Tuesday, May 20, 2008

George Bernard Shaw and the World of Major Barbara - English Writer


George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), Irish-born writer, considered the most significant British dramatist since William Shakespeare. His plays are essentially brilliant dialogues on such topics as religion, politics, money, science, marriage, and art. Although regarded as comedies, the plays represent a serious effort to influence the ideas and attitudes of the audience. Often, conventional ideas are inverted or twisted to shock the public into a fresh awareness. Despite his emphasis on ideas, Shaw created probably the most memorable collection of dramatic characters since the 17th century.

In addition to being a prolific playwright (he wrote 50 stage plays), Shaw is regarded as the most readable music critic and best theater critic of his generation. He was also one of literature’s great letter writers.


Early Years

Shaw was born on July 26, 1856, in Dublin, Ireland. His father, from the Protestant Irish upper class, was an unsuccessful and unhappy merchant and an alcoholic. Shaw later described himself as “a social downstart,” in typical fashion reversing the standard phrase “social upstart.” For extra income his mother gave singing lessons. Shaw later remembered her as a distant and unaffectionate mother.

After attending both Protestant and Catholic day schools, Shaw took a clerical job at the age of 16. Thereafter he was self-educated, a situation that may partly explain the originality and independence of his thinking. After his parents’ marriage failed, his mother and sisters went to London. Shaw joined them there in 1876, at the age of 20.


Early Career

Shaw’s first decade in London, beginning in 1876, was one of frustration and near poverty. He wrote five novels between 1879 and 1883 and received numerous rejections from publishers. Only two of the novels eventually found publishers: Cashel Byron’s Profession (1882), about prizefighting as an occupation, and An Unsocial Socialist (1883). Shaw later said of these works, “I wrote them because I knew I had to do something and was incapable of doing anything else. I hated them and felt ashamed of them afterwards, for they reminded me of the dreadful years when I walked the streets of London in shabby clothes without a penny in my pocket. But they taught me my job.”

By the mid-1880s Shaw had discovered the writings of political philosopher Karl Marx and turned to public speaking and writing socialist propaganda and critical journalism. He also became, and remained, a firm believer in vegetarianism, and he never drank alcohol, coffee, or tea. He joined the newly founded Fabian Society in 1884 and served on its executive committee from 1885 to 1911. The Fabian Society was a middle-class socialist group that felt capitalism had created an unjust society. Its members aimed at transforming English government and society gradually and did not promote revolution.

Shaw supported women’s rights, equality of income, and the abolition of private property. He also campaigned for a simplification and reform of English spelling in the belief that this would benefit democracy. Through the Fabian Society’s founders, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Shaw met an Irish heiress, Charlotte Payne-Townshend, whom he married in 1898.

Shaw’s early journalism ranged from book reviews and art criticism to brilliant music columns, from 1888 to 1890 under the signature “Corno di Bassetto” (basset horn) and later under his own initials. He wrote favorably on the music of German composer Richard Wagner and the dramas of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. Wagner was then regarded as mad, and Ibsen’s work was considered offensive. Shaw helped alter attitudes toward both.

In 1898 Shaw’s The Perfect Wagnerite appeared, championing Wagner. As drama critic for the Saturday Review, a post he held from 1895 to 1898, Shaw became Ibsen’s champion. In his influential The Quintessence of Ibsenism (1891), Shaw analyzed Ibsen’s work as a challenge and reversal of accepted beliefs, and he applauded Ibsen’s use of paradox and contradiction.


The First Plays

By the early 1890s Shaw was already well known as a public speaker and journalist. But his early plays met with little success. In general, they puzzled audiences with their analytic treatment of themes at the time considered inappropriate for the stage. Also puzzling was Shaw’s use of wit and paradox, which made the audience uncertain about his viewpoint and the seriousness of his intentions. The first plays received brief runs at best or no productions at all.

Shaw’s first play, Widowers’ Houses (produced in 1892), borrowed devices and aims from Ibsen and confused audiences by ignoring the conventions of English drama at that time. Mrs. Warren’s Profession, a play about prostitution first produced in 1902, was banned by censors as obscene. To gain a larger audience Shaw published his first seven works for the stage as Plays, Pleasant and Unpleasant (1898). In addition to Widowers’ Houses and Mrs. Warren’s Profession, the volume included Candida, The Philanderer, Arms and the Man, The Man of Destiny, and You Never Can Tell.

Shaw published a second volume of plays, Three Plays for Puritans, in 1901. It contained The Devil’s Disciple, Caesar and Cleopatra, and Captain Brassbound’s Conversion. The Devil’s Disciple, a spoof of 19th-century sentimental melodrama set in America during the American Revolution, became a success in the United States because of its wit and because audiences enjoyed the very melodramatic elements Shaw had set out to satirize. The Devil’s Disciple was the first of Shaw’s plays to make money.


Man and Superman

Shaw’s next work, Man and Superman (1905), transformed the Don Juan legend into a play, and play-within-a-play. Although on the surface it was a comedy of manners about love and money, its action gave Shaw the opportunity to explore intellectual currents of the time in a series of discussions. These discussions form the substance of the third act, “Don Juan in Hell,” a dream sequence that has often been produced independently. In this play within the play, the conventional notion of heaven is turned into hell. The devil argues for this escape from life’s woes, while Don Juan presents reasons for improving life on Earth.

Man and Superman is subtitled “A Comedy and a Philosophy,” and it reverses the standard notion of Don Juan, the seducer of women. In Shaw’s play, Don Juan becomes a man of virtue who is assailed by predatory women. The play tackles one of Shaw’s favorite themes, the life force, or the creative force of intelligence that he believed would, through evolution, bring about a higher type of human being. Women pursue Don Juan because they think he would father superior children. They are motivated by a desire to improve the human species.

The entire play, in addition to being witty and entertaining, is a careful presentation of Shaw’s views of evolution. These depart from the theory of evolution offered by scientist Charles Darwin, which allows little room for individual contribution to human progress and evolution. As Shaw wrote to writer Henry James, “In the name of human vitality WHERE is the charm in that useless, dispiriting, discouraging fatalism which broke out so horribly in the eighteen-sixties at the word of Darwin, and persuaded people in spite of their own teeth and claws that Man is the will-less slave and victim of his environment? What is the use of writing plays?—what is the use of anything?—if there is not a Will that finally molds chaos itself into a race of gods with heaven for an environment, and if that Will is not incarnated in man.…”

The destinies of individuals in Shaw’s plays are represented as entirely bound up with the fate of society as a whole, and the human will is therefore of paramount importance. Yet despite Shaw’s belief in the power of the human will, the plays still leave their audiences with a sense of open-endedness and of irreducible complexity. It is this sense of difficulty and disillusionment that perhaps lends Shaw’s work its undeniable sense of modernity.

Man and Superman successfully ran in the repertory of the Court Theatre in London, along with another play by Shaw: John Bull’s Other Island (1904). The latter play was originally written for the Abbey Theatre in Dublin but rejected as a slur on the Irish character, although Shaw actually satirizes stereotypes of the Irish. The two works established Shaw’s popular reputation in London as playwright and sage.


High Drama and High Comedy

“Life does not cease to be funny when people die any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh,” Shaw wrote in The Doctor’s Dilemma (1906). It is this double focus—on both the hilarious absurdity and the crushing seriousness of life—that blurs the distinctions between high drama and high comedy in Shaw’s works. In Major Barbara (1905) and The Doctor’s Dilemma, Shaw continued, through comedy, to probe society’s complicity in its own evils.

In Major Barbara, Shaw questions the morality that dismisses the principles and practices of a munitions manufacturer while applauding the members and benefactors of the Salvation Army. By the end of the play, Barbara, a major in the Salvation Army, has realized that the organization’s solutions are inadequate and the power of the industrialist, Undershaft, must be confronted and redirected. As she puts it, “here is no wicked side: life is all one.” Ideas of power and social intervention fascinated Shaw, and the action of Major Barbara pivots around the recommendation that “society cannot be saved until either the professors of Greek take to making gunpowder, or else the makers of gunpowder become professors of Greek.” The former happens in the play, when the classical scholar, Adolphus Cusins, agrees to join Undershaft’s business.

In The Doctor’s Dilemma, Shaw produced a satire both on the professions and on the artistic temperament to make serious points about human suffering. After The Doctor’s Dilemma, Shaw decided to write plays that contained no action at all. Several discussion plays followed: Getting Married (1908), Misalliance (1910), and Fanny’s First Play (1911).

With the discussion plays Shaw moved into what might be described as serious farce; intellectual comedy with his usual verve for dialogue, but introducing nonrealistic elements that he later exploited more fully. Although Fanny became his longest running hit up to that time, the most durable of the three has proved to be Misalliance. The mystical side of Shaw, meanwhile, found expression in The Shewing-Up of Blanco Posnet (1909), about the sudden moral conversion of a horse thief, and in Androcles and the Lion (1913). The latter play is based on the legend of the Roman slave Androcles, whose life is saved by his kindness to a lion. Shaw’s version concerned true and false religious exaltation, and satirized early Christianity.

Shaw’s comic masterpiece, Pygmalion (1913), was claimed by its author, though surely in jest, to be a didactic play about phonetics. The play is based on the ancient Roman myth about a sculptor (Pygmalion) who falls in love with the beautiful statue of a woman he has created. Shaw’s Pygmalion deals with issues of class and social power. It exposes the power imbalance between the Cockney flower seller, Eliza Doolittle, and the professor of phonetics, Henry Higgins, who agrees on a bet to teach her to speak properly and pass her off as a duchess.

But Higgins never gives a thought to what will happen to Eliza after he wins the bet. “Why did you take my independence from me? Why did I give it up? I’m a slave now, for all my fine clothes,” Doolittle says, after Higgins has transformed her into a lady. When Eliza finally defies Higgins and reasserts her independence (“I’m not afraid of you and can do without you”), Higgins is impressed: “By George, Eliza, I said I’d make a woman of you; and I have.… Now you’re a tower of strength.…”

The play was made into a popular motion picture, also called Pygmalion (1938). It served as the basis for the Broadway musical comedy hit My Fair Lady (1956) by lyricist Alan Jay Lerner and composer Frederick Loewe and for the subsequent film musical My Fair Lady (1964). But Shaw’s play has few of the romantic implications at the end of My Fair Lady. Instead it ends more radically with Eliza’s self-assertion.


The Postwar Years

Shaw remained neutral during World War I (1914-1918) and looked at the war objectively, which made him extremely unpopular in Britain. While the press and public were hurling insults at him, he quietly finished Heartbreak House (1920). This deeply pessimistic play was Shaw’s response to the war, and it exposed the spiritual bankruptcy of the generation just before the war. Its characters represented England’s educated and leisured classes, whose weakness and futility symbolize the decay of civilization. The atmosphere of Heartbreak House is reminiscent of plays by Russian dramatist Anton Chekhov. Shaw, in fact, subtitled his play “A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes” and intended it as a tribute to the Russian writer.

Attempting to find his way out of postwar pessimism, Shaw next wrote five linked plays under the collective title Back to Methuselah (1921). In these plays he explores the basis for human pessimism and seeks grounds for optimism. Back to Methuselah dramatizes Shaw’s evolutionary theories and explores the history of human progress from the Garden of Eden to a science-fiction future. Despite some brilliant writing, the cycle is uneven in its theatrical values and seldom performed.

For Saint Joan (1923), Shaw received the 1925 Nobel Prize in literature. In Shaw’s hands Joan of Arc becomes a combination of practical mystic, heretical saint, and inspired genius. He treats the voices she hears as being the products of an active imagination. Shaw’s basic theme is that society always acts to choke off moral genius, no matter what the inspiration of that genius is. In dealing with historical subjects, Shaw initiated a natural and humorous treatment of famous figures—an approach that was followed by dramatists who came after Shaw.


The Last Plays

Shaw’s last plays, beginning with The Apple Cart (1929), turned, as Europe plunged into new crises, to the problem of how people might best govern themselves and release their potential. These were themes he had handled before, but he now approached them with a tragicomic and nonrealistic extravagance that owed more to the ancient Greek comedies of Aristophanes than to Ibsen. The best-known plays of this period are Too True to Be Good (1932), Village Wooing (1934), The Simpleton of the Unexpected Isles (1935), and In Good King Charles’s Golden Days (1939).

Shaw continued to write into his 90s, especially on social and political issues. His clear and informative Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism was published in 1928, and Everybody’s Political What’s What appeared in 1944. Along with the novella The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God (1932), these works remain useful compilations of his ideas. To the end, Shaw continued to publish brilliantly argued prefaces to his plays, to flood publishers with books and articles, and to send cantankerous letters to newspaper editors. Thousands of his sparkling personal letters have also been published, including those to English stage luminaries such as Ellen Terry and Mrs. Patrick Campbell. Shaw died in his country home at Ayot St. Lawrence on November 2, 1950, at the age of 94.



Although Shaw founded no “school” of playwrights, his work had a major influence on British drama. Crime, adultery, and sentimental romance were the usual themes of serious plays before his own. He shocked the critics and startled the public by dealing with slum landlordism and prostitution and by going on to preach the folly of punishment and revenge. After that came religion, politics, the medical profession, marriage, parenthood, and phonetics—subjects that were considered outside the scope of the stage. He substituted witty dialogue for stale situations and well-drawn characters for the stock figures of “hero,” “villain,” and “comic man.”

He restored intellect and ideas to the theater, awakened the social conscience of his age, and proved that historical figures were as human and interesting as contemporaries. Shaw’s irreverence for tradition and contempt for current morality exploded the accepted conventions and beliefs of the Victorian age. His bold, critical intelligence and his sharp pen, brought to bear on contemporary issues, helped mold the thought of his own and later generations. Moreover, he accomplished this through a brilliance of wit that remains unsurpassed.

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