bible scholarship is shaky. His admiration for dictators, his naivety about Stalin and the USSR, and his growing enthusiasm for executions are horrifying.

Outweighing all these things is Shaw’s basically ethical viewpoint, which as Eric Bentley points out in his book Bernard Shaw is at the center of all his interests – economic, religious, and political. He does not care much how we got where we are. He is interested in where we are going, and he wants us to understand that our actions today determine what the future will be like.

Looked at from that point of view, Shaw’s plays are a continuing challenge to us to live in ways that count, to do everything we can to help the world be what it can be. Shaw uses the word “love” carefully, often redefining it as he does every other expression of the ideal. But his plays urge us, in particular, to work out the implications of the command to “love your neighbor as yourself” in the personal, but even more in the public, sphere.

[Well, that concludes Kirk Woodward’s remarks on George Bernard Shaw—at least for the time being.  As I observed in the fourth installment of this series, Kirk’s been a devoted and thoughtful fan of Shaw’s for a long time, so it wouldn’t surprise me to hear from him that he’s writing something else Shavian.  (Just a hint, Kirk: There are still the writer’s collected critical pieces on which to comment! ) 

[I know that any ROT-reader who’s followed this series will have picked up something interesting about GBS, and perhaps even something useful.   For the time being, however, ROTters who haven’t gotten enough Shaw for the moment may turn back on this blog not only to Kirk’s own past articles, but to several reports on productions of Shaw plays: “Two Shaw Plays (Shaw Festival 2006),” 25 September 2012, and “The 2006 Shaw Festival,” 8 and 11 December 2015.]

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