George Bernard Shaw's life and work
are particularly relevant to our world of
conventionalized responses. As a person-
ality, he knew that he himself must pro-
vide a rallying point for strong opinions.
As a writer, he recognized that fresh in-
struments of anger and laughter were
needed to jar his audiences from their
moral and intellectual torpor.
These essays, all of which have ap-
peared since World War II, utilize con-
temporary critical techniques to arrive
at the heart of Shaw's immense range of
interests and his relationship to modern
political and religious thought. Whereas
the critics in this volume pay tribute to
Shaw's prowess as a lucid, forceful prose
writer, they emphasize the less obvious
qualities in his workshistorical pre-
science, keen social responsibility, and
(what his detractors have most often
denied) a remarkable sense of creative
form. At the same time, the essays point
up his singular achievements in serio-
Ranging from a tribute by Bertolt Brecht
to a little-known piece by Irving Fiske
which G.B.S. himself praised, these
essays treat us to a full-scale estimate
of Shaw's evolution as a man and as an
artist. Their appraisals of his enormous
dramatic vitality and his prophetic,
iconoclastic wit reveal the consensus
(continued on back flap)
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5 Van Horn
G. B. SHAW
G. B. SHAW
A COLLECTION OF CRITICAL ESSAYS
R. J. Kaufmann
Prentice-Hall, Inc. f^3\\ Englewood Cliffs, N. J.
A SPECTRUM BOOK
Copyright 1 965 by PRENTICE-HALL, INC., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. A SPECTRUM
BOOK. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced-fn any form, by-
mimeograph or any other means, without permission in writing from the publishers 1 .
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number 65-23295. Printed in the United States of
America G. P 80777, G 80778
Introduction, by R. J. Kaufmann i
Ovation for Shaw, by Bertolt Brecht 15
Biographic: G.B.S. (70) on George Bernard Shaw (20),
by Erik H. Erikson 1 9
Born to Set It Right: The Roots of Shaw's Style,
by Richard M. Ohmann 26
.A Mote in the Critic's Eye: Bernard Shaw and Comedy,
by Bruce R. Park 42
'The Making of a Dramatist (1892-1903), by Eric Bentley 57
The Conflict of Wills in Shaw's Tragicomedy,
by Norbert F. O'Donnell 76
Shaw's Challenge to Liberalism, by Louis Crompton 88
'Bernard Shaw: The Face Behind the Mask, by Robert Brustein 100
Shaw's Integral Theatre, by G. Wilson Knight 119
Back to Methuselah: The Poet and the City,
by Margery M. Morgan 130
The Saint as Tragic Hero, by Louis L. Martz 1 43
The Shavian Machine, by T. R. Henn 162
Bernard Shaw and William Blake, by Irving Fiske 1 70
CHI CttO.) ruBLlC; LIBRARY
Chronology of Important Dates 1 79
Notes on the Editor and Authors fifi'1 ^5(^*45 I ^
Selected Bibliography 181
G. B. SHAW
by R. J. Kaufmann
Fifteen years after his death at the patriarchal age of ninety-four,
George Bernard Shaw is still very much alive. There have been professional
Shavians almost from the beginning, for his brighter contemporaries, stand-
ing close to the quick machinery of his remarkable mind, knew that if Shaw
was not quite the definitive cultural miracle he designedly proclaimed him-
self to be, he was close enough to it to be very special indeed. But a great
writer's reputation is insecure with only partisan enthusiasms to sustain it.
What is needed is not fanatic approval but an active body of skeptical opin-
ion, curious and intelligent, about the strategic virtues of the work of any
candidate for greatness. If an artist continues to compel the interest of such
a jury of readers and critics, his greatness is assured. The work of George
Bernard Shaw has been undergoing this trial by scrutiny in the last two
decades; his reputation has been rendered firmer by this ordeal. A critical
picture of Shaw is emerging, unequivocal enough to project a strong image,
but not so simple as to balk continuing curiosity. In educated opinion, Shaw
now stands as the greatest all-round English dramatist since Shakespeare.
His long acknowledged prowess as a prose writer of classic lucidity and en-
viable readableness has been extended to include less obvious qualities
historical prescience, keen social responsibility, and (what was most often
denied) a fine sense of artistic form.
George Bernard Shaw is a regiment in himself. He lived so long, wrote
so much, talked so endlessly and so dismayingly well, embraced so many
careers, and invented so many gospels, it is no wonder lesser men have some-
times tired of his relentless brilliance. Offended, they have sniped at his
self-advertised eminence and hoped for his death long before it occurred
in 1 950 to end nearly a century of ebullient disturbing of the peace. Shaw
touched public life and sacrosanct prejudices at many points. He isolated
key issues decade after decade. Being completely committed to public argu-
ment, he left countless openings for those intent on the fault-finding plea-
sures. There will be occasion to recall his faults, for few of Shaw's better
critics now see the need to conceal them. In fact, it is quite against the quirky,
impudent, and passionately hopeful manner we designate "Shavian" to
2 R. J. Kaufmann
refuse intelligent resistance to his pressing artistic attacks. Like his more
memorable characters, Shaw searched for opposition and, like them, he
was most vital when he found it. The reader of his plays, his criticism, his
political polemics, and the whole shelf of stimulants to social sanity which
he provided during seventy active years on the cultural stage is on trial con-
To meet the demands of the modern megalopolitan forms of existence,
forms now general but which were only maturing during his lifetime, Shaw
invented an art. To play Socrates to the modern metropolis required new
techniques of argument, a vast fund of highly liquid knowledge, a fast and gay
mind, a personality visible from a great distance, and a strong impervious-
ness to the perils of the public acceptance which brilliant charm and comic
gifts must earn for their possessor. These requirements specify the formula
for Shaw's primal invention: the Shavian persona, GBS. Shaw invented
himself in much the same way that he invented his long procession of vital,
talky characters: Mrs. Warren, Dick Dudgeon, Candida, his Julius Caesar,
Lady Cicely, John Tanner, Broadbent, Undershaft, Liza Doolittle, Mrs.
Hushabye, and Saint Joan, Like these characters, Shaw's invented public
self is neither a simple magnification of his inner self nor an arbitrary
contradiction of it. It could not have been habitable for so long, nor so
emotionally durable, had it been only arbitrarily related to the predilections
and facts of Shaw's nature. His best characters are likewise durable and
difficult to subvert.
One of the fruitful mysteries of Shaw's art is why his special distortions
in character-drawing should provoke such different reactions among his
readers. Honest men divide on the question of his grasp of human motive.
His contemporaries were similarly divided about Shaw's own nature: cold,
interstellar, intellectualized beyond humanity he seemed to some; others
were equally convinced of his earnest care for them and for mankind and
remarked his naked kindliness, his full attention to their mutual work, his
ability to listen and to respond and thereby to help them realize their latent
powers as actors, writers, or social beings. Routinely accused of extreme
self-conceit, to his most perceptive friends Shaw was peculiar in his extreme
selflessness. This selflessness showed in his remarkable immunity to insult.
He could not be provoked to lose his temper or to take offense, despite the
saturated state of keen excitement in which he moved. His stronger charac-
ters display a similar immunity to distraction, and are strong insofar as they
take their emotional (as well as their social) cues from themselves rather
than from others. This almost eerie degree of independence, while in no
sense devoid of passion his characters are more energetic than the run of
mankind and are eager to laugh, to find the good and, finding it, to pursue
it with ardour is the Shavian hallmark What Shaw did with himself he
does with his best characters.
On the Keatsian assumption that the world is cc a vale of soul making, "
and with a strong, though abnormally high-spirited, puritanical infusion
of desire to serve the godly will of Life, Shaw progressively stripped his life
of idle excrescences, thus leaving himself free to meet the manifold necessi-
ties of reality as lightly burdened as possible. It is no accident that an almost
obsessive metaphor of Shaw's depicts life as a tossing ship, sailing free but
storm-threatened and destined for the rocks. Shavian man needs to keep
control of this exciting movement on cleared decks. A sense of imperturb-
able purpose in an epoch of hesitation, divided loyalties, and corrupting
doubt made Shaw seem a monster of cold-blooded efficiency to some, a
"smiling sewing machine" to Yeats, an intellectual eunuch to H. G. Wells,
and to others a revoltingly frivolous social engineer. What is most interesting
about these responses is not their fractional truth content, nor their con-
tentious falsity, but that so many highly intelligent observers should have
been distracted by Shaw's invented personality into such crass variants of
biographical fallacy. Shaw wanted strong reactions to himself and to his art.
As an artist, he knew that he himself must be a place where strong opinions
met. He knew that in a world of repressed and conventionalized responses,
of deadened moral reflexes, a measure of solvent anger (the harsher com-
plement to the solvent of laughter) was crucial to raise the temperature of
perception. His art is one of productive strife between official sentiments
and actual feelings even more than it is a comedy of ideas.
If we compare Socrates and Shaw, we can find more than a superficial
likeness. Just as we reach beyond the caricatured Socrates condemned by
the Athenian jury in the Apology, or the silly Socrates of the fatuous "think-
shop" in Aristophanes' The Clouds, it is easy enough to separate Shaw, the
artist-thinker, from all the instruments of moral vexation he devised to force
the pace of thought in a time that (subsequent history argues) needed even
stronger measures than Shaw employed to shake it into awareness. The
fact is that Shaw was historically awake earlier, more persistently, and with
less compromise than any of his contemporaries. He was more rather than
less serious than other men, as comic geniuses often are. That poised gen-
eration of late Victorians and Edwardians which he tried to sting, ridicule,
argufy, or charm into awareness was asleep to imperative historical realities.
He used every artistic device available and even invented new ones to re-
lieve their bewitchment. When Shaw said that the only imagination worth
having is "the power to imagine things as they really are," he was echoing
Shelley, another passionately earnest man, and he was never more serious.
But neither his artist's ingenuity nor his resilient seriousness could prevail.
The comforts of convention triumphed over all invitations to self-scrutiny
and the social order Shaw criticized with fond contempt committed suicide
in the First World War. There has been no organic resurrection.
The War cut through the heart of Shaw's mature career. As an artist,
4 R. J. Kaufmann
despite the appearance of Saint Joan in 1923, he was never quite the same
thereafter. The total defeat of reason in the mindless horror of that futile
war impaired Shaw's motive confidence, although, in the thirty years still
remaining to him, his fanatic gaiety and his fertility in comic situation and
dialogue manufactured a secondary oeuvre important enough to establish a
lesser artist. His typical industry and vigor should not be allowed to con-
ceal a diminishing faith in social man. Shaw worked on in bright despair.
To sense something tragic in Shaw's well-managed life as a committed
artist may seem on the face of it ridiculous. He was immensely successful
in all measurable ways. He began poor, without the initial social leverage
so indispensable in nineteenth-century England; he died wealthy by his own
efforts. He was an Irish intruder, under-educated and socially gauche when
he arrived in England at the age of twenty in 1876. When he died in 1950,
he was a national institution in his own frail person, privileged and quoted
everywhere, while his plays were being acted all over the world even in
London. At the end, a Labour government, which his brilliant early efforts
in the Fabian Society had helped to inaugurate and bring to a position of
strength and influence, had been strongly entrenched in power for five ef-
fective years. What is tragic goes beyond even the bleak isolation of Shaw's
last years, when he lived on after his friends were dead, entombed within
the consecration of his great age and his final assignment to the cultural
niche he had sought that of accredited sage. In a sense all his marvelous
activity had been a failure. In the plays of George Bernard Shaw, failure
is generally exposed to ridicule, but the failure of a great man through mis-
understanding and consequent trivialization of his proffered gifts is tragic.
The potentiality of tragedy is to be found in Shaw's early and immutable
consecration of himself to purging Civilization's folly.
He knew early what he must do. Before he embarked on his long, fertile
career as a playwright, Shaw had been a ranking music critic, an industrious
though unsuccessful novelist, and a great drama critic. In this last capacity,
as a phase of his life-long campaign against spiritual sleep, he strove to rouse
the British theater from its torpid and mechanical habits of "Sardoodling"
domestic comedies and romanticizing Shakespeare and history. He wrote
then: "melodramatic stage illusion is not an illusion of real life, but an illu-
sion of the embodiment of our romantic imaginings." To counteract these
practices he provided highly-colored and amusing plays which used the sys-
tematic illusions of art to confront men with their unromanticized compul-
sions and conditioned preferences. The central strategies of his dramatic art
repeatedly introduce characters free from illusions and burdensome affec-
tations into the charade-like pageantry of what is taken for actuality but
is more truly the faded apparatus of a social existence as fatally divorced
from its own motives as conventional stage acting from current behavior.
His Candida is candid; his Bluntschli is blunt; though like Shaw himself
there is an engaging courtesy accompanying their hardness and their im-
munity to obligatory sentiment. His Caesar dry, casual, and persistently
didactic is, therefore, fascinating in an historic environment where such
qualities (theoretically considered) should have been deadly to artistic suc-
cess. All his great characters are great teachers or good learners or both.
Shaw tried to entice a generation, even two generations, to shed their
"artificial mentalities," to step through the looking-glass into mature re-
sponsibilities. He did this with unfailing courtesy, beguiling wit, and a di-
minishing reputation for the very seriousness which drove him on. Apropos
of Tolstoy's adverse critics, Shaw said, "Alas, nothing is plainer to a dupe
of all the illusions of civilization than the folly of the seer who penetrates
them." In the process of achieving public acceptance, Shaw was trapped
in an anteroom to this house of illusions and became "the embodiment 35 of
the public's "romantic imaginings" about him as an effervescent, golden-
witted clown, bereft of true social responsibility. Unlike Socrates, he was
not accorded the dignity of physical martyrdom for his beliefs. To be thus
sealed off could not be recompensed by any amount of uncomprehending
adulation and attention. Adulation was not important to him, and attention,
which was, could not be a satisfactory substitute for effective social use of
what he had labored for with his own peculiar version of religious dedica-
tion. The critics whose essays are gathered into a patterned sequence in this
anthology endeavor to set Shaw free from the bonds of misunderstanding.
This volume opens with an ovation from Shaw's younger contemporary,
the German playwright Bertolt Brecht. Brecht shared Shaw's conviction
that the theater can be a palace of truth if the playwright knows enough
about the two essentials which make drama vital: actual human circum-
stances and the craft of the theater. They shared as well a healthy courage
by which their drama is committed to a higher didacticism. Each devised
a dramatic art that utilized parable to please and to teach simultaneously.
Brecht' s ovation is a form of testimony to his affinity to Shaw, the social-
artist, and his sensitivity to Shaw's originality. This originality was partly
a function of Shaw's extraordinary balance of self-detachment and social
passion. The perceptive essay which follows Brecht' s, written by the psy-
chiatrist, Erik H. Erikson, deals with Shaw's manufacture of his own na-
ture out of a blend of keen realism and self-fan tastication. Erikson's larger
concern is with the process by which we adjust public ideologies to our own
convictions in our metaphysically disoriented time. Since Shaw's exceptional
steadfastness of conviction was the ballast for his artistic impudence, Erik-
son's wise discussion of how Shaw derived a secure identity from the crisis
6 R. J. Kaufmann
of an inadequate familial and cultural environment provides a useful point
of entry into subsequent investigations of Shaw's artistic habits.
"Style," Whitehead said, "is the ultimate morality of mind." This epi-
grammatic insight is particularly relevant to George Bernard Shaw, for
his morality is welded to his idiosyncratic style a style so distinct that we
now have the word "Shavian" to designate it. Richard M. Ohmann is in-
terested in this congruence of Shaw, the man, and "Shaw," the style. Like
Erikson, he searches into Shaw's repudiations of an inadequate way of life
to find the roots of Shaw's literary style. Mr. Ohmann is trained in the
methods of sophisticated modern linguistics. The results of his enquiry help
further to distinguish what is special in Shaw's rendering of experience and
what will be consistently apparent in subsequent essays: Shaw's use of lan-
guage rests on keen artistic scruples and is the consistent, qualifying lens
through which we learn the exact prescription of Shaw's reforming vision.
Because Shaw's style is so personal and because the sharp flavor of his
dialogue is the first thing apparent on encountering his art, it is often over-
looked that Shaw's power as an artist finally rests on his ability to create
interesting characters men and women excited by life and possessing the
power to infect others with their convictions and to place them within an
effective comic design. Shaw was possessed himself by a commodious mono-
mania for a life of high quality for all men, but he was primarily a maker
of comedies. In one of the most thoughtful essays in the group, Bruce R.
Park seeks to make Shaw's aesthetic assumptions visible to unsympathetic
critics. Shaw's comic art needs to be judged in harmony with its own very
ambitious assumptions. Unlike most playwrights, Shaw did a great deal
of thinking outside as well as inside the theater. He knew more, rather than
less, than most of his critics about the crises of the social order he embodied
in his art. This advantage in general knowledge reverses the normal relation-
ship between critic and artist. Mr. Park conducts the kind of quiet and in-
formed case which makes it impossible to credit a good many hardy cliches
about Shaw's intentions. There is rich irony in the intellectual strategy of
critics who, in tediously re-exposing Shaw's puritanism and defects of pas-
sion, fail to perceive their own solemn suspicions of the happy excesses of
comedy and the extent to which Shaw, like T. S. Eliot, invented a new
"music of ideas" one thematically wider than conventional opinion can
hear. Mr. Park's argument concludes the first phase of the volume and opens
the way to a roughly chronological sequence of essays on the plays them-
This central portion of the volume is opened, appropriately, by the most
articulate of contemporary Shavians: Eric Bentiey. In his discussion of
"The Making of a Dramatist," Mr. Bentley uses the dozen plays of the mi-
raculous decade from the beginning of Shaw's playmaking career to the
completion of Man and Superman in 1903, with the appearance of which
Shaw's "major phase" may be said to begin. What he might be said to do
is to substantiate, in rich detail, Mr. Park's more theoretically presented
claim for the high coherency of Shaw's comic art. From the beginning,
Shaw's plays have a strong personal flavor and betray a deep interest in
what Mr. Bentley calls "the emotional substance" of his characters. The
truth steadily emerges that George Bernard Shaw was more stirred by basic
passions than most dramatists. One way of tracing the fascinating curve
of his development is to watch how his knowledgeable fear of passion's tur-
bulent effects gradually overmasters his connoisseur's delight in the ways
passion can work. What also emerges from Mr. Bentley 's exploration of this
formative decade is an appreciation of Shaw's instinct for seminal dramatic
situations. This sense was, of course, not infallible and the essay is intelli-
gently critical of Shaw's variable success but it was strong from the begin-
Comic drama, as much as tragic, depends on the dramatist's capacity to
embody adequately comprehensive conflicts of will and principle in suffi-
ciently definite, imaginatively localized situations. Norbert F. O'Donnell
addresses himself to Shaw's typical handlings of human conflict. Shaw was
a Socialist, and the more immediately accessible terms of his dramatic argu-
ments are strongly social, often polemically so. Mr. O'Donnell, while not
denying the relevance of this Shavian bias, rightly concentrates on Shaw's
still more basic preoccupation with the world as a competition of individual
wills. Shaw, as a good dramatist must be, was of two minds about the vir-
tues of individualism. As a reasonable Socialist, he saw the necessity of sub-
ordinating private libido to public order; but he had a taste, too, for the
glamour of the masterly will, and as he grew older there was an increasing
disgruntlement with the sloshing inefficiencies of mass democracy. This
self-division results in a productive ambivalence of tone in his plays. Mr.
O'Donnell calls the result "Shavian tragicomedy." The term is dubious,
but the justifying analysis of Shaw's concentration on the conflict of wills
in such plays as Captain Brassb ounces Conversion, Caesar and Cleopatra^ and Pyg-
malion is cogent and illuminating. GBS, man and artist, was fascinated by
self-confidence and by its negation, "intimidation."
Nowhere are these Shavian concerns more difficult to sort out with criti-
cal precision than in Major Barbara', ascertaining its exact tone is perhaps
the premier problem in Shavian criticism. Louis Crompton's "Shaw's Chal-
lenge to Liberalism" is concerned solely with this important play (1905),
which marks an important turning point in Shaw's inner development. By
a judicious blending of structural analysis with biographical and historical
evidence, Mr. Crompton provides an intelligible reading of this difficult
drama of ideas. His essay shows that Shaw used his plays as a means of pub-
lic thinking on the ideological conflicts of his time. His ambivalence was a
function of his incisive political realism: he saw early the devastating role
8 R. J. Kaufmann
demagoguery and manipulation of new forms of destructive power were
going to play in the determination of political affairs in the twentieth cen-
tury. Because of the egoistic flippancy of the Shavian verbal attack, it is
often hard for critics to realize that he sometimes dramatized what he saw
happening below the surface of historical change, not what he advocated
or longed for. To understand Major Barbara, such discriminations must be
In the essay "Bernard Shaw: The Face Behind the Mask," drawn from
his outstanding book, The Theatre of Revolt, Robert Brustein develops the
theme of self-division into a cogent general analysis of Shaw's latent nihilism
in the face of the metaphysical inconsequence of routine existence. Mr. Bru-
stein then applies these insights in close readings of two of the finest plays:
M an and Superman and Heartbreak House. He has some stern reservations about
Shaw's artistic self-control, but his formidable interpretations proceed from
a conviction of Shaw's secure place as a major artist. V. S. Prichett, in his
Times obituary for GBS, stated a charge against which Shaw cannot be
wholly defended: "Shaw was no more free than Voltaire from the irrespon-
sibilities of a chaotically lucid mind which changed focus too fast for his
own eye." But Shaw's dextrous opportunisms were indispensable to the
comic dramatist. The cross which he has had to bear is simply the inability
of his readers to remember that he is the ventriloquist behind all voices in
his dramatic debates. Reading the entire canon, the critic might more fairly
convict Shaw of fanatic obsession than of irresponsible instability. Shaw him-
self said, "The man of letters who is more than a confectioner is a prophet
or nothing." Prophets are uncomfortable social bedfellows, but it is as a
prophet a seer of the still hidden course our temporal follies lay down for
us that Shaw is best understood. His later work is a series of reactions to
the pressures of that desperation which Mr. Brustein discloses as working
The remaining five essays in the volume work from widely different criti-
cal assumptions to support this notion of the centrality of the prophetic in
Shaw's artistic behavior. The sequence starts with G. Wilson Knight's syn-
optic interpretation of "Shaw's Integral Theatre." With his usual percip-
ience, Mr. Knight shows the almost rampant vitality of a theme of bisexual-
ism in Shaw's plays and how this, in turn, advertises Shaw's comprehensive
concern for the wholeness of being. He also shows how integral Shaw's set-
tings are to his dramatic plan. Shaw was a visionary of a peculiarly well-
informed, socially-engaged type. He was consequently a composer of inte-
grated imaginative environments, as his visually precise stage directions
testify. The mystic strain Mr. Knight stresses receives its most candid (and
prolonged) airing in Back to Methuselah. This work of Egyptian magnitude
five plays in one is the least negotiable of all Shaw's works. Margery M.
Morgan, in a sympathetic essay, discovers a self-consistency and care in
its design which extends without breach from the most generalized quasi-
metaphysical assumptions to the tiniest details. Alone among Shaw's most
serious work, this play requires a competent apologia. Miss Morgan's learned
and spirited interpretation provides just that.
Saint Joan, considered by many to be Shaw's finest play, followed hard
on Back to Methuselah. No one has found a critically more fruitful approach
to Saint Joan than Louis L. Martz, who, in "The Saint as Hero," discusses
it together with T. S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral as a distinguished modern
attempt to renovate dramatic tragedy. T. R. Henn, in his terse essay "The
Shavian Machine," also has his say on Saint Joan, but only after he has found
fresh things to say about the "problem of tragedy" and about two prior
Shavian approaches to the tragic: Mrs. Warren's Profession and The Doctor's
Dilemma (from Shaw's early and middle phases, respectively). For all the
virtuosity of its opening dialogue, the latter, which Shaw designated "A
Tragedy," is a failure in those terms. Shaw could not convincingly animate
an antisocial artist. In seeking to understand a talent as extensive as Shaw's,
it is advantageous to establish the margins at which his mastery evaporates.
This is one of the numerous virtues of Mr. Henn's contribution.
The final selection is a short, little-known essay by Irving Fiske which
establishes, by modest collocation, an interesting affinity between George
Bernard Shaw and William Blake. Shaw said of it, "Hundreds of articles
have been written about me and forgotten. This is the one I would have
published and circulated as widely as if I had written it myself." Who could
resist such an invitation? Mr. Fiske's little essay makes its effect quietly and
cumulatively. It requires no additional endorsement from me.
What grows on one in studying Shaw is how much his work is designed
as a drama of spiritual recreation in all the senses of that word. He is cheering,
for he had the rare gift of superabundant gaiety more gaiety than he needed
to sustain himself. He is witty and he provokes wit. His comic world is comic
without being trivial or portentous. His drama is also studiously re-creative.
He worked in a society which he could see was exhausted by false burdens
of gentility and depressed by inadequate goals: "This soul's prison we call
England." For him the role of the artist was not merely to exhort but to
induce imaginatively the healing "appetite for fruitful activity and a high
quality of life." As an artist, he conjured up a long sequence of controlled
visions of what can be as well as what is. In his late play, Too True to Be Good
(1932), one of his characters seems to be impersonating Shaw when he says:
My gift is divine: it is not limited by my petty personal convictions. It is a gift
of lucidity as well as of eloquence. Lucidity is one of the most precious of gifts:
the gift of the teacher: the gift of explanation. I can explain anything to anybody;
and I love doing it.
Just claims to greatness can be made for Shaw. His work does have con-
temporary relevance. A final estimation of his weaknesses will sharpen our
IO R. J. Kaufmann
sense of this relevance without subverting his greatness, for cogency in art
is achieved by bold subordination and Shaw was both bold and cogent.
Part of his greatness lies in his extravagant emphasis. Naturally, there was
a cost. We can start from his passion for explanation.
Shaw was more aggressively intelligent than most artists. He pretended
and perhaps came to believe that he always knew what he was talking about.
His calculated omniscience extended beyond immediate dramatical busi-
ness to his audience's proper obligations and, most damagingly, to the qual-
ity and color of his characters' souls. There is something disagreeably Pauline
about Shaw as he shepherds and instructs the congregations on stage and
in the stalls in their whole duty as men. Despite all his wit, there is a taint
of humorlessness in this drive to pin us to honesty's wall, perpetually to set
us straight or to trick us into shamed acquiescence. Many of the best artists
often do not "know" what they are talking about. Their vision grows from
within, not, of course, without control but in humble compliance with what
they see; they learn and we learn with them. But Shaw nearly always has
a brief. He has prepared his case. He is determined to expose the fatuity
of our position and to articulate his own. Being phenomenally adept ver-
bally and possessing all the debater's skills, he prevails in argument but at
some expense to our sense of the roundness of experience. We obscurely feel
vital reserves in his richest characters have been suppressed, that they can-
not be so neatly labelled nor so artfully propelled towards prescribed goals.
Shaw the artist, like Shaw the man, periodically talks too much and is too
knowing. By the relentless chaperonage of our responses, our pleasure in
the spirited world of his plays is curtailed. He begs us to think, but refuses
to let us do so. We suspect, thus, there is more of John Tanner in Shaw than
of Saint Joan. His pedantic vocation lessens the "negative capability" Keats
so loved in Shakespeare. Often Shaw does lack this nurturing restraint in
judgment and consequent feminine receptivity to the exact texture of others.
Hence Shaw often creates characters who do not engage our whole spirit
only our admiration, our intellect, or our snobbery.
Snobbery, being a jealous claim to special access joined to a compulsion
to umpire the claims of others, fascinated Shaw. He was not wholly free of
its backwash, a partial servitude which limits his genius at the same time
it sharpened his eye as a comic writer. His plays are unduly preoccupied
with the abrasions of snobbery and class-warfare as it is practiced in draw-
ing rooms, commercial offices, restaurants, and on country terraces. Over-
pleased by his own perky and hypothetical superiority to meaner, middle-
class social tactics, too eager to display his virtuosity in "putting people
down" or in pulling rugs from beneath pomposity, Shaw reveals something
of the vengeful provincial in his subversion of all dignity. His generalized
kindliness cannot wholly conceal the gleeful Irish sniggerings of one who
is never taken in. Perhaps still greater writers than Shaw have a margin of
Introduction 1 1
self-confident serenity which enables them to be "taken in 55 enough to grasp
just how the world is when we participate in its illusions. They know such
momentary surrenders to the conventional vision will not permanently harm
their reputation for acuteness and will surely enlarge their understanding.
In short, Shaw remained for too long a defiant enfant terrible at the price of
a residuum of permanent adolescence and a partially blinding spiritual
pride which reduced him to the silly conviction that he must be able to un-
derstand Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini, when in sad truth he lacked experi-
ence to comprehend them. This weakening strain in his artistic equipment
is in question when Shaw's technically admirable characterization, a process
of musical subtlety, is caricatured by critics as heartless puppetry.
Shaw thoroughly understood certain types of highly conventionalized be-
ings and, what is very rare, certain types of exceptionally gifted people, as
Broadbent in John BuWs Other Island and Henry Higgins in Pygmalion illus-
trate. He found means to establish these types memorably within his comic
world. He understood the inner terms of moral determination and spiritual
obstinacy as well as any dramatist. Although different in every other respect,
Mrs. Warren and Saint Joan are alike hi genuinely possessing these qualities.
Surely, too, only Shakespeare, Moliere, and Dickens have a comparable
ability to make trivial people and boring ones into such fascinating charac-
ters. Fanny's First Play is a minor triumph in provoking interest in paltriness.
Yes, Shaw depicted well those parts of human behavior to which he had
sympathetic access; but his sovereignty was narrower than he admitted, and
much that is humanly crucial is sheared off in plays where he tries to reach
past the closely related, twin realms of the absurdly farcical and the dedi-
catedly fanatical. When he takes the measure of the medical profession in TJu
Doctor's Dilemma or of practical politics in The Apple Cart, we are oppressed
by cleverness bereft of sympathetic insight. His drama, at its best, thrives on
the "extreme situations" beloved of modern existentialists. Like existentialist
heroes, his best characters strive to save their private vision in a compro-
mised, though well-upholstered, world.
One of the still- to-be-digested facts about Shaw is this: he is godfather,,
if not actually finicky paterfamilias, to the theater of the absurd, enthusiasts
of which scornfully disown him. It is not just that his mad playlet, Passion^ Poi-
son and Petrifaction; or The Fatal Gazogene, could be played in a double bill
with Pinter, lonesco, Frisch, or Kopit (with Shaw's name suppressed and a
few trivialities of period terminology expunged) and pass for the latest con-
coction of comic anarchy with characters eating statues, drenching each
other with siphons, and dying in farcical epiphany in the most modish post-
existential style but also that Shaw's sense of art as medley, art as teetering
on the brink of formal dissolution, is often like theirs in baroquely disposing
mortified sexuality and melodramatic religiosity, effete hysteria and social
catastrophe all within one canvas of statement. Shaw's determined ration-
12 R. J. Kaufmann
ality, his relentless programs for spiritual self-help, and his vision of social
patterns survived the waves of anarchy and hilarious nihilism only by a
monstrous infusion of will, both in his private recipes for existence and in
his gradual capitulation to that Will driving through the center of our crazy
existence, which he finally came to worship in the form of the Life-Force
a needed token of redeeming possibility.
As acute a critic as Brigid Brophy, in her very "far-out" book, Black Ship
to Helly and (less reputably) Colin Wilson, have responded to this element
in Shaw; but quite perceptive enthusiasts for absurd theater have mistaken
Edwardian trappings for the essential Shaw and the facade of school-masterly
assurance for the nervous substance of his art. This familiar pattern of criti-
cal superficiality hopefully will not endure when Shaw's work has been
safely distanced by time and ceases to blight competitive aspirations to origi-
nality. It should be remembered that Shaw financed, with his Nobel Prize
funds, English translations of Strindberg, whose genius is detectable every-
where in the new efforts at irreverence and destructive absurdity. For ex-
ample, Edward Albee's internationally acclaimed Who's Afraid of Virginia
Woolf? is transposed and uneconomical Strindberg with an admixture of
Shavian drawing-room dialectic only slightly disguised by un-Shavian re-
liance on obscenities.
Knowing the theater for the complex instrument it is, Shaw held profes-
sional casts spellbound (and a more vain, less compliant audience is hard
to assemble) while he spontaneously acted and blocked out his latest play,
reading the entire text with full accompaniment of gesture and grimace.
Of all these actors and managers, only the dogmatic Beerbohm Tree is known
to have resented this drilling or to have questioned Shaw's mastery of the
practical art of making a play live in three dimensions. This technical mas-
tery can be felt in the rhythms, the quick and often faultless accretion of
detail after fusing detail, as a Shavian scene unfolds. It is part of the pleasure
of reading the best available criticism of Shaw to realize that so far we have
only cleared his name of slanders on his deliberate artistry. Competent
demonstrations of the minute exactitude with which Shaw built his scenes
is still before us. Like Ibsen, who has now been freed from similar misunder-
standing, Shaw's poetic power is not to be judged by his spasmodic, self-
conscious, now faded attempts at "fine writing," but by the nervous vitality
with which his lines follow the contours of practical emotions and create
an original syntax to express the precise qualities of his characters 3 wills.
Shaw came to drama through music and he felt Mozart to be his master
as much as Moliere and Shakespeare. Shaw is great because all his vast social
involvement, all his hectoring gospel urge, all his fanatic curiosity was most
alive for him, as for us, in the plastic terms of dramatic art. As in a fugue,
social themes are observed, blurred, lost and then recovered in the progres-
sion of a single, artfully crafted scene. His mastery of experience is most
Introduction 1 3
complete in the great ensemble numbers in his plays, as in the opening scene
of Man and Superman, the final sequence of Major Barbara or the Inquisition
in Saint Joan, when lyric opinions he advocated or cherished are made to
hold their own in the strenuous polyphony of alien views.
Ovation for Shaw
by Bertolt Brecht
L Shaw's Terror
Shaw himself has experienced and subsequently suggested that any
person, in order to express frankly an opinion on anything, has to overcome
a certain congenital fear that of being presumptuous. He has taken care
early in his career to prevent people from molesting him with insincere in-
cense burning. (But he has done it without shrinking from being considered
famous. He knows that the tools of an honest man must always include bois-
terous self-advertising. He proudly declines to hide his light under a bushel.)
Shaw has used a large part of his ingenuity to inhibit people to such a de-
gree that they would need to have extreme insensitivity to prostrate them-
selves in admiration before him.
It should be clear by now that Shaw is a terrorist. The Shavian terror is
an unusual one, and he employs an unusual weapon that of humor. This
unusual man seems to be of the opinion that there is nothing fearful in the
world except the calm and incorruptible eye of the common man. But this
eye must be feared, always and unconditionally. This theory endows Mm
with a remarkable natural superiority; and by his unfaltering practice in
accordance with it, he has made it impossible for anyone who ever comes
into contact with him be it in person, through his books, or through his
theater to assume that he ever committed a deed or uttered a sentence
without fearful respect for this incorruptible eye. In fact, young people, whose
main qualification is often their love of mettle, are often held to a minimum
of aggressiveness by their premonition that any attack on Shaw's habits,
even if it were his insistence on wearing peculiar underwear, would inevitably
result in a terrible defeat of their own thoughtlessly selected apparel. If one
adds to this his exploding of the thoughtless, habitual assumption that any-
"Ovation for Shaw" by Bertolt Brecht. From Modern Drama, II (September 1959), 184-
187. Translated by Gerhard H. W. Zuther. Copyright 1959 by A. G. Edwards. Re-
printed by permission of A. C. Edwards and Modern Drama. Originally published in
Berliner Bor sen-Courier, July 25, 1926.
1 6 B&rtolt Brecht
thing that might possibly be considered venerable should be treated in a sub-
dued manner instead of energetically and joyously; if one adds to this his
successful proof that in the face of truly significant ideas a relaxed (even
snotty) attitude is the only proper one, since it alone facilitates true concen-
tration, it becomes evident what measure of personal freedom he has achieved.
The Shavian terror consists of Shaw's insistence on the prerogative of
every man to act decently, logically, and with a sense of humor, and on the
obligation to act in this manner even in the face of opposition. He knows
very well how much courage it takes to laugh about the ridiculous and how
much seriousness it takes to discover the amusing. And, like all purposeful
people, he knows, on the other hand, that the most time-consuming and
distracting pursuit is a certain kind of seriousness which pervades literature
but does not exist anywhere else, (Like us, the young generation, he considers
it naive to write for the theater, and he does not show the slightest inclina-
tion to pretend that he is not aware of this: he makes far-reaching use of his
naivet^JjHfe furnishes the theater with as much fun as it can take. And it
can take a lot. tj/Vhat draws people to the theater is, strictly speaking, so much
nonsense, which constitutes a tremendous buoyancy for those problems which
really interest the progressive dramatic writer and which are the real value
of his pieces. 1 It follows that his problems must be so pertinent that he can
be as buoyant about them as he wishes to be, for the buoyancy is what peo-
II. Shaw Vindicated in the Face of His Own Dark Premonitions
I seem to remember that Shaw recently expressed his opinion about the
future of the drama. .He says that in the future people will no longer go to
the theater in order to understand. He probably means that mere reproduc-
tion of reality curiously fails to give the impression of verisimilitude. The
younger generation will not contradict Shaw on this point JBut I feel that
Shaw's own dramatic works were able to overshadow those of his contem-
poraries exactly because they unflinchingly appealed to the intellect. His
world is composed of opinions. The fate of his characters is identical with
their opinions/ Shaw, in order to have a play, invents some complications
which provide his characters with opportunities to vent their opinions ex-
tensively and to have them clash with ours. (These complications can never
be old and familiar enough to suit Shawj here he really has no ambition
whatever: a thoroughly ordinary usurer is worth his weight in gold; he stum-
bles on a patriotic girl in history, and the only important thing is that his
audience be equally familiar with the story of this girl, that the sad end of the
usurer be well known and gleefully anticipated, so that he can upset all the
more completely our old-fashioned concepts of these types and above all
our notions of the way these types think.)
Ovation for Shaw 17
Probably all of his characters, in all their traits, are the result of Shaw's
delight in upsetting our habitual prejudices. He knows that we have the
terrible habit of forcing all the attributes of a certain kind of people into
one preconceived, stereotyped concept. In our imagination the usurer is
cowardly, sneaky, and brutal. We would not think of permitting him to be
even a little courageous, sentimental, or soft hearted. Shaw does.
Concerning heroes, Shaw's degenerate successors have awkwardly ampli-
fied his refreshing conviction that heroes are not exemplary scholars and
that heroism is a very inscrutable, but very real conglomeration of contra-
dictory traits to mean that neither heroism nor heroes exist.. But even this
does not bother Shaw. It seems he considers it healthier to live among com-
mon people than among heroes.
In the composition of his works Shaw proceeds with utmost frankness.
He does not mind writing under the continuous scrutiny of the publican
order to make his judgments more emphatic, he facilitates this scrutiny:
he unremittingly stresses his own peculiarities, his very individualistic taste,
even his own (little) weaknesses. jThus he cannot fail to reap gratitudeTEven
where his opinions clash with those of the younger generation, he is listened
to with glee: he is and what more can be said about a man a good fel-
lowJ Besides, his time preserves opinions better than emotions and moods,
lit seems that of all the things produced in this epoch opinions are the most
III. Essential Contagiousness: Humor
It is characteristically difficult to find out the opinions of other European
authors. But I assume that concerning literature they hold approximately
the same view, to wit, that writing is a melancholy business. (Shaw, whose
opinions about everything are widely known throughout the world, clearly
sets himself deliberately apart from this view of his colleaguesj (It is not his
fault rather a thorn in his side that his all-pervasive difference of opinion
from the general views of the other European writers does not appear clearly
enough, since the others do not even publicize those few convictions which
they actually havejjBut Shaw will at least agree with me when I say that
Shaw likes to write. On his head there is no room for the crown of a martyr.
His literary preoccupation does not separate him from life. On the contrary.
I do not know whether it is an indication of talent, but the effect of his tin-
mistakeable serenity and his contagious good humor is extraordinary. Shaw
actually succeeds in giving the impression that his mental and bodily health
increases with every sentence he writes. Reading him is perhaps not exhila-
rating in a Dionysian manner, but it is undeniable that it is amazingly con-
ducive to good health. And his only enemies if \ve must mention them at
i8 Bertolt Brecht
all are obviously exclusively people to whom health is much less of a con-
I cannot remember a single one of Shaw's "characteristic" ideas, although
I know, of course, that he has many; but I remember many things which
he discovers to be characteristic of other people. In his own estimate, at any
rate, his temper is more important than his individual opinions. And that
speaks well for a man like him.
I feel that a theory of evolution is central for him, one which, in his opin-
ion, differs considerably and significantly from another theory of evolution
of definitely lower calibre. At any rate, his faith that man is capable of
infinite improvement plays an important role in his works. It will be clearly
recognized as a sincere ovation for Shaw when I admit without blushing
that I unconditionally subscribe to Shaw's view although I am not thor-
oughly acquainted with either of the two theories mentioned above. The
reason? A man with such keen intellect and courageous eloquence simply
deserves my complete confidence. This is all the more true as I have con-
sidered always and in any situation the forcefulness of an expression more
important than its immediate applicability and a man of stature more im-
portant than the sphere of his activity.
Biographic: G.B.S. (70)
on George Bernard Shaw (20)
by Erik H. Erikson
When George Bernard Shaw was a famous man of seventy, he was
called upon to review and to preface the unsuccessful work of his early twen-
ties, namely, the two volumes of fiction which had never been published.
As one would expect, Shaw proceeded to make light of the production of
his young adulthood, but not without imposing on the reader a detailed
analysis of young Shaw. Were Shaw not so deceptively witty in what he says
about his younger years, his observations probably would have been recog-
nized as a major psychological achievement. Yet, it is Shaw's mark of iden-
tity that he eases and teases his reader along a path of apparent superficialities
and sudden depths. I dare to excerpt him here for my purposes only in the
hope that I will make the reader curious enough to follow him at every step
of his exposition. 1
G.B.S. (for this is the public identity which was one of his masterpieces)
describes young Shaw as an "extremely disagreeable and undesirable" young
man, "not at all reticent of diabolical opinion," while inwardly "suffering
. . . from simple cowardice . . . and horribly ashamed of it." ^The truth is,"
he concludes, "that all men are in a false position in society until they have
realized their possibilities and imposed them on their neighbors. They are
tormented by a continual shortcoming in themselves; yet they irritate others
by a continual overweening.! this discord can be resolved by acknowledged
success or failure only: everyone is ill at ease until he has found his natural
place, whether it be above or below his birthplace." But Shaw must always
exempt himself from any universal law which he inadvertently pronounces;
"Biographic: G.B.S. (70) on George Bernard Shaw (20)" by Erik H. Erikson. From
Identity and the Life Cycle by Erik H. Erikson (New York: International Universities Press,
Inc., 1959), pp. 1 02~i 10. Copyright 1959 by International Universities Press, Inc.
Reprinted by permission of the publishers and the author. The pages reprinted are only
part of a paper entitled "The Problem of Ego Identity."
1 Excerpts quoted here are from G. B. Shaw, Selected Prose (New York: Dodd 3 Mead &
20 Erik H. Erikson
so he adds: "This finding of one's place may be made very puzzling by the
fact that there is no place in ordinary society for extraordinary individuals."
Shaw proceeds to describe a crisis (of the kind which we will refer to as
an identity crisis) at the age of twenty. It is to be noted that this crisis was not
caused by lack of success or the absence of a defined role but by too much
of both: "I made good in spite of myself, and found, to my dismay, that
Business, instead of expelling me as the worthless impostor I was, was fas-
tening upon me with no intention of letting me go. Behold me, therefore,
in my twentieth year, with a business training, in an occupation which I
detested as cordially as any sane person lets himself detest anything he can-
not escape from. In March 1876 I broke loose." Breaking loose meant to
leave family and friends, business and Ireland, and to avoid the danger of
success without identity, of a success unequal to "the enormity of my un-
conscious ambition." He granted himself a prolongation of the interval be-
tween youth and adulthood, which we will call a psychosocial moratorium.
He writes: ". . . when I left my native city I left this phase behind me, and
associated no more with men of my age until, after about eight years of soli-
tude in this respect, I was drawn into the Socialist revival of the early eight-
ies, among Englishmen intensely serious and burning with indignation at
very real and very fundamental evils that affected all the world." In the
meantime, he seemed to avoid opportunities, sensing that "Behind the con-
viction that they could lead to nothing that I wanted, lay the unspoken fear
that they might lead to something I did not want." This occupational part
of the moratorium was reinforced by an intellectual one: "I cannot learn any-
thing that does not interest me. My memory is not indiscriminate; it rejects
and selects; and its selections are not academic. ... I congratulate myself
on this; for I am firmly persuaded that every unnatural activity of the brain
is as mischievous as any unnatural activity of the body . . . Civilization
is always wrecked by giving the governing classes what is called secondary
Shaw settled down to study and to write as he pleased, and it was then
that the extraordinary workings of an extraordinary personality came to
the fore. He managed to abandon the kind of work he had been doing with-
out relinquishing the work habit: "My office training had left me with a
habit of doing something regularly every day as a fundamental condition
of industry as distinguished from idleness. I knew I was making no headway
unless I was doing this, and that I should never produce a book in any other
fashion. I bought supplies of white paper, demy size, by sixpence-worths at a
time; folded it in quarto; and condemned myself to fill five pages of it a day,
rain or shine, dull or inspired. I had so much of the schoolboy and the clerk
still in me that if my five pages ended in the middle of a sentence I did not
finish it until the next day. On the other hand, if I missed a day, I made up
for it by doing a double task on the morrow. On this plan I produced five
Biographic: G.B.S. (70) on George Bernard Shaw (26) 21
novels in five years. It was my professional apprenticeship. . . ." We may
add that these first five novels were not published for over fifty years; but
Shaw had learned to write as he worked, and to wait as he wrote. How im-
portant such initial ritualization of his worklife was for the young man's inner
defenses may be seen from one of those casual (in fact, parenthetical) re-
marks with which the great wit almost coyly admits his psychological in-
sight: "I have risen by sheer gravitation, too industrious by acquired habit
to stop working (I work as my father drank)" He thus points to that combina-
tion of addictiveness and compulsivity which we see as the basis of much path-
ology in late adolescence and of some accomplishment in young adulthood.
His father's "drink neurosis" Shaw describes in detail, finding in it one
of the sources of his biting humor: "It had to be either a family tragedy or
family joke." For his father was not "convivial, nor quarrelsome, nor boast-
ful, but miserable, racked with shame and remorse." However, the father had
a "humorous sense of anticlimax which I inherited from him and used with
much effect when I became a writer of comedy. His anticlimaxes depended
for their effect on our sense of the sacredness (of the subject matter) ... It
seems providential that I was driven to the essentials of religion by the re-
duction of every factitious or fictitious element in it to the most irreverent
A more unconscious level of Shaw's oedipal tragedy is represented with
dreamlike symbolism in what looks like a screen memory conveying his
father's impotence: "A boy who has seen 'the governor' with an imperfectly
wrapped-up goose under one arm and a ham in the same condition under the other (both
purchased under heaven knows what delusion of festivity) butting at the
garden wall in the belief that he was pushing open the gate, and transforming
his tall hat to a concertina in the process, and who, instead of being overwhelmed
with shame and anxiety at the spectacle, has been so disabled by merriment
(uproariously shared by the maternal uncle) that he has hardly been able
to rush to the rescue of the hat and pilot its wearer to safety, is clearly not
a boy who will make tragedies of jfrifles instead of making trifles of tragedies. If
you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance."
It is obvious that the analysis of the psychosexual elements in Shaw's identity
could find a solid anchor point in this memory.
Shaw explains his father's downfall with a brilliant analysis of the socio-
economic circumstances of his day. For the father was "second cousin to a
baronet, and my mother the daughter of a country gentleman whose rule
was, when in difficulties, mortgage. That was my sort of poverty." His father
was "the younger son of a younger son of a younger son" and he was "a
downstart and the son of a downstart." Yet, he concludes: "To say that my
father could not afford to give me a university education is like saying that
he could not afford to drink, or that I could not afford to become an author.
Both statements are true; but he drank and I became an author all the same."
22 Erik H. Erikson
His mother he remembers for the "one or two rare and delightful occa-
sions when she buttered my bread for me. She buttered it thickly instead
of merely wiping a knife on it." Most of the time, however, he says signifi-
cantly, she merely "accepted me as a natural and customary phenomenon
and took it for granted that I should go on occurring in that way." There
must have been something reassuring in this kind of impersonality, for "tech-
nically speaking, I should say she was the worst mother conceivable, always,
however, within the limits of the fact that she was incapable of unkindness
to any child, animal, or flower, or indeed to any person or thing whatso-
ever. . . ." If this could not be considered either a mother's love or an edu-
cation, Shaw explains: "I was badly brought up because my mother was
so well brought up. ... In her righteous reaction against . . . the constraints
and tyrannies, the scoldings and browbeatings and punishments she had
suffered in her childhood . . . she reached a negative attitude in which hav-
ing no substitute to propose, she carried domestic anarchy as far as in the
nature of things it can be carried." All in all, Shaw's mother was "a thor-
oughly disgusted and disillusioned woman . . . suffering from a hopelessly
disappointing husband and three uninteresting children grown too old to
be petted like the animals and the birds she was so fond of, to say nothing
of the humiliating inadequacy of my father's income."
Shaw had really three parents, the third being a man named Lee ("me-
teoric," "impetuous," "magnetic"), who gave Shaw's mother lessons in
singing, not without revamping the whole Shaw household as well as Ber-
nard's ideals: "Although he supplanted my father as the dominant factor
in the household, and appropriated all the activity and interest of my mother,
he was so completely absorbed in his musical affairs that there was no fric-
tion and hardly any intimate personal contacts between the two men: cer-
tainly no unpleasantness. At first his ideas astonished us. He said that people
should sleep with their windows open. The daring of this appealed to me;
and I have done so ever since. He ate brown bread instead of white: a star-
Of the many elements of identity formations which ensued from such a
perplexing picture, let me single out only three, selected, simplified, and
named for this occasion by me.
"As compared with similar English families, we had a power of derisive
dramatization that made the bones of the Shavian skeletons rattle more
loudly." Shaw recognizes this as "family snobbery mitigated by the family
sense of humor." On the other hand, "though my mother was not consciously
a snob, the divinity which hedged an Irish lady of her period was not ac-
Biographic: G.B.S. (70) on George Bernard Shaw (20) 23
ceptable to the British suburban parents, all snobs, who were within her
reach (as customers for private music lessons). 55 Shaw had "an enormous
contempt for family snobbery," until he found that one of his ancestors was
an Earl of Fife: "It was as good as being descended from Shakespeare, whom
I had been unconsciously resolved to reincarnate from my cradle."
All through his childhood, Shaw seems to have been exposed to an oceanic
assault of music making: the family played trombones and ophicleides, vio-
loncellos, harps, and tambourines and, most of all (or is it worst of all)
they sang. Finally, however, he taught himself the piano, and this with dra-
matic noisiness. "When I look back on all the banging, whistling, roaring,
and growling inflicted on nervous neighbors during this process of education,
I am consumed with useless remorse. ... I used to drive [my mother] nearly
crazy by my favorite selections from Wagner's Ring, which to her was c all
recitative,' and horribly discordant at that. She never complained at the
time, but confessed it after we separated, and said that she had sometimes
gone away to cry. If I had committed a murder I do not think it would
trouble my conscience very much; but this I cannot bear to think of." That,
in fact, he may have learned the piano in order to get even with his musical
tormentors, he does not profess to realize. Instead, he compromised by be-
coming a music critic, i.e., one who writes about the noise made by others.
As a critic, he chose the nom de plume Corno di Bassetto actually the name
of an instrument which nobody knew and which is so meek in tone that "not
even the devil could make it sparkle." Yet Bassetto became a sparkling
critic, and more: "I cannot deny that Bassetto was occasionally vulgar;
but that does not matter if he makes you laugh. Vulgarity is a necessary
part of a complete author's equipment; and the clown is sometimes the best
part of the circus,"
The Diabolical One
How the undoubtedly lonely little boy (whose mother listened only to
tbfe musical noisemakers) came to use his imagination to converse with a
great imaginary companion is described thus: "In my childhood I exercised
my literary genius by composing my own prayers . . . they were a literary
performance for the entertainment and propitiation of the Almighty." In
line with his family's irreverence in matters of religion, Shaw's piety had to
find and rely on the rockbottom of religiosity which, in him, early became
a mixture of "intellectual integrity . . . synchronized with the dawning
of moral passion." At the same time it seems that Shaw was (in some un-
24 Erik H. Erikson
specified way) a little devil of a child. At any rate, he did not feel identical
with himself when he was good: "Even when I was a good boy, I was so only
theatrically, because, as actors say, I saw myself in the character." And in-
deed, at the completion of his identity struggle, i.e., "when Nature com-
pleted my countenance in 1880 or thereabouts (I had only the tenderest
sprouting of hair on my face until I was 24), I found myself equipped with
the upgrowing moustaches and eyebrows, and the sarcastic nostrils of the
operatic fiend whose airs (by Gounod) I had sung as a child, and whose at-
titudes I had affected in my boyhood. Later on, as the generations moved
past me, I ... began to perceive that imaginative fiction is to life what
the sketch is to the picture or the conception to the statue."
Thus G.B.S., more or less explicitly, traces his own roots. Yet, it is well
worth noting that what he finally became seems to him to have been as innate
as the intended reincarnation of Shakespeare referred to above. His teacher,
he says, "puzzled me with her attempts to teach me to read; for I can re-
member no time at which a page of print was not intelligible to me, and can
only suppose that I was born literate." However, he thought of a number
of professional choices: "As an alternative to being a Michelangelo I had
dreams of being a Badeali (note, by the way, that of literature I had no
drpams at all any more than a duck has of swimming)."
He also calls himself "a born Communist" (which, we hasten to say, means
a Fabian Socialist), and he explains the peace that comes with the acceptance
of what one seems to be made to be; the "born Communist . . . knows where
he is, and where this society which has so intimidated him is. He is cured
of his MAUVAISE HONTE. . . ." Thus "the complete outsider" gradually be-
came his kind of complete insider: "I was," he said, "outside society, outside
politics, outside sport, outside the Church" but this "only within the limits
of British barbarism . . . The moment music, painting, literature, or sci-
ence came into question the positions were reversed: it was I who was the
As he traces all of these traits back into childhood, Shaw becomes aware
of the fact that only a tour de force could have integrated them all: ". . . if I
am to be entirely communicative on this subject, I must add that the mere
rawness which so soon rubs off was complicated by a deeper strangeness
which has made me all my life a sojourner on this planet rather than a native
of it. Whether it be that I was born mad or a little too sane, my kingdom
was not of this world: I was at home only in the realm of my imagination,
and at my ease only with the mighty dead. Therefore, I had to become an
actor, and create for myself a fantastic personality fit and apt for dealing
with men, and adaptable to the various parts I had to play as author, jour-
nalist, orator, politician, committee man, man of the world, and so forth. In
this," so Shaw concludes significantly, "I succeeded later on only too well."
This statement is singularly illustrative of that faint disgust with which older
Biographic: G.B.S. (70) on George Bernard Shaw (20) 25
men at times review the inextricable identity which they had come by in
their youth a disgust which in the lives of some can become mortal despair
and inexplicable psychosomatic involvement.
The end of his crisis of younger years Shaw sums up in these words: "I
had the intellectual habit; and by natural combination of critical faculty
with literary resource needed only a clear comprehension of life in the light
of an intelligible theory: in short, a religion, to set it in triumphant opera-
tion." Here the old Cynic has circumscribed in one sentence what the iden-
tity formation of any human being must add up to. To translate this into
terms more conducive to discussion in ego-psychological and psychosocial
terms: Man, to take his place in society, must acquire a "conflict-free," ha-
bitual use of a dominant faculty, to be elaborated in an occupation; a limitless
resource, a feedback, as it were, from the immediate exercise of this occupation,
from the companionship it provides, and from its tradition; and finally, an in-
telligible theory of the processes of life which the old atheist, eager to shock
to the last, calls a religion.
Born to Set It Right:
The Roots of Shaw's Style
by Richard M. Ohrnann
Born to Set It Right
In making himself the critic of things as they are, Shaw places himself
in the position of outsider. Everyone, to be sure, can imagine a better world
than the present one; everyone has some grievances. But Shaw does not want
the status quo merely doctored up a bit, and few can face such a wholesale
scrapping of traditions as he does propose. The poor, who might profit by
revolution, have no voice, and even if they had they would balk at many
of Shaw's iconoclasms his attacks on marriage and conventional religion,
for example. The middle class, the very group that leans most heavily on
established institutions, is the class with a voice to use in defending them.
Thus Shaw finds that "civilized society is one huge bourgeoisie" (M&S, xv), 1
"Born to Set It Right: The Roots of Shaw's Style" by Richard M. Ohmann. From Shaw:
The Style and the Man by Richard M. Ohmann (Middletown, Conn. : Wesleyan University
Press, 1962), pp. 74-90 and 101-08. Copyright 1962 by Wesleyan University. Re-
printed by permission of the author and the Wesleyan University Press. The pages
printed here are only part of the chapter entitled "The Posture of Opposition."
The quotations from Shaw included here are reprinted by permission of The Public
Trustee and The Society of Authors.
1 My references to Shaw's works are, wherever possible, to TheAyot St. Lawrence Edition
of The Collected Works of Bernard Shaw (New York, 1930-32). Page references apply also
to The Works of Bernard Shaw (London, 1930-32), for which the same type was used. In
the following key to my in-text references the volumes belong to The Ayot St. Lawrence
edition unless otherwise specified.
And Androcles and the Lion, Overruled, Pygmalion
Back Back to Methuselah
Delusions Doctors* Delusions, Crude Criminology, Sham Education
Dilemma The Doctor's Dilemma, Getting Married, The ShewingUp of Blanco Posnet
EPWW Everybody's Political What's What? (London, 1944)
Essays Essays in Fabian Socialism
IK The Irrational Knot
Born to Set It Right: The Roots of Shaw's Style 27
and that to be against the middle class is to be against almost everybody.
Enemy of the people (for their own good) is therefore a role that meshes
naturally with Shaw's ideas. It is also intensely congenial to him just as a
Shaw was born into a family that asked (and deserved) little tribute of
reverence. He did look up to his father at first, until he discovered that the
senior Shaw, who liked to give thunderous lectures on the evils of drink,
was himself a tippler. This revelation of hypocrisy and weakness left a scar
on Shaw's attitude toward parental authority,- His mother, long-suffering
and admirably talented, was nonetheless too remote and cold a figure to
be idealized. He was surrounded, too, by various eccentric uncles one
whose "profanity and obscenity in conversation were of Rabelaisian exu-
berance" (SSS, 15), and one who went harmlessly insane and watched
over by a kind of surrogate father, the musician Lee, who ate unfashionable
brown bread and criticized doctors, and whose influence on Shaw's home
"accustomed me to the scepticism as to academic authority which still
persists in me" (SSS, 14). Hardly a conventional group of sacrosanct elders.
But more important still was the atmosphere of laxity that surrounded
the young George Bernard. The children were treated as adults, left to their
own devices unencumbered by demands for obedience, by guidance, or by
love; their upbringing lacked both Victorian austerity and Victorian senti-
mentality. No one attempted to nurture in Shaw a sense of sin. Quite the
contrary, in fact. His father would occasionally rebuke him for scoffing at
the Bible, but would conclude the defense by stating, "with an air of perfect
fairness, that even the worst enemy of religion could say no worse of the
Bible than that it was the damndest parcel of lies ever written" (Imm, xxiii).
Deaths were common in Shaw's big family, and to save time at funerals the
family coaches would maintain a lugubrious pace only until reaching the
city limits, then tear at a gallop to the burial ground, which lay some distance
away, while the family often passed the time by speaking ill of the deceased.
Mockery of death and mockery of religion were appropriately set against
a background of Mrs. Shaw's music, and punctuated by Mr. Shaw's drunken
sprees. And yet at the same time the family maintained the most absurd
IWG The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism
JBOI John Bull's Other Island, How He Lied to Her Husband, Major Barbara
M&S Man and Superman
Mis Misalliance, The Dark Lady of the Sonnets, Fanny's First Play
PPU Plays Pleasant and Unpleasant (2 vols.)
QI The Quintessence of Ibsenism, The Perfect Wagnerite, The Sanity of Art
SSS Sixteen Self Sketches, Standard Edition (London, 1949)
StJ Saint Joan, The Apple Cart
Too True Too True to Be Good, Village Wooing & On the Rocks. Three Plays by Bernard
Shaw (London, 1934)
War What I Really Wrote About the War
28 Richard M. Ohmann
pretensions of superiority: they were after all Protestants; they were de-
scended from gentry, albeit unimpressively; they were in wholesale, not
retail, trade, and Shaw's father could criticize him for playing with the son
of an ironmonger. Of this class snobbery Shaw remarks, "I remember
Stopford Brooke one day telling me that he discerned in my books an intense
and contemptuous hatred for society. No wonder!" 2 Sensitive to this hypoc-
risy, and receptive to the permissiveness and skepticism, Shaw seems never
to have felt awe toward authority, seems almost to have been "born free
from many of the venerations and inhibitions which restrain the tongues of
most small boys," as he said to Hesketh Pearson. 3 In any case he is always
ready to ridicule his elders, from his own father to cultural father-figures like
If his family origins disinclined him to accept the world as he found it,
education stamped his skepticism in still more deeply. His schooling "oper-
ated by a succession of eye-openers each involving the repudiation of some
previously held belief, and consequently of my conviction of my father's
infallibility," so that he thinks the learning process a "ceremony of dis-
illusion" (EPWW, 155) at each step of advance. Nor did his informal
education Marx, Henry George, Bellamy do anything to dilute his con-
viction that whatever is is misunderstood, and that most of what is is wrong.
His first novel, Immaturity, ends symbolically with a negative shake of the
^Throughout his life Shaw wrote as an opponent; and this stance had its
origins in his reaction against the entrenched Victorian smugness which
prevailed during his boyhood and through his first quarter-century in
London,,! It has become fashionable lately to deny that the Victorians were
smug, and to see them instead as deeply troubled by the crumbling of old
creeds and the mushrooming of new problems. This is true, certainly, of the
great writers, but their voices gain in heroic timbre precisely because of the
emptiness into which they cry. In the face of their jeremiads the great
bourgeoisie remains complacent and conservative, as perhaps it always has
been. It is against that conservatism against a collective mind that is
shocked by the New Woman, thinks socialists cads, subscribes to a com-
fortably tailored blend of middle-class Christianity and scientific materialism,
and holds all kinds of selfish cant as gospel that Shaw writes.
During the Spanish-American War he read an account of an American
commander who, upon seeing the Spanish fleet burned, gathered his men
2 "In the Days of My Youth," from Mainly About People, Sept. 17, 1898. Quoted by
Archibald Henderson in George Bernard Shaw: Man of the Century (New York: Appleton-
Century-Crofts, 1956), p. 16.
3 Quoted in Hesketh Pearson's G. B. $.; A Full Length Portrait (New York and London:
Harper and Row, Publishers, Inc., 1942), p. 21.
Born to Set It Right: The Roots of Shaw' 3 Style 29
together and declared his belief in God Almighty. On reading this, Shaw
concluded that "if I am sane, the rest of the world ought not to be at large.
We cannot both see things as they really are." 4 Not infrequently his critiques
of society do give the impression that Shaw is the only sane man in a world
of the feebleminded and the deluded, but at least this egotism stems more
from a conviction of the world's folly than from a sense of his own infallibility.
Though he sometimes says, "How right I ami" he more often says, "How
misguided the others are!" And against their madness he sets himself to
At the end of his life he describes the Shavian crusade against error;
My Everybody's What's What is only an attempt by a very ignorant old man
to communicate to people still more ignorant than himself such elementary
social statics as he has managed to pick up ... in the course of a life . . .
spent largely in discovering and correcting the mistakes into which his social
antecedents and surroundings led him. (EPWW, 366)
The cardinal truth about society is that it lacks knowledge and self-awareness:
"What is wrong with the prosaic Englishman is what is wrong with the
prosaic men of all countries: stupidity" (M&S, xix). For their stupidity his
home remedy is a heavy dose of truth, administered by himself, but he sees
their ignorance as so deep and so soothing that they desperately resist
enlightenment. Thus he has it that audiences and critics rejected "Too True
to Be Good" because its honesty had been too much for them, "as if I had
hit them in some new and unbearably sore spot" (Too True, 3).
Throughout What I Really Wrote About the War he adopts the role of
Cassandra, or the voice in the wilderness: in wartime people hunger for
palliation with special acuteness. To Shaw, "Common Sense About the
War," in spite of its relative sanity, seems "the cruelest use I have ever had
to make of my pen." He would like to have spared amiable people the
"unbearable" truth about power diplomacy, but "could not indulge these
innocents" because his business "was to clear our case of false claims"
(War, 116-17). Elsewhere he speaks of "Common Sense" as "that intoler-
able document which afterwards turned out to be so exasperatingly right in
every detail" (388), and of the people's "prayers to be shielded from that
terrible thing, the truth" (48). One article ends: "I can promise nothing
beyond another unheeded cry in the wilderness" (394); and another begins:
"I told you so" (395). At the same period he was writing the Webbs that
after thirty years of telling Englishmen "the truth as far as human judg-
ment is capable of the truth, I find that they remain invincibly persuaded
that I am a mischief maker, a liar, and a wrecker." 5 In all this he is un-
4 "In the Days of My Youth," quoted by Henderson, p. 48.
5 Quoted by Henderson, p. 377.
30 Richard M. Ohmann
questionably sincere, yet he brings extra gusto to the part because it so
admirably suits his self-image of Shaw the facer of unpopular truths and
shatterer of illusions, Shaw the opposer, Shaw the wise fool. Unsurpris-
ingly, it is a part that he assigns to some of the most memorable figures in
his work: Owen Jack and Sidney Trefusis in the novels, Captain Shotover,
Jack Tanner, Saint Joan, and many others in the plays.
Shaw's choice of allies throws into relief his choice of role. Against Vic-
torian well-being he champions the cosmic uneasiness of Schopenhauer,
Nietzsche, Butler, Marx, Ruskin, Morris, and Carlyle, and the artistic
rebelliousness of Wagner, Ibsen, Chekhov, Gorky, and the French Impres-
sionists. For reinforcement he throws Jesus at the establishment. In this
company alone Shaw feels at ease.
With this posture of revolt, his preference for change (as outlined in
Chapter II [in Richard M. Ohmann's book Shaw: The Style and the Man
EDITOR'S NOTE]) jibes nicely. A civilization cannot progress, cannot remake
itself, except through the destruction of old institutions: "Every step of
progress means a duty repudiated, and a scripture torn up" (QI, 20). To
change is to deny the claims of what is. To conventional people, therefore,
progress seems regress, for it always entails the relinquishing of previous
advances and once-revolutionary ideals. Such people denounce as an enemy
of society the free spirit who mocks ideals, though he is actually performing
a service by "sweeping the world clear of lies" (QI, 45). Shaw does accept
the necessity of social rules thus his rejection of anarchism for its "terrifying
danger and obvious inconvenience" (QI, 320) but no law is so absolute
that it can stand up forever, and all laws, creeds, and systems of ethics,
"instead of making society better than its best unit, make it worse than its
average unit, because they are never up to date" (QI, 317)- Thus the duty
of the man of genius with a conscience is almost invariably to attack, since
many can be found to defend. The worst philistines of all are journalists and
artists who take it as their duty merely to reflect the "ignorance and prejudice
of their readers" (QI, 330), rather than trying to reform them.
It is worth noting, apropos of Shaw's contrariness, that he does not rest
content with assaults on the enemy's weak points. Rightly he contrasts
himself with Moliere, who makes his doctors mercenary hembugs, and with
Dickens, who attacks revivalist preachers by having Stiggins first get drunk
on pineapple rum and finally be kicked into a horse trough. Shaw "strikes
at Hector or Achilles, not at Thersites." 6 It has often been remarked that
most of his dramatic villains make a strong case for themselves. Such devil's
disciples as Mrs. Warren, Morell, the Inquisitor, and the Devil himself in
"Man and Superman" are far from being straw men or buffoons. Similarly,
he directs his satire and invective at such able opponents as the medical
profession, experimental science, Darwinism, conventional theism, and the
6 Henderson, p. 740.
Born to Set It Right: The Roots of Shaw's Style 31
free enterprise system. He generally strikes at the pillars of society, not at
As I have pointed out, Shaw considers wholesale rebellion such as this
essential to progress, and his argument for tolerance turns on the necessity
for granting as much leeway as society can bear to the discontented servants
of the Life Force. * Yet on the subject of tolerance Shaw has conflicting
feelings. There is much of the authoritarian in his intellectual make-up: his
intolerance of mediocrity, his passion for social order, his hatred for random
drifting, all put him out of patience with the painfully lethargic movements
of a free society. Some of this impatience spills over into tempered admiration
of Mussolini, Stalin, even Hitler, and into such rigid systems as state-
controlled genetics. But the pressure of his relentless individualism is too
powerful for this other complex of motives. A fully disciplined society might
take it upon itself to hamstring its Wagners, Ibsens, and Shaws, and the moral
claustrophobia in England is quite severe enough without contemplating
such anti-utopian extensions of authority. So Shaw consistently supports
freedom. He reluctantly accepts democracy as the means of transition to
communism; compulsion will not work because "we hate masters" (Essays,
8g). ; ;He stoutly opposes censorship because "an attack on morals may turn
out toTbe the salvation of the race" (Dilemma, 385). And he writes tracts
proposing a bill of rights for children and "controversial education" to "tear
away the camouflage from commercial civilization" (Delusions, 332). The
act of opposition is as necessary to the human race as the sexual act, and
must be jealously protected from the anxious reprisals of the ins. Shaw has
ambiguous feelings about authority, but finally he is neither contradictory
nor vague in his advocacy of tolerance.
In her study of perception in prejudiced and unprejudiced children Else
Frenkel-Brunswik finds a correlation too great to be fortuitous between
intolerance of perceptual and conceptual ambiguity and "strength of hos-
tility, of power-orientation, of externalization, and of rigid stereotyping." 7
This conjunction has more than passing interest; I suggested in Chapter I
[in Richard M. Ohmann's Shaw: The Style and the Man EDITOR'S NOTE]
that Shaw is inhospitable toward conceptual ambiguity, and in this chapter
that his characteristic authorial stance is in part hostile. There is no need
to seek a too rigorous application of Frenkel-Brunswik 5 s terms. Shaw is
power-oriented only in being immensely interested hi power, not in wanting
to prostrate himself before it. He stereotypes his opponents only to the extent
of finding them all lacking in wit. As for "externalization" of aggressions
and weaknesses, that is the mark of a paranoid, and to call Shaw a paranoid
would be to substitute diagnosis for literary criticism. Shaw has good reason
for thinking himself besieged by enemies, since he goes so far out of his way
7 Jerome S. Brunei and David Krech, Perception and Personality (Durham, N.G.: Duke
University Press, 1950), p. 141.
32 Richard M. Ohmann
to create them. 8 "Hostility," finally, has some connotations quite inappro-
priate to Shaw's outlook on life; he is too warm-blooded and too flamboyant
to decapitate his enemies with any emotion but the warrior's joy of battle.
But if Frenkel-Brunswik's terms do not pin Shaw down like a botanical
specimen, they do at least come close. Hand in hand with Shaw the man ol
genius goes Shaw the antagonist, the gadfly, the outrager of stodgy people,
the opponent of majorities. I have laid some of his lapses in common sense
(antivivisection, etc.) at the door of rigid categorizing; they also reflect,
obviously, his unwillingness to be on the side of the majority or to find repose
in yea-saying. In the light of such alternate explanations it is especially
convenient to find psychologists linking the epistemic stance of the leveler
with the rhetorical stance of the nay-sayer.
no, No, NO
The passage that follows is an example of Shaw playing the patient man
of reason, beleaguered by the intolerable pigheadedness of the vivisectors.
Anyone who knows the ABC of Science, he says, knows that men must nol
seek knowledge by criminal methods:
He knows that there are fifty ways of ascertaining any fact; that only the two or
three worst of them are dirty ways; that those who deliberately choose the dirty
ways are not only morally but intellectually imbecile; that the "clean-handed
man with the scalpel" is a humbug who has to buy his brains from the instrument
maker; that it is ridiculous to expect that an experimenter who commits acts of
diabolical cruelty for the sake of what he calls Science can be trusted to tell the
truth about the results; that no vivisector ever accepts another vivisector's con-
clusions nor refrains from undertaking a fresh set of vivisections to upset them;
that as any fool can vivisect and gain kudos by writing a paper describing what
happened, the laboratories are infested with kudos hunters who have nothing to
tell that they could not have ascertained by asking a policeman except when it
is something that they should not know (like the sensations of a murderer) ; and
that as these vivisectors crowd humane research workers out of the schools and
discredit them, they use up all the endowments and bequests available for their
purposes, leaving nothing for serious physiological research. (Delusions, 142-43)
Anybody may know this, but Shaw tells him all the sameAEach of his "that 53
clauses denies one proposition in the vivisectionists' creed, and the sentence
8 Though I do not wish to press the point, there is more than a little paranoia in the
running battles Shaw carries on in letters to the, daily papers, where apparently he was
subject to considerable abuse. And he does seem to take a special delight in relating the
trials to which his superiority makes him subject. Of Mussolini's regime he says, "I, being
a bit of a psychologist myself, also understood the situation, and was immediately de-
nounced by the refugees and their champions as an anti-democrat, a hero-worshipper of
tyrants, and all the rest of it." (The Simpleton, 117)
Born to Set It Right: The Roots of Shaw's Style 33
amounts to a demolition job on the whole structure of their argument. Often
when Shaw gets up steam for one of these colossal series, his fires are those
of anger. The syntactical heaping-up that betokens a similarity relationship
also serves him rhetorically, to smother his audience, as it were: he confronts
the opposition, not with one argument, but with ten. Such superabundance
has special propriety in the crusade against entrenched opinion, which needs
to be jostled rudely before it can be dislodged. Note, too, the language of
exaggeration in this passage "fifty ways of ascertaining any fact," "it is
ridiculous," "diabolical cruelty," "no vivisector ever," "any fool," "have
nothing to tell," "all the endowments," "leaving nothing." Hyperbole, like
the Shavian catalogue, can be understood in terms both of the epistemology
of equivalence and of the rhetoric of opposition.
The same holds true for the devices of comparison. One of Shaw's favorites
contains an explicit form of negation, "no more than ." But he
uses the others to deny or contradict almost as regularly. His analogies seek
measuring sticks for the villainy or illogicality of his opponents, and Ms
comparisons of degree often work by reductio adabsurdum ("could not manage
a baked potato stand honestly and capably, much less a coal mine"
IWG, 122). When he highlights the similarities between one period and
another he often does so pejoratively in order to emphasize the moral
corruption of both; here, for example, he presses both the series and the
"as" of equality into such a comparison:
Already in the twentieth century there has been as much brute coercion and
savage intolerance, as much flogging and hanging, as much impudent injustice
on the bench and lustful rancor in the pulpit, as much naive resort to torture,
persecution, and suppression of free speech and freedom of the press, as much
war, as much of the vilest excess of mutilation, rapine, and delirious indiscrim-
inate slaughter of helpless non-combatants, old and young ... as we can find
any record of from the days when the advocacy of liberty was a capital offence
and Democracy was hardly thinkable. (Mis, 103-4)
The catalogue bulges with invective and exaggeration, as Shaw annihilates
the ascription of tolerance and humanity to his contemporaries. One could
follow the thread of opposition through other equivalence forms, and through
the forms of discontinuity as well particularly semantic shock, redefinition,
word-coining, and paradox. But it will be more profitable at this point to
scan new and more concentrated evidence of denial and opposition.
To begin with macrostylistics, Shaw frequently compounds the structure
of a whole piece from a set of negations. Take that quintessence of Shavian-
ism, "The Revolutionist's Handbook." After a preface concluding that
"Revolutions have never lightened the burden of tyranny" (italics mine),
John Tanner's first chapter outlines the need for controlled breeding, but
in doing so it begins with a denial that transfiguration of institutions is ever
34 Richard M. Ohmann
more than change from Tweedledum to Tweedledee, and ends with a warn-
ing that the goal of breeding must be neither a race of mindless athletes nor
a race of Sunday School prigs. Chapter Two also carries a burden of nega-
tion: it brushes aside the twin obstacles of property and marriage; rejecting
first the revolutionist's contention that they are important; second, the idea
that society will much feel their departure; and third, the conventional
notion that cohabitation and procreation are necessarily connected. Then,
via a discussion of the Oneida community, Tanner disposes of the hope that
great leaders and great creeds can raise a people above its natural level. The
fourth chapter makes short work of the supposed objections of human instinct
to regimented genetics. With the fifth we are back to the need for a race of
supermen, the argument being that democracy cannot thrive when the
electorate has feet of clay. Then another quick vault, this time to a denial
that prudery represents instinctive resistance to the Life Force, Chapter Seven
returns to political realities, and disposes of the ideas (i) that social reform
is a solution, (2) that violence is any help, (3) that man has progressed during
recorded history, and (4) that he is even capable of progress without a
mutation in character. The next chapter takes up the third of these denials,
and debunks a whole series of alleged modern achievements. With Chapter
Nine, Tanner returns to the denial that social progress can occur, barring
evolutionary progress. He concludes by rejecting the idea that breeding
can be controlled in a laissez-faire society a devious way to arrive at the
necessity of socialism !
On this gathering of positions Shaw imposes very little logical coherence;
transitions are, as usual, his weak point. What does hold his arguments
together is the posture of denial, for the little book stands united with itself
against both the conventional dogmas of capitalism and those of socialism
as well. Many of Shaw's arguments could as easily have been cast as affirma-
tions rather than denials, but whenever possible he elects the negative mode,
as if his positions will gain sharpness from being honed against those of
imagined antagonists. 9
The patterns of negation that give structure to Shaw's arguments are
naturally reticulate in miniature on the level of sentence and phrase: one
cannot constantly refute without ever saying "not," and negative forms
abound in his prose. A single page from an open letter to Frank Harris
contains thirteen of them:
you can learn nothing about your biographees from their sex histories
The sex relation is not a personal relation
could not endure one another for a day
you would be none the wiser
9 It bears repeating that "The Revolutionist's Handbook" is written by Jack Tanner,
who perhaps exceeds even Shaw in obstreperousness. But his rhetoric, like his revolution-
ism, differs from, that of his creator in degree, not hi kind.
Born to Set It Right: The Roots of Shaw's Style 35
I was not impotent
I was not sterile
I was not homosexual
I never associated
nor had any scruples
I was not attracted
my first adventure did not occur until
Do not misunderstand this (888,113)
Admittedly, Shaw is up on his hind legs here, and to a certain extent he is
contradicting actual statements made by the improbable Harris. But the
high incidence of negatives obtains elsewhere, though less spectacularly. To
take a longer and more typical sample, six pages of The Intelligent Woman's
Guide (360-65) contain, respectively, seven, nine, nine, eight, six, and twelve
of these forms (thirty-five "nots," six "nos," five "nors," three "nevers,"
and two "nothings"), an incidence considerably higher than the norm for
But such a rigidly limited measure of negation is far from telling the whole
story. These same six pages, for instance, display a number of other forms
of denial and opposition: "the wrong way to put it," "the very last thing
the . . . worker wants," "the common trick of ... is a foolish one," and
so forth. To get at the full sweep of negation in Shaw's prose it is necessary
to make a fuller and less formal analysis. Consider another page, this time
from the Preface to "John Bull's Other Island" (JBOI, xvi). To begin with
there are nine negative forms. In addition, there are several words that
imply opposition or denial somewhat less directly: "without," "only" (imply-
ing a completeness not attained), and the prefixes "un-" and "out-" ("out-
wit," etc.). Then there are the signs of syntactical opposition, "although 53
and "instead." But the largest group of negative words are those that have
a looser association with invective, those with negative connotations. In
such words and phrases the passage abounds:
violently shoved conspire blockhead
stumbling blindly assassinate blockheads
backward deeper and deeper compelled
crush shame supercilious
weaknesses lack tongue-tied
terrors enemy exposing
misery shams denouncing
bayonets hypocrisies lose
embarrass servitude discount
bully illusions miss
Such words sustain the rhetoric of opposition not because of any formal
characteristics but because of their meanings, and because of the freight of
36 Richard M. Ohmann
emotion associated with them, emotion whose burden is condemnatory. The
total number of words I have enumerated so far is forty-eight, on a page
that contains only some three-hundred-odd words all told: more than one
word out of seven signals opposition.
This is about as far as measurement can go, but it still is not the limit of
the passage's negativism. For one thing, syntactical juxtaposition sometimes
works to bring out a conflict. For example, a sentence with an explicit
negative "We [Ireland] cannot crush England as a Pickford's van might
crush a perambulator" precedes one with no negative forms: "We are
the perambulator and England the Pickford." The force of the earlier neg-
ative carries over into this sentence, so that its effect is to deny the suggestion
that Ireland is stronger than England. In addition, the second sentence
contains an internal opposition, the contrast between a Pickford and a
perambulator, which is indicated only by the grammatical pairing of two
words with disparate referents. As syntax works to diffuse an atmosphere of
opposition, so does the tone of the whole section. "England" becomes a term
of invective in itself, since in the context of Shaw's anti-imperialist argument
England is the main villain. And in a series such as this: "a supercilious,
unpopular, tongue-tied, aristocratic Protestant Parnell," the distaste attach-
ing to the first three terms carries over to give "aristocratic" and "Protestant"
unfavorable connotations that they would not necessarily possess otherwise,
and establishes "Parnell" as something to be against. To the effects of syntax
and connotation must be added, finally, the effects of irony, which often
serves to invert what would ordinarily be terms of approbation. Thus when
Shaw speaks of "any mysterious Irish pluck, Irish honesty, Irish bias on the
part of Providence, or sterling Irish solidity of character," he is deploring,
not pluck and honesty themselves, but the Celtic sentimentality that insists
on taking such virtues as the special property of the Irish. Irony, as a means
of speaking to the happy few over the heads of the ignorant many, is neces-
sarily a weapon of critical attack.
I do not suggest that every page of Shaw's prose has its feet so firmly
planted in a pugilistic stance, but only that he finds this stance especially
congenial. The page I have been analyzing does not strike me as an un-
paralleled example of Shavian invective, but as one fairly easy to match
in his work. His chosen role as the unwelcome sage and his image of the
public as desperately clinging to soothing lies make it inevitable that he
should spend much of his energy flaying complacency and disputing received
Idealists and Realists
The role of Cassandra, which Shaw finds congenial in several of his major
crusades, entails a particular idea both of reality and of people. The fact
Born to Set It Right: The Roots of Shaw's Style 37
that the truth is so apparent to Shaw and so obscure to others presses even
his capacious ego to look for some explanation beside the superiority of his
intellect. The explanation he seizes on, as I have suggested, is only a slightly
less egotistical one: the superiority of his courage in facing facts. Not only
in "Common Sense About the War," but in many of his social and critical
writings, Shaw strikes the pose of the one uncomfortable realist among a
nation of comfortable sentimentalists, and, more bluntly, the one sane man
in a nation of fools. The conviction that he alone can and will tell the truth
presupposes, thus, a world full of illusions and a populace that resists taking
an honest look at that world.
This picture fits with something like schematic rigidity into Shaw's philos-
ophy of Creative Evolution. Within that system man, at present, is a rather
primitive experiment of the Life Force, unable to penetrate very deeply the
ignorance that shrouds the secrets of life. But evolution is movement in the
direction of knowledge. Art and literature, the brightest sparks yet struck
by human genius, represent "the struggle of Life to become divinely con-
scious of itself instead of blindly stumbling hither and thither in the line
of least resistance" (M&S, xxiv). Religion, too, is a step in the direction of
awareness, so long as it is not sham religion. Lavinia, the would-be martyr
of "Androcles and the Lion," establishes this connection between religion
and the striving for truth; a Roman captain accuses her of wanting to die
for "Christian fairy stories," and she replies that the approach of death has
made her forget the stories, made reality become realer and realer. She is
going to die for something greater than stories, but does not yet know what
"If it were for anything small enough to know, it would be too small to die
for. I think I'm going to die for God. Nothing else is real enough to die for."
The captain asks her what God and she answers, "When we know that,
Captain, we shall be gods ourselves" (And, 138-39). Shaw believes that
men will become gods, and that divinity will consist mainly in full compre-
hension of self and reality. Evolution, according to Don Juan, works toward
"higher and higher individuals, the ideal individual being omnipotent,
omniscient, infallible, and withal completely, unilludedly self-conscious: in
short, a god?" (M&S, 112). But at present man is far from godlike in breadth
of vision and depth of insight, and the direction of time's arrow even the
fact that it has an arrow is hidden to all but the scattered men of genius
whom the Life Force throws up from time to time as previews of what is to
come. Needless to say, Shaw regards himself as one of these evolutionary
anachronisms, as a man sitting on the right hand of truth. Hence the role
of prophet, and hence the will to do single combat against the hordes of
the ignorant. To an advanced thinker like Shaw, most of what other people
think is eolithic groping, and must simply be denied.
If this notion of the twentieth century as an intellectual Stone Age bears
part of the responsibility for the standard Shavian dichotomy of appearance
38 Richard M. Ohmann
and reality, a still larger share belongs to the idea that society consciously
and unconsciously buries the meat of truth under a crust of lies. Ignorance
is deplorable, but hypocrisy is contemptible, and it is hypocrisy, therefore,
which most often places Shaw in the position of accuser. He discovered early
the deceptions of society, and made them his special target. His novels, the
first literary fruits of this revelation, mostly hinge on conflicts between one
or more hard-headed characters and a larger number of deluded ones.
The arch-realist Conolly speaks for all of the hard-headed ones in his
indictment of polite education:
But what you call her education, as far as I can make it out, appears to have
consisted of stuffing her with lies, and making it a point of honor with her to
believe them in spite of sense and reason. The sense of duty that rises on that
sort of foundation is more mischievous than downright want of principle. I don't
dispute your right, you who constitute polite society, to skin over all the ugly
facts of life. But to make your daughters believe that the skin covers healthy flesh
is a crime. Poor Marian thinks that a room is clean when all the dust is swept
out of sight under the furniture; and if honest people rake it out to bring it under
the notice of those whose duty it is to remove it, she is disgusted with them, and
ten to one accuses them of having made it themselves. She doesn't know what
sort of world she is in, thanks to the misrepresentations of those who should have
taught her. She will deceive her children in just the same way, if she ever has
any. If she had been taught the truth in her own childhood, she would know how
to face it, and would be a strong woman as well as an amiable one. But it is too
late now. The truth seems natural to a child; but to a grown woman or man,
it is a bitter lesson in the learning, though it may be invigorating when it is well
mastered. And you know how seldom a hard task forced on an unwilling pupil
is well mastered, (IK, 253-54)
Shaw's "unpleasant" plays, too, consist mainly in the stripping away of
illusions Trench's illusions about the innocence of interest, the Petkoffs 3
about war, MorelPs about women and marriage, and so onAjMrs. Warren,
who has most reason to doubt the saccharine Victorian world-view, gives
the lie to society most convincingly, the more so because she is desperately
trying to justify herself to her daughter:
You think that people are what they pretend to be that the way you were
taught at school and college to think right and proper is the way things really
are. But it's not: it's all only a pretence, to keep the cowardly, slavish, common
run of people quiet. . . . The big people, the clever people, the managing
people, all know it. They do as I do, and think what I think. (PPU, i ,249)
This is the social alignment against which Shaw sets himself: a few insiders
with a gentleman's agreement to keep quiet, and the common run of out-
siders, who have no way of disbelieving the lies that are fed them, along
with a third group of comfortable middle-class hangers-on, who find it
convenient to believe the lies. The poor and the bourgeoisie resemble each
Born to Set It Right: The Roots of Shaw's Style 39
other in this respect; both are in darkness as to the real mechanisms of
society. "Stupid or comfortably-off" (Essays, 100): these are complementary
attributes for Shaw, in that they both lead to falsehood.
JHis language vividly reflects this preoccupation with lies and deception.
A Shaw concordance would show the word "hypocrisy" and its derivatives
to have unusual prominence in his vocabulary; one of the worst things he
can call a man is hypocrite. A number of similar words are favorites of his
too. "Humbug," "sham," "defraud," "pretence," "imposture," "farce,"
"deception" these and others are the common coin of Shavian invective.
A typical catalogue of sins (scientific sins, in the present instance) lumps
"impostures . . . credulities, and delusions . . . brazen lies and priestly
pretensions" together with "abominations, quackeries . . . venalities"
(Back, Ixxxviii). The former group, comprising sins of deception, seems a
good deal more vivid.
Aside from the actual labels of hyprocrisy, Shaw depends heavily on less
direct methods of accusation, such as the opposition of "ostensibly" and
ostensibly for a number of capital crimes . . . but essentially for . . * (StJ, 3)
ostensibly a heroic and patriotic defender of his country . . . really an unfor-
tunate man driven by destitution to offer himself as food for powder . . .
But such examples carry one back to the realm of style. The point to be made
here is that Shaw's contempt for deception hangs like a palpable atmosphere
over his writing.
And ultimately, whatever his disgust with lies told to others, his contempt
for hypocrisy is greatest when it is directed toward self-deception if indeed
self-deception and deception of others are ever entirely separate. Shaw
embraces Ibsenism because he sees in it the exposure of ideals to the cold
light of day. The idealist hides from fact because he hates himself; the realist
sees in ideals "only something to blind us, something to numb us, something
to murder self in us, something whereby, instead of resisting death, we can
disarm it by committing suicide" (QI, 34). Blindness to reality is spiritual
death: the identification of the two is crucial to The Quintessence of Ibsenism.
;The theme of reality and corrupting ideals counts for much in Shaw's
plays, too. One has only to think of Candida, Bluntschli, Caesar, Undershaft,
and the like to realize that many Shavian heroes are realists warring genially
against the idealists that surround themJ^ 'And in "Man and Superman"
the theme becomes virtually dominant J^n^Juan's nickname for Hell is the
Palace of Lies, and the main source of hisHisgust with it is its enthronement
10 This point is developed in Chapters III and IV of Arthur H. Nethercofs Men and
Supermen; The Shavian Portrait Gallery (Cambridge, Mass., 1954)- The categories realist and
idealist seem to me the most fruitful of all those that Nethercot applies to Shaw's characters.
4o Richard M. Ohmann
of sentimentality and beauty. According to Juan, the earthly ideal of
romantic love leads the human will to demand "love, beauty, romance,
emotion, passion without their wretched penalties, their expenses, their
worries." All this, the Devil answers, is realized here. "Yes, at the cost of
death," says Juan (M&S, 121) Hell is a place where people have died into
their irresponsible desires. "Hell is the home of the unreal," Juan says; it
differs from earth only in allowing freer license to illusions:
Here you call your appearance beauty, your emotions love, your sentiments
heroism, your aspirations virtue, just as you did on earth; but here there are no
hard facts to contradict you, no ironic contrast of your needs with your preten-
sions, no human comedy, nothing but a perpetual romance, a universal melo-
drama. (M&S, 102-3)
Insofar as one can interpret the third act of "Man and Superman" allegor-
Tcally, Hell is that condition of the soul which results from living out one's
lies; such damnation is the only true death.jDon Juan's longest piece of
invective catalogues the hypocrisies of the Devil's subjects, and ends with
the ultimate accusation, "liars every one of them, to the very backbone of
their souls" (M&S, 129). Briefly, the man who deceives himself sins against
the Life Force. Or, as Shaw puts his case when in a more pragmatic humor,
"If a man cannot look evil in the face without illusion, he will never know
what it really is, or combat it effectually" (JBOI, 245). The function of
ideals and of religions has generally been to sugar-coat conditions that should
be acknowledged and fought; Shaw's mission, as he sees it, is to write a new
mythology that men can believe without such gross prostitution of the
If reality is veiled, if Life aspires upward from its present condition of
ignorance to an ultimate condition of knowledge, if each step in the process
involves discarding as obsolete a once-adequate creed, and if the mass of
mankind (particularly bourgeois mankind) impedes the march toward truth
by clinging to its comfortable old deceptions, conscience must cast the man
of genius in the role of opposer. He will be, as Shaw says of himself, "born
mad or a little too sane, his kingdom . . . not of this world" (Imm, xlvii).
Thus Shaw could excuse Wilde and his like for having "nothing funda-
mentally positive to say," because they were "at least in revolt against
falsehood and imposture . . . clearing our minds of cant, and thereby show-
ing an uneasiness in the presence of error which is the surest symptom of
intellectual vitality" (Back, Ixxxiv). The negative mode harmonizes admir-
ably with the Shavian scheme of things; so much is certain. It would be
unreasonable to ask a more affirmative style from a writer who finds the
world sick, hypocritical, and sinful. But since the habit of saying No seems
to have a life of its own in Shaw's style, over and above its utility, one may
be tempted to ask whether the Shavian ethic of realism and deception is
Born to Set It Right: The Roots of Shaw's Style 4*
not child, rather than parent, to the posture of denial. An emotional complex
like negation may well be in some sense more primary in the artist's make-up
than a code of beliefs. This is a question that stylistics and criticism must
refer to biography and psychology, for it cannot be answered through
explication of the text. What critical investigation can say is that rhetorical
stance and intellectual creed are consonant with one another to a degree
that is surely more than chance. Questions of priority aside, the man who
thinks Bernard Shaw's thoughts is recognizably the same inner man who
favors the- rhetoric of opposition.
A Mote in the Critic's Eye:
Bernard Shaw and Comedy
by Bruce R. Park
"Wh*fs Wrong with Shaw?"
In the introduction to his critical anthology, George Bernard Shaw: A
Critical Survey, Louis Kronenberger writes, "what stands forth glaringly is
the extent to which Shaw has not been written about that is to say, by the
most influential of our serious modern critics." Much has been written about
Shaw, and most of those who have written about him consider the man and
his work important. But little of this great bulk of commentary has been
intended as criticism, and most of the commentators have either valued his
work on extra-literary grounds or been signally unclear about the grounds
on which they did value him.
Those few who do write Shaw criticism cannot place him: Jacques Barzun,
for instance, finds that "There seems to be no name for his position, which,
nevertheless, he is not the first to occupy. Meanwhile he eludes our grasp
and measure like a man in a fog."
Those critics who do not write about Shaw place him beyond the pale.
To them his work is simply not literature. Silence, as usual in literature,
means contempt. But though natural, the silent contempt is not justified.
There are instances in the history of English literature Henry IV \ I and
Sidney's "Defence of Poesy," for example where the object rebukes the
critique. The silence says as much about modern criticism as it does about
Shaw. Modern criticism has ignored Shaw because it has paid little attention
to the kind of literature he writes, and it has no way to value it. Used as a
touchstone to certain identifying aspects of modern criticism, Shaw's outlook
reveals a curious constriction in its vision.
"A Mote in the Critic's Eye: Bernard Shaw and Comedy" by Bruce R. Park. From Texas
Studies, XXXVII (1958), 195-210. Copyright 1958 by The University of Texas Press.
Reprinted by permission of The University of Texas Press and the author.
A Mote in the Critic's Eye; Bernard Shaw and Comedy 43
I am as much concerned here with the kind of literature Shaw writes as
with the critical aphasia which blocks him and that kind of literature out;
and I am more concerned with the attitude which informs Shaw's literary
work than with that work itself.
Although "the most influential of our serious modern critics 5 ' have been
silent, certain proxy voices have spoken for them. Ezra Pound, for one,
rarely refers to Shaw, and then en passant; but his remarks, while passing,
are never glancing. Shaw is "fundamentally trivial," "a mere louse in
comparison with Hardy, Joyce, or H. James." The poets of 1946 were better
mannered, but in preparing the memorial volume, G. B. S. $0, Stephen
Winsten could find no poet willing to contribute an essay on G. B. S. as poet.
Yet Shaw insisted, "I am a poet, essentially a poet," and said emphatically
to Winsten, "J am not going to let the pious people appropriate the word
'poetry 5 and leave me the dregs. 5 ' Some of the chip-on-shoulder defiance of
these and other remarks like them was just a cry for attention; *Shaw could
not bear indifference. Some represent Shaw's realization that "the young
people" and "their 55 poets and critics had by their indifference placed his
works on "the unreachable shelves of the classics," as he put it. But Shaw
gravitated to the subject mostly because he knew why he was being ignored.
"The one thing that might have given me satisfaction has been denied me,
and that is art, 55 he said to Winsten; and to Winsten's question, "And how
do you know that you would have derived satisfaction from art? 55 he replied,
"How does one know anything? I feel my life has been void without it.
I have nothing to look back upon and nothing to look forward to. Nature
despises me even more than it despises a vacuum. 55 1 Shaw felt the power
of the word "poetry 55 ; whatever he said at other times, he felt that it stood
for the highest form of literature. It was exactly what he most wanted to be
called that "the pious people 55 would not call him. "What's wrong with
Shaw? He isn't a poet. 55
Shaw's perennial friend and opponent G. K. Chesterton found him lacking
something more than poetry: "Any Latin, or member of the living and
permanent culture of Europe will sum up all I say in one word: that Shaw
has never had piety." The context of Chesterton's remark shows that he
meant that Shaw was not a part of the European literary tradition. And in
asserting his claim to the title poet Shaw testifies to the truth of this observa-
tion, though unwittingly: "Everything I have has come from poets: I picked
up my vegetarianism from Shelley, my simplicity from Carpenter, my forth-
right speech from William Morris and my passion for fun from Oscar Wilde.
As nobody reads these people I am regarded as c my horrible unique self. 5 "
1 Here Shaw's use of "art" seems to be quite general, although he was probably thinking
of painting and partially referring to a period spent at the Royal Dublin Society School
of Art which showed him that he was not a painter.
,, Bruce R. Park
But Shaw is "unique" just because he owes these things to these people. What
he got has little to do with them as poets.
The old man's realization that he stood accused of lacking "piety" and
"poetry" "art" was just an old anxiety more strongly felt. Chesterton's
statement of 1909 says much the same thing as critical silence in 1957:
"Shaw is not part of the central literary tradition." Shaw execrated tradition
and flung stones at art, yet he wanted to be part of both. He often said that
he was proud to be a journalist, yet he constantly compiled lists of his
illustrious literary and philosophic ancestors: "Shaw was full not only of
Ibsen, but of Wagner, of Beethoven, of Goethe, and curiously, of John
Bunyan," he wrote in Sixteen Self -Sketches. He claimed Shelley and Blake
as his forebearers, called Michelangelo his master, and said that he was at
home only among the great dead.
Shaw had always realized that the claim of art was important, perhaps
because criticism had always kept it in front of him. Luigi Pirandello,
writing for the New York Times after the Theater Guild's production of
St. Joan, was one of the first to point out the ambiguity of Shaw's position:
"There is a truly great poet in Shaw; but this combative Anglo-Irishman is
quite willing to forget that he is a poet, so interested is he in being a citizen
of his country, or a man of the twentieth century society." In "Bernard
Shaw at Eighty" Edmund Wilson says much the same thing: "There was a
poet in Shaw, still partly suppressed, or at any rate terribly overtaxed by
the round of political meetings, the functions of Vestryman and borough
councillor." R. P. Blackmur, in "A Critic's Job of Work," states the critical
principle which seems to undergird judgments like these: "Let us say that
in the nature of things by their urgency a writer somehow combines in
his person . . . the attributes of the social reformer as well as those exclu-
sively of the writer; that is why we call him a writer here, rather than more
properly a poet which is only what he ought to be."
Why is Shaw not a poet? Francis Fergusson, in The Idea of a Theater, takes
us a step beyond Blackmur in writing that Euripides' dilemma was "the
extremely modern one of the psyche caught in the categories its reason
invents, but cut off from the deepest level of experience, where the mysterious
world is yet felt as real and prior to our inventions, demands, and criticisms."
One sees Shaw here, certainly. And the category which most trapped him
was "the fact." He was in a sense the prototype of that "modern man"
written of by Susanne Langer in Philosophy in a New Key who builds his
attitude toward experience upon "complete submission to what he conceives
as 'hard, cold facts. 3 " The tenor of his early relations with the Webbs in
the young Fabian Society a joyous splash in welters of blue books is
riotously factual. It is symbolically apt that the first Fabian pamphlet in
which Shaw had a hand was called Facts for Fabians.
A Mote in the Critic's Eye: Bernard Shaw and Comedy 45
Shaw's sense of the term lies behind an explication he made of a principle
of Wagner's aesthetic: "Wagner sought always for some point of contact
between his ideas and the physical senses. . . . On all occasions he insists
on the need for sensuous apprehension to give reality to abstract comprehension,
maintaining^ in fact, that reality has no other meaning [italics mine]." Shaw meant
his words to paraphrase these of Wagner, which Shaw quotes: "He who after
the manner of metaphysicians prefers unreality to reality, and who derives
the concrete from the abstract in short, puts the word before the fact
may be right in esteeming the idea of love as higher than the expression of
love, and may affirm that actual love made manifest in feeling is nothing
but the outward and visible sign of pre-existent, non-sensuous, abstract love;
and he will do well to despise that sensuous function in general." The rela-
tion between text and paraphrase is odd. Clearly Shaw thought he was
agreeing with Wagner when in fact he was disagreeing with him. Shaw
does not seem to have understood that his "reality" was Wagner's "unreal-
ity," that he "put the word before the fact."
Shaw's "fact," then, is not "the thing in itself." Shaw seldom saw an object.
"One tree looks exactly like another to me," he told Henderson. Shaw's
rare appreciations of nature never focus on particulars plants, flowers,
animals. He saw its homogeneity the sky, the sea, the quality of the atmos-
phere. What he had loved as a child in Dalkey Hill was not its flora and
fauna, but its space, vistas, airiness, and light. In a way Shaw means by
"fact," "Whatever cannot be gainsaid." Thus the fact is sometimes a
Shaw's "factuality" leads him to interpret The Ring as "an allegory," a
"poetic vision of unregulated industrial capitalism as it was made known in
Germany in the middle of the nineteenth century by EngePs 'Condition of
the Laboring Classes in England.' " Yet he told Henderson that his Uncle
Walter Gurly's ribald commentaries on the Biblical stories had quite de-
stroyed his "inculcated childish reverence for the verbiage of religion, for
its legends and personifications and parallels."
This contradiction is part of the larger paradox already introduced, that
Shaw coveted the prestige which the European literary tradition has
accorded poetry, but distrusted poetry and poets. The Quintessence of Ibsen-
ism shows both his distrust and its causes. For example, "Young and exces-
sively sentimental people live on love, and delight in poetry or fine writing
which declares that love is Alpha and Omega." "Let the Sapphos and
Swinburnes sing as sweetly as they can, when we think of great poets we
think of their brains, not of the concupiscences." But the crux of the matter
2 Henderson observes, "Aberrations and irregularities, sexual or other, have no interest
for him; they are negligible as merely trivial and personal incidents. He is concerned not
with loves, but with sex."
46 Bruce R. Park
appears in observations like this: "The idealists will be terrified beyond
measure ... at the rending of the beautiful veil they and their poets [italics
mine] have woven to hide the unbearable face of the truth." Shaw distrusted
poets because they masked "facts" with beauty biology with romantic
love, for example because they were on the wrong side in the struggle
between truth and idealism^
The paradox is artificial. Really Shaw felt that there were true and false
poets. Shelley, Wagner, and Ibsen were true poets, and Shaw felt obliged
to defend them from the definition of "poet" he thought characteristic of
his age. He tried to rescue Wagner from the "beauty mongers"; he combated
"A beautiful and ineffectual angel, beating in the void his luminous wings
in vain" with Shelley as socialist, atheist, and vegetarian; he undertook to
rescue Ibsen from the idealist glamorizing of William Archer and those
who agreed with him. It follows that if false poets Octavius Ramsden is an
example from the plays were dedicated to concealing the "facts," true
poets were those who tore aside the veil. But the true poet was more than
that: "It is only the poet, with his vision of what life might be, to whom these
things [the evils of a capitalistic society] are unendurable. If we were a race
of poets we would make an end of them before the end of this miserable
century." Thus Shaw wrote in The Perfect Wagwrite. The poet is not only the
man who can take the hard, cold facts; he is also the man who feels he must
do something about them. Shelley and Wagner, the two "in whom intense
poetic feeling was the permanent state of their consciousness," were men
driven by the law of their nature "into open revolution against the social
evils which the average sensual man finds extremely suitable to him," Shaw
wrote in "The Religion of the Pianoforte."
So far Shaw's poet is a subspecies of the superman, in fact, a man very
like Shaw the repository of an intenser consciousness, a more complex
organization, a greater vitality. But the poet is not only so. Shaw intimates
that there is a lesser order: "It may be that readers who have conned Ibsen
through idealist spectacles have wondered that I could so pervert the
utterances of a great poet. Indeed I know already that many of those who
are most fascinated by the poetry of the plays will plead for any explanation
of them rather than that given by Ibsen himself in the plainest terms through
the mouths of Mrs. Alving, Relling, and the rest." 3 There are two proposi-
tions here: first, Ibsen is a poet; second, there is a poet in Ibsen. Shaw seems
to believe that both are true, but he believes that the second should not be
unless the first is. The lesser poetic power is that of spinning tales and putting
3 Ibsen, probably to defend himself against critics like Shaw, insisted as forcibly as Shaw
that he was primarily a poet. Aware of Ibsen's disapproval as well as that of Ibsenites
like Archer, Shaw covered himself by observing in The Quintessence of Ibsenism, "The
existence of a discoverable and perfectly definite thesis in a poet's work by no means
depends on the completeness of his own intellectual consciousness of it."
A Mote in the Critic's Eye: Bernard Shaw and Comedy 47
words together effectively, but Shaw does not think this power sufficient to
earn a writer the name of poet.
To Shaw there is a poet in Wagner because he can handle allegory, but
Wagner is a poet because he can use the allegory to project the "facts revealed
by Engels." To Shaw allegory was a useful lie, and he was not fond of the
lie, feeling that it was at best a concession to human inadequacy. He is
vexed that Wagner had to use an allegory what Wagner called a myth
at all. To Wagner, however, the myth was quite the opposite of a useful lie:
"In the myth human relations almost completely lose their conventional
form, which is intelligible only to the abstract reason; they show what is
eternally human and eternally comprehensible, and show it in that concrete
form, exclusive of all imitation, which gives all true myths their individual
character." Shaw's lie was Wagner's truth. Even if Shaw had accepted
myth as a means by which man had established himself in his cosmos, he
would have viewed it as an outmoded means. Modern anthropological
philosophy sees man accumulating himself in time, burying the old under
the new; the individual is a kind of microcosm of the race experience. Shaw's
ideal man clambers hopefully through time, travelling light, rejecting as
much of the old as he acquires of the new. 4
Modern criticism's view of language is analogous to the anthropological
view of mankind: language is layered, contains all the modes of thought,
feeling, and perception which the experience of ages has successively de-
posited; poetry is the literary species which exploits language in depth.* But
to Shaw eternity was too much of a waste-basket. Thus he could not under-
stand Wagner's "the eternally human,' 3 nor understand by "poetry" what
modern criticism does. In fact, to Shaw the best poetry is prose.
Writing of Shaw as an Irishman, Chesterton says, "The Irish are lucid
and logical. For being logical they strictly separate poetry from prose; and
as in prose they are strictly prosaic, so in poetry they are purely poetical."
Shaw was an Irishman. Criticizing a translation of Rilke's poem "Again
and again, however well we know the landscape of love/ And the little
churchyard with its mournful names" he said to Winsten, "In verse I am
of the old-fashioned sort. I like it to rhyme. Why didn't he say: 'Again and
again, however well the landscape of love we knew/ And the little church-
yard with its mournful yew. . . .'
4 As an old man Shaw began to question the idea of time and evolution upon which he
had for so long insisted. He said to Winsten, "I don't think we've discovered the proper
technique for telling the truth: We write as if time is horizontal, flowing like a stream; but
it is probably vertical or spiral. It isn't only a person of ninety talking to you at this
moment but a boy of five and a man of fifty, fully conscious human beings. On mosi
occasions the man of ninety is not even present."
B R. P. Blackmur, for example, writes in "Notes on E. E. Cummings* Language,*' "But
when a word is used in a poem it should be the sum of all its appropriate history made
concrete and particular in the individual context."
43 Bruce R. Park
"This craze for saying the first thing that comes into your head without
rhyme or reason and calling it poetry does not impress me. In my plays there
is not a word I have not brooded over until it expressed the exact meaning.
The fact that they are in prose shows how much care I took over them.
Poetry is far too glib for my liking."
Shaw's brooding produced some good prose, probably the best of the
Swiftian sort. Chesterton felt that Shaw's particular virtue was compactness.
Where Chesterton emphasized how much Shaw got in, Dixon Scott, in
The Innocence of Bernard Shaw, marked what Shaw had left out "trailing
wreaths and ropes of metaphor" and found that "a long sentence really
made up of many added items lay when finished as level as a spear, streaking
past as though launched with one lunge."
Scott's metaphor of lineality is apt in distinguishing Shaw's prose if only
quantitatively from other men's prose. But it is the conception of language
denoted by this metaphor which, according to some modern writers, has
most hobbled thought. Mrs. Langer writes: "All language has a form which
requires us to string out our ideas even though their objects rest one within
the other. . . . This property of verbal symbolism is known as discursive-
ness. . . . So long as we admit only discursive symbolism as a bearer of ideas,
'thought' in this restricted sense must be regarded as our only intellectual activity"
"Modern man" conceives language as a communicative medium of one
dimension, and the limits of his language are the limits of his thought. Shaw
took much the same position: to a man travelling light, earlier linguistic
phases are so much excess baggage. Shaw believed that truth was one,
though forms are many, and the conviction was evident in his use of words.
He writes, for example, of "a natural agency which the Churches call
Providence and the Scientists Phlogiston, Functional Adaptation, Natural
Selection, Vis Naturae Medicatrix, the Necessary Myth and Design in the
Universe. I have called it the Life Force and the Evolutionary Appetite;
Bergson called it the Elan Vital, Kant the Categorical Imperative, Shake-
speare the 'divinity that shapes our ends, rough hew them how we will.' "
Shaw believed in synonymity.
Poets do not. Shaw would never have understood fully Mallarme* 5 s remark
to Degas that poetry is made with words, not ideas, for to him there was a
final qualitative difference between prose and poetry. 6 Mallarme, like modern
critics, thought of poetry- as cutting language vertically. To Shaw language
6 Shaw said to Henderson that he could write blank verse "more swiftly than prose."
He could, but it was somewhat short of Shakespeare's. (See Cymbeline Refinished.} Shaw
detested blank verse because he thought it just enough of a rhetorical discipline to make
poetry. Again the Puritan Shaw emerges; poetry was easy, therefore less than prose.
Poetry as something in a man was a bag of tricks with language, poetry as the man was
an attitude of mind toward truth.
A Mote in the Critic's Eye: Bernard Shaw and Comedy 49
was properly horizontal and in need of rationalization. 7 To modern critics
language is properly poetry; to Shaw language was properly prose.
Shaw's view of his countryman, William Butler Yeats, perfectly illustrates
this cleavage. He explained Yeats to Winsten in this way:
"There was nothing genuine about the cantilation of Yeats. I made him f strip
and go naked' when he talked to me."
He went to his shelves and searched long for a volume of Yeats and read aloud:
I made my song a coat
Covered with embroideries
Out of old mythologies
From heel to throat:
But the fools caught it,
Wore it in the world's eyes
As though they'd wrought it.
Song, let them take it,
For there's more enterprise
In walking naked.
"I discovered the fun of walking naked as soon as I arrived in England. Yeats
remained Irish to the end. Even Ezra Pound failed to strip him of his
The irony of the situation is apparent, for Yeats did do pretty much what
this poetic manifesto declared for.
To Shaw, then, the lesser order of poets consisted of skillful rhetoricians.
He meant a different thing by the term "poetry" than do modern critics.
In fact, most of the problems which arise in talking about Shaw and poetry
are semantic; the terms which modern critics have taken from the tradition
to define poetry were to Shaw terms for the ornamentation which kept verse
from being prose.
Shaw is hard to place in the literary tradition partly because his idea of
literary form is pre-romantic while his idea of literary value is post-romantic;
"poetry" was decoration, "prose" was organic. He might think of poetry
somewhat as did Johnson, but "organic form" was as important a critical
principle to him as it is to Sir Herbert Read. Shaw absorbed this idea
through biological rather than literary interests from Butler rather than
Coleridge, but he applied it broadcast, first, naturally enough, to "life,"
7 Mrs. Langer writes, in Philosophy in a New Key, that as language develops, "Speech
becomes increasingly discursive, practical, prosaic, until human beings can actually be-
lieve that it was invented as a utility, and was later embellished with metaphors for the
sake of a cultural product called poetry." Shaw seems to have taken much the same view
she deprecates so strongly.
5 Bruce R. Park
"a tireless power which is continually driving onward and upward not,
please observe, being beckoned or drawn by das Ewig Weibliche or any other
external sentimentality, but growing from within." But he also applied it
to many other things: to politics "all changes from . . . mechanical agen-
cies in government to living ones"; to society "the social organism"; to
art "Every man has to grow his own style out of himself," says Cashel
Byron of a musician; and to architecture "Italian architecture ... is not
organic; it is flagrantly architecture for the sake of ornamentality." Shaw's
long struggle against the Scribe tradition was a struggle for organic form.
But perhaps Shaw's most significant application of the principle was to
music: "I searched all the music I came across for the sake of its poetic
or dramatic content and played the pages in which I found poetry or drama
over and over again, whilst I never returned to those in which the music
was trying to exist ornamentally for its own sake."
Most worthy students of Shaw have realized that his deep love for music
was somehow important. Chesterton felt that music was Shaw's emotional-
imaginative "safety valve," and most writers since have followed this line.
Joad, for example, found Shaw's musical passion the channel for the chivalric
romanticism which Stevenson had noticed in the work of the young novelist.
I should put it this way: In music Shaw found the art which he had tried
to reject and others had tried to take away.
There is a much quoted observation of Shaw's which Henderson, who
first made it available, adduces as evidence for Chesterton's hypothesis: "In
music you will find the body of and reality of that feeling which the mere
novelist can only describe to you; there will come home to your senses some-
thing in which you can actually experience the candour and gallant impulse
of the hero, the grace and trouble of the heroine, and the extracted emotional
quintessence of their love." The same passage, however, also suggests that
Shaw agreed with Pater, who wrote in a familiar passage of The Renaissance,
"Music being the typical, or ideally consummate art ... all art constantly
aspires toward the condition of music. For while in all other works of art it is
possible to distinguish the matter from the form, and the understanding can
always make this distinction, yet it is the constant effort of art to obliterate
it." Shaw was pointing toward this idea when he said to Henderson that
great music had an "essentially intellectual quality" that is, that its artistic
order was free of the passions, the flesh, and their images.
But although strongly and instinctively attracted to Pater's view, Shaw
was drawn away from it by an equally powerful force in the opposite quarter,
and both forces are at work hi the passage quoted by Henderson. Shaw was
not sure whether music should be pure form or pure expression. In The
Perfect Wagnerite he wrote, "In the nineteenth century it was no longer
necessary to be a born pattern designer in sound to be a composer. One had
but to 'be a dramatist or a poet completely susceptible to the dramatic and
A Mote in the Critics Eye: Bernard Shaw and Comedy 51
descriptive power of sound." And elsewhere in the same book he said, "There
is not a single bar of 'classical music 5 in The Ring not a note in it that has
any other point than the single direct point of giving musical expression to
the drama." Shaw was stretched between the musical modes of Wagner
and Mozart, the composers he loved best Wagner the dramatist in sound,
Mozart the pattern designer.
Shaw's musical dilemma is the image of his dilemma at large. He was
pulled in two directions at once, found "life" and "art" in conflict. From
one point of view they seemed like "the market place" and "the cloister."
From another they seemed, respectively, "accident" and "essence." Shaw
wrote that Marx had saved him from becoming a literary man, but there
are clear signs that his state of grace was sometimes bitter to him. During
much of his life he seems to have wished that art would "leave him alone,"
and as an old man he seems to have felt that it might have been better had
his wish not so far come true.
"What's Wrong with Shaw Is Right with Shaw"
By pressing his claim to art in the wrong direction Shaw played into the
hands of his detractors. |je was no poet as that term is defined by modern
criticism. If we accept Blackmur's categories, "writers" and "poets," we
must call Shaw a "writer." Shaw's sense of life was histrionic, and in the
drama he found the only literary genre which could at all satisfy his demand
for life and art.. He was no poet, but he was a dramatist* It is quite easy for
modern criticism to miss even so simple a distinction as this, for a great deal
of modern criticism implies that there is just one important kind of literary
art poetry.. The method of focus upon the work, of close linguistic and
structural analysis, has found its most responsive material in the lyric. Thus
poetry becomes "the great Andersstreben" of art, and works intended and
recognized as "poems" seem most worthy of critical attention. Our best
critical minds have neglected the drama, not by intent, but by virtue of the
limitations their method sets. Unfortunately, concentration moves toward
myopia; in "brightening the corner where they are," as Northrop Frye puts
it, they have somewhat blinded themselves to the rest of the room. Certainly
modern criticism has devoted most of its efforts to poetry; even Kenneth
"Burke, who assumes a kind of histrionic basis for literature, has written little
about plays and playwrights.
And even when modern criticism admits to a variety of literary genres }
it makes an analogous error. Having admitted that there is such a thing
as drama, it finds no time, or place, for comedy. It does not deny that there
are comic plays, but acts rather as though they did not exist. Tragedy
becomes the Anders-streben, the archetype, of drama. Francis Fergusson's The
52 Bruce R. Park
Idea of a Theater , certainly among the finest extended studies of drama in
English, as certainly exhibits this tendency. Mr. Fergusson sees Shaw as a
dramatist right enough, but he cannot grant Shaw art, mostly, I think,
because he feels drama is tragedy. 8
"The Great Tradition" of drama in our culture is tragic, and at the
beginning of it are Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristotle. In a sense
Shaw's reputation suffers from our lack of Aristotle's treatise on comedy;
certainly modern criticism has not devoted much more space to comedy
than does Aristotle's surviving work. Shaw is a comic dramatist, and con-
temporary indifference to his work in part reflects a long European tradition
of finding comedy indigestible. Criticism has always been reluctant to grant
comedy literary status in its own right, while the community at large has a
long-standing distrust of the comic impulse which perhaps stems from certain
of the more Roman and Hebraic aspects of our legal and ethical culture.
Fergusson's criticism of Shaw is instructive in this connection. He feels
that Shaw is inferior to Pirandello because he lacks "the seriousness of the
artist." "[Pirandello] does not, like Shaw, see human action as rationalizing
only, and the world as merely conceptualized. . . . Pirandello, in the stage
itself and in our need not only to rationalize but to mythicize, has found a
wider basis [than has Shaw], on which many versions of human action may
be shown together to the eye of contemplation." Shaw is, that is, as we have
already marked down, the modern man shadowed forth by Euripides, man
"caught in the categories his reason invents."
It is possible that Mr. Fergusson is too close to the categories the psyche
invents. To see the distinctive quality in Shaw he would have to think of
"not only to mythicize but to rationalize." Rationalizing is suspect to modern
criticism. Blackmur, for example, writes that "Knowledge itself is a fall
from the paradise of undifferentiated sensation." This distrust is natural
enough, a result of emphasis upon a sort of return to nature, "mythicizing,"
which gives a new name to the old dog beneath the skin. Shaw certainly
is a rationalist. He objected violently to being so called, for he thought of
rationalism as trimming the arm to fit the sleeve, but like Hume he found
no substitute for the rational mode, even though he maintained that the
8 This is not an attack on Mr. Fergusson's book at large. I owe it too much for that. But
sometimes The Idea of a Theater suggests so much that one is not sure what it says. I some-
times wonder if I am not agreeing with Mr. Fergusson when I profess to disagree with
him. I am particularly uncertain about what province Mr. Fergusson claims for his study,
although he says what he does not claim to do, and this is really the issue in the second
part of this essay. Mr. Eric Bentley, though a more fragmentary critic than Mr. Fergusson,
is an exception to what is, of course, a rather oversimplified rule. He has not only written
about Shaw as a literary man a playwright but has valued comedy highly and shown
that he understands what it is and how the deepest rooted conventions of our theater and
perceptions often work against- it.
A Mote in the Critic's Eye: Bernard Shaw and Comedy 53
reason was a mere servant to the will. Shaw is a rationalist in the greatest
rationalistic tradition of our culture, that of Plato.
The idea is not new. Chesterton wrote, "Bernard Shaw has much affinity
to Plato in his instinctive elevation of temper, his courageous pursuit of
ideas as far as they will go, his civic idealism, and also, it must be confessed,
in his dislike of poets and a touch of delicate inhumanity." Edmund Wilson
puts the comparison on literary grounds: "Bernard Shaw is a writer of the
same kind as Plato. There are not many such writers in literature . . .
and they are likely to puzzle the critics. Shaw, like Plato, repudiates as a
dangerous form of drunkenness the indulgence in literature for its own sake;
but, like Plato, he then proceeds, not simply to expound a useful morality,
but himself to indulge in an art in which moralities are used as motifs.' 3
Shaw's very sensibility is Platonic. Henderson calls him "essentially austere,
ascetic, astringent, antiseptic." Chesterton speaks of his "dangerous and
somewhat inhuman daintiness of taste which seems to shrink from matter
itself." Barzun comments on Shaw's "temperamental kinship" with Shelley,
"a disembodied quality in both men, which leads certain critics to find their
art equally thin and bloodless."
It would have seemed to Wagner, as we have already seen, that Shaw
derived "the concrete from the abstract"; but to Shaw matter itself was
unsatisfactory because it was a poor approximation of the essence. Shaw's
outlook was profoundly dualistic; he had a deep sense of a real, final form
or essence, and a contingent, incomplete substance. The massive allegory
Back to Methuselah articulates Shaw's Platonic sense of the nature of things.
Matter is a state to be outgrown; the goal of the ancients is freedom from
the flesh. In the last play of the group, As Far as Thought Can Reach, evolution
has done away with the embarrassing conjunction of the procreative and
excretory functions and substituted for sex the symbolic antithesis to
reason the hygienic and objective egg. Shaw has put Platonism into time,
made the Platonic archetype "the vortex freed from matter" the end of
a process. Art, too, is to be outgrown; it is only, one of the ancients says,
a crude attempt "to get into the rhythm of life." To Shaw, as to Plato, art
is suspect and perplexing though and because attractive. 9 Shaw found some
incompatibility between man as artist and man as citizen, and because he
could not resolve that incompatibility, like Plato, he banished art. Shaw's
most carefully disciplined loyalty was to the idea of man as citizen, to a
community, to a civilization. Like Plato } Shaw was the citizen as artist.
Modern criticism has somewhat lost sight of the Platonic idea of civilization
9 Shaw said to Winsten apropos of an unnamed millionaire in Park Lane, "What a dull
prosaic man he was. It's the dull people who are changing the face of the earth, while
the bright ones rise like balloons and burst. I have always envied dull people and tried
to model my life on theirs." Artists, ofcourse, were "the bright ones."
5 4 Bruce R. Park
as a reflection of rational man. For rational man it has substituted a sort
of "essential man," one whose thought is mythopoeic. The idea of myth
has been very fertile, but its very fertility has led to abuse, to neglect of the
part played by the conscious mind in ordering mythic themes. To primitive
man myth is final the very means of his conception; to civilized man it is
protean, and he is naturally disposed to reduce it to allegory. It is too easy
to forget that myths are not art, that they are secondary symbols.
As "civilization" is the place of rational man, "comedy" is the art of man
as rational. Mr. Fergusson's search for an archetypal drama makes him wish
to find it a "pure 55 art: "Where, in the public consciousness of the com-
mercial city, is the art of drama to be placed? The only plea upon which it
may claim to exist would seem to be on the analogy of music and painting
the plea of 'art.' " But Fergusson's Pater-like rage for purity is frustrated
by his sense of obligation to honesty: "But in the case of the theater . . .
it turns out in practice, that the plea of art, though valid, is not enough.
Whether this is because the theater is less pure than music, or because one
cannot quite escape the fact that drama is in some sense an imitation of
action, or because this art must live immediately in a public consciousness
or not live at all the fact is that some basis in reality must be established.
The audience must know, with reference to something it does believe, where
its make-believe, or 'suspension of disbelief is to start,"
Fergusson feels that a community is essential to drama, but he is not
altogether happy with the idea of an audience. While recognizing that it
is not a "theater" at all, Fergusson yearns for something like Byron's "mental
theater." Thus, to a critic of Fergusson's temper, tragedy is more satisfactory
than comedy, for its circumstance is more pure. The protagonist's connection
with a community is tenuous; as tragic hero his vectors reach outward from
inside him. But "Comedy," Fergusson writes, "in any period assumes the
presence of an audience," and he says of Shaw's characters, "The secure
basis of their little world, the eternity of the drawing room, is never seriously
questioned. . . . Lady Brit's drawing room feels as stable and secure as
the traditional cosmos of the Greeks or Elizabethans, but it is clear and small
as a photograph." Edmund Wilson says much the same thing: "Shaw's
comedy, for all its greater freedom in dealing with social conditions, is almost
as much dependent on a cultivated and stable society as the comedy of
Molire." But Fergusson's remark is deprecatory. Wilson accepts Shaw to
some extent at his own valuation, as, in Shaw's words, "a classic writer of
comedies" in an artistic tradition which includes Congreve, Moliere, Jonson,
Dekker, Plautus, Terence, Menander, and Aristophanes.
Fergusson does not seem to feel that Shaw's "emancipated parlor," as he
neatly phrases it, is big enough for significant action. He has strong doubts
about all parlors. To this conclusion the basis of his thinking almost in-
variably leads. In the introduction to his book Fergusson takes Aristotle's
A Mote in the Critic's Eye: Bernard Shaw and Comedy 55
"imitation of an action" as a working definition of "drama." The Divine
Comedy is to Mr. Fergusson "the very pattern of the imitation of action-
mirroring the greatest height and depth of human experience, as Eliot
savs i n the most comprehensive scene-of-human-life to be found in our
tradition." He begins the book proper with an analysis of Oedipus Rex, calling
it "a crucial instance of drama, if not the play which best exemplifies this
art in its essential nature and completeness" and adds that "the play is thus
generally recognized as an archetype."
Mr. Fergusson writes rather as though it were the archetype, as though
comedy were a rib of tragedy. The archetypal excellence of tragedy in Mr.
Fergusson's study is scope. This is really the crux of the matter. The way of
tragedy is the realization of a potential, the consummation and consumption
of human capacity. Comedy is an image of man sustaining or undermining
a rational social order, (Much of the best comedy celebrates the precarious-
ness of civilization.) Comedy is not an adjunct of tragedy; ^ tragedy and
comedy present man's complementary and logically contradictory views
of himself: sublime ridiculous, godlike animal, are two cliche examples.
When a writer focuses upon the contradiction he produces irony such as
Hamlet's "Oh what a piece of work is man" speech. The abstraction "scope"
can embrace both comedy and tragedy, but it is not the proper abstraction
unless one realizes that it represents only half of man's view, "the tragic
sense of life," as Unamuno puts it. Rightly it is part of some such couplet as
"closed" "open," or "comprehensive" "confined."
The parlor, emancipated or otherwise, is a symbolic scene of comic action.
The comic drama does not pretend to a wider scene; often this literary mode
represents a belief seldom stated abstractly that in this little world, "clear
and small as a photograph," all that man can or rational man does know of
the great world may be projected. "Civilization" is the comic world, with
or without the sense that it is not all the world. Tragedy is an art of questioned
strength, of restless and tormented siege against the unknown. Comedy is
an art of asserted limitation, and comic figures meet their downfall in defec-
tion from the order by which man asserts his limitations.
Ronald Peacock, in The Poet in the Theater, writes, "But whilst Moliere
takes his fixed point from the general experience of men as rational and
social beings, Shaw takes his from a rational philosophy of his own. Hence
he inverts the usual method. Instead of isolating the unreasonable character,
he isolates the reasonable one." Shaw's characters shrink en bloc in the eye
of reason, whereas only Moliere' s hypochondriac or misanthrope does so.
The tragic 'hero grapples half blindly with enigmatic forces outside the ken
of his fellow creatures. He is alienated from society because he is bigger than
any man in it. His home is the cosmos, his history is the myth. Shaw and
the writers of comedy live in the city, where the stars are seldom seen.
Shaw's work has many faults, and some of his qualities are his defects.
56 Bruce R. Park
But some is not all. To read plays as though they ought to be poems or
comedies as though they ought to be tragedies is surely a vulgar error, and
this error has been considerably encouraged by certain tendencies in modern
criticism. Probably modern criticism needs to widen its conception of
"literature"; certainly it needs to think more directly about literary modes
and genre, and about their relationships. There is still a marked inclination
to wrap them in snug bundles and distribute them between the top and
Drama has a claim on literature and comedy upon drama. Like tragedy,
comedy has its determinant world and its action. And like tragedy it has
its central form, although that form can only be suggested here. A general
definition of the central form of comedy is a kind of answer to the question
which Fergusson asked in some perplexity of spirit about the drama at large:
"Where in the public consciousness of the commercial city, is the art of
drama to be placed?" Comedy is life perceived as theatrical in a theater
conceived as art.
The Making of a Dramatist
by Eric Bentley
It was clear from the start that Bernard Shaw was a man of ideas. Later
it turned out that he was a fabulous entertainer. But few have granted that
the two Shaws were one. The old tendency was to allow that he was a
publicist, a critic, an essayist, even a philosopher but to add: "not of course
a dramatist." The later tendency was to concede that he was a great show-
man but to discount his thoughtful side. As Egon Friedell said, you could
suck the theatrical sugar from the pill of propaganda, and put the pill itself
back on the plate.
Neither in the old days, then, nor in the later ones was Shaw considered
a dramatist, for even the later generations have only thought him a master
of the theatrical occasion, a man with a theatrical line of talk and a theatrical
bag of tricks, a highly histrionic jokester a comedian, certainly, but hardly
a writer of serious comedy. The fact is that the shock of that long career
in the theatre has still not been absorbed. Shaw has not yet been seen in
In these circumstances it is interesting to go back and look what happened
in the eighteen nineties, fin 1 89 1 Bernard Shaw had still not written a play,
though he was 35 years old.' A dozen years later, though he could describe
himself as "an unperformed^playwright in London," he had written Widow-
ers* Houses (1892), The Philanderer (1893), Mrs. Warren's Profession (1893-4),
Arms and the Man (1894), Candida (1894-5), The Man of Destiny (1895), You
Never Can Tell (1895-6), The Devil's Disciple (1896-7), Caesar and Cleopatra
(1898), Captain Brassbound's Conversion (1899), The Admirable Bashville (1901),
and Man and Superman (19013).
Let us take for granted that these plays are full of ideas and jokes and ask
if they do not also meet the demands of dramatic criticism as such. The
drama, everyone agrees, presents character in action. Human actions become
"an action" in the drama when they are arranged effectively when, that
is, they are given what we can recognize as a proper and praiseworthy
"The Making of a Dramatist (1892-1903)" by Eric Bentley. Reprinted by permission of
58 Eric Bentley
structure. Of character dramatic critics have required many different things.
One of them is emotional substance.
Let us ask, then, how Shaw, when he set about playwriting, tackled the
problem of structure; and let us ask if he gave his characters' existence the
requisite emotional substance.
How did Shaw put a play together? To think of questions about Shaw is
to think also of the answers he invariably provided to them. In this case, he
said:^H- avoid plots like the plague. . .^My procedure is to imagine char-
acters and let them rip. ...*?, The quotation is from his Table Talk but
(again: as usual) he said the same thing on many other occasions. One
always has to ask not what he means (which may be clear) but what he is
getting at. All Shaw's critical prose is polemical, as he freely admitted, and
his writing on the theatre is devoted to the destruction of some kinds of
drama and their replacement by some others (or one other). Here the enemy
is the kind of play which had been dominant throughout the latter half of
the nineteenth century "the well-made play" as perfected by Eugene
Scribe. In this dramaturgy the Aristotelian doctrine of the primacy of plot
had been driven to an improper extreme. The plot was now, not primus
inter pares, but all that mattered. It lost its originally organic relation to
character and theme. So it became anathema to the apostles of the New
Drama at the century's close. As late as 1 946, when Allardyce Nicoll declared
that Shaw was himself influenced by the well-made play, the old playwright
went into print to deny it.
If the well-made play is defined as having no serious content, if it is
defined by the relation (or lack of relation) of its plot to character and theme,
then obviously Shaw did not write well-made plays. Yet Professor Nicoll
had a point, and a strong one, which was that, for all the disclaimers, Shaw's
plays did have plots and, furthermore, that these plots tended to be old
acquaintances for those who knew their well-made play. Actually, the play-
wright had no need to be scandalized, for no dramatist had been more
influenced by the well-made play than his own idol of those days, Henrik
Ibsen. The Norwegian had begun his theatrical career by directing a large
number of these plays; he made an exact imitation of them in his own Lady
Inger of Ostraat; and he continued to the end to use many of their charac-
teristic devices. Hence it would have been quite possible for a writer in 1 890
to denounce Scribe and Sardou and simultaneously to steal their bag of
tricks from Ibsen. It is doubtful, though, if Bernard Shaw needed to deceive
himself in this way. It seems more likely that he took the main situation
The Making of a Dramatist (1892-1903) 59
in Arms and the Man from one of Scribe's most successful plays, Bataille de
A situation is not, of course, a plot, and the plot of Arms and the Man is not
simply lifted from Scribe, even though parts of it may have been. Plagiarism
is not the point. The point is that even when Shaw's story diverges from
Scribe it remains Scribean. The play Arms and the Man is hung, as it were,
on the cunningly told tale of the lost coat with the photograph in its pocket.
The reader need only go through the text and mark the hints, incidents,
accidents, and contretemps of this tale and he will be finding the layout,
the plan yes, the plot of this play. Or at any rate the plot of what could
have been a first draft of the play. Shaw, one gathers, did not write such
first drafts but, supposing he had, what would be the difference between
the first draft and the final one? In the answer to this question lies the secret
of Shavian dramaturgy.
A corollary of the view that "plot is all" is this proposition: the cause of
any incident is another incident. It is known that Scribe used to chart out
a configuration of incidents and then write his play. This is to go far beyond
Aristotle. It is to set no store at all by human initiative and assign to events
themselves a kind of fatality: they are a network in which mankind is caught.
Granted that the conception might in certain hands have its awesomeness,
in Scribe's hands it had only triviality, because he manipulated the events
till the issue was a pleasant one. It is curious how often that manipulation
had to be arbitrary and drastic. Do events, when given their head, rush
downward to disaster? To guarantee a happy ending, the well-making play-
wrights often needed their emergency weapon: sheer accident. Hence the
Shavian complaint that well-made plays were badly made after all.
Hence also Bernard Shaw's first drama, which is an adaptation of an
adaptation of a well-made play. The subject is one that Scribe and the
younger Dumas brought to the nineteenth-century theatre: marrying, or
refusing to marry, money. The immediate source is an unfinished play of
William Archer's, Rhinegold. Archer's source is La Ceinture doree by Em ile
Augier. When a young man discovers that his young lady's inherited money
was acquired by her father in an immoral way, what does he do? William
Archer's answer was: he pitches it into the Rhine. One presumes that
Archer's action would have been set on a convenient balcony beside that
river. Augier's hero is not so privileged. To preserve his honor, he would
simply have to forego the pleasure of marrying the lady, if the author did
not provide him and the play with an opportune accident (or money ex
machina). The whole French economy has to meet with a crisis (war breaks
out) so that our heroine's father may be reduced to poverty: it is now honor-
able for our hero to propose to our heroine. In the well-made play one
incident leads to another with a logic that is inescapable except when the
60 Eric Bentley
author decides to escape it. Perhaps Shaw's objection was less to the inescap-
ability than to the egregious, last-minute escapes.
His first play. Widowers* Houses, may not be great art but it is a great
reversal of custom, Shaw's key decision was to refuse to accept Augier's
ending, to refuse to have accident (masquerading as fate or otherwise)
intervene. Such a refusal leads a man leads a born playwright at least
back and back into the earlier stages of a story and he ends up writing an
utterly different play an utterly different kind of play.
Not one but two conceptions of Augier's were being rejected: not just the
solution-by-sheer-accident (which condemns a play to meaninglessness) but
also the autonomy-of-incidents something, by the way, which was no part
of Augier's conscious philosophy but was imposed on him by the Scribean
design. Dramatists are committed to the doctrine of free will. They can say
they don't believe in it: but they have to write their plays as if they did.
(In this they resemble human beings in general, for your most ardent
determinist acts on the assumption that determinism is false.) People in plays
have got to be able to make decisions, and these decisions have got to be both
real and influential: they have to affect events. I see no reason to object to
Aristotle's declaration that plot is the soul of the drama, but Aristotle would
have objected to Scribe's attempt to cut the soul off from the body that is,
What does a young man do when he finds that his bride's dowry comes
from a tainted source? There are two ways for a writer to arrive at an answer.
He can say: "I can think of several answers on the basis of several different
possibilities of 'theatre'. Answer A will give you Big Scene X; answer B will
give you Ending Y; and so on." Or he can say: "I cannot give you any
answer at all until the terms of the proposition are defined, including the
term 'tainted'. Above all I need to know who these people are what bride?
what young man?" The first way to arrive at an answer would commonly
be thought the playwright's way: the reasoning is "craftsmanlike" and "of
the theatre" and would earn a man commendation on Broadway in 1960.
The second way is only the human way. That makes it the way of the real
dramatist and so of Bernard Shaw.
It could be said that we have this perfectly functioning machine of the
well-made play and that a Bernard Shaw is throwing a monkey-wrench into
it the monkey-wrench of character. That is how it must seem from the
Scribean viewpoint. From the viewpoint of dramatic art, however, one would
say that this particular engine had been revolving all too fast and uselessly:
only when a Shaw slips in the clutch can the gear engage and the vehicle
prove itself a vehicle by moving.
"My procedure is to imagine characters and let them rip. . . ." The
pertinence of this remark may by now be clearer: if the young man has been
"imagined," the dramatist can find the decision he would make as to the
The Making of a Dramatist (i8g2-i$O3) 61
young lady's money. But at this point we realize that Shaw's words leave
out of account the fact that the situation confronting the young man had
been established in advance of the imagining of his character. It had been
established by Augier and Archer and by Shaw's own decision to use their
work. Hence, Shaw's own interpretation is both helpful and misleading
or, perhaps, is helpful only if those who are helped do a lot of work on their
Shaw put Widowers* Houses together how? He took from certain pre-
decessors not only a situation but a story, and not only a story but that clever,
orderly, and theatrical arrangement of a story which we call a plot. Then
he changed the plot or, as he would have said, let the characters change
it for him. Now had he retained Augier's characters they could only have
caused him to break off the action one scene earlier than Augier did: instead
of the happy ending created by a national emergency, we would get the
unhappy ending which the emergency reversed.
Characters in a well-made play are "conventional" that is, they behave,
not according to laws of psychology, but according to the expectations of an
audience in a theatre. A type of drama in which the plot is given a free hand
cannot afford any less passive or more obtrusive personae. Conversely, if a
playwright abandons the plot-determined play, he will have to be more
inventive as to character. To assume the initiative, his characters will have
to be capable of it. So Shaw's first contribution to the drama was: more
active characters. They were more active, first of all, in the most obvious
fashion: they were violent. More important, they made decisions which
affected the course of events, and they made them on the basis of their own
nature, not of the spectator's. And so these characters were surprising. For
a number of years they were too surprising to be acceptable. Like all sur-
prising art, Shaw's dramaturgy was damned as non-art. The critics' formula
was: Not A Play.
Augier's hero could not consider being the husband of a woman with a
tainted dowry. Shaw creates a hero who has the effrontery to ask the heroine
to throw up her dowry for his sake. But the Shavian joke the Shavian
reversal is already what it would characteristically be in the future: a
double one. To this demanding hero he adds an even more demanding
heroine: she simply refuses to be poor to preserve her innocence. That is the
nub of the first Shaw comedy. Then Shaw works his way out of the apparent
deadlock, not by having the heroine weaken (that is, "improve"), but by
having the hero renew his strength (that is, "deteriorate"). This the latter
does by way of recovering from a shock. The shock comes from without and
might be galled an accident (like Augier's outbreak of war) except that it
belongs to the logic of the situation. It turns out that the source of the hero's
own unearned income is the same as that of his girl's father. End of Act Two.
In the third and last act, our hero comes around and gets the girl by accept-
62 Eric Bentley
ing the nature of capitalism. Socialist propaganda? Precisely: Shaw boasted
of it. But he boasted with equal reason that he was writing comedy in the
most traditional sense.
"Take what would be done by Scribe, Sardou, Dumas fils, or Augier and
do the opposite." Is that the Shavian formula? It is certain that Shavian
comedy is parodistic in a way, or to an extent, that Pla,utus, Jonson, and
Moliere were not. These others, one would judge, took a convention they
respected and brought it to the realization of its best possibilities. Shaw took
conventions in which he saw no possibilities except insofar as he would
expose their bankruptcy. The injunction "Do the opposite" was not whim-
sical. Shaw decided to "do the opposite" of Scribe in much the way Marx
decided to do the opposite of Hegel not to stand everything on its head
(Hegel, he held, had done this) but to set everything back on its feet again.
That was revolutionary thinking, and Shaw's art for all the polite and charm-
ing trappings, was revolutionary art. The usual relations were reversed.
Such reversals as we see in the ending of Widowers* Houses are relatively
simple. Shaw's weakest plays are those in which he has done little more than
turn the ending around: the price you pay for the brilliant ending of The
Devil's Disciple is that of a rather dull, and decidedly conventional, first act.
His best plays are those in which the principle of reversal has pervaded the
whole. Such a play is Arms and the Man.
The idea of taking two couples and causing them to exchange partners is
hardly novel and, as I have said, the little tale of the coat and the portrait
is Scribean in pattern. But Shaw can justifiably plead that this is no well-
made play because the artifices of the plot are not what ultimately achieve
the result. Here is one of the decisive turns in the action:
Bluntschli. When you strike that noble attitude and speak in that thrilling voice,
I admire you; but I find it impossible to believe a single word you say.
Raina. Captain Bluntschli !
Raina. Do you mean what you said just now? Do you know what you said just now?
Bluntschli. I do.
Raina. III!! ! How did you find me out?
With this last query, Raina passes over forever from Sergius's world to
Bluntschli 5 s: as a result of nothing in the Scribean arrangement of incidents
but of words, words, words. It is here that, to many, the Shavian drama
seeins vulnerable. In drama, actions are supposed to speak louder than
words. Writers on the subject invariably know their etymology "drama"
derives from a Greek verb meaning "to do" and use it as a cudgel. Their
error is a vulgar one: action need not be external. It can often be carried
by words alone. Shaw used to remark that his plays were all words just as
Raphael's paintings were all paint.
The Making of a Dramatist (1892-1903} 63
There is a degree of legerdemain in that remark, for Scribe too put down
his plays in words. What was confusing to Shaw's readers and spectators
half a century ago was that, after indicating unmistakably that he was playing
Scribe's game, Shaw proceeded to break the rules. The fact that Bluntschli
conquers by words gains its peculiar force from a context in which the
opposite was to be expected* To look over Arms and the Man with an eye to
technique would be to conclude that what we have here is Scribe most
subtly interwoven with Shaw. Yet this formulation is inadequate, for who
did the interweaving? There was a Scribe in Shaw, and there was a counter-
Scribe in Shaw: what makes his works dramatic is the inter-action of the two.
The passion and preoccupation of Scribe was the idea of climax: to the
Big Scene at the end or, rather, a little before the end all his arts are
dedicated. In Bernard Shaw there was almost as great a predilection for
anti-climax. It is the Shavian "effect" par excellence; no other playwright
has come near finding so many possibilities in it. The bit I have quoted from
Bluntschli and Raina is an apt example. Arms and the Man contains a corre-
sponding scene between Sergius and Louka. Where, in a well-made play,
Bluntschli and Louka would have to soar to the heights of Raina and Sergius,
in the Shaw play Raina and Sergius drop with a bump to the level of
Bluntschli and Louka. Such is resolution by anti-climax. It is drama turgically
effective, and it enforces the author's theme. But this is not all of Shaw: it
is only the counter-Scribe. The dual anti-climaxes do not round off Arms
and the Man. What does? Not the disenchantment of Raina and Sergius but
the discovery that Bluntschli the realist is actually an enchanted soul whom
nothing will disenchant. He has destroyed their romanticism but is himself
"incurably romantic." This is another point that is made in "mere words"
"mere words stuck on at the end," if you wish and yet stuck on very well,
for they are firmly attached to that little tale of the coat and the photograph
which gives the work its continuity and shape:
Bluntschli. yes: that's the coat I mean. . . . Do you suppose I am the sort of
fellow a young girl falls in love with? Why, look at our ages! I'm thirty four:
I don't suppose the young lady is much over seventeen . . . All that adventure
which was life or death to me was only a schoolgirl's game to her . . . Would
a woman who took the affair seriously have sent me this and written on it: Raina,
to her Chocolate Cream Soldier, a Souvenir?
Petkof. That's what I was looking for. How the deuce did it get there?
Bluntschli. I have put everything right, I hope, gracious young lady.
Raina. I quite agree with your account of yourself. You are a romantic idiot. Next
time I hope you will know the difference between a schoolgirl of seventeen and
a woman of twenty three.
In this scene, plot and theme reach completion together, and the play of
thesis and antithesis ends in synthesis.
64 Eric Bentley
The supreme triumph of Shaw's dramaturgical dialectics is to be found
in Man and Superman, and, for all the blarney in the preface about the
medieval Everyman and the eighteenth-century Don Giovanni, the method is
the conversion of old materials into nineteenth-century terms, both thematic
and technical. Shaw's claim to be returning to a pristine Don Juan is valid
to the extent that the theme had originally been less of psychological than
of philosophical, indeed theological, interest. It is also true that Don Juan
had run away from his women. However, he had run away from them only
after possessing them. In Shaw's play, he runs away to prevent them from
possessing him. It is a comic parody of the old motif, embodying Shaw's
standard new motif: the courting of the man by the woman. And where the
old dramatists and librettists had used the old, "open" type of plot (or
non-plot), Shaw substitutes an utterly Scribean "closed" structure.
This very "modern" and "twentieth-century" play is made up of narrative
materials familiar to every Victorian theatre-goer. We have a hero who
spends the entire evening hotly pursued by his foes; a clandestine marriage
celebrated in defiance of a hostile father; a lovelorn hero who sacrifices
himself so that the girl will go to his rival; a villain whose function is to
constitute for a while the barrier to denouement and happy ending. The
sub-plot about the Malone family rests upon two separate uses of the secret
skilfully withheld, then skilfully released. Traditional farcical coincidence
binds together Straker and Mendosa . . . The play bears every sign of
careful workmanship all of it School of Scribe.
But, as with Arms and the Man, as soon as we examine particulars, we find,
interwoven with the Scribean elements, those typically Shavian verbal ex-
changes which constitute further action. Violet's marriage could have been
made a secret of in any Scribe play, and Scribe could have been relied on
to choose an effective moment for the release of the secret. In Shaw, what
creates both the fun and the point of the news release is not the organization
of the incidents but their relation to theme:
Tanner. I know, and the whole world really knows, though it dare not say so, that
you were right to follow your instinct; that vitality and bravery are the greatest
qualities a woman can have, and motherhood her solemn initiation into woman-
hood; and that the fact of your not being legally married matters not one scrap
either to your own worth or to our real regard for you.
Violet (flushing with indignation). Oh! You think me a wicked woman like the rest . . .
I won't bear such a horrible insult as to be complimented by Jack on being one
of the wretches of whom he approves. I have kept my marriage a secret for my
An incident which Tanner wishes to use to illustrate his "modern" philosophy
thus comes to illustrate a contrasting thesis: that Violet lives by a non-
The Making of a Dramatist (1892-1903) 65
Simple? Yes, but closely linked to a point that is unsimple enough to have
generally been missed: Tanner is a windbag. Indeed, the mere fact of the
woman courting the man would probably not yield comedy at all, were it
not for a further and more dynamic reversal: the woman, who makes no
great claims for herself, has all the shrewdness, the real Lebemweisheit, while
the man who knows everything and can discourse like Bernard Shaw is
a fool. Tanner is, in fact, like Moliere's Alceste, the traditional fool of comedy
in highly sophisticated intellectual disguise. Ann Whitefield, into whose trap
Tanner falls, is the knave in skirts.
While Don Juan Tenorio is Superman or is on the road to him John
Tanner, M.I.R.C., is merely Man, and as such belongs to The World As
It Is. Of dramaturgical interest is that the kind of plot Shaw evidently
considers capable of giving an image of The World As It Is should be the
kind that is generally considered (by himself, for instance) artificial, unreal,
arbitrary, inane. Shaw the critic championed the new Naturalism, and
among French dramatists especially favored Brieux, who produced dully
literal theatrical documentaries. Yet when Shaw wrote an essay entitled
"A Dramatic Realist to his Critics," the example of "realism" he gave from
his own work was Arms and the Man on the grounds that the characters
respond naturally even if the situations aren't natural. We are entitled, then,
to insist on his choice of "unnatural" situations. He must intuitively have
understood something which, as a critic, he failed to grasp: that plot does
not merely reproduce external reality. The violence and intrigue in Shake-
speare, which Shaw the critic declared extraneous, provides the objective
correlative of Shakespeare's feelings about life, and "idiocies" of the plot
of Man and Superman provide an objective correlative for Shaw's sense of
modern life. The very fact that Shaw despised Scribe helps to explain the
particular use he made of him.
The Don Juan episode in Act Three is neither a well-made play, nor a
portion of a well-made play. It stands apart as something appropriately more
austere and august. It is not a traditional work of any kind, not even a
Platonic dialogue, the relation between Socrates and his interlocutors being
quite different. Nor is it a debate, for two of the speakers, the Commander
and Ann, hardly present arguments at all: they simply represent a point of
view. Do even the Devil and Don Juan discuss anything? A devil is scarcely
a being one can convert to a Cause, and if the Don is busy convincing any-
one it is himself. Certainly it is the philosophy of Bernard Shaw that he is
given to speak, but is persuasion exercised even on the audience? Rather,
the contributions of the four presences come together as a vision of life
and an intimation of super-life.
Man and superman. The comedy of John Tanner and the vision of
Don Juan Tenorio. Shaw and counter-Shaw. Thesis and antithesis are,
to be sure, of separate interest, and yet, as usual, the great Shavian achieve-
66 Eric Bentley
ment is to have related one to the other. Tanner seems a wise man and
proves a fool. Don Juan passes for a philanderer but proves an explorer and
a missionary of the truth. In our trivial, tawdry, clever, Scribean world,
intellect is futile and ever at the mercy of instinct. Take away the episode
in hell, and Shaw has written an anti-intellectual comedy. The episode
assigns to intellect the highest role. No longer, therefore, is Ann the center
and source of things only a possible mother for superman. Here Don Juan
dominates. Here (or rather in heaven) intellect is at home, and the Don is
cured of that occupational disease of Shavian heroes homelessness. He
"comes to a good end" only it is not an end, it is an episode, and from
these celestial-infernal heights we must descend to earth with the shock of
Shavian anti-climax, to earth and to Tanner, from Superman back to Man.
One section of the play gets an electric charge from the other.
Of Shaw's "playmaking" one must conclude that he knew how to put
together a Scribean plot; that he knew how to subordinate such a plot to
his own purposes; and that, in Man and Superman, he knew how to take the
resultant Shavian comedy and combine it dynamically with a disquisition
on (and by) Don Juan.
If Shaw's plays are, or begin by being, a parody of the more conventional
drama of his time, that parody is by no means confined to the form. We
have already seen that the themes, too, tend to get turned around: these
compositions not only do the opposite, as it were, but say the opposite.
What of the emotions? Whatever the ultimate purpose of drama, its imme-
diate impact is a strongly emotional one, and one cannot conceive of a story
having an emotional effect upon an audience unless it is an emotional story
and has a certain emotional structure. I may be forgiven for stating so
rudimentary a principle because the Shavian drama presents us with a
paradox: it has flooded a thousand theatres with emotion and yet has often
been held to be emotionless.
Of course, this common opinion is absurd, bolstered though it can be with
remarks of Shaw's own about being a mere "work machine" and the like.
What we confront here is originality. Shaw may not have been an original
thinker: he tried, rather, to make a synthesis of what certain others had
thought. But he was an original person. What fitted him so well for the role
of the enemy of convention was that his natural responses were not those of
other people but all his own. His emotional constitution was a peculiar
one, and that peculiarity is reflected in his plays.
Sex is, without doubt, the crucial issue. Comedy remains fertility worship,
however sublimated, and it is fair enough to ask what Bernard Shaw made
The Making of a Dramatist (1892-1903) 67
of the old sexual rigmarole courtship and the barriers thereto. It is even
fair to use any facts about Shaw himself that are a matter of public record.
On the other hand, one is not honor-bound to side with "modern" opinion
against "Victorian" as to what is good and bad. The very "modern" Dr.
Kinsey implied that human vitality could be measured in statistics on
orgasms. Our subject Bernard Shaw will not pass into any Kinseyite para-
dise. Though he lived to be 94 he seems to have experienced sexual inter-
course only between the ages of 29 and 43. "I lived a continent virgin . . .
until I was 29. ... During the fourteen years before my marriage at 43
there was always some lady in the case. ... As man and wife we found a
new relation in which sex had no part. It ended the old gallantries, flirtations,
and philanderings for both of us." This quotation is from a letter to Frank
Harris, who, as a Kinseyite before Kinsey, wrote:
Compare his [Shaw's] private life with Shakespeare's. While Mary Fitton was
banished from London Shakespeare could write nothing but tragedies. That
went on for five years. When the Queen died and Shakespeare's Dark Lady
returned, he wrote Antony and Cleopatra, his greatest love story. As nothing like
that happened in Shaw's life we can only get a text-booky, sexless type of play.
A remarkable blend of ignorance, invention, and arbitrary assumption ! For
actually Shaw concealed from Harris most of his private life; nothing what-
ever is known about Shakespeare's feelings for any woman; and no critic
or psychologist of repute has ever argued that a man's writing has to be
"text-booky" and "sexless" unless he is carrying on an adulterous romance;
a more familiar argument would be that precisely the abstinent man's
imagination might well be crammed with sex. But there is no settling the
question a priori.
William Archer declared that Shaw's plays reeked with sex. It is a more
suggestive declaration than Harris's. It reminds us that Shaw was able to
recreate the sexual charm of both men and women to a degree unequalled
by any English dramatist except Shakespeare. To be sure, he doesn't need
bedroom scenes to do this. Morell only has to talk and we understand
"Prossy's complaint." Undershaft only has to talk and we understand why
he is a problem to his daughter. To say nothing of the long line of sirens
from Candida to Orinthia! Few of the "sexy" ladies of Restoration comedy,
by contrast, have any sex appeal at all. One thing Archer is sure to have
had in mind is that the women in Shaw pursue a sexual purpose in a way
absolutely unknown to Victorian literature. Of all the reversals in Shavian
drama this is inevitably the most famous: the reversal in the roles of the
sexes. Shaw once committed himself to the view that all superior women are
masculine and all superior men are feminine. In his comedies, most often,
the woman is active, the man passive. Perhaps by 1 960 the theme has been
restated ad nauseam; to Archer it was startling. As was Shaw's determination
68 Eric Bentley
to rub the sore places of the sexual morality of his time. Mrs. Warren's
Profession was for many years too "raw" a play for production in London,
and it created a memorable scandal when it was produced in New Haven
and New York in 1905. Like most of the major modern dramatists and
novelists, Shaw mentioned the unmentionable. He even claimed to have
"put the physical act of sexual intercourse on the stage" (in Overruled). Archer
may well have felt Shaw could not give the subject of sex a rest: he may not
always have been at the center of it but he was forever touching the fringes
Here Frank Harris would have interjected: "he was always avoiding the
center of it." And the interjection is called for. The impression that a man
is unemotional in general and sexless in particular does not come from
nowhere. Nor are the kinds of sex I have been noting what the average
spectator is looking for if he demands a "sexy" show. Overruled does not
really "put the physical act of sexual intercourse on the stage," and, even
if it did, it would do so comically depriving the act of precisely that element
which people miss in Shaw, which is not sex in general but the torridity of
sexual romance. At that, if this element were simply absent, Shaw might
very well have got away with the omission. But it is explicitly rejected. It is
not that a Shavian couple cannot end up in bed but, rather, that they are
likely to contemplate the idea and turn it down. If the characteristic act
of the French drama of the period was the plunge into bed, that of the
Shavian drama is the precipitate retreat from the bedroom door.
Harris would be right in reminding us that such was Bernard Shaw's
emotional constitution. What other writer has ever created all the normal
expectations in a scene between a king and his mistress ( The Apple Cart} only
to reveal that their relationship is purely platonic? Captain BrassbountPs Con-
version shows the Shavian pattern to perfection. Is there sexual feeling in the
play? There is. The process by which Brassbound and Lady Cicely are
brought closer and closer is positively titillating. After which, what happens?
They are parted. The play has a superb final curtain. "How marvellous!"
says Lady Cicely, "how marvellous!" Then with one of those quick changes
of tone that marks the Shavian dialogue: "And what an escape!" Is this
unemotional? No. But the emotion is not erotic rather, it is relief at a release
from the erotic. Such is the emotional content of this particular Shavian
As far as conscious intention goes, all Shaw's plays might bear the title
he gave to three of them plays for puritans for that intention is to show
romance transcended by a higher-than-erotic purpose. It is a classic inten-
tion an application, really, of the traditional conflict of love and honor,
with honor winning hands down, as it did in Corneille and even in one
masterpiece of Racine's Berenice. We are concerned here, not with philo-
sophic intention, but psychological substance. Where the philosopher insists
The Making of a Dramatist (1892-1903) 69
that Shaw does not cross the threshold of the bedroom, the psychologist asks:
why does he hover at the bedroom door?
We know from the correspondence with Mrs. Pat Campbell that Shaw
liked to play with fire. Even the correspondence with Ellen Terry entailed
a playfulness not quite devoid of "danger." The boy Shaw had been witness
, to an odd household arrangement whereby his mother's music teacher con-
trived to be (it would seem) almost but not quite her lover. A slightly older
Shaw has recently been portrayed as the intruder into a friend's marriage
like his own Eugene Marchbanks: this is speculation. Let us look at the play
Candida, which is a fact.
It has a notable Big Scene at the end, which is characterized by an equally
notable improbability. A comfortable, sensible, parson's wife doesn't let her-
self get jockeyed into "choosing' 3 between her husband and an almost total
\ stranger. People such people at least don't do such things. A respectable
woman's choice was made before the bans were read.
Perhaps Candida is not really respectable? That is the line of interpretation
taken by Beatrice Webb who declared her a prostitute. Will the play, taken
as a play, bear this interpretation out? A dramatist's license to have the truth
turn out different from the impression given to the audience is very limited,
for it is to a large extent by giving impressions that he creates characters.
Shaw has given the impression that Candida is not a prostitute.
Against this it can be urged that Shaw himself took Beatrice Webb's side
and attacked Candida in remarks he made about her in letters to James
Huneker, Richard Burton, and others. True, but was that legitimate? He
himself admitted that he had no more right to say what his plays meant
than any other critic. One might add that he may have had less, for, when
an author intervenes to correct our impressions of his work, he is often
intervening to change or misinterpret that work.
Outside the play, Shaw is against Candida. Inside it, he is both for and
against her, but he is for her effectually, and against her ineffectually,
because the direct impression is favorable, while it is only by throwing logic
back into the story when it is over that you can reach an unfavorable
judgment. This means, I should think, that, though Shaw's intellect is
against Candida, his emotions are for her.
What is it that this play has always projected in the theatre, and can
always be counted on to project again? The charm of Candida. This is a
reality so immediate and all-pervasive that it is hard for any other element
in the play to make headway against it. Leading actresses know this and,
hearing their director speak of Candida's essential badness, can afford to
smile a Candida-smile, strong in the knowledge that there is nothing a
director can do about this badness, once that smile has been displayed on
stage as well as off.
I would say that it is a confused play but that the confusion goes unnoticed
70 Eric Bentley
because of Candida's charm and may even be the cause of a degree of
emotional tension unusual in Shaw's work. Candida is made out of a Shavian
ambivalence: he would like to reject this kind of woman, but actually he
dotes on her. One quickly senses that he "is" Marchbanks. One also finds
he protests (too much) that he is not Marchbanks. "I had in mind
De Quincey's account of his adolescence in his Confessions," he wrote, "I
certainly never thought of myself as a model." From the empty pretence of
being De Quincey, no doubt, comes the prodigious unreality of many of
the lines. As a character, Marchbanks must be reckoned a failure. Shaw was
hiding. What better image to hide behind than that of the kind of writer
he himself was not a romantic poet? Especially if De Quincey would do
the job for him?
It didn't work, of course, except as pure histrionics. (Marchbanks, though
a poorly drawn character, is always an effective stage role, and still seems
to correspond to the actors' idea of a poet.) But if no one in the play can
reject Candida, there is a noteworthy niche in it for the man whom she will
reject. This niche Marchbanks can fill nobly, and has his dramatic moment
as he marches into it: his final exit is a magnificent piece of action. Possibly
everything before that (in this role) is just an improvisation. Shaw could
not make us believe in the poet's poetry, but he does make us believe in his
pain and his nobility, for at these points he could identify himself with
Eugene completely without having to "think of himself as a model."
Dramatists usually speak of their characters individually, and that could
be regarded as strange, because the drama, all through the centuries, has
done much less with separate persons than with relationships. The traditional
characters are, if you will, simplified to the point of crudity. What is not
crude, as treated by the old dramatists, is the interaction of these characters:
the dynamics of human relations are fully rendered. If what you do not get
is the detailed psychological biography, what you do get is the essence of
such relations as parent and child, boy and girl, man and wife.
Now modern playwrights, happily, have not departed from the classic
patterns as much as they are supposed to have, and what rings true, emotion-
ally, in Candida corresponds to Shaw's ability to find and recreate some of
these elemental relationships. An inner obstacle, one would judge, hampered
him when he tried to "do" the Marchbanks-Candida relationship, but the
Morell-Candida relation is both clear and challenging. It is, as Shaw himself
said, the relationship of Nora and Torvald Helmer turned around: in Shaw's
play the man is the doll. But where Ibsen tells the story of a doll who finally
comes to life Shaw tells the story of a seemingly-living person who turns out
to have been a doll all along. (In other words, the relation of Shaw to Ibsen,
instead of being direct as it might seem, is an inverse one, exactly like the
relation of Shaw to other nineteenth-century drama.) Into Morell Shaw
The Making of a Dramatist (1892-1903) 71
can put that part of himself (a child) which finds Candida irresistible, just
as into Candida he can put that part of Woman which he finds irresistible
the Mother in her. One would have to be as naive a psychologist as Frank
Harris to consider the mother and child relation less emotional than that
Or less dramatic. Relationships become dramatic not in the degree of
their eroticism but to the extent that they contain conflict. Pure love would
not be a dramatic subject at all. Love becomes dramatic when it is impure
when the loving element is submerged in a struggle for power. The axis
about which Candida revolves is that of strength and weakness, not love and
hate. And if one knows Shaw's views on* the topic of the "weaker sex" in
general the conclusion of Candida follows naturally: instead of the little
woman reaching up toward the arms of the strong man, we have the strong
woman reaching down to pick up her child. It is remarkable how far Shaw's
thought is from the standard "advanced thinking" of his generation with
its prattle of equality and comradeship. He is closer to Nietzsche.
Of the ending of A Doll's House it has been said: perhaps Nora has walked
out in a mere tantrum and will be back in the morning. How much more
savage is the ending of Candida \ Only Strindberg could have written a sequel
to it. The cruelty of the heroine merely implicit in the present play would
have to come to the surface in any continuation of the story. Candida has
chosen to let her husband discover his shame: she, as well as he, will have to
take the consequences. Let the stage manager hold razors and straitjackets
in readiness !
One reason why Shaw got so little credit for his treatment of the emotions
is that the emotions he treats are not the ones people expect. The very fact
that his favorite device is anti-climax should tell us that what he most
insistently feels is "let-down." It may be retorted that, on the contrary,
Bernard Shaw was the most buoyant and vivacious of men. That is also true.
The axis "strength-weakness" is not more important to Shaw's content than
the axis "elation-depression" is to his form. The dialogue ripples gaily along;
then comes the sudden let-down. The circus has familiarized us with the
pattern: it is the light of heart who take the prat-fall. Even as the fool pops
up in Shavian comedy in the highly intellectualized shape of a Jack Tanner,
so the prat-fall is transmuted into an anti-climax that has a positively
climactic force. It has been customary to take these anti-climaxes as expres-
sions of an idea the idea of disenchantment. It is the idea of modern litera-
ture, and it is inseparable from an emotion fair commoner and far more
influential than romantic excitement. There seems to be no name for this
emotion and that too is significant. Let us call it desolation.
You cannot be disenchanted without having been enchanted. One is some-
times tempted to believe that our human desolation might have been
72 Eric Bentley
avoided if only we had not started out so undesolate. It is not the fact that
we don't have things that worries us but that we have lost them or rather,
been deprived of them. Desolation is the feeling of having been driven from
A friend of Bernard Shaw's said that when he saw The Wild Duck the
bottom dropped out of the universe. One difference between Ibsen and Shaw
is that the former produced this effect on the audience, whereas the latter
produced it on the characters in a play. Just as a character in a melodrama
loses a fortune, so a character in a Shaw play loses a universe. The experience
may be given a playful treatment, as with Raina and Sergius. In the case of
Morell, the treatment is only partly playful. It gets more serious as the play
Candida proceeds. Morell finally loses his image of his wife and of himself.
The curtain has to be rung down to save us from the Strindberg play that
would have to follow.
What of Mrs. Warren's Profession? The starting point was a treatment by
Maupassant of the theme of a girl finding out that her mother is a courtesan.
In an early version of the tale Maupassant had the girl kill herself. In the
later and better-known text (Yvette), he saves her life to engineer for himself
an ironic-poignant ending: she becomes a kept woman like her mother
before her. Curtain ! That is the kind of inversion of a suicidal ending which
Shaw did not go in for. Or not any more. If Shaw had shown a "surrender
to the system" (in comical fashion) in the- ending to Widowers'* Houses, he
was now intent on showing a rejection of the system. In the first instance,
Vivie Warren's revolt represents Shaw's rational rejection of capitalism, but
the play culminates in a scene that has no necessary connection with eco-
nomics a scene of family crisis, a scene in which a daughter rejects her
mother. Which after all is archetypal Shaw: instead of the emotions of lover
and mistress, he renders the emotions of parents and children, and partic-
ularly the emotion of the child rejecting the parent. Major Barbara is perhaps
the grandest example of this archetype. The great last act of Pygmalion is the
same thing in disguise, for Henry Higgins is the progenitor of the new Eliza,
and that is why she must break free of him. Shaw's Joan has a father too
in heaven and she comes at times almost to the point of breaking with Him.
That she does not quite do so is the upshot of a play which, while it shows
Joan's isolation from men, ends with a stretching of arms towards the heav-
enly father . . . Vivie Warren is already a Saint Joan in that the experience
Shaw gives her is that of being desolated. It is the experience he felt most
deeply presumably because it was the experience he had most deeply
experienced. In any event, the two long scenes between Vivie and Mrs.
Warren are passionate playwriting such as England had not seen for a
couple of centuries.
The background, however, is blurred. A Scribean climax is arranged to
provide lan for the announcement that Vivie's romance is incestuous:
The Making of a Dramatist (1892-1903) 73
Crofts. Allow me. Mister Frank, to introduce you to your half-sister, the eldest
daughter of the Reverend Samuel Gardner. Miss Vivie: your half-brother. Good
Frank (. . . raising the rifle). You'll testify before the coroner that it's an accident.
(He takes aim at the retreating figure of Crofts. Vivie seizes the muzzle and pulls it round
against her breast?)
Vivie. Fire now. You may.
Direct climax (as against anti-climax) was not really in Shaw's line, and in
failing to parody Scribe here, Shaw has himself tumbled into the ridiculous.
Perhaps the following act was bound to be an anti-climax in a way not
intended a mere disappointment. Yet it is hard to believe that the particular
disappointments it brings are simply the result of a technical miscalculation.
Rather, they involve hesitations about the subject. After so strongly creating
the impression of incest, Shaw shuffles the notion off in the next act in a
surprisingly ambiguous way. It would be easy enough, from a technical
viewpoint, to make clear that no incest had been committed. Why did Shaw
leave the situation doubtful? So that Vivie could dismiss the issue as irrele-
vant? In that case, what is relevant? Why is she giving Frank up? One can
think of possible reasons, but what reason is one supposed to think of?
Unclarity in the work of so careful a craftsman, a writer, moreover, who
has more than once been accused of excessive clarity, surely bears witness
to inner uncertainty and conflict. To think of Mrs. Warretfs Profession in this
personal way is to realize what powerful aggressions it embodies. Shaw
combined the themes of prostitution and incest in order to make quite a
rational point: our mad society draws back in horror from incest, which is
certainly not a pressing menace and perhaps not even a bad thing, while
it encourages prostitution, which is a virulent social pestilence. But both
themes have a resonance far beyond the bounds of intellect. It is as if they
proved to be more than Shaw had bargained for. The incest theme is
sounded all too boldly. Then the young dramatist has no idea what to
do with it. He takes it back. Only it is too late. So he half takes it back.
After all, what is troubling Vivie does go beyond the rationally established
causes . . . Deep water ! And Shaw flounders in it. Which has some interest
for the student of the emotions. Even where Shaw's plays are faulty, they
are not unemotional. On the contrary, it is because of a certain emotional
involvement in the material, not because of incapacity for such involvement,
that Shaw was not able to resolve certain problems and truly finish certain
plays. Candida and Mrs. Warren's Profession could be cited in evidence. There
is material in both which was not successfully "worked through."
Is there similar material in Shaw's collected plays which was worked
through? To my mind, a good answer would be: yes, Pygmalion. This play
might well have proved just as ambiguous as the others, for it might have
74 Eric Bentley
seemed that Eliza must love Higgins, and therefore that her leaving him is
but an over-rational afterthought of the author's, like his afterthoughts on
Candida. Some people, including the author of My Fair Lady, think that is
just what the Shavian ending is. I, on the other hand, feel and it is feeling
that is in question that Eliza's rebellion grows organically out of what
preceded. She is Higgins' creation: she cannot be at all unless she become
independent of her creator. If he has "sex appeal," that makes the break
more difficult but not less necessary. A girl's father quite normally has sex
appeal for her. That is not to justify incest. Here Shaw does cope with incest,
and in the best way by avoiding it.
The ending of Pygmalion is the classic Shavian situation: someone is clamor-
ously refusing to enter the bedroom. The friends of Frank Harris are thereby
disgusted. That is their right. But there is a point to be made about Shaw's
rendering of emotion. Refusal is emotional. There is more turbulence in
conflict between Eliza and Higgins as conceived by Shaw than in romance
between them as in My Fair Lady.
Man and Superman^ on the other hand, might seem to be without emotional
substance. The attempt made at a straightforward emotional climax is
certainly rather unsuccessful:
Tanner. I love you. The Life Force enchants me: I have the whole world in my arms
when I clasp you. But I am fighting for my freedom, for my honor, for my self,
one and undivisible.
Ann. Your happiness will be worth them all.
Tanner. You would sell freedom and honor and self for happiness?
Ann. It would not be happiness for me. Perhaps death.
Tanner. Oh, that clutch holds and hurts. What have you grasped in me? Is there a
father's heart as well as a mother's?
If there is capital here, it is the kind that yields no dramatic return, and
indeed a criticism of this false climax would lead us to complain of the
introduction of the "Life Force" in the first place. There seems no such
organic relation between Tanner and Ann as there is between Vivie and
her mother, Eliza and Higgins, Candida and Morell. The pair are sometimes
compared to Benedick and Beatrice. The comparison is not apt. Shakespeare
shows the erotically "dangerous" element in the hostility of his couple. But
Tanner and Ann draw no sparks from each other. A cynic might say: here
there can be no love since there is no hate. There is really no relationship
at all except that she insists on having him and he cannot evade her success-
fully because the author won't let him. In this case, we have either to
conclude that Frank Harris's kind of criticism applies or that this is "drama
of ideas" and we must not ask it to be otherwise.
Emotional substance? The farce of Tanner and Ann, taken in isolation,
has very little, but oddly enough the episode in hell has a good deal, and
The Making of a Dramatist (1892-1903) 75
this spreads itself over the work as a whole. Even here, though, there is a
discrepancy between intention and achievement. The final effect of the Don
Juan scene is not that we find the positive message inspiring. We find it at
best important, at worst gallant a brave effort to make sense of things that can-
not be made sense of. It is all rather like a speech made in wartime saying that
our side is bound to win because we are right. Perhaps. Perhaps. But the words
that burn with irrefutability are all words expressing, not aspiration towards
a better future, but recognition of a bad present. Don Juan himself is at his
best when denouncing people. The speech that steals the show ("And is man
any the less destroying himself . . .") is made by the Devil. Which is be-
cause it is not only a very reasonable speech but a very emotional one, a
speech that springs from that very desolation which Shaw's best people
This note of personal poignancy is seldom, or never, heard after Saint Joan
(1923). So much the worse for the later plays. They have considerable merit,
yet they often lack urgency even when the author makes Urgent Statements
in them. And it is interesting that they lack not only dynamic and turbulent
personal relationships but also close structure. There had been a connection
between the emotional and the dramaturgic construction of the earlier plays;
and when one went, so did the other.
I am not proposing a complete theory of the Shavian drama. Certainly,
it should not be implied that this drama is dominated by the emotional
conflicts of its author, much less that it ought to be. For that matter, I have
had to remark that unresolved conflict sometimes resulted in unresolved art.
What I am affirming is, first, that some Shaw plays communicate personal
feeling of great intensity and, second, that even some Shaw plays which
are less overtly emotional do embody profound feelings, though not of the
kind that is usually expected.
The Conflict of Wills
in Shaw's Tragicomedy
by Norbert F. O'Donnell
In one of his play reviews written in the iSgo's, Bernard Shaw outlines
the crises in the life of a play which will never become "dated." First of all,
he says, a play inevitably dates in its costumes and manners. If its concep-
tion of moral problems is sufficiently profound, it will survive this test, only
to be confronted much later- perhaps centuries later by another day of
judgment. On this day the question will be whether or not its portrayal of
the "instincts and passions" of humanity is valid enough for it to take its
place as an "antique classic" in an era in which its ethical assumptions have
ceased to compel assent. 1
On the issue of the survival power of his own work, Shaw may be seen
characteristically arguing with equal volubility on both sides. For one po-
lemic purpose, he sees his plays as "petty tentatives" to be superseded by
the work of some yet unborn Shakespeare presumably because in the in-
evitable course of evolution their morality will become outdated. For another
polemic purpose, he places his drama in a uniquely modern tradition of
tragicomedy which makes the spectator "laugh with one side of his mouth
and cry with the other" 2 no doubt because the plays deal not only with
transitory and ultimately soluble ethical issues but also with the permanent,
or nearly permanent, problems of the world of the instincts and passions. 3
Responding to the invitation which his plays obviously offer, Shaw's inter-
preters have unanimously viewed them in the perspective of his abstract
views of the social problems of our era. Shaw criticism has quite rightly been
"The Conflict of Wills in Shaw's Tragicomedy" by Norbert F. O'Donnell. From Modern
Drama, IV (February 1962), 413425. Copyright 1962 by Modern Drama. Reprinted
by permission of Modern Drama.
1 Our Theatres in the Nineties (London, 1932), II, 167.
2 Archibald Henderson, Bernard Shaw, Playboy and Prophet (New York, 1932), p. 615.
3 If Sack to Methuselah is not read simply as a fantasy for the sake of satirical comment
on the present, it may be assumed to suggest that change takes place even in the world of
the instincts and passions but over a very long time span indeed.
The Conflict of Wills in Shaw's Tragicomedy 77
focused on the reflection in his work of a socialist's attack on our economic
and political ethics, a vitalises reaction against the suppression of valuable
human impulses by the "artificial system of morality." However, what is
to be said of the plays as portrayals of the instinctive and passionate nature
of man and of his relations to other men? Are they frequently not only comic
but, as Shaw thought, tragicomic?
If one puts aside momentarily all of the witty social criticism which Shaw's
drama contains, it becomes a portrayal of life in which the will is the key to
human motives and all human relationships are, in one degree of intensity
or another, conflicts of will. Since Pygmalion, as its title implies, is concerned
with the creation of a human being, the clues which it offers to Shaw's con-
ception of basic human nature and of human relationships are especially
significant. Essentially Liza Doolittle is transformed from a subhuman flower
girl into a truly human being because she shakes off her fears, develops a
will of her own, and is able to meet Higgins as an equal in the strife of wills
which is the human condition. After his lot in life is magically transformed
by the Wannafeller bequest, Alfred Doolittle announces the psychological
theme of the play when he proclaims that he can no longer assert his will to
be one of the happy and "undeserving" poor because he is "intimidated"
bound by fear to a life he has not chosen. So also is Liza intimidated. At the
beginning of the play, her famous cockney outcry expresses her mingled be-
wilderment and fear in the face of pressures on her which she cannot resist
and does not understand. Even after she has successfully passed the test of
the garden party, she is still not fully human as is indicated by her attempt-
ing a "bargain in affection" with Higgins, trying to exact love from him in
return for fetching his slippers and making herself generally as indispensable
as possible. Her final transformation takes place only when she asserts pur-
poses of her own which are not born of intimidation, knocking Higgins off
the god-like perch from which he has viewed her only as an object, awaken-
ing for the first time his anger and his genuine human concern for her. The
"squashed cabbage leaf" becomes, as Higgins puts it, a "consort battleship."
The military metaphor is significant. Liza is fully human because she is now
prepared to engage on equal terms with Higgins in a warfare of wills.
Ultimately, the worst thing which can happen to an individual in the
strife at the psychological center of Shavian drama, as the example of Liza
Doolittle suggests, is to be "intimidated" or "discouraged" by another hu-
man will. It is in this way that one experiences the humiliation of becoming
merely an object in another's world, merely a means to another's personal
ends. Thus in her intimidated state Liza knows the wretchedness of being
nothing more than an experimental object in Higgins' scheme to demon-
strate the power of speech training to bridge the gap between class and class.
Thus Ann Whitefield's mother, for example, becomes merely a quaking
instrument of her daughter's schemes to bewilder her elders and to trap the
?8 Norbert F, O'Donnell
husband she wants. The experience is dramatized most fancifully in the
form of the utter "discouragement" sometimes leading to death which
the short-livers in Back to Methuselah feel in the presence of the long-livers.
This discouragement obviously involves an overpowering fear, a sense of
total inability to grasp the purposes of the other, and a disintegration of the
will. In a world in which humanity consists of an ability to participate as an
equal in psychological strife, it is the basic evil.
It is interesting to note in passing that in his non-dramatic prose Shaw
thoroughly underscores his sense of the fearsomeness of the experience under
discussion. He seems to have undergone it himself on only one occasion, a
meeting with a strange Rabbi who, as he says, " terrified me by some power
in him . . . which reduced me to a subjection which I had never experi-
enced before, and have never experienced since." 4 Shaw was, he adds, "sim-
ply discouraged by him." To know intimidation or discouragement in any
degree is to know something of degradation hence, Shaw's violent denun-
ciations of husbands who convince their wives or parents who convince their
children that they are no more than the "property" or "slaves" of authority.
"And what is a tyrant?" he asks in one of his prefaces. "Quite simply a per-
son who says to another person, young or old 'You shall do as I tell you;
you shall . . . have no will of your own; and your powers shall be at the
disposal of my will. 5 " 5
However, as he indicates both in exposition and plays, it may not always
be possible to avoid inflicting the experience of intimidation on another. In
the political context of the passage in which he mentions his meeting with
the discouraging Rabbi, he regretfully concludes that those engaged in the
task of making a better society may sometimes be forced to intimidate the
"yahoos" of the world by natural or artificial means this because intimi-
dation may be the only alternative to the exercise of brute force. Shaw's
heroic figures for example, his Julius Caesar and King Magnus of The Ap-
ple Cart inspire disorganization and awe in those who oppose their wills
simply by the force of their original personalities. Magnus is also clever
enough in a political crisis to use as his trump card such lingering power as
his office has to fascinate and overawe a democratic electorate. Similarly
the superior long-livers of Back to Methuselah must intimidate the undeveloped
and unreliable short-livers who come to their realm either by the power of
their own personalities or by the hocus-pocus of the Oracle's shrine. It is
clear, however, that all such exceptions to the Shavian rule against even
the semblance of tyranny are regrettable.
If the ultimate worst thing in the world of Shaw's drama is the experience
of intimidation, the ultimate best thing is the sense of assurance which grows
* Everybody's Political What's What? (New York, 1944), p. 287.
5 Selected Plays of Bernard Shaw (New York, 1949-57), IV, 65. Unless otherwise indicated,
all references to Shaw's work assume this edition.
The Conflict of Wills in Shaw's Tragicomedy 79
from an insight into the motives of others and hence an ability to control
the outcome of the conflict of wills in which one is inevitably involved. Liza
Doolittle "comes alive" at the moment at which she suddenly understands
Higgins well enough to know that she can shake his arrogance by striking
at his professional pride and his distaste for Freddy. The point is especially
clear in Shaw's portrayal of his heroic figures. When the scheming Pothinus
tells Caesar that Cleopatra means to use him as her entirely expendable in-
strument to gain an undisputed crown, he is neither surprised nor resentful.
He has foreseen this just as he foresees the consequences of the murder of
Pothinus, the burning of the library at Alexandria, and even his own fate
after he returns to Rome. Similarly Magnus, a Caesar in a constricted mod-
ern setting, is able to stay on his throne because he understands so thoroughly
the impulses of all of the members of his cabinet, of the public, and even of
his exotic Orinthia. Caesar and Magnus are skillful generals in the warfare
of wills. Not, of course, that either is a tyrant. Whenever possible, both sedu-
lously avoid using their powers of intimidation. Caesar attempts to educate
Cleopatra, as Magnus cleverly tries to educate his childishly brawling cabi-
net. Paradoxically enough, however, the ability of the exemplary person to
ameliorate the conflict of wills rests clearly upon his possession of powers
which might make him a tyrant. It cannot be otherwise in a world whose
fundamental principle is conflict.
A strife of wills, offering, in its most extreme form, alternatives of intimi-
dation and tyranny, underlies Shaw's portrayal of all human relationships.
It introduces a special sort of psychological tension into the famous Shavian
dramatic discussions of social issues. More interesting for present purposes,
it provides the substance of his version of much more intimate human en-
counters. He sees, for example, a great gulf fixed between children and par-
ents. The child, he remarks in the preface to Misalliance -, "cannot realize its
parent's humanity" cannot conceive of him as "having had youth, passions,
and weaknesses, or as still growing, yearning, suffering and learning" (IV,
81). The parent, seeing his own experiences repeated by his offspring, can
do much better by the child in this respect but, as the plays make abun-
dantly clear, is too prone to impose the patterns of his own past and present
on the newest experiments of the Life Force. Shaw offers us a number of
portrayals of children blithely going their way against the wills of shocked
and more or less resistant parents Vivie Warren, Gloria Clandon, Ann
Whitefield, Hypatia Tarleton, and others. In this conflict it is noticeable
that the rebellious youngsters are very often girls it is the vital women who
may be expected to bring home the lost dogs of the world and that the
parents are shocked and "discouraged" more often than the children. Al-
though he had much to say about the character in his non-dramatic prose, '
Shaw apparently could not bring himself to put on the stage the portrayal
of a truly intimidated child.
80 Norbert F. O'Donnell
A point of interest to the as yet undiscovered biographer who will seek to
show the connections between Shaw's life and his plays is that the plays never
imply any special emotional bond between children and parents. The psy-
chological strife which the relationship involves seems to be simply the strife
between youth and age. Children see their parents in the same stereotypes
which they apply to all older persons, and parents misunderstand their young
for similar reasons. The problem of conflict between age and youth is, as one
might expect, most clearly dramatized in scenes which demonstrate the
consequences of a man's revealing a sexual interest in a considerably younger
woman. When Jennifer Dubedat realizes that Dr. Ridgeon is in love with
her, she can only exclaim in innocent but humiliating surprise, "You! An
elderly man!" (I, 184). Hypatia Tarleton subjects Lord Summer hays to
the most exquisite torture by reminding him with incredulous amusement
that he once made advances to her:
Lord S. . . . And if you must say these terrible things: these heart- wounding shame-
ful things, at least find something prettier to call me than an old rip.
Hypatia. Well, what would you call a man proposing to a girl who might be
Lord S. His daughter: yes, I know.
Hypatia. I was going to say his granddaughter.
Lord S. You always have one more blow to get in.
Hypatia. You're too sensitive. . . . (IV, 144)
Neither Jennifer nor Hypatia can realize the humanity of the men to whom
they are speaking and Summerhays finds himself shocked in spite of him-
self by Hypatia's inability to say anything in what he considers to be a lady-
like way. Although he seems to be incapable of portraying the young as
seriously intimidated, Shaw, as an elderly man, may have taken a symbolic
revenge on them in the latter part of Back to Methuselah in which the Ancients
triumph over the "children 33 simply by rising in superior indifference above
some of the usual concerns of humanity.
The strife of wills which is at the center of Shavian psychology is particu-
larly apparent in Shaw's portrayal of relations between lovers or potential
lovers and married couples. At the end of Captain BrassbouncFs Conversion,
the transformed Brassbound gazes hypnotically at Lady Cicely Wayneflete
and demands to know if she is in love with another man.
Lady Cicely. ... I have never been in love with any real person; and I never shall.
How could I manage people if I had that mad little bit of self left in me? Thats
Brassbound. Then throw away the last bit of self. Marry me.
Lady Cicely [vainly struggling to recall her wandering will]. Must I? (I, 686-687)
The Conflict of Wills in Shaw's Tragicomedy 81
The guns of Brassbound's ship fire, the spell is broken, and Lady Cicely goes
free, A similar scene with a different outcome is the one at the end of Man
and Superman in which John Tajiner, fighting, as he says, "for my freedom,
for my honor, for my self, one and indivisible," goes down wildly talking
before Ann Whitefield's fierce will to marry him. The struggle between
the sexes arises, it is clear, because the sexual relationship demands a sur-
render of individuality. Lady Cicely Wayneflete believes that she can "man-
age people" because she remains to a degree selfless (i.e., impersonal) in her
view of them; but Brassbound reminds her that a still greater sacrifice of
self is involved in the sexual union with him which draws her. Tanner sees
that he cannot remain himself, "one and indivisible," If he submits to the
vital force which is thrusting him and Ann together. As Shaw's Don Juan ,
proclaims, "In the sex relation the universal creative energy, of which the
parties are both the helpless agents, overrides and sweeps away all personal
considerations, and dispenses with all personal relations" (III, 637). The
sexually aroused man or woman threatens to engulf two people in an ecstatic
but basically impersonal encounter. The result is very often conflict even
if the conflict takes the form of the hilarious sequence in which Hypatia Tar-
leton chases Joey Percival up the hill and he, in turn, chases her down. Small
wonder that two of Shaw's favorite Shakespearean characters were Beatrice
and Benedick and that his lovers, from Leonard Charteris and his ladies to
Magnus and Orinthia, are engaged in perpetually witty fencing matches.
Driven toward one another by impulses which they cannot down, they are
engaged in a struggle with themselves and with one another in which their
individual identities are at stake.
In the world of Shavian drama, the conflict of wills between lovers con-
tinues after marriage partly because of the transience of the impersonal
magic of the sexual relationship and partly because, as critics have generally
recognized, in Shaw's plays the "universal creative energy" has different
ultimate uses for women and men. Tension exists between Hector and Hes-
ione Hushabye because, despite their extraordinary efforts, they have not
been able to keep alive the sexual delight in one another of which both can
speak only with nostalgia:
Hector. That was confounded madness. I cant believe that such an amazing expe-
rience is common. It has left its mark on me. I believe that is why I have never
been able to repeat it.
Hesione [laughing and caressing his arm]. We were frightfully in love with one another,
Hector. It was such an enchanting dream that I have never been able to grudge
it to you or anyone else since. I have invited all sorts of pretty women to the house
on the chance of giving you another turn. But it has never come off. (I, 524)
Although they are able to speak frankly of the possibility of Hector's finding
sexual satisfaction outside their marriage, both have suffered concealed
82 Norbert F. O'Donnell
heartbreak because the experience of marriage has revealed differences be-
tween them which were obliterated by their early electric experiences of
Tension exists between them because Hesione, being a woman, however
"modern," is prepared to find happiness in a domesticity which is an ex-
tension of childbearing, whereas Hector, being a man, yearns for the physi-
cal and intellectual adventures which create new horizons for a culture and
for mankind. Hence Hesione's despairing outcry: "What do men want?
They have their food, their firesides, their clothes mended, and our love at
the end of the day. Why are they not satisfied? Why do they envy us the
pain with which we bring them into the world, and make strange dangers
and torments for themselves to be even with us?" (I, 529). Hesione and Hec-
tor are perhaps Shaw's most effective dramatization of the doctrine about
relations between the sexes made explicit in Man and Superman. The conflict
in which they are involved can be eased only, it seems, in marriages in which
the sexual impulse has ceased to be vital even as a subject of nostalgic re-
flection and "spheres of influence" have been clearly established. Thus
Bishop Bridgenorth and his wife, once, but presumably no longer, deeply
"in love" and beyond regret of love's passing maintain a satisfying relation-
ship in which most of the time he goes his intellectual and she her domestic
way. Kings Magnus and Charles II are deeply attached to and happy with
their rather shadowy wives, perhaps because both are free to devote much
of their energy to political interests and to philandering. It is no doubt sig-
nificant that the Bishop and the two kings are all three very clever tacticians
in the Shavian war of wills and that they and their wives are not young.
The moments of true feeling which are the basis of the Shavian tragi-
comedy emerge naturally from the conflicts which provide the psychological
undercurrents of the plays. They may be distinguished as moments of "na-
kedness," moments of "disillusionment," and moments of "conversion"
each reflecting a character's defeat or victory in the struggle of wills. The
characters who experience moments of nakedness suddenly find themselves
outraged and sometimes fearful, aware that they are bested in conflict but
for the moment unable to relinquish the feelings and ideas which have led
them to defeat. Liza Doolittle undergoes such an experience at the time of
her first appearance in Higgins' home outraged and fearful in the face of
her treatment as merely an object for experimentation, she can only bristle,
wail, and finally allow herself to be literally stripped and scrubbed. The
epitome of such moments is the one in which Mangan, the businessman
shamed, frightened, and angered by the intellectual frankness he meets every-
where in Heartbreak House cries: "Let's all strip stark naked. We may
as well do the thing thoroughly when we're about it. We've stripped our-
selves morally naked: Well, let us strip ourselves physically naked as well,
and see how we like it" (I, 584). Mangan has been defeated in his every en-
The Conflict of Wills in Shaw's Tragicomedy 83
counter with the people of Heartbreak House, especially in the scene in
which, in a presumed hypnotic trance, he has heard Ellie Dunn and Hesione
Hushabye discuss him as an unattractive object of which they feel sure that
they have the power of disposal. He has heard one or another of his fellow
guests challenge every one of the pretenses upon which his power in the
world of business and government depends and has even been betrayed
into revealing his own knowledge of the hollowness of the pretenses. Yet he
can only rage against his nakedness, refusing to let go of the attitudes which
have produced his psychological defeat and which ultimately lead to his
death. He reminds us of Mrs. Warren at the end of her play, reduced to her
melodramatic declaration of her intention to continue to do evil; of Dr. Ridg-
eon, gabbling and sputtering in the face of the revelation of his failure to
play God successfully; of the anguished Elderly Gentleman through most
of his encounters with the long-livers; of some of the perpetually agitated
cabinet members in The Apple Cart. These are people on the verge of total
intimidation, their only virtue being their refusal to acknowledge defeat.
They are guilty not only of the "crime of being intimidated" which might
be paralleled with the "crime of poverty" so eloquently discussed in Major
Barbara but also of the crime of remaining static, of resisting the pressure
to change which is the Shavian law of both social and psychic life.
The moments of disillusionment which Shaw's characters undergo are
more hopeful because, in the shock of defeat in psychological struggle, the
characters who experience them are willing to relinquish old attitudes and
to grope toward new ones. Although she is empty of any real purposes, Liza
Doolittle is much more promising as a human being at the moment at which
she throws Higgins 5 slippers at him in a burst of disillusioned anger than
she was when she brought them into the room with the intention of pleas-
ing him. At the moment at which she throws the slippers, she has given up
her illusory hope of a "bargain in affection" born of her intimidation and
is in a position to form new and less humiliating purposes. Near the end of
his play, Captain Brassbound makes explicit the feelings which underlie
many a moment of disillusionment in Shaw's plays. Robbed of his fancy
that he is a romantic avenger and his uncle a sanctimonious devil, he cries
out to Lady Cicely:
Now everything is gone. You have taken the old meaning out of my life, but
you have put no new meaning into it. I can see that you have some clue to the
world that makes all its difficulties easy for you; but I'm not clever enough to
seize it. Youve lamed me by shewing me that I take life the wrong way when I'm
left to myself. ... I see that now; for youve opened my eyes to the past; but
what good is that for the future? What am I to do? Where am I to go? (I, 683-
It is in precisely this painful mood of emptiness and groping that Major Bar-
bara listens to Bill Walker's ironic gibes in the Salvation Army shelter just
84 Norbert F. O'Donnell
after her father's theatrically written check has "bought" the Army. It is this
sort of disillusionment which leads Ellie Dunn, in her heartbreak over her
misjudgment of Hector Hushabye and Boss Mangan, to contemplate a mer-
cenary marriage to Mangan (a gesture parallel to Liza's throwing the slip-
pers at Higgins). It is a similar but even more painful sort of disillusionment
which leads the Elderly Gentleman in Back to Methuselah to prefer death at
the hands of the long-livers to a return to life in the world from which he
comes, the Preacher in Too True To Be Good to announce himself finally as
a man permanently without a cause worthy of the exercise of his gifts.
Most often the disillusionment which Shaw's characters meet does not,
as for the Elderly Gentleman and the Preacher, lead to death or to the sur-
render of the future. Rather it leads to emotional moments of hope, moments
of " con version" in which new purposes suddenly become clear and the Sha-
vian characters return with new energy to the struggle of wills which is their
destiny. Liza Doolittle rises in furious anger against Higgins: she will teach
phonetics, she will marry Freddy. Brassbound, thanks to his near-success
in hypnotizing Lady Cicely into marrying him, finds that he has at last dis-
covered "the secret of command." Major Barbara enthusiastically joins
Cusins in the social mission represented by his acceptance of responsibility
for the munitions factory. Seizing him with both hands, she cries: "Oh, did
you think my courage would never come back? did you believe that I was
a deserter? that I, who have stood in the streets, and taken my people to my
heart, and talked of the holiest and greatest things with them, could ever
turn back and chatter foolishly to fashionable people about nothing in a
drawing room? Never, never, never, never: Major Barbara will die with
the colors" (I, 445). Her use of military metaphors, however appropriate
to her character as a former officer in the Salvation Army, has a deeper sig-
nificance. She has recovered from her disillusionment to join once again in
the strife of wills in which all vital human beings are involved. Similarly,
in the face of somewhat the same twentieth-century realities which produce
the despair of the Preacher in Too True To Be Good, Ellie Dunn throws off
the mood of disillusioned rejection of her true nature in which she has de-
cided to make a calculating marriage with Boss Mangan. Having made old
Shotover her "spiritual husband and second father," she devoutly hopes
that the bombers which come over Heartbreak House at the end of the play
will come again, destroying the corrupt and stupid world she knows and
bringing her something of the experience of elemental struggle which the
ancient captain found on the bridge of his ship in a storm. We should re-
member that even at the end of Too True To Be Good, as the Preacher de-
livers his disillusioned closing speech, the Patient and her mother, both of
whom have experienced "conversions" of a sort, are off to found a sisterhood
which may restore the sense of purpose in life whose loss the Preacher so
The Conflict of Wills in Shaw's Tragicomedy 85
Whether or not we agree that the patterns of psychological strife and of
moments of true feeling discussed here produce a tragicomic tone in Shaw's
plays depends, of course, on our participation in his attitude toward the
strife he portrays and toward its emotional crises. His attitude toward the
world of human conflict which he dramatizes seems to be very much like
that of some of his heroes with whom he is closely identified. Such figures as
Caesar and Magnus appear to be surrogates for their creator, and their sense
of life is clearly tragicomic for significant reasons. Caesar understands
Cleopatra very well and is sympathetically concerned that she cease to be
the aggressive little barbarian he finds upon his arrival in Egypt. He is truly
moved that human strife should have produced the wanton murder of Pothi-
nus, which makes him visualize with horror a future in which "murder shall
breed murder, always in the name of right and honor and peace, until the
gods are tired of blood and create a race that can understand" (III, 457)-
Yet he maintains a certain amused detachment, a certain impersonality,
in all of his dealings. When Pothinus asks Cleopatra if Caesar does not love
her, her reply is instructive:
Cleopatra. Love me! Pothinus: Caesar loves no one. Who are those we love? Only
those whom we do not hate: all people are strangers and enemies to us except those
we love. But it is not so with Caesar. He has no hatred in him: he makes friends
with everyone as he does with dogs and children. His kindness to me is a wonder:
neither mother, father, nor nurse have ever taken so much care for me, or thrown
open their thoughts to me so freely.
Pothinus. Well: is not this love?
Cleopatra. What! When he will do as much for the first girl he meets on his way back
to Rome? Ask his slave, Britannus: he has been just as good to him. Nay, ask his
very horse! His kindness is not for anything in me: it is in his own nature
Presumably Caesar's impersonality, like Lady Cicely Wayneflete's, is the
secret of his ability to "manage people." Similarly, King Magnus is deeply
sympathetic to the tempestuous people with whom he has to deal, includ-
ing his especially tempestuous Orinthia, but retains his power because he
keeps a certain humorous distance from them, because his whole self is never
entirely committed. It is noticeable that both Caesar and Magnus keep
their balance because they have a sense not only of the stresses and strains
of the individual human conflicts they observe and in which they are involved
but also because they believe strongly in the objective importance of the his-
torical roles they play. They are sympathetic but ultimately impersonal in
their attitudes toward the people with whom they deal because they see
them in the perspective of vast social conflicts which are of primary
importance to all of mankind. So it is with Shaw as a dramatist.
He understands and sympathizes with his characters in the more or less per-
86 Norbert F. O'Donnell
manent psychological strife in which they are involved, but he preserves a
certain detachment toward them in that he sees them as a part of social
conflicts which are more important than individual destinies. Insofar as he
preserves a degree of feeling for individuals in their lonely struggles to as-
sert their wills, he is a tragedian. Insofar as he feels compelled to regard these
struggles with the amused impersonality of one who sees large historical forces
at work upon them, he is a comedian. The result is that he creates a drama
which is very frequently a tragicomedy.
It is obviously beyond the scope of this essay to consider whether or not
this tragicomedy is, as Shaw thought, a uniquely modern phenomenon. It
is possible to observe, however, that the psychology which provides its tragic
undercurrents is very much present in the work of at least two of the latter-
day heirs of romanticism August Strindberg and D. H. Lawrence. The
parallel is particularly evident in the portrayal which both Strindberg and
Lawrence offer of relations between the sexes. The essential clue to Strind-
berg's attitude is in the famous scene at the end of the second act of The Father
in which the Captain explains that he first loved Laura as a mother and
then attempted to win her as a wife:
Captain. ... I thought you despised my lack of virility, so I tried to win you as a
woman by proving myself as a man.
Laura. That was your mistake. The mother was your friend, you see, but the woman
was your enemy. Sexual love is conflict. And don't imagine I gave myself. I didn't
give. I only took what I meant to take. Yet you did dominate me ... I felt it
and wanted you to feel it. 6
The Captain and Laura are locked in an inevitable struggle of wills in which
she is ultimately the victor. In, for example, Miss Julie and Creditors, men
are the victors in a similar struggle. The drift of Strindberg' s portrayal of
relations between the sexes in all of his plays, however, is in Laura's line,
"Sexual love is conflict. 35 Sexual love is also conflict, though not such a des-
perate or hopeless one, in the novels of D. H. Lawrence. In Lawrence the
sexual relationship may yield the best that is to be known in life, but it is
complicated by the determination of some lovers to control those whom they
presumably love by absorbing them totally to their own personalities and
by the determination of others to control by remaining detached and, so to
speak, "above the battle." Lawrence visualizes the happiest relationship
as the one in which the partners achieve "polarity," a true communication
without the sacrifice of the individual integrity of either lover. Thus Paul
Morell in Sons and Lovers feels that Miriam Leivers wishes to control him by
consuming his identity; Gerald and Gudrun of Women in Love wish to con-
trol one another by remaining powerful through detachment; and Birkin
and Ursula in the same novel know something of "polarity." Although each
6 Six Plays of Strindberg, tr. Elizabeth Sprigge (New York, 1955), p. 42.
The Conflict of Wills in Shaw's Tragicomedy 87
has a different reason for his view, Shaw, Strindberg, and Lawrence all
imply a common attitude: human relationships are a strife of wills.
Bertrand Russell suggests that a basic tension in romantic literature is
that between the absolute value which the romantic sets on the realization
of individuality and the social claims imposed by any human relationship.
This tension, he feels, becomes especially apparent in portrayals of sexual
love, in which assertions of individuality must inevitably meet counter-
assertions the result being conflict. 7 Whether or not this is an accurate in-
terpretation of all romantic portrayals of love, it casts some light on Strind-
berg, Lawrence, and Shaw. It seems most accurate as a guide to understand-
ing the conflict of wills in Strindberg' s plays, in which individuals clash and
one or another goes down to terrible defeat, even destruction. It also has a
certain applicability to Lawrence's portrayal of human relationships, though
Lawrence asserts passionately that some few people who understand life
sufficiently can find escape from the law of conflict in a kind of private hu-
man communication which suspends it. Furthermore, in view of the tragic,
or nearly tragic, tone of the work of both Strindberg and Lawrence, Russell's
generalization helps to explain the position of Shaw as a tragicomedian.
Like his heroes, he understands and sympathizes with individuals involved
in the war of wills which he himself cannot avoid. In the end, however, his
work takes on its markedly comedic tone because he sees life in terms of so-
cial problems which he believes transcend those of the individual. Because
in our loneliness we are a part of the struggle of wills which arises from our
instincts and passions, we should not forget, his tragicomedies imply, that
we are also a part of the comedy of real and potential sociability.
7 A History of Western Philosophy (New York, 1945), pp. 681-682.
Shaw's Challenge to Liberalism
by Louis Crompton
Major Barbara, together with Man and Superman and John BuWs Other
Island, forms part of a trilogy of philosophical comedies, all of which deal
with the bankruptcy of nineteenth-century liberalism in the face of the brute
facts of sex, nationalism, and poverty. This propagandistic purpose has been
from the start a bone of contention. It is not by chance that critics holding
a formalist position, from Shaw's friend A. B. Walkley down to Francis Fer-
gusson 1 in our own day, have denounced the play as a kind of literary mon-
ster, while philosopher-critics 2 have regarded it as one of the few dramas
with anything serious to say on the subject of politics. Indeed, Major Bar-
bara raises the central issue of modern aesthetics as squarely as any piece of
writing can. This question putting it in the simplest possible terms I take
to be whether art is to be regarded as autonomous and sui generis or whether
it is to be judged in relation to some ulterior standard of reality, that is, as
a form of science or knowledge. But even if you accept this second view of
the nature of art which is certainly Shaw's view you will still have to
ask yourself whether your conception of this ulterior reality corresponds to
Shaw's. Thus the play presents a double challenge first to the dominant
literary theory of our day, and second to our political and social ideals.
Only the inordinate length of Man and Siiperman kept Shaw from publish-
ing his three philosophical comedies together in a set, as he did the Plays
Pleasant and Unpleasant and the Three Plays for Puritans. For his German edi-
tion, Shaw suggested that they be grouped and given the title Comedies of
Science and Religion. Like the grouped plays of the other cycles, these plays
share, besides their common theme, a common mood and a common dra-
It is this latter feature their unique dramatic form which has first of
"Shaw's Challenge to Liberalism" by Louis Crompton. From Prairie Schooner, XXXVII,
No. 3 (Fall 1963), 229-244. Copyright 1963 by the University of Nebraska Press.
Reprinted by permission of Prairie Schooner.
1 See Walkley, Drama and Life (1907); Fergusson, The Idea o/ a Theater (1949).
2 Charles Frankel, "Efficient Power and Inefficient Virtue" in Great Dilemmas in Liter a-
ture, ed. R. M. Maclver (1956).
Shaw's Challenge to Liberalism 89
all confused, puzzled, and exasperated critics. What Shaw does is to mix
together in each play a Molieresque comedy and a Socratic dialogue. Each
play begins by presenting us with a high-minded idealist, who takes him-
self with earnest seriousness and looks upon himself as an enlightened re-
former. He is then made the subject of a comedy in the style of Moli^re, not
with the idea of unmasking his hypocrisy, but of exposing the comic con-
tradictions within his ideals and temperament. The problems raised by this
character, which appear originally in a farcical-satirical light, are treated
more and more seriously until they are shown to be bound up with what
Shaw calls "the destiny of nations, 53 and the audience which has settled
down for a night of fun finds it must either transform itself from an audience
of pleasure-seekers into a "pit of philosophers" or founder hopelessly in the
dream sequence of Man and Superman or the last acts of John Bull's Other Is-
land and Major Barbara. An impossible procedure you will complain. But
not, Shaw would answer, to someone who believed that "Every joke is an
earnest in the womb of time," and that the prophet who did not make his
audience laugh would suffer, at worst, the fate of Socrates and Christ, and
at best that of Rousseau and Tom Paine.
The idealistic liberals who are the butts of the satire are Roebuck Rams-
den in Man and Superman, Tom Broad bent in John Bull's Other Island, and
Lady Britomart Undershaft in Major Barbara, but since our subject is the
latter play let us look at Lady Britomart as a representative of her species.
The character of Lady Britomart, like most of those in Major Barbara, was
drawn from a real person. It is a well-known fact that Shaw based Adolphus
Cusins, his professor of Greek, on Gilbert Murray, but it is less well-known
that he based Lady Britomart on Murray's real-life mother-in-law. Lady
Rosalind Frances, Countess of Carlisle. (Indeed, Shaw jokingly told Murray
in a letter that he was at work on a play to be called "Murray's Mother-
in-Law".) The Countess of Carlisle was, like Lady Britomart, a Whig peer-
ess; her father was the Liberal whip in parliament, and she was herself a
crusading temperance reformer and the leader for eighteen years of the na-
tional Woman's Liberal Federation. Since her husband was more interested
in art than in estate management, she ran the extensive family estates like
a personal fiefdom, attending in minute detail to the farmers' personal wel-
fare and to their moral characters. Castle Howard and her house in Ken-
sington were salons for the Liberal intelligentsia. Murray himself has paid
tribute to her crusading enthusiasm and to the heartening quality of her
The clue to Shaw's treatment of the comic contradictions in Lady Brito-
mart' s character may be found in a remark by James Froude, Carlyle's bi-
ographer, on the subject of Lady Rosalind. Froude, who disapproved of
her politics but admired her character, said that though she professed to be
a Liberal, she was by temperament better fitted to be an "empress." Hence
go Louis Crompton
if Shaw had chosen to make her the central figure of the play he might have
imitated Moliere's "Bourgeois Gentleman" to the extent of calling it "The
Imperious Liberal." By family tradition and personal conviction Lady Brito-
mart is an avowed believer in free speech and a democratic franchise, but
every speech that she utters shows her native aristocratic spirit and natural
masterfulness at odds with these ideals. Where Lady Britomart's moralism
is not an aristocratic Mrs. Grundyism, a Queen Victoria-ism so to speak,
it is merely a rationalization of her class prejudices and privileges, "right"
and "propriety" being whatever furthers the Stephenage family interests
and "wrong" or "impropriety" being whatever conflicts with them. For
the central issue of the first act, and indeed of the play as a whole, is who
will inherit the armament factory owned by Lady Britomart's husband,
Andrew Under shaft.
The question of the Undershaft inheritance has caused a rift between
the husband and wife: according to the tradition of the firm, the inheri-
tance must go not to a son of the owner but to some promising adopted heir.
This condition, utterly at odds with aristocratic belief in birth and blood,
so offends Lady Britomart that it is useless for Andrew to argue that the
Roman Empire was run successfully on this scheme and that it brought to
the throne Marcus Aurelius. She is so used to thinking of the Stephenages
as governors by natural right that when Andrew had refused to break the
firm's law of succession in favor of his son Stephen the resulting quarrel led
to a legal separation. Lady Britomart's way of putting this is to declare that
nothing can bridge fundamental "moral" disagreement.
We have only to spend two minutes in Stephen's presence to realize the
soundness of his father's decision, for Stephen is a conscientious, thoroughly
well-intentioned prig and moral pedant, tediously prating about "right"
being "right" and "wrong" being "wrong." His sister Sarah lacks his pre-
tentiousness, but also his starchy character, and is, in fact, no more than a
fashionable nonentity. Only in their third child, Barbara, has the Under-
shaft-Stephenage marriage justified itself as an evolutionary experiment in
the crossing of types and classes, for Barbara has Lady Britomart's genius
for leadership and mothering, with none of her class limitations. So little is
she concerned with mere propriety and decorum and so intensely does she
identify herself with the religious spirit of the race that she has joined the
least snobbish of the reforming religious sects of the day, the Salvation Army.
As the play opens we learn that Sarah and Barbara have both become
engaged, Sarah to Charles Lomax, an amiable aristocratic noodle as empty-
headed as herself, and Barbara to a man as complex and subtle in his moral
and intellectual perceptions as Lomax is silly. Shaw shows us in Gusins a
representative of the humane conscience in its most tender and perceptive
form. In writing to Gilbert Murray, Shaw pointed out that he had taken
Show's Challenge to Liberalism gi
pains to make his professor "the reverse in every point of the theatrical strong
I want him to go on his quality wholly, and not to make the smallest show of
physical robustness or brute determination. His selection by Undershaft should
be a standing puzzle to the people who believe in the strong-silent still-waters-
run-deep hero of melodrama. The very name Adolphus Cusins is selected to that
In choosing Murray as his model, Shaw had in mind a type of liberal in
strong contrast to the active, bustling Lady Britomart. Cusins is the aca-
demic, cloistered, sympathetic, skeptical, ironic, supercivilized liberal who
shrinks instinctively from what E. M. Forster has called the world of "tele-
grams and anger."
Murray's liberalism sprang from several sources from the radicalism
of Castle Howard, from his Irish rebel background, and from a strain of Shel-
leyan humanitarianism that made him, like Shaw, a vegetarian and a hater
of all forms of cruelty. The other side of the picture was his Hellenism. For
Murray, Greek literature was a living force having direct bearing on mod-
ern politics, morals, and culture. Here is how he writes of Euripides, the
Greek playwright to whom he felt especially drawn:
His contemporary public denounced him as dull, because he tortured them with
personal problems; as malignant, because he made them see truths they wished
not to see; as blasphemous and foul-minded, because he made demands on their
spiritual and religious natures which they could neither satisfy nor overlook. 4
In short, Murray regarded Euripides as standing in relation to the golden
age of Athens as the "New Drama" of Shaw and Ibsen stood in relation to
the age of Victoria and Edward VII. (Shaw returned the compliment by
hailing Murray's translations of Euripides as modern masterpieces that had
earned their place on the contemporary stage in their own right.) In Major
Barbara Shaw makes Undershaft give Cusins the nickname "Euripides,"
thus implying that he looks on human affairs with the same mixture of ironic
pessimism and pity as his Greek predecessor.
Lady Britomart has invited her estranged husband to her West End man-
sion with the eminently practical intention of extracting dowries from him
for the two brides-to-be, her estimate of the earning power of a feckless man-
about-town and a classics professor being realistically small. But her attempt
to bring up once more the matter of the inheritance meets flinty resistance
from Undershaft. Indeed, only the unexpected interest Undershaft shows
3 October 7, 1905; printed in Murray, An Unfinished Autobiography (1960), pp. 155-156.
This whole letter is of great interest for the play.
4 A History of Ancient Greek Literature (1897), p. 250. See also Euripides and His Age (1913).
gs Louis Crompton
in Barbara's novel religious aspirations saves the family reunion from ship-
wreck. It is an immense puzzle to both the na'ive and the sophisticated mem-
bers of the family group that Undershaft should show such a concern with
her new faith, particularly since he is resolutely unashamed of his destruc-
tive trade and even seems to glory in it, declaring, "Your Christianity, which
enjoins you to resist not evil, and to turn the other cheek, would make me
a bankrupt. My morality my religion must have a place for cannons
and torpedoes in it." Barbara challenges him to maintain this faith after
visiting her East End Salvation Army shelter. Her father accepts the invi-
tation, and issues a counter-challenge: she shall in return pay a visit to his
arms factory and face the temptation offered by a religion of "money and
The scene at the Salvation Army shelter is a remarkable piece of low-life
melodrama, equalled in English only by- the works of O' Casey. The refugees
at the barracks include a cynically smart young man and an old crone, both
posing as redeemed sinners, and Peter Shirley, who is brought in in a state
of serai-starvation. Turned out of his job as overage, Shirley finds the ne-
cessity of accepting charity all the more bitter because he holds the faith of
a secularist, in contrast to the others who believe in nothing but their right
to bilk and exploit capitalist society as it has bilked and exploited them. Fi-
nally, Bill Walker enters, a half-drunk, blustering bully in a very mean mood,
who bawls angrily for his girl, and curses the Army for taking her from him.
This scene ends with Barbara's struggle for Bill's soul. This is a fight which
comes very near to success and only fails through a stroke of diablerie on
the part of her father. The latter frustrates her simply by demonstrating
that although the Salvation Army can afford to refuse to sell the blackguard
his salvation for twenty shillings, it cannot, no matter how scrupulous it af-
fects to be, refuse to sell the millionaire his for, say, five thousand pounds.
Barbara had refused to accept her father's tuppence in the collection plate
because the money was earned through the creation of destructive forces
far more brutal in their effect than anything the slum ruffian might aspire
to. But when the Army commissioner comes to plead for money to carry on
the Army's work in a hard winter, she is forced to accept Undershaft' s proffer
of the aforementioned thousands despite his sardonic emphasis on the terri-
fying nature of his enterprises. The ruffian, when he sees the rich man's gift
accepted where his own conscience money was rejected, turns on Barbara
with cynical scorn, and Barbara, facing at once the failure of her attempt
at salvation and a realization that the Salvation Army, if it is to exist at all,
can only exist as the pensioner of the distillery and cannon industries, ut-
ters her bitter and heart-rending cry of despair, "My God: why hast thou
It is at this point that the play takes the most surprising of its many sur-
prising turns. For at the moment that Barbara's God, the God of Evangeli-
Shaitf s Challenge to Liberalism 93
cal Christianity, appears to have failed her, the professor of Greek hails as a
new deity the very man Barbara now fears as anti-Christ, her diabolical-seem-
ing father. Cusins, in a transport of ecstasy, declares himself to be possessed
by the spirit of Undershaft, whom he addresses as the new "Dionysos." Bar-
bara in the pain and confusion of her loss can, of course, see nothing in this
behavior but a piece of perverse irony.
It may be well at this point to ask what Shaw means by his idea of a "new"
Dionysos. What has the ancient Greek god to do with modern society? The
answer is to be found in the meaning Dionysiac religion had in the Greek
world. Historians and philosophers, of whom Nietzsche is the most famous,
have repeatedly emphasized the strange disparity between the serene ra-
tionalism of Greek society as we usually conceive it and the wild barbarity
of the Bacchic cult which entered Greece from Thrace and Macedonia in
the tenth century before Christ. Nietzsche traces the birth of dramatic trag-
edy itself to this irruption of frenzied rites and ecstatic orgies into the calm
order and moral rationalism of Greek life, which the new religion challenged
with its worship of super-normal psychic energy and its identification of the
worshipper both with the new God and with the life processes of the animal
and vegetative world. Cusins had earlier praised the services of the Salva-
tion Army as the "true worship of Dionysos/ 5 finding in the Army's ecstasy
and enthusiasm (literally, a standing outside oneself and possession by the
divine will) an analogue of the uncouth religion that shocked the cultivated
Greeks as the Army shocked the conventional Anglicanism of the West End.
In its stirring religious music he had seen the primitive dithyramb reborn,
its trombones, timbrels, and drums being the antithesis both of tepid hymns
sung in fashionable churches and of the salon music of the fashionable draw-
ing room. Even its symbols, Blood and Fire, Cusins points out, are Dionysiac
symbols. Its joy and happiness are those of the God-possessed, as Barbara's
later grief is that of the God-forsaken.
Thus Dionysianism is what Bergson calls a "dynamic religion," 5 with
its basis not in conventional morality or institutionalism but in a mystical
union with the divine will. It breaks down social barriers, taking the intel-
lectual into University Settlements in the slums, and pitting him actively
against evil. It carries its devotees beyond the bounds of logic and reason.
Aroused and lacking rational direction, it finds its expression in the frenzy
of the revolutionary mob. Cusins is a sophisticated intellectual who has
joined the Army, as Lady Britomart puts it, to worship Barbara. (No bad
object of worship, Shaw would insist.) As a student of comparative religion
and a disciple of Sir James Frazer, his view of the Army is, to say the least,
not that of a fundamentalist. But Barbara's obvious religious genius attracts
him strongly, and her evangelicalism, on its practical side, is not at all in-
compatible with his own religion of love, pity, and forgiveness. Indeed, for
5 The Two Sources of Morality and Religion (1935).
94 Louis Crompton
all his sardonic irony, he faces a crisis of his own beliefs at the same moment
Barbara faces hers. As we have already seen, Cusins, in his skepticism and
humanitarianism, is akin to the young Euripides who casts doubts on the
traditional Greek attitudes to such questions as patriotism, religion, women,
But the Greek playwright's later development has a strange and unfore-
seen twist to it. For Euripides, who first turned the Greek drama away from
its roots in Dionysiac religion toward a critical and skeptical direction, does
return to Dionysos at the end of his career. In what is generally regarded
as the last work of his old age, The Bacchae, the humanistic and humanitar-
ian playwright does come face to face with the religion in which the drama
had its origin. It is probably no exaggeration to say that The Bacchae is, by
a good margin, the most terrifying, unedifying, and enigmatic of all Greek
tragedies. You will recall that in this play Dionysos visits in disguise the city
of Thebes where his rites have been forbidden by the moralistic King Pen-
theus and works a horrifying revenge. The problem Euripides' drama poses,
put in the briefest terms, is this: what attitude are we to adopt to this new
force in society, at once so terrible and so fascinating? Does Dionysos 5 ghastly
triumph over Pentheus signify the rebirth of vital religion or does he sym-
bolize some dark, demonic power from which we are to recoil in dread?
Now, like the Greeks of Euripides' day, Gusins has also been brought face
to face with a brutal, primitive force of life and death which the cultivated,
sensitive side of him recoils from, but which the clear-headed student of so-
ciety is forced to take into account. And Shaw, to emphasize the fact that
he has had the parallel with Euripides' drama in mind all along, has Cusins
quote some twenty or thirty lines from the play in the Salvation Army scene,
in what Cusins identifies as his "own" (that is, Murray's) new translation. 6
It is no exaggeration to say that Shaw's Undershaft has created the same
bafflement in critics as Euripides' Dionysos, whether the critic be as naive
as the Time reviewer who accused Shaw of making a "complete about-face"
and firing on his own socialist ranks, or as sophisticated as Mr. Francis Fer-
gusson who for all his learning and intelligence, denounces Major Barbara as
a tissue of "unresolved paradoxes."
What then are we to make of this man who has so puzzled Shaw's commen-
tators? It may perhaps be best to turn first to the living models from whom
Shaw may have obtained hints for his millionaire munitions maker. One
was a neighbor at Ayot Saint Lawrence, Charles McEvoy, a quiet and gentle
man, who had manufactured torpedoes for the North during the Ameri-
can Civil War. But I should like to suggest that Shaw, in drawing the sar-
donic side of Undershaft' s character, seems to have had in mind the Swedish
arms maker Alfred Nobel, the inventor of nitroglycerine. During the clos-
ing decades of the nineteenth century, Nobel's success in creating more and
6 The lines are quoted from page 126 of Murray's Euripides (1904).
Shaufs Challenge to Liberalism 95
more powerful explosives had sent a wave of panic around the world. A
leading figure in European business and international finance, Nobel was
also a man of an intellectual and literary cast; like Undershaft, he belonged
to a munitions dynasty. In thought and sentiment, he was a Shelleyan radi-
cal and humanitarian, but this did not limit his hardheadedness in business,
and he sold his patents indiscriminately to autocratic and liberal states alike.
(In a manuscript draft of Major Barbara Shaw makes Undershaft boast that
he has sold a new rifle to the Swedish, Italian, and German governments
without any compunctions on the score of politics. 7 ) Nobel's motto, "My
home is where my work is, and my work is everywhere" might well have
been Undershaft' s. And, of course, one of the last deeds of this complex and
enigmatic man was his endowment of the Nobel Peace Prize, which chal-
lenged the humanitarian liberals among his personal friends to solve the
problem his discoveries had created. The Peace Prize was first awarded in
1901, four years before Shaw began his play.
This will perhaps explain, in part, one of the paradoxes of Major Barbara
that it is a dealer in lethal weapons who plays the role of Socrates in this so-
cialist drama. But what of Undershaft's peculiar commercial ruthlessness,
that specifically cold-blooded side of his personality that has so shocked and
baffled critics and audiences? To unravel this puzzle we must begin by
considering his background. Undershaft is a slum boy, reared in that wilder-
ness of desolation that was East London in the middle of the nineteenth cen-
tury. He has, like all the members of his dynasty, assumed the name of the
firm's founder, an abandoned orphan reared in the parish of St. Andrew
Undershaft in the city. 8 Determined to escape from the indignities of poverty,
he has taken for his own the stern old Scots slogan: "Thou shalt starve ere
Here the second paradox appears, for as a socialist we expect Shaw espe-
cially to condemn this spirit. But he condones it and even insists that for
a poor person it is indeed the only possible "manly" attitude. (Undershaft's
Christian name, "Andrew," means "manly.") For Shaw, the great cardinal
virtues are courage and self-respect, and he believed that if the poor in a de-
mocracy let themselves be exploited, starved, and snubbed, it is only because
of their own inveterate abjectness. Hence the cutting remarks which Un-
dershaft, the ex-slum boy, addresses to Peter Shirley, the down-trodden,
long-suffering worker, in the Salvation Army shelter:
Shirley (angrily). Who made your millions for You? Me and my like. Whats kep
us poor? keepin you rich. I wouldn't have your conscience, not for all your income.
Undershaft. I wouldn't have your income, not for all your conscience, Mr. Shirley.
7 British Museum additional MS 506166, folio 53. The passage is cancelled. This draft
of act one is dated "Sandgate 4/4/05.*'
8 The odd epithet "Undershaft" was applied to the church because of the custom of
setting up a maypole outside its doors.
9^ Louis Crompton
Undershaft is driving home the point that the play makes over and over
again, that a mere conviction of moral superiority is in itself the hollowest
of consolations, the last resource of the weak and cowardly, and the treach-
erous quagmire in which true worth and manhood are lost.
Honor, justice, and truth are indeed part of Undershaft's religion, but
he stresses that these can be had only as the "graces and luxuries of a rich,
strong, and safe life." Any liberal like Gusins who preaches these virtues to
the poor without taking into account economic realities is a fool. Under-
shaft can even declare that his determinedly ruthless conduct satisfies the
Kantian test, since the world would be an immeasurably better place if all
the poor behaved exactly as he hajs. But first we must rid ourselves of the
liberal belief that moral virtue by itself is ever capable of becoming a signif-
icant force in the world. Shaw made this point abundantly clear in a speech
of Undershaft's in the unpublished Derry manuscript of the play:
Come, come, my young friends; let us live in the real world. Your moral world
is a vacuum; nothing is done there, though a good deal is eaten and drunk by the
moralists at the expense of the real world. It is nice to live in a vacuum and repeat
the fine phrases and edifying sentiments a few literary people have manufactured
for you: but you know as well as I do that your morality is tolerated only on the
assumption that nothing is to come of it. Your Christmas carols about peace and
goodwill to men are very pretty; but you order cannons from me just the same.
You ring out the old, ring in the new: that is, you discard muzzleloaders and
introduce breechloaders. Barbara converts laborers whose conversion dont
matter, because they have no responsibility and no power; but she does not con-
vert the Secretary of State for war. Euripides abhors war, he says; but he will not
stop it by Greek verses. It can be stopped only by a mighty power which is not
in his class room. 9
Undershaft soon makes it clear that this power is the power of bombs.
Liberal intellectuals frequently distrust power and decry the use of force.
In so doing, they overlook that the authority of governments in liberal de-
mocracies rests on the police and army as surely as in any authoritarian state.
Shaw, speaking through Undershaft, defines a government as a body of men
with the courage to kill. Stephen, the conventionally-minded parliamen-
tarian, must himself be as ready to kill his political opponents as Caesar,
Cromwell, Washington, Lincoln, and Stalin were to kill theirs. Being a to-
tally conventional young man with his head stuffed full of moral cliches and
a conviction of the divinely righteous nature of upper-class British interests,
he will kill stupidly and senselessly. How little his high-mindedness repre-
sents anything in the way of real scruples we see when the Undershaft party
arrives at the factory. Stephen, who has earlier expressed priggish horror
at his father's business, is now all admiration for this triumph of industry.
9 British Museum MS 5061 6D 3 folios 35-36. This first "Irish" version is dated "Derry
Shaw's Challenge to Liberalism 97
But for the intellectual humanitarian and the former Salvationist the
reconciliation to the factory of death is not so easy. The last scene of the play
is at once an intellectual argument and a religious wooing of the souls of Cu-
sins and Barbara by Mephistopheles-Dionysos-Undershaft. Cusins may ad-
mit that force is the basis of present-day society and that a capitalist state
exists for the sake of protecting the rich man's dividends, just as the Salva-
tion Army inadvertently plays into the hands of the rich by diverting the
attention of the poor from revolution. But perhaps the answer is not to use
force against force but to abandon force completely and to appeal for social
justice on the grounds of Christianity, love, and mercy. No: Undershaft in-
exorably insists, government and rule mean killing: all political progress
(not to mention political conservatism) rests ultimately on the willingness
Let us see if we can determine exactly what Undershaft means before we
raise the cry of "unresolved paradox." I think that Shaw's intention is clear
enough if we give full weight to what Undershaft says in the final scene, but
since these relatively straightforward statements have been for most people
as music to the deaf and sunsets to the blind, we may profitably take another
look at the unpublished manuscript version of the play in the possession of
the British Museum. Here Undershaft does not, I think, depart from any
of the positions he maintains in the final version of the play, but he is perhaps
Undershaft (grimly). Why do [the poor] starve? Because they have been taught that
it is their duty to starve. "Blessed are the poor in spirit" eh? But now mark my
highest claim, my proudest boast. To those who are worth their salt as slaves I give
the means of life. But to those who will not or cannot sell their manhood to those
who will not stand tamely by and suffer their country to be ravaged by poverty
and preyed upon by skulkers and idlers I give the means of death/ Poverty and
slavery have stood up for centuries to sermons and Bibles and leading articles and
pious platitudes: they will not stand up to my machine guns. Let every English
citizen resolve to kill or be killed sooner than tolerate the existence of one poor
person or one idler on the English soil; and poverty and slavery will vanish to-
Barbara. Killing! Is that your remedy?
Undershaft. It is the final test of conviction, the sole lever strong enough to lift a
whole people. It is the right of every man who will stake his own life on his faith.
It is the only way of saying Must. 10
Here it is perhaps natural to ask whether Shaw, in giving Undershaft
these speeches, was expressing his own political philosophy or merely pre-
senting an idea, so to speak, dramatically. Any doubts on this subject may
be resolved by consideration of another British Museum manuscript, that
10 British Museum MS 506160, folio 18.
9& Louis Crompton
which contains Shaw's notes for a lecture on Darwin delivered to the Fabian
Society in 1906, the year after the production of Major Barbara:
Revolutions, remember, can only be made by men and women with courage
enough to meet the ferocity and pugnacity of the common soldier and vanquish
it. Do not delude ourselves with any dream of a peaceful evolution of Capitalism
into Socialism, of automatic Liberal Progress, of the conciliation of our American
bosses, and South African Landlords and British county society and Pall Mall
military caste by the Fabian Society. The man who is not a Socialist is quite
prepared to fight for his private property, or at least pay someone else to fight
for him. He has no doubt whatever of the necessity and morality of such war-
fare. . . .
We must clear our minds from cant and cowardice on this subject. It is true
that the old barricade revolutionists were childishly and romantically wrong in
their methods; and the Fabians were right in making an end of them and for-
mulating constitutional Socialism. But nothing is as constitutional as fighting.
Rents cannot be collected now without force, nor are they socialized to the
small extent to which they are already socialized without force. 11
Shaw is here appealing to history to verify Undershaft's statement that "the
ballot paper that really governs us is the paper that has a bullet wrapped
up in it." The Commune of 1871 had demonstrated the willingness of the
proprietorial class to fight for their property rights. Later in this same Fa-
bian lecture Shaw argues that the classic instance of non-violent change,
the passage of the Reform Bill of 1832, is really an instance in favor of his
view; for the Reform Bill passed only when the temper of the English nation
reached the point where it was clearly a choice between passing the bill and
facing a revolution.
I have called the last act a religious wooing of souls. Undershaft, seeing
in Cusins the brains and sensitivity he thinks necessary in anyone who is to
run a factory of death (or let us say, a democratic, or any other kind of state)
offers him the management of the munitions work. The intelligentsia is to
undertake the responsibilities of political power, that is, the power of life
and death over millions. Gusins finds himself in the position of a famous
predecessor of academic fame; Mephistopheles has once again put in a bid
for a professor's soul, and though Gusins, wiser than Faust, realizes that he
has already sold his soul for his professorship, this does not make his dilemma
For Barbara's engagement to Gusins is both a love match and something
more again. Their marriage is to be a religious marriage in a sense of de-
voting them to something beyond themselves, to "larger loves and diviner
dreams than the fireside ones." Their understanding is that unless their mar-
riage can foster this religious side of themselves they are to part and seek
other mates, or join the legion of the world's celibate saints and philosophers.
II British Museum, MS 50661, folios 81-82.
Shaw's Challenge to Liberalism 99
If Cusins elects to sell his soul to Undershaft he thus jeopardizes his relation
with Barbara, who is first of all a "Salvationist" (in an unsectarian sense)
and only secondly a fiancee.
At this point Shaw turns to an episode from real life to solve the dilemma.
When an idealistic student 12 of Murray's set out for the Greco-Turkish War
in 1897, Murray had given the young man, not a copy of Plato's Republic,
but a revolver. Shaw ascribes this incident to Cusins, and makes Undershaft
seize upon it to demonstrate to the professor that he is, for all his hatred of
war, committed to the side of the industrialist. Cusins is forced to concur,
and declares that he will choose the "reality and power" of the factory of
death, even if it means losing Barbara.
But Barbara, for all her talk about turning her back on wickedness, can
no more turn away from life than can Cusins. Now she will be able to preach
to the well-fed, self-respecting men and women in Undershaft' s model fac-
tory-town and know that, when they abandon their snobbishness and self-
ishness for higher ends, they are not simply being tempted by the bribe of
bread. She has regained her faith and courage: the enthusiasm of the new
Dionysianism possesses her and she goes "right up into the skies," saved for-
ever from the fate she has most dreaded, the boredom and triviality of the
genteel drawing room.
12 The young man was H. N. Brailsford; see An Unfinished Autobiography, p. 97.
The Face Behind the Mask
by Robert Brustein
Behind Shaw's concern with the Superhuman the whole complex of
messianic Shavianism is a profound and bitter existential revolt. . . . For
Shaw is not simply dissatisfied with certain human activities; he sometimes
seems to be in rebellion against the very nature of human existence. The
bodiless character of Shaw's Superman not to mention Shaw's own vege-
tarianism, teetotalism, and abstention from sexual intercourse after his
marriage indicates a kind of Swiftian disgust at the human body and its
functions. And though, like most comic writers, Shaw is often able to trans-
form these personal feelings into ironic amusement at the dualistic nature
of man, he is, as a Utopian philosopher, apparently unable to accept man's
animality as a permanent fact of life. Strindberg, finally coming to terms
with the same feelings, was able to universalize his revulsion at "the dirt
of life" in the excremental vision of his art. But Shaw, concerned with a
"higher purpose" than this, will neither explore his existential rebellion nor
even acknowledge it. Nevertheless, it probably determines the shape of his
Utopia in Back to Methuselah; and his outrage at human limitation undoubt-
edly determines the characteristics of his Superman. Thus, despite his
pretense at destroying illusions, Shaw cannot accept the reality of his own
feelings. And thus, he refuses to see what Arnold called "the object as in
itself it really is."
He is, in fact, subject to the granddaddy of all illusions one, ironically,
that he had already described in The Quintessence of Ibsenism:
The king of terrors, Death, was the Arch-Inexorable: Man could not bear the
dread of that. He must persuade himself that Death can be propitiated, circum-
vented, abolished. How he fixed the mask of personal immortality on the face of
"Bernard Shaw: The Face Behind the Mask" by Robert Brustein. From The Theatre of
Revolt by Robert Brustein (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1964), pp. 203-227.
Copyright 1962, 1963, and 1964 by Robert Brustein, Reprinted by permission of Little,
Brown and Company Atlantic Monthly Press and Methuen & Co., Ltd. The pages
here are part of the chapter entitled "Shaw."
Bernard Shaw: The Face Behind the Mask 101
death for this purpose we know. . . . Thus he became an idealist, and remained
so until he dared to begin pulling the masks off and looking the spectres in the
face dared, that is, to be more and more a realist.
If Shaw is too much of a "realist" to don the mask of personal immortality,
he is too much of an "idealist" to face the "dread" of the "Arch-Inexorable."
And so he tries to propitiate, circumvent, and abolish death through a
mask of his own invention voluntary longevity. Philosophy, according to
Montaigne, consists in learning how to die; but death has no place in Shaw's
philosophy, since it calls an end to progress, and mocks all human aspiration.
The ageless Ancient proceeds from the imagination of a man unable to look
his "spectres in the face," lest he be forced back into existential despair.
Shaw admits as much by the imperative nature of his phrasing. "We can
and must live longer." "Professional science must cease to mean the nonsense
of Weismann and the atrocities of Pavlov." We "must renounce magic and
yet accept miracle." Such imperatives suggest how Shaw continually reverts
to the consoling and the necessary, rather than to the true. If he must believe
that all the theories, opinions, and facts which contradict his doctrine are
"delusions," he cannot prove that the- delusions are not his own. Tempera-
mentally unable to contemplate a permanent state of imperfectibility, Shaw
is finally forced back into simple expressions of faith:
We must either embrace Creative Evolution or fall into the bottomless pit of an
utterly destroying pessimism. . . . Discouragement does in fact mean death;
and it is better to cling to the hoariest of the old savage-creators than to abandon
all hope in a world of "angry apes," and perish in despair like Shakespear's
This is as close to an admission of emotional desperation as Shaw is likely
to come. Confronted with the Arch-Inexorable (Shaw, significantly, identifies
discouragement with death), he must turn away his face and seek out
utilitarian illusions by which to survive.
Shaw's determination to keep his mask firmly fixed over his anguished
features can be clearly observed in his remarks about Too True To Be Good
(1932). In all other respects a pleasant light comedy, this work is inter-
mittently suffused with the author's almost nihilistic bitterness on the sub-
jects of the cruelty and madness of World War I, the futility of the Geneva
negotiations, the aimlessness of the young, and, the spiritual dislocation
caused by Einstein's universe ("All is caprice; the calculable world has
become incalculable"). And the last speech of the play, the concluding
sermon of Shaw's protagonist, Aubrey, is a moving confession of messianic
I am by nature and destiny a preacher. I am the new Ecclesiastes. But I have no
Bible, no creed : the war has shot both out of my hands. ... I must have affirma-
tions to preach. Without them the young will not listen to me; for even the young
102 Robert Brustein
grow tired of denials. ... I am ignorant ; I have lost my nerve and am intimi-
dated; all I know is that I must find the way of life, for myself and all of us, or we
shall surely perish. And meanwhile my gift has possession of me : I must preach
and preach and preach no matter how late the hour and how short the day, no
matter whether I have nothing to say
The tone of personal disillusionment is strong, and the autobiographical note
is unmistakable; but when critics made the obvious connections, Shaw
vigorously repudiated them, declaring that Aubrey's despair "is not my
despair, 53 and that he had never lost his messianic beliefs: "I affirm, on the
contrary, that never during my lifetime has the lot of mankind seemed more
hopeful, and the beginnings of a new civilization more advanced." Shaw
can look for a moment into the bottomless pit, but it is not long before he is
whistling up his spirits again. His messianic rebellion is his last refuge, his
Utopian idealism his last escape, from the tragic impasse of modern existence.
It. is for the same reason that Shaw ignores the more depressing implica-
tions of nineteenth-century thought. His embrace of Creative Evolution
seems like the last desperate gamble of a Victorian rationalist confronted
with a mechanical and determined world. Since Shavianism assumes an
ordered, reasoned, and coherent universe, Shaw must adopt mystical and
irrational principles in order to maintain his assumptions; and despite his
affectation of a "scientific method," Creative Evolution is neither scientific
nor methodical. Thus, he rejects Darwin not on empirical evidence, but on
the grounds that Darwinism inspires pessimism: "What damns Darwinian
Natural Selection as a creed," he declares, "is that it takes hope out of
evolution and substitutes a paralysing fatalism which is utterly discouraging.
As Butler put it, it c banishes mind from the universe. 5 " Still fleeing from
discouragement, Shaw puts mind back in the universe in the form of the
Life Force that amiable fiction which seems to be occupied exclusively
with human betterment and social perfection, and which resembles nothing
so much as the smiling God of Voltaire's Doctor Pangloss.
Shaw is just as unable to accept the concept of a malevolent or determined
man as to accept the concept of a determined and mindless universe. Though
he follows Ibsen in twitting the liberals and ridiculing their sentimental
ideals, Shavianism is itself based on a familiar Liberal illusion: "It is quite
useless, 5 ' Shaw declares, using his characteristic utilitarian phrasing, "to
declare that men are born free if you deny that they are born good." Ibsen
was forced to modify his subjective faith in the will, and acknowledge the
power of fate. But Shaw, still riding the first crest of Romanticism, can
tolerate no limitation on human possibility which is why he repudiates
the religious concepts of imperfectibility and predestination, and the scien-
tific concepts of aggression and determinism. Thus, in the century of Darwin,
Shaw's characters are never victimized by their biological inheritance. And
thus, in the century of Freud, they are totally free from any real anguish.
Bernard Shaw: The Face Behind the Mask 103
suffering, or neurosis. The Shavian soul is generally a sunlit soul empty
of menace, without fatality. If the unconscious exists in Shaw's writings, it
exists largely as a subject for discussion. Made self-conscious reduced to
analytical terms it loses all its darkness and its threat.
This is not to say that Shaw completely ignores the aggressive side of
man. It is one of the major subjects under discussion in the Hell sequence
of Man and Superman; and the Devil's descriptions of human greed, ruthless-
ness, and cruelty are among the most eloquent in literature. Still, like his
protagonist, Don Juan, Shaw is inclined to attribute such things not to
human evil, but to human cowardice, stupidity, or prejudice; and he almost
never shows them in action. "Crime, like disease, is not interesting," he
affirms in the preface to Saint Joan, proceeding to dramatize (through the
repentance of "mad-dog" De Stogumber) his conviction that whatever
passes for human cruelty is really the consequence of ignorance. Shaw's
kindness is one of his most appealing qualities, but it makes him incapable
of appreciating human defect, while his need to believe in limitless possi-
bilities for mankind continually binds him to the darker, more unredeemable
side of human character.
Thus, as late as 1 944, during the most terrible war in the history of man,
Shaw is still insisting that the "pessimism" of Ecclesiastes, Shakespeare, and
Swift is based on a misreading of the human soul:
[Reformers] all agree that you cannot have a new sort of world without a new
sort of Man. A change in heart they call it. But the Bible tells us that the heart
of Man is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked. . . .
Nevertheless if this book is to be worth writing or reading, I must assume that
all this pessimism and cynicism is a delusion caused, not only by ignorance of
contemporary facts but, in so far as they are known, by drawing wrong con-
clusions from them. It is not true that all the atrocities of Capitalism are the
expression of human vice and evil will; on the contrary, they are largely the
product of domestic virtue, of patriotism, of philanthropy, of enterprise, of
progressiveness, of all sorts of socially valuable qualities. . . . With such human
material, we can produce a dozen new worlds when we learn both the facts and
the lessons in political science the facts can teach.
(Everybody's Political What's What)
Here, again, we can observe how Shaw's ideas are motivated by a utilitarian
imperative ("if this book is to be worth writing or reading, / must assume"),
and how this imperative forces him into wishful thinking. For the "con-
temporary facts" which Shaw would have us understand would now have
to include the Nazi extermination centers, saturation bombing, and Soviet
slave labor camps (Hiroshima and the spectacle of two mass powers threaten-
ing each other with nuclear extinction are still to come); yet, he is still
affirming the essentially philanthropic nature of man. One can see why
Leon Trotsky expressed the wish that "the Fabian fluid that ran in [Shaw's]
I0 4 Robert Brustein
veins might have been strengthened by even so much as five per cent of the
blood of Jonathan Swift." Despite his Marxist orientation, Shaw cannot
accept Marx's analysis of the darker human motives behind capitalism. For
although he is wont to expend considerable indignation against the "system,"
he invariably exempts the system-makers from his indictment/ providing
them with the same "socially valuable qualities" which he hopes to utilize in
his new world. In short, Shaw must believe in human decency. Without this
belief, his hope in the future is misplaced; and all he can look forward to is
We can sympathize with Shaw's dilemma, since we share it. If Shaw has
illusions, they are the illusions of mankind in an appalling world; and, as
a social philosopher, they permit him to function in a productive manner.
Yet, the function of the social philosopher is quite different from the function
of the artist, since the modus vivendi of the one is often a form of dishonesty
to the other. Shaw's need to believe in the possibilities of redemption rob
his drama of an essential artistic office: the ruthless examination of all
illusions, no matter how unpleasant Eric Bentley, defending Shaw's opti-
mism, asserts that no other philosophical attitude is possible: "If man is not
a moral animal, let us all shoot ourselves. If he is a moral animal, then
pessimism is an irresponsible pose" but this is to adopt Shaw's utilitarian
posture. The function of the artist is not to console, not to adopt a "respon-
sible" pose, not to support "optimism" or '^pessimism" but to reveal,
relentlessly, the truth that lies in the heart of man and in the heart of the
universe. Some of the greatest works of art, in fact, have achieved greatness
by exposing things which might tempt us to shoot ourselves, while elevating
us with the prospect of human courage and nobility in the face of a terrible
Such works Oedipus., King Lear, Rosmersholm, Tfa Dream Play, The Ice Man
Cometh are generally tragic dramas, and it would seem that I am chiding
Shaw for failing to be a tragic artist. I am not. But I am suggesting that
Shaw's failure to penetrate his own existential rebellion has robbed him of
a tragic vision, without which his philosophy is trivial and even his comedy
seems too narrow and restricted. Without a "sense of horror," as Bentley
concedes, Shaw is excluded from the company of such great comic drama-
1 Although Shaw attacks prostitution, slum-landlordism, professional imposture, and
capitalism, he very rarely attacks prostitutes, slum landlords, professional impostors, or
capitalists probably because the only motives he seems to accept as valid are economic
ones. In Mrs. Warren's Profession, for example, Mrs. Warren is a brothel madam purely
out of financial need. And in Getting Married, Shaw declares that prostitution has no other
source than "the underpayment and ill-treatment of women who try to earn an honest
living." This is in direct conflict with all studies of prostitutes and prostitution. In Shaw's
world, however, there are very few psychological or emotional determinants, which is why
he can continue to believe that an equal distribution of wealth will automatically eradicate
all such social evils.
Bernard Shaw: The Face Behind the Mask 105
lists as Ben Jonson and Moliere, neither of whom ignored the less consoling
aspects of human character. And his insensitivity to the metaphysical side
of man even excludes him froni the company of the great modern dramatists
of revolt. Too often, Shaw's reformist impulses and imperative needs dull his
apprehension of Necessity, so that, like Arthur Miller, he sometimes tends to
identify tragedy with social exploitation. 2 For like Arthur Miller, Shaw
envisions a reconciled society in which there will be no more tragedy
or mystery either, since all human problems will be already solved. Looking
forward to what will be, Shavianism can neither understand nor come to
terms with what already is.
Thus, while Shaw exalts, exploits, and publicizes the rebel movement, he
is totally unable to accept its darker side. The gospel of Shavianism channels
the energies of revolt into social-political philosophical uplift. The irony of
Shaw's sense of "higher purpose 55 is that it imposes crucial restrictions on his
art, since it usually prevents him from examining the bitter rebellion in his
own heart. Although he finds "the true joy of life" in being "a force of
Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances
complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy,"
it is just this note of personal discontent that we miss in his work for
through this, we could better understand the unhappiness of all men. Shaw's
perpetual cheer and optimism do not come easily to him, but they have
become, in recent years, his most irritating qualities. If, at the same time
that his fame is rising in commercial circles, he seems to be receding from
our consciousness, this is perhaps because his buoyant mood is no longer a
suitable response to the actualities of our time. In Shavianism, we can see
just as clearly as in the technological vision of H. G. Wells the utter bank-
ruptcy of the progressive Victorian temper in an age of confusion, upheaval,
and ominous threat.
Shaw's messianic philosophy has alienated him from us; the myths of
Shavianism neither console nor convince; his "scientific religion" has come
to look neither like science nor religion; and his own^ illusions seem just as
pronounced as the ones he sets out to expose but there are still areas of
Shaw's work which remain perfectly valid. Shavianism may seem just as
quackish as Swedenborgianism but like Swedenborgianism, it can some-
2 "True tragedy," Shaw declares, is "being used by personally-minded men for purposes
which you recognize as base" in short, tragedy is the result of social exploitation. Com-
pare Miller, who writes: "I think the tragic feeling is evoked in us when we are in the
presence of a character who is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing
his sense of human dignity. From Orestes to Hamlet, Medea to Macbeth, the underlying
struggle is that of an individual attempting to regain his 'rightful' position in society."
Miller's sociological definition is much more simpleminded than Shaw's, and Shaw never
falls into Miller's sentimentalization of common humanity but neither writer is able to
understand the metaphysical basis of tragedy.
io6 Robert Brustein
times be turned to imaginative use. If we regard Shavianism as a source for
Shaw's dramatic metaphors (somewhat like the theosophical concepts of
Yeats), then its quackeries seem less important; and if we regard it as a
technique for demonstrating the spiritual and moral inadequacy of tradi-
tional creeds, then it even serves a valuable illustrative function. Actually,
Shaw handles his hatred of reality in two distinct ways. As a revolutionary
reformer, he registers his revolt against the real by pursuing the ideal in
politics (Socialism) and philosophy (Creative Evolution). But, as an artist,
he registers this revolt by recreating reality in the ideal form of art. Shaw
may disapprove of those dramatists whose rebellion does not work towards
positive goals, but his own rebellion is most compelling when it is least
constructive. As Shaw himself understands, "Construction cumbers the
ground with institutions made by busybodies. Destruction clears it and gives
us breathing space and liberty. 53 Like most artists who construct redemptive
systems (Lawrence, for example), Shaw is convincing only in the act of
denial. Behind the affirmative yea-sayer is a man who knows how to say no;
behind the evangelical quacksalver stands a gifted diagnostician of modern
As a matter of fact, only a small part of Shaw's creative energies are
channeled into Shavianism; one can hardly say that the bulk of his drama
is dominated by a philosophical purpose. Accounting for the absence of
ideology in his early plays, Shaw says: "Like Shakespear I had to write
potboilers until I was rich enough to satisfy my evolutionary appetite (or,
as they say, give way to my inspiration)," and he includes among such
"shameless potboilers" Pygmalion^ Fanny's First Play, and You Never Can Tell
(he might have added The Philanderer, Arms and the Man, The Devil's Disciple,
and Overruled). For a messianic prophet with such serious intentions, Shaw
certainly enjoys a large number of holidays in his work; and one begins to
suspect that his Puritan disapproval of the "mere artist" may reflect his
self-disapproval as a writer of frivolous light comedies. Most of these comedies
are still quite delightful; but they are generally free from any radical ques-
tioning, since their form is not hardy enough to support much philosophy.
Like Oscar Wilde and W. S. Gilbert, Shaw bases his comic technique on the
inversion of Victorian conventions, but while he is often outrageous, he is
seldom much more: nothing in his work will bring a blush to the cheek of
the young person. 3 Similarly, while Shaw is relentless in his ridicule of
3 Richard M. Ohmann, in Shaw: The Style and the Man, demonstrates, through a study
of Shavian style, that the author often cultivates outrage for its own sake, and owes much
of "his enormous popularity" to this ritualized unconventionally: "His denunciations of
the old social order burned the ears of the pre- World War I generation, but they stirred
the blood, too, and offered forbidden amusement to the more adventurous Victorians and
Edwardians. . . . He was still crying the same blasphemies twenty, thirty, forty years
later, though, and unconventionally is a garment that can wear thin." Ohmann's book,
though primarily a semantic analysis, is one of the most intelligent of recent books on
Bernard Shaw: The Face Behind the Mask 107
"Sardoodledom," the great majority of his comedies revolve around a love
plot borrowed from the well-made play usually resolved conventionally, if
for unconventional reasons. The artist in Shaw is sometimes so far from being
a revolutionary that he seems to be a "mere" entertainer, creating works
which are rescued from Boulevard conventionality only by a dazzling style
and lively ideas.
Shaw's more serious plays, on the other hand, do embody Shavian prin-
ciples; but these are usually treated in a highly ambiguous manner. Polit-
ically, for example, his dramas are surprisingly neutral. As Eric Bentley
observes: "The fact is that while Shaw is a socialist in his treatises, and
perhaps chiefly a socialist, he realizes . . . that neither socialism, nor
capitalism, nor feudalism, nor any other ism can be the basis of an art,
even so social an art as comedy. . . ." 4 Shaw may believe that his plays
are written to "influence public opinion," but these works are usually too
complicated to evoke a simple response, for like the plays of all the better
rebel dramatists, they involve the author's revolt in a shifting dialectic of
attitudes. In a letter to the Marxist, Hyndman, Shaw clearly defines this
You are an economic revolutionary on a medieval basis of chivalry Bayard
educated by Marx. I am a moral revolutionary, interested, not in the class war,
but in the struggle between human vitality and the artificial system of morality,
and distinguishing, not between capitalist and proletarian, but between moralist
and natural historian.
In another place, Shaw affirms that, as a dramatist, he deals "in the tragi-
comic irony of the conflict between real life and the romantic imagination."
In both cases, he is partly describing the clash between his own rebellion and
reality. If we assume that the "romantic imagination" he speaks of is his
own Utopianism and the "artificial system of morality" he refers to is the
system of Shavianism then we can see that he is usually dramatizing his
own inner conflicts: the Platonist versus the Aristotelian, the revolutionary
idealist versus the pragmatic realist, the Socialist versus the Vitalist, the
Romantic versus the Classicist. Shaw once told Stephen Winsten that he
would never have written plays if he had not been "a chaos of contradic-
tions," for these contradictions, bothersome to an ideologist, are made to
order for the drama. In consequence, no matter how wishful, fantastic, or
visionary Shavianism may be, Shaw, in his drama, usually disciplines his
"romantic imagination," confronting it with an unchanging, and sometimes
unchangeable social order.
4 Contributing to a symposium on the problem play, Shaw observes: "To this day your
great dramatic poet is never a socialist, nor an individualist, nor a positivist, nor a material-
ist, nor any other sort of 'ist, 3 though he comprehends all 4 isms,' and is generally quoted
and claimed by all the sections as an adherent."
io8 Robert Brustein
Take Man and Superman. Surrounded by an extensive preface on one side
and a full-length revolutionary manifesto on the other embodying a long
"Shavio-Socratic dialogue" in the midst of the play, and a good deal of
polemicizing throughout the work would seem to be a shotgun blast of
pure Shavianism, scattering ideology in all directions. Yet, unlike Back to
Methuselah, where Shaw's "romantic imagination 59 is unfettered and unre-
strained, Man and Superman brings his rebellion in conflict with flesh-and-
blood reality, balancing the idealism of the philosophical moralist against
the neutrality of the "natural historian."
The Epistle Dedicatory lays down the line that the play is supposed to
follow. Dared by the aesthete-critic, Arthur Bingham Walkley, to write a
Don Juan play, Shaw has decided to take up this mischievous suggestion,
but he will turn it to his own ends; characteristically, he is preparing to
invert (and domesticate) the traditional Don Juan character. From the Tirso
de Molina Burlador de Sevilla to the Mozart-Da Ponte Don Giovanni, Don Juan
has always been represented as a libertine and seducer who is finally pun-
ished by supernatural powers for his various sexual crimes. Shaw, on the
other hand, is more attracted to the philosophical implications of the Don
Juan story. Since Juan, while pursuing his own desires, inadvertently breaks
moral, canon, and statute law, Shaw elects him as the agent of revolutionary
Shavianism, envisioning him as a kind of Faustian rebel against God.
Transformed into a messianic idealist and metaphysical saint, Shaw's Don
Juan, therefore, both anticipates and predicts the coming of the God-defying
By this subtle trick, Shaw manages to ignore the sexual aspect of Don Juan
entirely, for in Shaw's mind this totally unselfconscious libertine takes on
the character of a contemplative rebel hero who has progressed past his
childish passions to a love of "purpose and principles." Though he manages
to extract the amoral, promiscuous element from the legend, however, he
does not totally extract its sexual quality, for he transfers Don Juan's amo-
rousness to "Dona Juana," the husband-hunting female. Changing a legend
of rape and seduction into a story of courtship and marriage, therefore, Shaw
has the opportunity to reflect on a subject close to his heart the character
of the modern "unwomanly woman." Observing that "Man is no longer,
like Don Juan, victor in the duel of sex," Shaw adds:
Woman must marry because the race must perish without her travail. . , .
It is assumed that the woman must wait, motionless, until she is wooed. Nay,
she often does wait motionless. That is how the spider waits for the fly. But the
spider spins her web. And if the fly, like my hero, shews a strength that promises
to extricate him, how swiftly does she abandon her pretense of passiveness, and
openly fling coil after coil about him until he is secured for ever!
All this talk about the spider-woman, treacherously lying in wait for a male
quarry and imprisoning him for her own purposes, sounds dangerous. And
Bernard Shaw: The Face Behind the Mask 109
in the work of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, where it was first formulated,
and Strindberg, where it was first dramatized, the idea is dangerous. But
Shaw swiftly takes the horror out of the perception. His spider-woman is
not the dominating, amoral, and conscienceless belle dame sans merci of the
Romantic agony, but rather the independent, intelligent, and well-mannered
gentlewoman of the Victorian imagination, whose "unwomanliness" con-
sists mainly in her active pursuit of a husband. Thus, Shaw adapts the Don
Juan legend to the legend of Venus and Adonis, examining not the ruthless
exploitation of the woman by the libertine seducer but rather "the tragi-
comic love chase of the man by the woman." Lest the reader suspect that
this purely Romantic subject is to be treated in a purely Romantic manner,
Shaw adapts both legends to Shavianism, arguing that the whole comedy is
played out for a higher purpose, the eventual evolution of the Superman
through eugenic breeding. The marriage of John Tanner and Ann White-
field, therefore though a perfectly conventional conclusion of Romantic
comedy becomes another myth of the Life Force. Through such marriages
man will breed that political capacity which will save him from the ruinous
failures of democracy.
In his Epistle Dedicatory, in short, Shaw is single-mindedly devoted to
advancing the gospel of Shavianism, elevating his comedy into a "play for
a pit of philosophers." The Don Juan in Hell sequence inserted into Act IV
as the dream of Tanner and Mendoza serves a similar function in a more
double-minded way. By turning the Conan Doyle brigand, Mendoza, into
the wily, hedonistic Devil, and Tanner into a contemplative Don Juan,
Shaw initiates a debate on the virtues of Shavianism, elaborating on the
various issues raised in his preface reality and the ideal, man and woman,
reason and emotion, man and Superman. The central device of the sequence
is a Blakean inversion of the traditional concepts of Heaven and Hell. But
where Blake used this device to express his diabolism and sensualism, con-
cluding that "the tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction,"
Shaw imagines his hero trying to escape the sensual pleasures of the Devil's
palace into a paradise of pure thought. The difference between the Devil
and Don Juan rests mainly in their divergent interpretations of the universe.
The Devil assuming a universe without mind or purpose holds that emo-
tions rule men's lives and that history takes the form of an eternal recurrence.
Ruling out progress, therefore, he has become a "romantic idealist," who
posits physical pleasure and the cultivation of the arts as the highest goods.
Don Juan, on the other hand, believes in a purposeful universe ruled by
the Life Force: "That is, the working within me of Life's incessant aspirations
to higher organization, wider, deeper, intenser self-consciousness, and clearer
self-understanding." Like the "masters of reality" in Heaven, therefore, he
has become a confirmed Shavian, one who believes in free will, the power
of the mind, and the capacity of man to transform himself and his environ-
no Robert Brustein
ment. If the Devil is right, then evolution is an illusion, marriage serves no
particular purpose, and man's essentially destructive nature will climax in
his self-destruction. If Don Juan is right, then evolution is a fact, marriage is
an instrument of the Life Force, and man's malleable nature will eventually
respond to reason. Because of Don Juan's concern with what will be and
the Devil's concern with what is, we are not always sure who is the master
of reality and who the Romantic idealist. But though Shaw uses loaded terms
to suggest his own sympathies, he does not resolve the debate; and the Devil's
diagnosis is made just as persuasive as Don Juan's hopes for the future. At
the end, Don Juan asserting his belief that "To be in hell is to drift, to be
in heaven is to steer" goes off to join the other heavenly pilots in their
contemplation of a higher life, while the Devil returns to his duties. But
while each antagonist remains unconvinced by the other, one person is con-
verted to the "Life to come" Dona Ana. Echoing Nietzsche's admonition
to women ("Let your hope say: 'May I bear the Superman' "), she goes off
to seek a father for the Higher Man.
If one were only to read the Epistle Dedicatory and the dream debate
not to mention The Revolutionist's Handbook, with its Nietzschean apothegms,
Wildean epigrams, and Marxist admonitions one might easily assume that
the play proper was simply a dramatic illustration of these Shavian questions.
Almost the opposite, however, is true. Since the play is concrete, contem-
porary, and ironic, rather than discursive, visionary, and abstract, it has a
different quality altogether than the imposing material that surrounds it.
The banter of Shaw's comedy, and its exuberant lightheartedness, contrast
strongly with the more earnest tone of his prose; and many of the characters
are peripheral to his central philosophical theme, being stock Shavian comic
types. Roebuck Ramsden, for example, embodies Shaw's perennial satire
on the Liberal Briton, the personification of dead conventions and outmoded
ideals; 'Enry Straker, the class-conscious automobile mechanic, is a satire
on the engineering hero of H. G. Wells; Mendoza, the lovelorn brigand, who
turns to Socialism out of unrequited passion, is a satire on amoristic idealists;
and Hector Malone, Sr., is a satire on the Irish-American millionaire,
revenging himself on the English by buying up their hereditary titles and
stately mansions. As for the Violet-Malone, Jr., subplot, this, as Eric Bentley
tells us, has a structural function, being an inversion of the main plot (Violet
begins with her man and must acquire her fortune; Ann begins with her
fortune and must acquire her man) meanwhile permitting Shaw to recapit-
ulate his old idea (first advanced in Widowers* Houses) that a sound marriage
must rest on a practical economic foundation.
The central action does develop some of Shaw's philosophical themes,
but in a highly circumscribed and limited manner. John Tanner, though
based on the gentleman Marxist, H. M. Hyndman, is much more occupied
Bernard Shaw: The Face Behind the Mask 1 1 1
with the doctrine of the Life Force than with Marxist politics, and so he is
the prime agent of revolutionary Shavianism. Still, as a rebel, he seems very
tame. Considering Shaw's attitude towards libertinage, we are hardly sur-
prised to find that his Don Juan is not only indifferent to women, but actively
afraid of them. But if Tanner is no Don Juan, then neither is he that Faustian
insurgent and God-killer whom Shaw speaks of in his preface. Shaw concedes
as much when he tells Walkley that he has not bothered to put all the
"tub-thumping" of the Epistle Dedicatory into the play: "I have only made
my Don Juan a political pamphleteer, and given you his pamphlet by way
of appendix." Shaw's dramatic instinct is quite sound. The atmosphere of
the play proper is much too frothy to bear much "tub- thumping." And
while Tanner's ideas may seem revolutionary in the appendix, the most
radical thing he is capable of in the play is a willingness to tolerate premarital
pregnancy something designed to shock only the most conventional Vic-
torian figures like Ramsden and Octavius.
Actually, Shaw is less occupied with advancing the cause of Shavianism,
in Man and Superman, than with etching ironic contrasts between idea and
character. "I shatter creeds and demolish idols," boasts Tanner, but he is,
at heart, an eminently respectable gentleman of the upper middle class,
differing from Ramsden in degree rather than in kind. Tanner implies as
much when, defending his character against slander, he cries: "Thief, liar,
forger, adulterer, perjurer, glutton, drunkard? Not one of these names fits
me. You have to fall back on my deficiency in shame" which is to say,
his only rebellious characteristic is his intellectual impudence. Yet, this
impudence remains strictly verbal; even Tanner is easy to shock. For all
his talk about the predatory instincts of women so glibly communicated
to that cardboard lover, Octavius Tanner behaves according to the strictest
Victorian sexual standards. Though he is inclined to describe Ann's designs
in the language of Schopenhauer and Strindberg (he is always commenting
on her hypocrisy, bullying, lies, coquetry, and amorality, besides comparing
her with such male-devouring insects as the spider and the bee), he is
continually surprised when she does not act like the most conventional
Ann, too, seems unconventional only by contrast with an extremely out-
moded ideal of feminine behavior. She is hardly the "dutiful" daughter that
Ramsden thinks her, but neither is she that "Lady Mephistopheles" that
Tanner speaks of. One has only to compare this charming coquette with
Strindberg's Laura or Ibsen's Hedda or Chekhov's Arkadina to see that she
has been created not by an antifeminist or a realist or a "natural historian,"
but rather by an archfeminist with a powerful admiration for women.
Certainly, Ann's "unwomanliness" is not a fault but a virtue: she tells lies
merely in order to win the man she loves. Despite the countless speeches in
1 1 2 Robert Brustein
the play about the ruthlessness of sexual relations, therefore, Man and Super-
man confronts us not with a tragic combat between "the artist-man and the
mother-woman" but rather with a classical opposition between two gifted
sex antagonists who, like Benedick and Beatrice or Mirabel and Millamant,
are ideally suited for the marriage which inevitably will come. Shaw lets
his characters discuss the one action, but actually dramatizes the other. This
gives the play intellectual depth and makes for ironic contrasts as well.
Reduced to its action, then, Man and Superman is too lightweight to support
Shaw's doctrines. Rather than "a play for a pit of philosophers," it is a
Classical comedy on the order of Much Ado About Nothing or The Way of the
World. The presence of Shavianism in the play, however, does account for
the wit inversions and satiric humor. Obviously, John Tanner functions not
only as a mouthpiece for Shaw's theory of the Life Force, but also as an
independent character with foibles of his own. While Octavius, worshiping
women as the living embodiments of the Romantic ideal, is Tanner's butt,
Tanner, worshiping life in its perpetual struggle upwards, is Shaw's. The
doctrine of the Life Force is another form of Romantic idealization, and one
of Shaw's purposes in the play is to show how all ideals are invariably
mocked by life. The joke on Tanner, of course, is that all the time he is
theorizing about the Life Force, he is being ensnared by it, until he is finally
enmeshed in that machinery whose cogs and screws he has so accurately
described. Thus, Shaw demonstrates how the self-conscious theoretician is
caught up, against his will, by an unconscious, irrational force. Tanner's
understanding of the transcendent principles of the universe is not defense
against their actual workings. His "romantic imagination" is surprised by
Shaw is actually playing a practical joke on his own "romantic imagina-
tion" here. By distancing himself from the Shavian Tanner, he can demon-
strate how Shavianism, being mainly intellectual and theoretical, is really
inadequate to the thing it describes. For while Jack preaches Vitalism, it is
Ann who personifies the Vitalist truths, precisely because she is motivated
by instincts and unconscious will. As she tells Tanner, "You seem to under-
stand all the things that I don't understand; but you are a perfect baby in
the things I do understand" one has the intelligence of the head, the other
of the heart. And like the Reverend Morell in Candida, this windy preacher
must be taught the lesson of life. For this reason, Tanner is always being
punctured by Ann during his rhetorical flights, a deflation Shaw suggests
through his use, in stage directions, of images of escaping air (Tanner
"collapses like a pricked balloon," he falls "in ruins," he is "heavily let
down," et cetera). 5 At the conclusion of the play, when Tanner, having
5 The puncturing of the rhetorical male by the unwomanly female is a favorite device
of Shaw's, as the author admits in the parenthetical remarks with which he concludes
Too True To Be Good: "The author, though himself a professional talk maker, does not
Bernard Shaw: The Face Behind the Mask 1 13
yielded to the inevitable, is trying to regain control of his fate by making
a stump speech on the evils of bourgeois marriage, Ann contributes Shaw's
final satiric thrust with her famous "Go on talking, Jack," and the sound of
a punctured gasbag is smothered in "universal laughter." Shavianism, too,
has been partly smothered in this laughter. For if Shaw, like Tanner, lacks
a "negative capability" before the mystery of existence, he is too much of
an artist not to satirize himself for it. His aim in Man and Superman is not so
much to affirm or deny the principles of Shavianism as to show them in
collision with reality to confront a principle of change with the unchanging
principle of life.
Unlike Back to Methuselah, then, Man and Superman has a double function:
the prose portions of the work vindicate Shaw's philosophical ideals, while
the drama places these ideals in the way of a gentle, mocking humor. The
Don Juan in Hell sequence may take the form of a "consoling myth" (Shaw
is later to call this section "a dramatic parable of Creative Evolution"),
but his command of dialectic is sure enough to let him credit the arguments
of the opposition. At this point in his career, Shaw is still able to control his
rebellion, keeping the desperate illusions of his Utopian imagination under
strong creative restraint.
The joyous exuberance of Man and Superman suggests Shaw's confidence
at the tune it was written. But when he sits down to compose Heartbreak House
in 1913, England is on the verge of war, and when he completes it, in 1916,
the English are committing suicide on the battlefields of France. Unnerved
by the war hysteria at home and abroad, and shaking with frustrated bitter-
ness towards pugnacious jingo patriots, Shaw is now inclined to examine
human qualities that he had scanted before. Still not prepared to believe in
evil, he is no longer so sanguine about man's philanthropic nature; and the
brutality, barbarism, and bloodlust emerging from the war have made his
distinction between human cowardice and human malevolence a little aca-
demic. Undoubtedly, the Devil's arguments that all of man's ingenuity
issues only in instruments of greater destructiveness are ringing in his ears
with more force; and there is real danger that man will exterminate himself
before the Superman is able to evolve. For the first time in his career, Shaw
is half-inclined to say, Let it come down.
For Heartbreak House is permeated with a powerful prophetic fury: the
pessimistic tone of the Preface and the black mood of the play suggest that
Shaw has come as close as he will ever come to discouragement and despair.
In the face of the reality of war, Shaw's Romantic imagination has momen-
tarily been balked; and his Utopianism is in real danger of disappearing
believe that the world can be saved by talk alone. He has given the rascal the last word;
but his own favorite is the woman of action^ who begins by knocking the wind out of the
rascal, and ends with a cheerful conviction that the lost dogs always find their way home.
So they "will, perhaps, if the women gt> out and look for them."
H4 Robert Brustein
altogether. Still, he has not repudiated Shavianism, for he is still urging
political responsibility on the upper classes, who have been wasting their
rightful inheritance in the pursuit of pleasure and amorous dalliance.
It is this group, the leisured, cultured amorists, which Shaw identifies with
Heartbreak House a palace of inertia, built on the stones of deterministic
science and loss of will:
Heartbreak House was far too lazy and shallow to extricate itself from this palace
of evil enchantment. It rhapsodized about love; but it believed in cruelty. It
was afraid of cruel people; and it saw that cruelty was at least effective. . . .
Heartbreak House, in short, did not know how to live, at which point all that
was left to it was the boast that at least it knew how to die; a melancholy accom-
plishment which the outbreak of war presently gave it practically unlimited
opportunities of displaying.
The war, in fact, has come about as a consequence of this irresponsibility,
for the Heartbreakers, while engaging in useless private amusements, have
permitted "power and culture" to fall into "separate compartments." Born
to rule, educated and sophisticated (their libraries contain works by all the
latest authors, including Wells, Galsworthy, and Shaw), they have handed
the government over to the incompetents and the marauders: the Horse-
backers (which is to say, the stupid imperialist classes) and the Practical
Businessmen (which is to say, those "who become rich by placing their
personal interests before those of the country"). The result, according to
Shaw, has been an orgy of blood, pugnacity, and lunacy.
Shaw's response to this is to withdraw, partially, from his public concerns
into a more personal, private, and poetic form of expression: in certain
passages of the play, the existential roots of his rebellion are finally exposed.
Certainly, the work seems peculiarly unplanned, as if it had been snatched
from the top of the author's unconscious without much effort at order or
organization. The plot is crammed with implausible things, proceeding by
fits and starts new entrances, abrupt reversals, and the most peculiar
recognition scenes almost as if in a dream. The characters, too, possess a
dreamlike quality sometimes they lose their individuality in allegory and
occasionally the atmosphere turns mystical, even phantasmagoric, as at the
end of the first act, when Shotover and his family gather together for a weird
ritual chant (a foretaste of the kind of choral technique T. S. Eliot will use
in The Family Reunion) on the loss of heroism in life. Frustrations and resent-
ments fill the air, mingled with a general feeling of aimlessness. As Shaw told
Archibald Henderson, Heartbreak House "began with an atmosphere and does
not contain a word that was foreseen before it was written." Certainly the
haunted, almost tortured atmosphere of the play where, instead of the
expected Shavian wit, the dialogue is heavily charged with overtones, break-
ing out of the usual rhetorical balances and Latmate antitheses into art
Bernard Shaw: The Face Behind the Mask 1 15
ambiguous, highly charged dramatic poetry is something totally new to the
The new mood, the new structure, and the new techniques of Heartbreak
House owe something to Shaw's new models: turning away from the rationally
ordered Ibsenite drama and the compact problem play, Shaw, as he an-
nounces in the first paragraph of his Preface, has adopted the more open
forms of the Russians. Shaw feels certain intellectual affinities with Tolstoy,
who took a moral attitude towards Heartbreak House, and who "was not
disposed to leave the house standing if he could bring it down about the ears
of its pretty and amiable voluptuaries." Shaw's Tolstoyan moral judgments
on his characters are often apparent in his play; and his cataclysmic con-
clusion shows a similar desire to raze the walls of the house. Still, Shaw could
have found Tolstoy's moral and apocalyptic tendencies in Ibsen. The really
new element in the play comes from Chekhov the "fatalist" who "had no
faith in these charming people extricating themselves." Growing disillusioned
with long-range Shavianism, Shaw is losing faith in his usual forms of revolt.
And instead of a consoling myth, revolving around characters with a high
sense of purpose, he is here providing a Chekhovian myth of fatalism,
revolving around characters with no sense of direction at all with the
result that we are no longer quite so certain of Shaw's convictions about the
possibilities of ethical reform.
In short, Shaw remains Shavian insofar as he still continues to judge his
characters; but he is also Chekhovian insofar as he is now permitting them
an independent life of their own, while "exploiting and even flattering" their
charm. Shaw's subtitle "A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English
Themes" suggests a certain misunderstanding of Chekhov's technique. For
while the "fantasia" (defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as "an instru-
mental composition having the appearance of being extemporaneous . . .
in which form is subservient to fancy") describes the structure of Heartbreak
House and Shaw's later disquisitory plays, it is not an accurate way to
characterize Chekhov's carefully hidden plotting. Nevertheless, Shaw has
successfully imitated a number of the more superficial Chekhovian char-
acteristics. His new concentration on the group picture, for example, recalls
Chekhov's method of discouraging audience identification with a single hero;
and like Chekhov, Shaw is now permitting the exposition of plot and
character to proceed at a very leisurely tempo. The scene in the garden,
at the beginning of Act III, where the pace is retarded by the sleepy reflec-
tions of the characters, recalls the second-act opening of The Cherry Orchard,
permeated with yawns, coughs, and guitar sounds; Ellie Dunn frequently
reminds us of Chekhov's young and innocent heroines; and the relationship
between Hector and Ariadne two bored and unloving creatures toying
with each other's emotions is reminiscent of the relationship between
Astrov and Yelena in Uncle Vanya. Finally, of course, the weird drumming
Ii6 Robert Brustein
in the air, variously interpreted by Shaw's characters, is very similar to the
ominous sound of the broken string in The Cherry Orchard; and in both cases,
the noise embodies a feeling of doom and finality.
On the other hand, Shaw's moralism remains much more dominant than
Chekhov's; and his characters are infinitely more self-conscious and self-
aware so much so, in fact, that they frequently pass judgment on them-
selves. One could not imagine Astro v saying, as Hector Hushabye says:
"We are useless, dangerous, and ought to be abolished." Still unable to
suppress his subjective revolt, Shaw is still unable to suppress his comment.
For the same reason Shaw includes a quite un-Chekhovian author's surrogate
in the person of Captain Shotover superficially similar to such clownish
old men as Sorin and Serebryakov, but really indigenous to the Shavian
world. Through Shotover, Shaw is able to express his personal feelings about
the wastefulness, idleness, and irresponsibility of his characters, while exhort-
ing them to learn their business as Englishmen and navigate the ship of
state. Through Shotover, too, Shaw can communicate his anger at the
vileness of the contemporary world and at destructive mankind the dyna-
mite hoarded by Shotover is meant "to blow up the human race if it goes
too far." On the other hand, Shotover is not Shaw, for he is also drifting,
vainly trying to stave off his terrible fatigue with life. Stranded between
memories of the past and illusions of the future, this half-demented old man
takes refuge from the present in idle dreams. Seeking the seventh level of
concentration, he can find it only in rum, and drinks in order to build his
resistance to the seductive pleasure of pure passivity.
As for the play, it is an extended nautical metaphor in three acts. Built
in the shape of a vessel, Heartbreak House represents the ship of state; the
ship is foundering, and about to go on the rocks. The Captain is a drunken
old man with a dissolute crew who have not yet learned to navigate: England
is drifting into a destructive and futile war. Aside from its allegorical mean-
ing, Heartbreak House also suggests the Bohemianism of the cultured classes
of England, wallowing in a disorder of their own making. While breaking
each other's hearts, they have permitted their house to tumble down the
masters are eccentric, the servants are spoiled, and even the burglars act
unnaturally. Actually, Heartbreak House is another version of the Shavian
Hell. But unlike the Hell of Man and Superman^ whose inhabitants at least
enjoyed themselves, the Hell of Heartbreak House is peopled with will-less,
exhausted sensualists. Hector Hushabye, for example, might be Don Juan
before he has reached the philosophical stage of evolution. Unlike John
Tanner, who has developed "moral passion," Hector has not yet progressed
beyond eroticism; and he is floating, against his will, in a sea of vacuity and
discontent. A lover without conviction, a husband who stays at home, he
is the victim of the slavery of men to women, moping about like "a damned
soul in hell."
Bernard Shaw: The Face Behind the Mask 1 17
Towards Hector and his seductive wife, Hesione, Shaw is alternately indig-
nant and indulgent. Towards those who have usurped their political preroga-
tives, however, he shows little sympathy at all. If nobody recognizes that
upright equestrian, Ariadne Utterword, then this is because she does not
exist. Incapable of any strong emotion except a passion for respectability,
she lacks even the self-awareness of the Heartbreakers; and as a member of
the Horsebackers, she is dedicated to that imperialist approach to govern-
ment that Shaw abhors. As for Boss Mangan, the practical businessman,
he is one of the most unredeemable characters that Shaw ever created.
Vulgar, greedy, sentimental, selfish, and faceless (Shaw provides him with
"features so commonplace it is impossible to describe them"), Mangan
personifies everything that is vile about the commercial world. Shotover,
reflecting on Mangan' s type says, "There is enmity between our seed and
their seed," and announces that the purpose of his dynamite hoard is "to
kill fellows like Mangan." Shaw's instinct, too, is to annihilate Mangan,
an impulse so murderously strong that he must continually remind himself
that Mangan is also human: "It comes to me suddenly," says Hesione, "that
you are a real person; that you had a mother, like anyone else." Most of
the time, however, Mangan is not a man but a "Boss." And for those who
think that Shaw capitulated to capitalism in Major Barbara, this character
stands as proof of his abiding distaste for the self-seeking businessman.
The existential quality of Shaw's revolt in Heartbreak House is mainly ex-
pressed through the gradual disenchantment of Ellie Dunn, who is divested
of her illusions one by one through a kind of spiritual striptease, until she
stands naked and defenseless against the terrors of reality. Having been
brought up on Shakespeare by her romantic father, she is ripe for a broken
heart at the very beginning of the play. And when Hector proceeds to break
her heart, she decides on a practical marriage of convenience with Boss
Mangan. Although, in his earlier work, Shaw might have supported such a
marriage, here it is insupportable; and Mangan's money turns out to be as
much an illusion as Hector's romantic fabrications. When she contracts a
spiritual marriage with Captain Shotover, and learns that his wisdom and
purpose proceed primarily from the rum bottle, she can protect herself
against total despair only through the vision of "life with a blessing." Since
this is a vision of the future, however, the only thing that sustains her now is
her expectation of Armageddon from the skies.
Armageddon is about to come, for driven to fury by the failure of men,
Shaw, dropping all pretense at comedy in the last act, prepares for that total
conflagration which Ibsen envisioned: the torpedoing of the entire Ark.
Hector had warned, earlier in the play, "I tell you, one of two things must
happen. Either out of that darkness some new creation will come to supplant
us as we have supplanted the animals, or the heavens will fall in thunder and
destroy us." But now the Superman seems a long way off, and Shavianism
1 1 8 Robert Brustein
just another of Ellie's illusions. The drumming in the air proves to be the
sound of approaching enemy bombers; and "the smash of the drunken skip-
per's ship on the rocks*' is heard in the explosion of enemy bombs. Having
lived badly, the Heartbreakers prepare to die well. Hesione, comparing
the noise to Beethoven, finds the prospect of destruction glorious; Hector
turns on all the lights to guide the bombers on their way; and Shotover
prepares for the Last Judgment. Yet, at the last moment, Shaw relents in
his fury. The two pirates Billy Dunn, the water-thief, and Boss Mangan,
the land- thief are blown up while seeking safety; and the rectory has been
turned into "nothing but a heap of bricks." But the Heartbreakers are still
alive to take advantage of the warning. By killing off capitalism and the
Church, Shaw demonstrates that his hopeful Utopianism is still more power-
ful than his existential fatalism; and the play ends with his "romantic
imagination" once more dominating his despairing sense of "real life."
Still, the bombers will return. And Ellie awaits them with such radiant
expectation that, if only for a moment, Shaw's revolt is absolute, finding its
consummation in a flaming vision of total destruction.
The negative power of Shaw's rebellion in Heartbreak House brings the play
closer to an authentic art of revolt than anything in the Shavian canon.
Yeats has denned rhetoric as proceeding from the quarrel with others, poetry
from the quarrel with ourselves in this sense, Heartbreak House breaks out
of rhetoric into genuine dramatic poetry, since there Shaw is disputing the
entire philosophical basis of his work. There, too, it is possible to see that
when Shaw drops the cheerful mask of the ethical reformer, the sorrow,
bitterness, and strength of the existential rebel is deeply etched in his features.
But he dropped his public mask too seldom; and if he is fading from us
today, then this is because he stubbornly refused to examine, more than
fitfully, those illusions he held in common with all men. Shavianism was
that "mighty purpose" which kept Shaw writing when his heart said no;
and though he continued to say no with wit and vigor, he could never quite
sacrifice his delusionary yes. As a writer of high comedy, Shaw has no peers
among modern dramatists; but his ambitions are larger; and he lacks, as a
rebel artist, the stature of the men he admired and wished to join. If Strind-
berg thought he failed to be the man he longed to be, then Shaw's failure
is the opposite: pursuing his ideal role, he failed to face the man he actually
was. Yet, we measure this failure only by the highest standards, and it is
because of his generous mind and talents that these standards continue to be
applied to his art.
Shaw's Integral Theatre
by G. Wilson Knight
When a thing is funny search it for a hidden truth.
Back to Methuselah, v.
Bernard Shaw combines the offices of critic, humorist and visionary.
His thinking may be related economically to Marx, metaphysically to Goethe
and Lamarck, and dramatically to Wagner, Ibsen and Nietzsche. Nietzsche's
works he regards as the Bible of the modern consciousness (The Quintessence
oflbsenism, 1913; "An Ibsen Theatre 35 ). He is as much Continental as British,
his Irish humour bridging the gap; in terms of humour he engages in a
daring which British audiences would not otherwise have allowed. His
obvious attacks are levelled against middle-class values and professions;
doctors and science, politicians and British democracy. Widowers' Houses
(1892) and Mrs. Warren's Profession (1893) handle the evils of slums, prostitu-
tion and tainted money. The Philanderer (1893) lays the basis of Shaw's
advanced sexology. Like other satirists, he regards self-deception as more
dangerous than open criminality. He has the usual sympathy with energies,
with the satanic, his Preface to On the Rocks (1933) stating that dangerous
thoughts are allowable though they must be distinguished from the corre-
sponding actions: a helpful comment to students of drama. His thought varies
from satanism, through attacks on hypocrisy, to religious mysticism: he has
strong religious sympathies, and is an admirer of Bunyan. Comedy, so often
limited to the sexual, is brought by Shaw to bear on the subjects generally
regarded as the domain of tragedy: statesmanship and world affairs, wars, and
such great persons as Caesar, Napoleon, and Saint Joan. His is a large-scale
comedy like Aristophanes'; and like Aristophanes' it touches vision. Comedy
is often our best approach to the mysteries.
"Shaw's Integral Theatre" (original title: "Shaw") by G. Wilson Knight. From The
Golden Labyrinth by G. Wilson Knight (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1962),
pp. 342-354. Copyright 1 962 by G. Wilson Knight. Reprinted by permission of W. W.
Norton & Company, Inc., J. M. iDent & Sons Ltd., and the author.
120 G. Wilson Knight
His considered philosophy is evolutionary. He believes in the Life Force,
affirming an optimistic recognition of its miraculous nature as it travails to
create a greater humanity, of which certain great men of history are the
precursors. Its power is strong in women, who are impelled by it, as Man
and Superman (1903) shows, to win a husband and bear children. In Back to
Methuselah (1921), where man is shown gradually evolving towards a spir-
itualized and immortal being, the personification of the bisexual Life Force
is Lilith, a female figure who speaks the epilogue. Women are central powers
and man's prided intellect often childish in comparison. Shaw's Life Force
corresponds to the Living God of the Bible.
Such is the context in which we must understand Shaw's dramatic social-
ism. Reform is not easy. In Major Barbara (1905) the Salvation Army heroine
finds that in her work for the poor she is forced to accept assistance from both
a whisky magnate and her millionaire father, Undershaft, who has himself
created an ideal little society of his own from the proceeds of his armament
factory. Shaw has his eyes on the real lines of force, involving money: good
and evil do not in practice exist apart from their context, and Undershaft,
the great industrialist, has the necessary drive and wealth. Such powers we
must respect, expanding the evil into good:
Yes, through the raising of hell to heaven and of man to God, through the un-
veiling of an eternal light in the valley of the Shadow. (m.)
Advance depends on such men as Undershaft, we need more and not less
of them, and the revolutionary who thinks otherwise impedes progress. In
"The Revolutionist's Handbook" appended to Man and Superman we are
reminded that "what Caesar, Cromwell and Napoleon could not do with
all the physical force and moral prestige of the State in their mighty hands,
cannot be done by enthusiastic criminals and lunatics," and that "whilst
Man remains what he is there can be no progress beyond the point already
attained" (vn); so "national Christianity is impossible without a nation of
Christs" and "man 55 must be replaced by "superman" (DC). Back to Methu-
selah dramatizes the evolution.
Shaw's dramatic socialism contains strong aristocratic sympathies. The
aristocratic connections of so central and admired a person as Lady Cicely
in Captain BrassbouncTs Conversion (1899) are intrinsic to her dramatic stature.
In Misalliance (1910) democracy and aristocracy are regarded as inter-
dependent. On the Rocks delights in relating a modern attempt at "Platonic
communism" to the ruling class, a duke and leading figures of the services
and of finance embracing the change while the voices of proletarian socialism
Shaw's Integral Theatre 121
reject it. Under the proposed system the police will "have a status which
they feel to be a part of the status of the Duke here" (n): the aim might
almost be called a "royalistic communism.' 3 The Apple Cart (1929) is a
dramatic essay on aristocratic and royal valuation. King Magnus regards
his royal office as a safeguard of the long-range and eternal values as opposed
to the politics of ephemerality and expedience (i). As we see him turning
the tables on his socialist cabinet we watch a flowering of the great man
from its symbol, which is royalty: even the old supposed divinity of kings
housed a truth, since man has a "divine spark" in him (i), and it is this
human and divine reality within the political order that the crown sym-
bolizes. The next step is to use the divine spark in actuality. That is the task
of the great man, the leader.
This greatness is a matter of integration. Power must be bisexual. In the
preface to Good King Charles's Golden Days (1939) it is suggested that votes
should be given not for the individual but for man-with-woman, called
"a bisexed couple" ; or bisexuality may be found or felt within the individual,
and perhaps that is why Mrs. Basham in this same play is found regretting
the use of "abandoned females" in place of the far more convincing boy
actors who "could make you believe" as the others could not "that you
were listening to real women." Shaw regularly counterbalances male tradi-
tions by forceful women: as bearer of the Life Force woman is an almost
impersonal power in Man and Superman, and Mrs. George in Getting Married
(1908) is a medium who in trance speaks inspiredly of sexual relations, cover-
ing both the female and the male contributions. The more obviously feminine
qualities do not exhaust feminine potentiality: Candida in Candida (1894)
and Lady Cicely in Captain BrassbouruFs Conversion are both natural command-
ers. Such women intuitively recognize the folly of men: they are always
realists and in some sex as such may be surpassed. "How could I manage
people," says Lady Cicely, "if I had that mad little bit of self left in me?
That's my secret" (HI). Sexual principles may be fused within the individual
and this sexual blend, or integration, has much to do with what we call
"genius." In The Philanderer membership of The Ibsen Club is limited by the
exclusion of any manly man or womanly woman (i). "All good women" are
"manly" and all "good men" are "womanly" (The Quintessence of Ibsenism,
"What is the New Element?"). "Genius" is part-feminine and a poet
naturally has the "temperament" of "an old maid" (Man and Superman,
Epistle Dedicatory; also iv).
We accordingly have a number of part-feminine men. The artist Dubedat
in The Doctors Dilemma (1906) is "pretty" but not "effeminate"; "a man
in his thoughts, a great poet and artist in his dreams, and a child in his
ways"; and he is "one of the men who know what women know" (n; ni; v).
Such artist types are preferred to. the normal appetite-driven and convention-
bound man, though women may have the strength either of their sex or of
122 G. Wilson Knight
its surmounting, or both. In Misalliance the boy Bentley is one of those "who
from seventeen to seventy" preserve the appearance of age in mind and of
youth in looks. He is a mixture of emotionalism and insight, an artistic type,
contrasted with his brother's normality, and at the conclusion he masters
his nervousness to face danger with Lina, the Polish acrobat, a woman of
action called "a man- woman or woman-man," averse from love-making.
Bentley, also, will "never marry"; they follow the thought pattern of The
Philanderer. Bentley is of similar make to the "effeminate" (i) yet disturbing
eighteen-year-old poet Marchbanks in Candida^ who renounces his love and
realizes his true power and destiny, a "secret" (m) akin to Lady Cicely's. In
Saint Joan (1923) we have the saintly heroine in male dress making a man
of that beautiful study in querulous non-masculine sensibility, the inadequate
yet fascinating Dauphin, the understanding between them as underlined in
the Epilogue being one of the most attractive themes in the play. Highly
developed types may be older, like the Irish mystic Keegan in John Bull's
Other Island (1904) and old Captain Shotover in Heartbreak House (i 916), who
has no family emotions, thinks being married "up to the hilt" is "hell" and
yearns for a land with "no women," for "strength" and "genius" flower from
independence (n). Keegan, despite his years, has the face of a young man (n)
and the aged Shotover believes in "youth," "beauty," and "novelty" (i).
Both have the secret of enduring vitality.
The complications of Shaw's sexology make of his Don Juan in the Inter-
lude in Man and Superman (HI) what might be called a kind of esoteric
justification of Restoration comedy. This Don Juan, descended from Charteris
in The Philanderer, repudiates marriage vows in terms obliquely reminiscent
of Etherege's Dorimant as illogical and impractical, while putting trust in
an astringent philosophic quest leading to the superman. The Life Force,
he says, impels sexual unions, coming as a sudden invasion from without;
but he has no mystique of sexual union: there is just a sudden irruption for
the purposes of procreation strangely antithetic to his astringent philosophy.
This we find it again in You Never Can Tell (1896; m) may be unsatis-
factory, though in Getting Married Mrs. George, as spokeswoman of sexual
intercourse, does something to right the balance. In contrast to Don Juan,
the Devil and Hell stand for conventional values and pleasures, for sentiment
and romance; for all the more obvious, though superficial, positives. Our
various esoteric types are precursors of the Ancients in Back to Methuselah.
Integration conditions male leadership. If we are not to be left with the plea
advanced at the conclusion to Too True To Be Good (1931) for the "woman
of action" to solve our difficulties, the female powers and insights of a Lady
Cicely must somehow be functioning within the man. Napoleon in The Man
of Destiny (1895) shows promise and tries to "act like a woman," but is
indecisive and worsted by a woman in boy's dress. King Magnus in The
Apple Cart is near integration; his wife is now mainly a loved companion and
Shouts Integral Theatre 123
his relations with his dream mistress Orinthia are "strangely innocent."
He is beyond dangerous desires: "I never resist temptation, because I have
found that things that are bad for me do not tempt me." Orinthia regards
him as either a "child" or a "saint," with the "makings" of a "woman":
"There is more of you in me than of any other man within my reach. There
is more of me in you than of any other woman within your reach"
Our firmest realization of an integrated leader is Caesar in Caesar and
Cleopatra (1898). He addresses the Sphinx:
I am he of whose genius you are the symbol: part brute, part woman, and part
god nothing of man in me at all. Have I read your riddle, Sphinx? (i.)
Though ageing, Caesar has a "child's heart" (i) and is called "boyish" (m).
He makes friends everywhere, and "has no hatred in him" (rv). But his
unattachment can be maddening: Cleopatra means little to him; at the
close he has forgotten her. Like Byron's Sardanapalus and Ibsen's Julian
in Gaul and Magnus who hated death-warrants he is clemency person-
ified; slaying in hot blood he can forgive but he loathes judicial punishment
(v). Clemency he regards as a matter of practical common sense and it is
suggested that his views foreshadow Christ (iv). Shaw is aiming to create
a personality in whom Christ's teaching becomes political wisdom. Though kindly,
Caesar is strong and master of every situation. He is an artist in action.
When the aesthete Apollodorus compliments him on being an artist as well
as a soldier, the very contrast angers him. Told that Rome produces no art,
What! Rome produce no art! Is peace not an art? is war not an art? is government
not an art? is civilization not an art? All these we give you in exchange for a few
ornaments. You will have the best of the bargain. (v.)
The reply is unanswerable.
Shaw likes soldiers. Bluntschli in Arms and the Man (1894) is highly original
and Private Meek in Too True To Be Good is a genius. Soldiers may be asso-
ciated with religion. The Salvation Army title Major Barbara makes a sexual
blend which typifies the ideal that gave us Saint Joan. Anthony Anderson in
the last act of The DeviPs Disciple (1897) is a pastor turned soldier, and the
relationship of the Roman captain to the Christian Lavinia in Androcles and
the Lion (1912) is beautifully developed. In Caesar we have hints of that
"soul of Christ" demanded by Nietzsche. That the treatment is light marks,
in Shaw, no lack of purpose: rather the reverse.
The approach may be mystical. In Getting Married Mrs. George is a woman
of promiscuous sexual experiences and also a "clairvoyant" who speaks
poetically in "trance" of woman's surrender to man and what it does for
him. She is a medium, a "pythoness"; ecclesiastics are doubtful whether to
124 G. Wilson Knight
call it demoniac "possession" or "the ecstasy of a saint." She taps the creative
powers, as a human analogue to Lilith in Back to Methuselah. We first meet
Keegan, the Irish patriot-mystic of John Bull's Other Island, in a "trance"
by sunset (n). Though ageing, he has "the face of a young saint." He loves
all animals, like St Francis, and talks to a grasshopper (n) as Caesar talks
to the Sphinx. Formerly a Catholic priest, he has since derived wisdom
from a dying Hindu who explained earthly suffering to him by the great
law of Karma (iv). To him this world seems to be Hell. What he craves is
a state where priest and worshipper, work and play, human and divine, are
one (iv). Beside Keegan we have Captain Shotover in Heartbreak House,
whose wisdom is similarly given exotic support; he was once married to a
West Indian negress who "redeemed" him and is said though he has his
own version to have sold himself to the Devil in Zanzibar, getting in
return a "black witch" for a wife (i; n). He is supposed to possess uncanny
powers of divination and clairvoyance (n); he is a man of "vibrations,"
"magnetic" (n), striving to attain "the seventh degree of concentration"
(i). His powers have natural sanction: like Timon, he is averse from humanity
and challenges society in the name of vast nature and Heaven's "dome" as
"the house of God" (i). Man is, or should be, free: "The wide earth, the high
seas, the spacious skies are waiting for you outside" (n). England he sees
as being driven on the rocks by crass inefficiency. "Navigation" alone can
save her: "Learn it and live," he says, "or leave it and be damned" (ra).
But he is not himself now a supporter of forceful government (ni), his
interests having become more purely psychic. When he sees the Church as
severed from "God's open sea" (m), he may mean that it has lost contact
with the natural psychic powers, but they exist as strongly as ever and he
is labouring to invent a psychic ray as a defence against human iniquity and
stupidity; a "mind ray" able to explode his enemy's ammunition (i), like
Prospero's weapon-negating magic. His mind varies from thoughts of de-
stroying his fellow creatures to a dislike of force. He is a figure of spiritual
force. He is as frightening as Oedipus in the Oedipus Coloneus; a "supernatural
old man" (i). In Heartbreak House we are on the edge of the numinous and
strange psychic forces, of explosions and death. We end with an air-raid,
in which each member of the mixed but well-defined community has an
allegorical fate. To some the drumming in the sky is Beethoven music;
suicidally they make the house lights blaze, embracing danger after paral-
ysis (in). Shotover himself only knew the true intensity of living when risking
his life at sea (n). On death's brink we touch life. We are reminded of the
mystique of risk and courage in Misalliance.
The mystical insights of Saint Joan are obvious enough: the miracles, the
sense of power, the voices and clairaudience, and best of all the wonderfully
composed Epilogue, where Joan's spirit talks to the earth people who are
travelling in the astral while their bodies sleep. Joan contains nearly all
Shaufs Integral Theatre 125
Shaw's favourite qualities: bisexuality, soldiership, occult powers, saintliness,
common sense, efficiency.
The other-worldly metaphysic follows the teaching of Spiritualism. The
visual and musical directions to the Don Juan Interlude in Man and Superman
are exquisite realizations of the etheric dimension; music is used as a lan-
guage, and the account of Heaven and Hell, where we hear that the state
beyond death corresponds so exactly to what we are that Heaven would be
no pleasure for one unfit for it, is closely spiritualistic. In Back to Methuselah
the superman quest is given a cosmic and mystic range. Adam and Eve,
like Joan, hear voices. Adam chooses death rather than an unbearable
eternity of himself and Eve embraces procreation as an alternative. Cain,
prototype of soldiership and force, is given, as in Byron and Ibsen, a case;
but man must mature; he must live longer; and we see this happening, in
different stages, until at the last we watch him graduating through the
artistic intelligence to the stature of the Ancients. The artists are beyond the
sexual, and must next, like Ishak in Hassan, pass beyond art. The attempt
at a living sculpture recalls Shakespeare and Ibsen. The Ancients themselves
correspond to Prospero, as Shotover to Timon. They are nearly sexless, the
She- Ancient having a man's breast; their life is mental, beyond sex and art
and even food and sleep, with mesmeric and magnetic powers corresponding,
like Shotover 's, to Prospero' s magic. Their experience cannot be described
except by analogy; telepathy replaces language; they can create and re-
create and change their bodies by mental or spiritual power. Though sound-
ing cold it is an "ecstasy" one moment of which would strike the lower
people dead (v) . It corresponds point by point to accounts from higher planes
in and beyond the etheric as received today through trance mediumship.
We are in a world of new sense-powers and "ears with a longer range of
sound than ours" (v). The Ancients refer to the "astral body" in which
earlier men believed and their own destiny is "to be immortal" in a world
not of people but of "thought," which is "life eternal" (v). Lilith, the
bisexual creative power torn asunder for creation, speaks the Epilogue,
recapitulating the whole story from the Fall when man refused "to live for
ever": "They did terrible things: they embraced death, and said that eternal
life was a fable." So man chose death and mutual slaughter, but through
the labours of creation he will at last "disentangle" his "life from matter."
This will be the true "life"; "and for what may be beyond, the eyesight of
Lilith is too short. It is enough that there is a beyond." This great work is
one long concentration on the breaking of the opacity shutting man from
the immortality, or eternal life, which is his birthright.
Shaw has used Spiritualism to fill out his evolutionary statement, and we
can always ourselves use it, should we so choose, to make sense of superman
claims: they, and Ibsen's "third empire" too, may be unrealizable in this
dimension, and point to another. Both processes are rational; more, they
is6 G. Wilson Knight
converge. For, as Shaw says in his Preface ("The Artist-Prophets"), "We
aspire to a world of prophets and sibyls." His aim is never for long limited
to the religious or occult. His desire is to blend inspiration with sociology,
politics and, above all, with great men. That is why he compares himself
to Shakespeare, to awake us to his true message, which exists strongly within
the unfurling humanism of Renaissance drama.
Shaw's dramas are shot through with comedy. His humour is bright,
kindly and exciting. He contrasts with Ibsen in his peculiar forwardness;
dramatic revelations from the past do not interest him. He refuses to take
old compulsions and clogs seriously: Shotover is angry at one who probes
into "old wounds" (Heartbreak House, m) and Caesar would let the race's
memories be destroyed and build the future on their ruins (Caesar and
Cleopatra, n). The trial in Saint Joan opposes prophecy in Joan to tradition
in the Inquisitor, and tradition, as the Epilogue demonstrates, loses. Jesus,
dramatized before Pilate in the Preface to On the Rocks, is all for newness:
The beast of prey is not striving to return: the kingdom of God is striving to come.
The empire that looks back in terror shall give way to the kingdom that looks
forward with hope.
The mysterious "lady" who visits the Prime Minister in On the Rocks (i)
introduces herself, by a profoundly Shavian paradox, as a "ghost" not from
the "past" but from the "future." Believing in a beneficent cosmic process
Shaw allows scant respect to ingrained evils, to hereditary and ghostly
compulsions. What he likes best is to show a false and backward-looking
valuation rendered ridiculous by the ever-new and up-bubbling Life Force.
True humour derives from the overthrowing of superficialities by the orgi-
astic, or some derivative in the realm of facts and forces; sex, its usual theme,
is as "sex" only part of Shaw's concern, but his humour obeys the same law,
with the Life Force as feminine and cosmic agent.
Vengeful and judicial retaliations are accordingly repudiated, as in Thus
Spake Zarathustra. The embittered and revengeful Gunner hi Misalliance is
comically bested by one woman and mothered back to sense by another.
The avenging pirate in Captain Brassbourufs Conversion finds his melodramatic
outbursts constricted by the trying on of his newly mended coat by his
captive Lady Cicely, who has been tidying him up. Here neither the Pirate
with his revenge nor later the Judge with his law is allowed respect; both
think in terms of retribution and our only trust is in Lady Cicely, whose
controlling function recalls Shakespeare's Portia. Shaw pays no respect to
horrors. The Crucifixion, symbol of that whole gamut of sin and torture
Shaw's Integral Theatre 127
throughout our blackened world which he tends to regard as unnecessary
folly, he naturally repudiates, complaining that we have turned Christianity
into "Crosstianity" (Preface to On the Rocks). Following Byron and developing
the humour of Ibsen in The Pretenders, he likewise repudiates that prodigious
symbol of retribution, Hell. In Man and Superman we are startled to hear from
the Devil that anyone can go to Heaven who wishes to, though if we are
not fit for it, it will be as boring as classical music to the uninitiated. Laugh
after laugh is raised by replacing the traditional by a more spiritualistic
eschatology, and much the same happens in the Epilogue to Saint Joan.
No intellectual argument could disprove the traditional threat of Hell; but
humour acts differently; it dissolves it. Whatever our beliefs, we must recog-
nize that, insofar as we respond to the fun, some deeper health in us has
already ratified the reversal.
Superficialities of all sorts are overturned, including many of Shaw's own most
cherished allegiances. The advanced Shavian opinions of Tanner on unmarried
love are toppled over at the brilliant climax of the first scene of Man and
Superman (i). Despite Shaw's Marxist interests, Mrs. Tarleton in Misalliance
takes Gunner's communist terms such as "capitalist" and "bourgeoisie" as
swearing: "All right, Chickabiddy: it's not bad language; it's only socialism."
Shaw's humour often appears suicidal. After all the accumulated profundity,
bitterness and scorn of Keegan's denunciation of England in John BuWs Other
Island^ the very crassness of Broadbent's typically British impenetrability and
capacity for adjustment wins unconditionally with nine words: "I think
these things cannot be said too often" (iv). That is great humour, depth
beyond depth. In Candida the Christian socialist Morell is a stuffed dummy
beside the esoterically conceived Marchbanks, and yet even this, Shaw's
inmost and cherished sanctity, the "secret" of Marchbanks and Candida,
does not escape. In Too True To Be Good Colonel Tallboys speaks to Private
Meek, the soldier-genius:
Tallboys. No doubt you are an extraordinary soldier. But have you ever passed the
extreme and final test of manly courage?
Meek. Which one is that, sir?
Tallboys. Have you ever married?
Meek. No, sir. (m.)
Is the Christian and Nietzschean celibacy tor be our highest ideal or not?
Is it, after all, a retreat? That "No, sir" raises as deep a problem of racial
destiny as any two words in our drama. Such strokes indicate that Shaw's
real message is in the humour itself. When in Androcles and the Lion we enjoy
the muscular Christian convert's shame at having let himself go against
the gladiators in the Roman arena instead of turning the other cheek, we
recognize that in spite of what we mumble in church we did not want him
to restrain himself; we exult in his comic fall from grace; and from that
I2 8 0. Wilson Knight
paradox is momentarily born some flaming sight of a Christianity not humble
Nietzsche's Zarathustra insisted on humour as necessary henceforth to the
highest wisdom ; the conclusion to John Cowper Powys's study Rabelais ( 1 948)
develops the attendant philosophy and Shaw is our grand exemplar in
practice. Keegan's way of "joking" is "to tell the truth," for "every dream
is a prophecy" and "every jest is an earnest in the womb of time" (John
Bull's Other Island, n; iv). "When a thing is funny," says the He-Ancient
in Back to Methuselah, "search it for a hidden truth" (v).
Such humour startles us into unexpected possibilities which on reflection
may be found reasonable. Shaw's dramatic technique throughout relies on
startling; comic surprise replaces the tensions, suspense and expectancies of
tragedy. In Misalliance an aeroplane containing a Polish woman acrobat
suddenly crashes into the conservatory of a middle-class Surrey house:
nothing could have been more unlikely. Heartbreak House is called "a house
of surprises" (i), and they certainly occur; the entry and amazing message
of the American ambassador in The Apple Cart is a typical example and so
is the irruption of a twentieth-century cleric from Rome in the Epilogue to
Saint Joan. Joan's miraculous powers give us the comic climax to her first
scene, though these very same powers raise tears in her third. Shaw's use
of humour and surprise is of a piece with his beliefs; all events, natural or
miraculous, come from the one Life Force, the normal expressions of life
"ever renewing itself' being a "continual miracle" (The Apple Cart, i). Our
dramatic surprises, functioning variously in terms of farce, high comedy,
philosophy and the sacred, come from the inexhaustible stores of futurity,
and to this we must trust. The humour is never cruel: the laughter raised
by the extraordinarily funny incident of the pig in John Bull's Other Island
only confirms the sensitive Keegan in his belief that our earth itself is Hell
(iv). Never in Shaw are man's physical and cosmic instincts degraded, but
only, as in Byron's Don Juan, his mental follies. Hence our sense of well-being,
of a sun dispelling fogs, of a golden quality. Yet there is little of the warmth
we feel in O'Casey's humour; Shaw's is rather made of light, it is like moun-
tain air, or the golden asceticism of Flecker's Samarkand; and by its light
we see colour.
Shaw's prose style may be bare but his total drama is colourful. Setting
and costume may be as important today as was poetry to the Elizabethans,
and to read Shaw for his "ideas" without visualizing his stage directions is
like reading Shakespeare in a prose paraphrase for children. Shaw loves
contrasting stuffy interiors with the wide-open spaces of God's creation. The
sea-captain Shotover and Lina the Polish acrobat both long for open spaces.
At a crisis the wise King Magnus deliberately arranges to meet his cabinet
out of doors. Too True To Be Good takes us from neurosis and a sick-room to a
north African sea-beach with a coloured pavilion backed by mountains.
Shaw's Integral Theatre 129
The Simpleton of the Western Isles (1934) is all South Sea expanse, ready for
the descent of the Angel of Judgement who after being shot at by a terrified
humanity lands safely and proceeds to shake the bullets out of his feathers.
Localities are many: Balkan highlands, Moroccan castle, African desert,
the Sierra Nevada, tropical jungle (in Buoyant Billions; 1947), Hindhead in
Surrey. Settings include the Sphinx, a Roman arena, Rheims Cathedral,
Covent Garden, The Hague; and there is a wide range of costume. The wise
Keegan and Shotover have travelled widely and are associated with warm
lands: Jerusalem, India, Zanzibar, Jamaica. Shotover 's black wife serves an
imaginative purpose; Shaw's religious anti-self gives us The Adventures of the
Black Girl in her Search for God (1932). This exploitation of geographic colour
not colour for its own sake as in O' Casey reaches an extreme in the exotic
orientalism of Buoyant Billions. But colour is not limited to foreign lands:
when the action is in England Shaw does his best with terraces, deck-chairs,
gardens and views. Caesar and Cleopatra is richly inlaid, its directions are little
poems: against a "vivid purple" sky changing to "pale orange" a colonnade
and a vast image of the god Ra show "darklier and darklier" (rv); and
Caesar's ship is "so gorgeously decorated that it seems to be rigged with
flowers" (v). Heartbreak House has its first setting designed as the poop of an
old-style sailing ship, but for the air-raid we are outside with hammocks
lit by "an electric arc" like "a moon." These effects are of man, his civiliza-
tion and the cosmos; of earth contact as such we find less, though it is finely
established by Keegan's talk to the grasshopper and the beautiful direction
describing Roscullen (John Bull's Other Island, n), where colour is felt in
depth. Or we may touch other dimensions, as when in Man and Superman (in)
the Spanish setting at nightfall melts into an etheric world of violet light
and ghostly music. Newton in Good King Charles's Golden Days rates above his
scientific labours "the elixir of life, the magic of light and colour, above all,
the secret meaning of the Scriptures." Costumes alone are of an extraordinary
richness and variety. The colourlessness of Shaw's prose dialogue acts as a
transparency through which we view a wider range of geographic and other
colours than has been deployed by any other of our major dramatists.
Back to Methuselah: The Poet and the City
by Margery M. Morgan
None of Shaw's plays has been more strongly disliked than Back to
Methuselah. On the most superficial acquaintance it invites the charges of
un theatricality, verbal incontinence and incoherence of form; its vision is
found repellent; and the teasing, if naive, question of whether Shaw means
what he says, when he is evidently talking nonsense, is more sharply provoked
than by any of his other works. 1 Serious study of the play raises central
problems of Shavian criticism. Is the glorification of mind only a cowardly
flight from emotion? 2 Are his reversals of convention simply mechanical,
useful for liberating adolescent thought, but unsatisfying to grown men?
Does his puritanism express a false understanding of human nature (including
his own nature)? If it does, his art can have no universality. Does this
puritanism (like Tolstoy's) involve an essential devaluing of art, destructive
to the integrity of any work in which it is found?
Granville Barker showed himself aware of the relevance of such considera-
tions to the last part of Back to Methuselah, when he wrote to Shaw in 1921,
upon the publication of the play:
Part V ... raises one question How far can one use pure satire in the
theatre? For satire scarifies humanity. The theatre uses it (humanity) as a me-
"Back to Methuselah: The Poet and the City" by Margery M. Morgan. From Essays and
Studies 1960 XIII, 82-98, published for The English Association by John Murray (Pub-
lishers) Ltd., London. Copyright 1960 by Margery M. Morgan. Reprinted by permis-
sion of the author.
1 Even Shaw's most perceptive critics tend to fall foul of this play. Chesterton (George
Bernard Shaw, Second Edition, 1935) wrote of "those bloodless extravagances, which
Bernard Shaw meant to make attractive," "bloodless Struldbugs (sic) who kill people
for purely sociological considerations." Eric Bentley (Bernard Shaw, 1 950) judges Shaw to
be "at his worst as a playwright 5 ' in the later sections of Back to Methuselah. Edmund Wilson
(The Triple Thinkers, 1938) considers it a frightened play, bleak and inhuman, with
"nothing genuinely thrilling except the cry of the Elderly Gentleman."
* T. S. Eliot has written of Shaw's rejection of poetic values as sub-adolescent. (See
"A Dialogue on Dramatic Poetry," Selected Essays, 1932, pp. 43-58.)
Back to Methuselah: The Poet and the City 131
dium and must therefore be tender to it. ... If you degrade the token . . .
you falsify your case. . . . 3
It is doubtful if great satire is ever "pure" in the sense that Barker gives to
the word: ever totally divorced from compassion. Gulliver is himself a
Yahoo, and the redemptive element of Yahoo-nature is at work in the horror
of his self-contemplation. The Shavian version of Gulliver among the
Houyhnhnms comes in Part IV of Back to Methuselah: "The Tragedy of an
Elderly Gentleman." Once we cease to be deluded by the fable of longevity
into seeing the whole cycle as a straggling chronicle-play, this part emerges
as the emotional centre of gravity which holds the rest in balance. From
the mouth of its hero comes Shaw's own acknowledgement of the peril
attending too complete an objectivity:
I think that a man who is sane as long as he looks at the world through his own
eyes is very likely to become a dangerous madman if he takes to looking at the
world through telescopes and microscopes. Even when he is telling fairy stories
about giants and dwarfs, the giants had better not be too big nor the dwarfs too
small and too malicious. . . .
From one part to another, and often abruptly within a single scene, the
author adjusts his dramatic technique as if he were altering the range and
focus of scientific instruments. If the reader or audience is able to receive
the impact of the five parts as a whole, 4 the play takes on the character of
a hall of mirrors directed upon human nature from many angles and all
distorting in various ways. "Have you been sent here to make your mind
flexible?" a Guardian inquires of the Elderly Gentleman; and the question
travels on into the auditorium. But such flexibility would be merely frivolous
apart from some absolute standard of reference. This is supplied whenever
the tone of the dialogue deepens and the drama builds up to some emotional
intensity. The Elderly Gentleman, who is disclosed weeping by the side of
the ocean, and then flings himself into an absurd butterfly-dance in top hat
and frock coat, is the only heroic figure in the entire play; for the true
Shavian hero, as has occasionally been observed, 5 is the romantic fool:
I accept my three score and ten years. If they are filled with usefulness, with
justice, with mercy, with goodwill: if they are the lifetime of a soul that never
loses its honor and a brain that never loses its eagerness; they are enough for me,
because these things are infinite and eternal. . . .
3 A longer extract from the letter appears in G. B. Purdom, Harley Granville Barker
(i955) PP- I98-99-
4 Only once has the entire play been performed on a single day: at the Arts Theatre
in February 1947. The performance started at 2.30 p.m.
5 This is plainly implied by Katherine Haynes Gatch, "The Last Plays of Bernard
Shaw: Dialectic and Despair," in English Stage Comedy, ed. by W. K. Wimsatt, Jr. (1955),
pp. 126-47, especially in the concluding quotation from Thomas Mann on modern tragi-
comedy and the grotesque style.
I3 2 Margery M. Morgan
Gulliver begs to be allowed to remain among the horses, though he can nevei
be as they are; the elderly Joseph Barlow, O.M., otherwise Iddy Toodles
clings to the idea of truth, whatever it may cost:
The Elderly Gentleman. They have gone back to lie about your answer. I cannot gc
with them. I cannot live among people to whom nothing is real. I have become
incapable of it through my stay here. I implore to be allowed to stay.
The Oracle. My friend: if you stay with us you will die of discouragement.
The Elderly Gentleman. If I go back I shall die of disgust and despair. I take the noblei
. . . She looks steadily into his face. He stiffens; a little convulsion shakes him; his grasf,
relaxes; and he falls dead,
Like Heartbreak House, Back to Methuselah was a fruit of the war. Shaw read
a draft of Part II, "The Gospel of the Brothers Barnabas," to a group oi
friends in igiS. 6 This part remains most nearly akin to his pre-war plays
in dramatic style. The scale of character-drawing and action is as close to
the naturalistic as Shaw gets in the whole play-cycle. The setting represents
an ordinary middle-class Edwardian drawing room; the passage of time on
the stage matches the passage of actual time; Bill Haslam and Savvy, Conrad
and Franklyn Barnabas would not be out of place among the types of con-
ventional drawing-room comedy; even Burge and Lubin are exaggerated
little enough beyond the images of themselves that men project from a
political platform. The action follows a simple dialectical order of thesis
and antithesis. First, the professional statesmen and then the philosophers
expound their political principles and programmes. The analogy of a political
meeting, modified by the drawing-room comedy elements, is sustained in
the recurring pattern of accusation and counter-accusation through which
the rival candidates move, in heckling interruptions and in the way that
Burge and Lubin refer every topic to the measure of electoral appeal. These
two figures are animated caricatures of Lloyd George and Asquith. Their
responsibility for the war is brought under review, but the severest indictment
is introduced non-satirically, when the statesmen and the Brothers Barnabas
have left the stage to Savvy and the young curate:
Haslam. Lubin and your father have both survived the war. But their sons were
killed in it.
Savvy, [sobered] Yes. Jim's death killed mother. . . .
Haslam. ... To me the awful thing about their political incompetence was that
they had to kill their own sons. . . .
6 Granville Barker was among them (see Purdom, op. ciL, p. 192). The version read to
them almost certainly included the section later discarded and published separately in
Short Stories, Scraps and Shavings (sec below, p. 87).
Back to Methuselah: The Poet and the City 133
This horror is the common ground of experience on which Shaw ap-
proaches his audience of men, in order to turn them into an audience of
philosophers. The critical decision reached by Adam and Eve in Part I of
the cycle was to exchange eternal life for continuance through generation.
From the disturbance of the natural succession of sons to fathers, by the
carnage of 1914-18, the drama proceeds in strict logic to the reversal of that
fabled decision: individual life must now be prolonged, until at last men are
ready to accept the burden of eternal life that Adam found too heavy. The
title of the last part of the drama, "As Far as Thought can Reach," gives
a broad hint that the length of life which is Shaw's serious concern is that
which the individual mind can encompass which it is stretched to encom-
pass, as the action proceeds. It is of major significance that Part V is to be
presented with costumes and dcor resembling "Grecian of the fourth century
B.C.": the age of Plato. If its atmosphere is found a little chilling, this but
corresponds to the impression that philosophic thought makes on the un-
reflective human being.
Samuel Butler reports an Erewhonian belief in a race of men whose fore-
sight more than equalled our acquaintance with the past, but "they died
in a twelvemonth from the misery which their knowledge caused them. 3 '
Strange fate for man! He must perish if he get that, which he must perish if he
strive not after. If he strive not after it he is no better than the brutes, if he get it
he is more miserable than the devils.
This misery of the man whose vision outruns his capacity for action makes
its appearance in Back to Methuselah as the disease of Discouragement, which
threatens the Shortlivers and even the Youths of Part V. Its torments are
known to Franklyn Barnabas:
Lubin. Why do you fix three hundred years as the exact figure? ... I am quite
prepared to face three thousand, not to say three million.
Conrad. Yes, because you don't believe you will be called on to make good your word.
Franklyn. [gently] Also, perhaps, because you have never been troubled much by
vision of the future.
In fact, Shaw's play in its entirety derives its power from the conflict inherent
in the human situation which Plato expressed for later ages in terms of the
rational and appetitive faculties, being and becoming, guardian and subject.
The twentieth century has come to prefer doctrines of the whole man to the
theory of the divisions of the soul. Yet the older fashion of thought is funda-
mental to puritanism, the religion of Jonhobsnoxius (to which the Elderly
Gentleman was a victim) ; and it is also essentially dramatic. Shaw took from
the Republic some of the principal symbols and concepts on which Back to
134 Margery M. Morgan
Methuselah is based. They are the more meaningful and forceful in their new
context because he was able to identify them with the warring forces of his
own personality: accessibility to emotion and fear of it; deprivation of family
affection avenged by attacks on the family and a care "more for the Public
Thing than for any private thing"; 7 revolutionist principles in conflict with
authoritarian inclinations. 8
The antithesis between reason and the sensual soul is most clearly repre-
sented in Part V, in the relation of the Ancients and the Youths. This is
repeated in variant forms in the Longlivers and Shortlivers of Parts III
and IV and, in Part II, in the counterbalancing of the myopic chauvinism
of Burge and Lubin with the philosophical farsightedness of the Brothers
Barnabas. Shaw uses the repetition of similar elements in different parts as
a device for unifying the play-cycle. He profits in this way from the theatrical
necessity of reducing the cast-list by allowing for the doubling of r61es. So,
as in a Harlequinade, Savvy Barnabas appears again as Zoo and yet again
as the Newly Born; Burge and Lubin merge into the Burge-Lubin of Part III
and the Badger Bluebin of Part IV; Conrad Barnabas turns into Accountant-
General Barnabas; Cain reappears as Napoleon, Emperor of Turania;
Archbishop Haslam and Mrs. Lutestring change into the He-Ancient and
She-Ancient. 9 The discarded fragment, originally intended for Part II and
published in Short Stories, Scraps and Shavings as "A Glimpse of the Domesticity
of Franklyn Barnabas," contains the major character of Mrs. Etteen, who
shows recognizable affinities with Eve's portrait of Lua, Cain's wife, and
with Ecrasia, the aesthete of Part V. This is one way a visual means
whereby Shaw demonstrates his notion of the disguises in which ideas find
expression. "You are Eve, in a sense," declares Conrad Barnabas to his
niece, "you are only a new hat and coat on Eve."
It is in Part III, "The Thing Happens," that Shaw tests most severely the
capacity of his dramatic technique to hold the stage. This section is a
disquisitory play, in which action is unimportant, almost non-existent, and
the situation appears to be a mere excuse for the characters to range,
apparently at random, over diverse topics. The fantasy of a Britain of
A.D. 2170, effectually governed by a Civil Service of Chinese and negresses,
satirically reverses the Imperialist argument of the unfitness of "native"
populations to govern themselves. Three divisions of what we must call the
"action" are discernible: a general exposition; the revelation of a precise
situation in the debate of two groups over a table; and finally a conversion
of the central character.
7 The observation is Chesterton's.
8 Discussed by Edmund Wilson, loc. cit.
9 The main productions (Theatre Guild, Birmingham Repertory Company and Arts
Theatre) between them exploited all these resemblances except, surprisingly, that be-
tween Savvy and the Newly Born and some others.
Back to Methuselah: The Poet and the City 135
The general exposition consists of a succession of duologues between Pres-
ident Burge-Lubin and, first, Accountant-General Barnabas, then the Chief
secretary, Confucius, and finally the negress who is Minister of Health.
Burge-Lubin is a complete figure of fun; fat clown facing thin and miserable
Harlequin, when the screen is withdrawn to disclose Barnabas sitting oppo-
site him in an identical office; stupid clown playing stooge to clever clown,
when he sets up the commonplaces of English history for Confucius to
overturn them. 10 Sensuality has decayed into frivolity of mind in this elected
representative of the people, who flirts with the televised image of the
negress and protests:
My relations with her are purely telephonic, gramophonic, photophonic, and,
may I add, platonic.
The curious dramatic flatness of these first episodes is not inappropriate,
indeed. For this is Shaw's Laputa, the home of false science and false philos-
ophy. It has its American "projector," who has invented a method of
breathing under water; like the tailors and architects of Swift's Laputa,
Accountant-General Barnabas insists that actuality and human life should
conform to his calculations. Abstraction reigns, "the dupe of appearances"; 11
its symbol is the large television screen on the wall, a variant of the Platonic
mirror that man can turn upon all things in the illusion that he is the creator
of everything it reflects. 12 The He- Ancient of Part V, looking back over the
progress of human understanding, describes the barrenness of this condition;
. . . when the marble masterpiece is dethroned by the automaton . . . when
the body and the brain, the reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting . . .
stand before you unmasked as mere machinery . . . you . . . would give worlds to
be young enough to play with your rag doll again, since every step away from it
has been a step away from love and happiness. (My italics.)
The imagery draws attention to the fact that in "The Thing Happens"
Shaw is attacking one of his own attitudes, the realistic attitude of The
Quintessence of Ibsenism:
The masks were [man's] ideals, as he called them; and what, he would ask, would
life be without ideals? Thus he became an idealist, and remained so until he
dared to begin pulling the masks off and looking the spectres in the face. . . . 13
The duologue of Burge-Lubin and Confucius does not forward the action
in any obvious way; it anticipates no change in the situation and thus lacks
10 This scene is Gilbertian in its repetition of the one trick of surprise.
11 Cf. "A Glimpse of the Domesticity of Franklyn Barnabas": Immense Champernoon. Like
all men of science you are the dupe of appearances.
12 "The Book of the Machines" in Erewhon has certainly contributed to this satire of the
mechanization of life and the de-humanizing of men.
13 The Quintessence of Ibsenism, original edition (1891), p. 20.
136 Margery M. Morgan
both suspense and urgency; an immediately evident reason for its inclusion
is that it gives opportunity for a necessary scene-shift behind the curtain.
In fact it is here that the dramatist makes his central statement of the link
between his general theme of man and narrower theme of politics. The
argument of the Republic is still his source: as reason should rule over appetite
and passion in the soul, so should the Guardian (who is the philosopher) rule
in the state. The double reference is contained in the idea of self-government:
Confucius. . . . You could fight. You could eat. You could drink. Until the twentieth
century you could produce children. You could play games. You could work when
you were forced to. But you could not govern yourselves. . . . You imported
educated negresses and Chinese to govern you. Since then you have done very
well. . . . People like you. . . , Nobody likes me: I am held in awe. Capable
persons are never liked. I am not likeable; but I am indispensable.
The alienation of sympathy from his personifications of reason, in all sections
of Back to Methuselah, is certainly part of Shaw's design.
(This is an appropriate place to recall Cain's introduction of himself:
I am the first murderer : you are only the first man. . . . To be the first murderer
one must be a man of spirit.
If we recognize in him the type of the spirited, irascible faculty, his presence
in Part I, as the third figure with Adam and Eve, is philosophically justified.
Certainly he is the usurper: the false superman and self-deluding idolater,
who "cannot love Lua until her face is painted." In Cain, the theme of war,
the force behind the killing of the sons, first takes its place among the
The central episode of Part III is dominated by Mrs. Lutestring. She is
the Barnabas's parlourmaid transformed into the Domestic Minister, a silk
purse made out of a sow's ear by an additional 250 years of life. She and
Archbishop Haslam are god-like beside the others, and their dignity is
largely a matter of deeper tones. It is possible that Shaw, in gracing her
with the name of a moth (taken from Weismann?), also had her impressive
style of speech in mind; 14 false etymology may have suggested to him the
plangent quality of the lute:
Mrs. Lutestring. There was one daughter who was the child of my very heart . . .
She was an old woman of ninety-six, blind. She asked me to sit and talk with her
because my voice was like the voice of her dead mother.
"Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable defines "lutestring" as: "A glossy silk fabric;
the French lustrine" and discusses the expression, "speaking in lutestring," which is taken
to refer to: "Flash, highly polished oratory." It compares the Shakespearian "taffeta
phrases and silken terms" and the use of "fustian," "bombast" and "shoddy" (which
Shaw adopts as a pseudonym in Back to Methuselah) "a book or speech made up of other
Back to Methuselah: The Poet and the City 137
An unexpected grim pathos, working up to indignation, sounds in her recol-
lections of the lives of the poor in the early twentieth century: the "miserable
pittances for worn-out old laborers to die on," and "the utter tiredness of
forty years' unending overwork and striving to make a shilling do the work
of a pound." Burge-Lubin's conversion, in the last scene, is presented as an
automatic reaction to the knowledge that he may have three hundred years
to live, and it takes burlesque form in his treatment of the negress (the false
ideal, a coloured mask of beauty). He remains an inflated paper-bag of a
character, incapable of feeling. And the experience of conversion is com-
municated to the audience only through the emotional resonance that Mrs.
Lutestring has given to the dry doctrine of labour and production which is
Shaw's drama is most gripping when the free development of feeling,
"from grave to gay, from lively to severe," demands constant modulations
in the actors' delivery. 15 This quality is most marked in the Elderly Gentle-
man section of the present play, which can rapidly draw from an audience
a very considerable and subtly varied range of response. The musical form
and texture of Back to Methuselah (always excepting the Burge-Lubin scenes)
are very notable. Part I is essentially an overture in two sections: the first,
a sonata, in which the leading themes of the play to follow are sounded and
lightly interwoven by Adam and Eve, then by Eve and the Serpent, and
then by all three in a final development punctuated by the harsh laugh of
the Serpent the anticipatory spasm of the Comic Spirit. The second Act
is a noisy and vigorous operatic trio, Adam (tenor), Eve (soprano) and
Cain (bass), singing against each other for all they are worth: three quarrel-
some principles of human nature rocking the future of mankind.
The tuning-forks, which the Guardians of Part IV carry and occasionally
use, represent a new dimension in the drama: a dispersed accompaniment
of sounds which have symbolic function. A pistol-shot and blasts from a
police-whistle mark the scene between Napoleon and the Oracle; the entry
of the Envoy's party into the temple is preluded by orchestral music through
which a gong resounds; the progress of the scene inside the temple is pointed
by a series of musical motifs, beginning with the chimes of a carillon and
continuing in bursts of "sacred" organ music, rolling and crashing of thun-
der, until finally: "trombones utter three solemn blasts in the manner of Die
Zauberflote" This is all part of the mummery with which the Guardians
perfunctorily indulge the Shortlivers and that, ironically, is likely to impress
an audience in the theatre, too; for the various qualities of sound are cal-
culated to attune the mood of the auditorium to the dramatic movement
through which Shaw conducts his characters. He uses the drum in Major
Barbara with like symbolic force to increase the intensity of excitement at
15 K. H. Gatch, loc. cit., refers to "those quick transitions to genuine feeling which
everyone versed in Shavian comedy will recognize."
1 38 Margery M. Morgan
critical moments. In the third Act of Man and Superman, the Statue music
from Don Giovanni was a setting for the dream convention and emphasized
the extent to which the dialogue moved beyond "mere talk" towards pure
rhetorical melody. So here Shaw is employing a device to remove his play
still further from naturalism. It is not only in the perspective of time that
Back to Methuselah is receding away from the present of the Brothers Barnabas;
the later sections are distanced in the way that a self-contained work of art
is remote from the "slice of life." The music of flutes, to which the Grecian
figures dance farandole and sarabande at the beginning of Part V, is a frame
to reveal the play as pure image, a moving icon of the dance of life.
A remarkable speeding-up begins with "The Tragedy of an Elderly Gentle-
man." The whole significant content of Arms and the Man is summed up in
the scene between Napoleon and the Oracle. The debate between them is
a commentary on the pantomime in which tragedy fizzles out and the epic
hero dwindles, as later the clown will grow great. The sight of the Priestess
compels Napoleon to sink to his knees; her threat to remove her veil forces
him to yield his pistol to her. The development is repeated in yet more
condensed form, as the melodramatic climax, in which she shoots him, is
promptly followed by burlesque deflation:
The Oracle. ... die before the tide of glory turns. Allow me [she shoots him].
He falls with a shriek. She throws the pistol away and goes haughtily into the temple.
Napoleon [scrambling to his feet}. Murderess! Monster! She-devil! ... No sense of
the sacredness of human life ! No thought for my wife and children ! Bitch ! Sow I
Wanton! [He picks up the pistol}. And missed me at five yards! That's a woman all
As his abuse of her descends in bathos, he shrinks into a bad-tempered small
boy who, pocketing his pistol, runs out blowing furious blasts on a whistle
and glaring at Zoo as he brushes past her. So the dream of martial glory is
abandoned for the rule of law; and the Nietzschean superman collapses
gibbering at the base of a statue of FalstafT. This is the concentrated, allusive
type of action that Shaw first perfected in Misalliance and that distinguishes
Heartbreak House also. It may be described as symbolical farce.
In Part V, the speeding-up of time in the presentation of the Youths is
even more evidently an aspect of the view of human life seen through the
wrong end of a telescope. Ghloe ages line by line in her dialogue with
Strephon; at four, she is ready to put away childish things: "listening to
flutes ringing changes on a few tunes and a few notes . . . making jingles
with words." "Oh, this dreadful shortness of our lives!" laments the Newly
Born, an hour out of the egg. "Nothing is great or little otherwise than by
Comparison," Swift observed, and it is in relation to the virtual immortality
of the Ancients, untouched by time in their eternity of contemplation, that
Back to Methuselah: The Poet and the City 139
the childhood of the Youths is scaled down to less than a butterfly's existence.
This development was anticipated in Act I of "In the Beginning":
The Serpent. Love. Love. Love.
Adam. That is too short a word for so long a thing.
The Serpent [laughs]. . . . Love may be too long a word for so short a thing soon.
But when it is short it will be very sweet.
Such is the experience of Strephon, the fool of love, in whom Granville
Barker, had he produced the play, would have found the answer to his
doubts about pure satire in the theatre. For Strephon is the token of Shaw's
compassion, in whom the pain of becoming is concentrated. With him is
identified the process of "heartbreak" that transports men against their will
from folly to wisdom, as it tears them from all attainable desires. But, seen
from so great a distance, the tragedy of the natural man is softened to a
pathos that evokes a smile:
What is the use of being born if we have to decay into unnatural, heartless,
loveless, joyless monsters in four short years? What use are the artists if they can-
not bring their beautiful creations to life? I have a great mind to die and have
done with it all.
The image recedes once again, now to minimal scale, as the Youths gather
round, in their theatre on the stage of a theatre, to watch a play within a
play. Pygmalion's automata, Ozymandias and Cleopatra-Semiramis, reca-
pitulate in miniature the whole argument of Back to Methuselah, shifting from
one style of dialogue to another, as they rapidly change from the satirized
puppets of modern society, through the epic pose and the glorification of
deterministic science, to creatures of evil and destruction. This is the last
appearance of the theme of Cain, 16 the theme of usurping passion. At this
point, when the female figure has given Pygmalion a mortal bite, the
Ancients transfuse into them a measure of true life, a power of altruism,
which takes them back to the truth of the relation between them, as Adam
and Eve recognized it in Part I:
The Male Figure. . . . Spare her; and kill me. . . .
The Female Figure. Kill us both. How could either of us live without the other?
This is the moment of conversion, the climax of their play which is analogous
to the climax of the whole play: the conversion of the Elderly Gentleman.
It is Discouragement that strikes them to the ground; and out of the sense
of life as "too heavy a burden," the immediate consequence of looking reality
in the face, emerges the triumph of tragic death, such a resurrection in the
spirit as Strephon shrinks from:
16 Except in the musical recapitulation of the epilogue.
140 Margery M. Morgan
The Musicians play.
The Female Figure. Ozymandias: do you hear that? [She rises on her knees and looks r aptly
into space] Queen of queens! [She dies].
The Male Figure [crawling feebly towards her until he reaches her hand]. I knew I was really
a king of kings. [To the others] Illusions, farewell: we are going to our thrones.
The music stops
The Ancients' smile of compassion is apt comment on that.
This is the culmination of the theme of the Image, which Shaw has been
developing to this fully dramatized form from the moment when the Serpent
teaches the word "poem" to Eve and explains the meaning of "conception":
"both the beginning in imagination and the end in creation." It has been
sustained in the scattered imagery of dolls and disguises, in the Guardians*
rejection of metaphors and in the static symbol of the television screen.
It is rendered theatrically potent in the setting, and dramatically potent in
the action, of Part IV, Act III. For the temple of the Oracle is the Platonic
cave, where men are prisoners watching a shadow-show that they mistake
Major features of Plato's description are easily recognizable: the gloom
and vapour of the abyss, and the violet light that flares up at intervals like
the reflection of a fire; the raised gallery, brightly lit, along which move
figures, some talking, including "two men . . . holding their hats with the brims
near their noses"; the noises as of thunder that come from the void in answer
to the tourists' questions. Shaw has not provided an exact reproduction
of Plato's cave, but the whole scene is certainly closer to its original than
the other great variant in modern drama: the cave-scene which is the climax
of Strind berg's Dream Play and where are found the figure-heads of Justice,
Friendship, and the rest, which have sunk in the sea of becoming. 18 Zoo sits
with her back to the abyss and comments on the whole business of the Oracle
as the conjuring trick that she knows it to be; yet the Shortlivers remain as
much impressed by the illusion as the men chained in the cave, who dis-
believe the explanations of their wiser fellows. The Elderly Gentleman, how-
ever, turns to face the Oracle in daylight, as the philosopher turns to the sun:
The Oracle [with grave pity]. Gome: look at me. I am my natural size now: what you
saw there was only a foolish picture of me thrown on a cloud by a lantern.
Edmund Wilson has read the last part of Back to Methuselah as evidence
of Shaw's abandonment of politics for despair. It would be truer to say that
here he turns away from politics in the same sense as Socrates turns away
from his theory of the perfect state to the true concern of philosophy: con-
17 Note the likeness to the masque in a Jacobean play.
18 Shaw, of course, was among the first and most fervent of Strindberg's English admirers.
Back to Methuselah: The Poet and the City 141
templation of the heavenly pattern of Ideas. Major Barbara stopped before
this, at the hypothesis: "If philosophers were kings in their cities. . . ." Now
the dramatist proceeds to demonstrate the relevance of the satirical art of
Back to Methuselah to the actual political business of men to justify it as
political satire, indeed by showing the distance between image and actual-
ity which the political idealist ignores.
The mechanistic, deterministic creed recited by the unredeemed automata
takes its form and cadence from the First Epistle to the Corinthians:
The Male Figure. ... the king of kings and queen of queens are not accidents of
the egg: they are thought-out and hand-made to receive the sacred Life Force.
There is one person of the king and one of the queen; but the Life Force of the
king and queen is all one: the glory equal, the majesty co-eternal. . . .
Parody such as this can work both ways, and Shaw quite often employs it
to an end which is the reverse of burlesque. 19 So now the tone of the passage
prepares for the heightening of seriousness in the Ancients' lengthy exposition
of the doctrine of Ideas. The furthest reach of consciousness to which Shaw
conducts us is visionary; for the Ancients are moving beyond philosophical
speculation to mysticism. Shaw has gone for its terms to the Pauline lines
which bear the closest relation to the turning away of Socrates. They provide
a viewpoint from which to look back on the entire design and intention of
the Shavian fable:
There are also celestial bodies, and bodies terrestrial: but the glory of the celestial
is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another. . . .
And so it is written, The first man Adam was made a living soul; the last
Adam was made a quickening spirit . . . flesh and blood cannot inherit the
kingdom of God; ... we shall all be changed. . . .
There is undoubtedly an element of what Edmund Wilson calls "lunar
horror" in Part V. The power over life and death, as represented in the
delivery of the Newly Born from the egg, the making of man and woman
in a laboratory, and the calcining of unfit children, corresponds to the
eugenics and euthanasia of Plato's Republic,, as well as to the potentialities
of modern science; these are such things as reason would always impose upon
the natural man. But the most significant figure in Part V is Pygmalion,
who takes us back to Laputa, the land of the machines, where the Watch-
maker is God. The scientist among the artists, he is identified with the false
relation between the ideal and the actuality which the philosopher-statesman
may labour to produce. For Pygmalion is so foolish as to do what Strephon
19 A notable example is B.B.'s reaction to the death of Dubedat, where the power of
the Shakespearian words and rhythms into which he falls works against the effect of the
nonsense to which he reduces them.
1 42 Margery M. Morgan
is so foolish as to desire: bring images to life. The epilogue presents his true
opposite in Lilith, who is the creative imagination.
The Ancients are no less relative and partial components of the total image
of man than are the Guardians of Part IV, who do not understand imagina-
tion. In maintaining the opposition between rational soul and appetitive
to the very end, Shaw acknowledges that the one cannot get on without the
other. The tragedy of the Elderly Gentleman lies in the fact that the philos-
opher cannot escape from his humanity, though he may despise it. It is
counterbalanced by the comedy of Pygmalion, with its theme of the destruc-
tiveness of pure intellect in the context of human life. The artist holds the
scales, as Lubin by one of those touches of truth with which Shaw keeps
his caricatures alive was allowed to observe:
The poets and story tellers, especially the classical poets and story tellers, have
been, in the main, right.
The Saint as Tragic Hero
by Louis L. Martz
Saints and martyrs have frequently been regarded as impossible subjects
for true tragedy. The reasons have been forcibly summed up by Butcher in
his standard commentary on Aristotle's Poetics. One trouble is, he says, that
Goodness "is apt to be immobile and uncombative. In refusing to strike
back it brings the action to a standstill." This is exactly the objection some-
times made to Eliot's presentation of Becket, who is certainly immobile and,
in a sense, uncombative:
We are not here to triumph by fighting, by stratagem, or by resistance,
Not to fight with beasts as men. We have fought the beast
And have conquered. We have only to conquer
Now, by suffering.
But even in the case of more combative saints, such as Joan of Arc, Butcher
would see a serious difficulty: "Impersonal ardour in the cause of right,"
he says, does not have "the same dramatic fascination as the spectacle of
human weakness or passion doing battle with the fate it has brought upon
itself." And in short, the chief difficulty is that "the death of the martyr
presents to us not the defeat, but the victory of the individual; the issue of
a conflict in which the individual is ranged on the same side as the higher
powers, and the sense of suffering consequently lost in that of moral tri-
umph." x This, I suppose, is what I. A. Richards also means when he
declares that "The least touch of any theology which has a compensating
<e The Saint as Tragic Hero" (original title: "The Saint as Tragic Hero: Saint Joan and
Murder in the Cathedral 33 ) by Louis Martz. From Tragic Themes in Western Literature, ed*
Gleanth Brooks (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1955). Copyright 1955 by the
Yale University Press. Reprinted by permission of the author. In the course of this study
quotations are made by permission of the publisher from T. S. Eliot's Murder in the
Cathedral (and. ed., New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1936; London, Faber &
Faber, Ltd.) and Four Quartets (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1943; Lon-
don, Faber & Faber, Ltd.).
1 S. H. Butcher, Aristotle's Theory of Poetry and Fine Art, zoith a Critical Text and Translation
of the Poetics (4th ed., London, Macmillan & Co., Ltd., 1932), pp. 310-12.
144 Louis L. Martz
Heaven to offer the tragic hero is fatal" 2 fatal, that is, to the tragic effect.
But we remember:
Good night, sweet prince,
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.
And we remember the transfiguration of Oedipus at Golonus. Hamlet and
Oedipus, we might argue, are in the end on the side of the higher powers.
I do not know what we should call Oedipus at Golonus, if he is not a kind
of saint, and there is something almost saintly in Hamlet's acute sensitivity
to evil. Butcher concedes that Aristotle does not take account of this excep-
tional type of tragedy "which exhibits the antagonism between a pure will
and a disjointed world." 3 We are drawn, then, into some discussion of the
nature of tragedy, into some discussion of the plight of tragedy today, and
into some discussion, also, of another excellent kind of writing, sometimes
called tragic, in which the modern world has achieved a peculiar eminence.
Let us begin with this other kind, for it lacks the touch of any theology.
I am thinking of the kind represented by Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms.
I am thinking particularly of the attitude represented by the dying words
of Hemingway's heroine: " Tm going to die,' she said; then waited and
said, 4 I hate it' ... Then a little later, Tm not afraid. I just hate it. 5 . . .
'Don't worry, darling, . . . I'm not a bit afraid. It's just a dirty trick.' "
This scene is painful and pitiful as all that earlier misery in the same novel,
during the rainy retreat from Gaporetto, at the beginning of which Heming-
way's hero sums up the central impact of the book, in words that are often
quoted: "I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and
sacrifice and the expression in vain." And he proceeds to emphasize his
embarrassment in words that echo a biblical cadence, faintly, and ironically:
"We had heard them, sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot,
so that only the shouted words came through, and had read them, on
proclamations that were slapped up by billposters over other proclamations,
now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were
glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago
if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it." 4
The tragedies of Oedipus, Phdre, Samson, or Hamlet certainly include
something like this sense of shattered illusions, this painful recognition of
man's fragility, and this pitiful recognition of the inadequacy of human
love but along with, in the same moment with, equally powerful affirma-
tions of the validity of these terms sacred, glorious, sacrifice, and the expres-
2 I. A. Richards, Principles of Literary Criticism (New York, Harcourt, Brace & World,
Inc., 1948), p. 246.
8 Butcher, p. 325.
* Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1929),
PP*353-54> I9 6 -
The Saint as Tragic Hero 145
sion in vain. Tragedy seems simultaneously to doubt and to believe in such
expressions: tragedy seems never to know what Wallace Stevens calls "an
affirmation free from doubt" and yet it always seems to contain at least
the Ghost of an affirmation. Oedipus the King and Samson Agonistes, blind
and erring, still sacrifice themselves "gloriously," as Milton puts it. Racine's
drama of Phedre affirms the validity of the Law of Reason, even as the
heroine dissolves herself in passion. And Hamlet sees mankind, simultane-
ously, as the most angelical and the most vicious of earthly creatures; like
the Chorus of Murder in the Cathedral, Hamlet "knows and does not know."
This sense of a double vision at work in tragedy is somewhat akin to
I. A. Richards' famous variation on Aristotle, where Richards finds the
essence of tragedy to reside in a "balanced poise." In the "full tragic expe-
rience," Richards declares, "there is no suppression. The mind does not shy
away from anything." But Richards himself, like Hemingway's hero, then
proceeds to shy away from transcendental matters, when he declares that
the mind, in tragedy, "stands uncomforted, unintimidated, alone and self-
reliant." This, it seems, will not quite square with Richards' ultimate
account of tragedy as "perhaps the most general, all-accepting, all-ordering
experience known." 6
A clearer account, at least a more dogmatic account, of this double vision
of tragedy has been set forth by Joyce in his Portrait of the Artist. "Aristotle
has not defined pity and terror," says Stephen Dedalus, "I have." "Pity is
the feeling which arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave
and constant in human sufferings and unites it with the human sufferer.
Terror is the feeling which arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever
is grave and constant in human sufferings and unites it with the secret
cause." 6 Tragedy, then, seems to demand both the human sufferer and
the secret cause: that is to say, the doubt, the pain, the pity of the human
sufferer; and the affirmation, the awe, the terror of the secret cause. It is an
affirmation even though the cause is destructive in its immediate effects:
for this cause seems to affirm the existence of some universal order of things.
From this standpoint we can estimate the enormous problem that faces
the modern writer in his quest for tragedy. With Ibsen, for example, this
power of double vision is in some difficulty. In Ghosts or in Rosmersholm the
element of affirmation is almost overwhelmed by the horror and the suffering
that come from the operation of the secret cause here represented by the
family heritage the dead husband, the dead wife. The affirmation is present,
however, in the salvation of an individual's integrity. Ibsen's Ghosts, which
has the rain pouring down outside for most of the play, nevertheless ends
with a view of bright sunshine on the glaciers: symbolizing, perhaps, the
5 Richards, pp. 246-8.
6 James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (New York: B. W. Huebsch, 1916),
P- 2 39-
146 Louis L. Martz
clear self-realization which the heroine has achieved. But it is not a very
long step before we exit left from these shattered drawing rooms into the
rain of Ernest Hemingway, where we have the human sufferers, "alone and
self-reliant," without a touch of any secret cause. We are in the world of
pity which Santayana has beautifully described in a passage of his Realms
of Being, where he speaks of the "unreasoning sentiment" he might feel in
seeing a "blind old beggar" in a Spanish town: "pity simply, the pity of
existence, suffusing, arresting, rendering visionary the spectacle of the mo-
ment and spreading blindly outwards, like a light in the dark, towards
objects which it does not avail to render distinguishable."
It seems a perfect account of the central and powerful effect achieved in
many of the best efforts of the modern stage, or movie, or novel, works of
pity, where pity dissolves the scene, resolves it into the dew that Hamlet
considers but transcends. Thus A Farewell to Arms is enveloped in symbolic
rain; in The Naked and the Dead humanity is lost in the dim ^Pacific jungle;
and the haze of madness gradually dissolves the realistic setting of A Streetcar
Named Desire or Death of a Salesman. In the end, Willy Loman has to plant
his garden in the dark. "The pity of existence . . . spreading blindly out-
wards . . . towards objects which it does not avail to render distinguish-
The problem of the tragic writer in our day appears to be: how to control
this threatened dissolution, how to combine this "unreasoning sentiment**
with something like the different vision that Santayana goes on to suggest:
"Suppose now that I turn through the town gates and suddenly see a broad
valley spread out before me with the purple sierra in the distance beyond.
This expanse, this vastness, fills my intuition; also, perhaps, some sense of
the deeper breath which I draw as if my breast expanded in sympathy with
the rounded heavens." 7 Thus we often find that the modern writer who
seeks a tragic effect will attempt, by some device, such as Ibsen's family
heritage or his view of the glacier, to give us the experience of a secret cause
underlying his work of pity to give it broader dimensions, sharper form,
to render the ultimate objects distinguishable, to prevent it from spreading
blindly outwards. We can see this plainly in O'Neill's Mourning Becomes
Elecfra, where O'Neill, by borrowing from Aeschylus the ancient idea of a
family curse, is able to give his drama a firm, stark outline, and to endow his
heroine with something like a tragic dignity. The only trouble is that this
Freudian version of a family curse is not secret enough: it tends to announce
itself hysterically, all over the place: "I'm the last Mannon. Fve got to
punish myself!" In the end we feel that this family curse has been shipped
in from Greece and has never quite settled down in New England.
Eliot has described much the same difficulty which appears in his play
7 George Santayana, Realms of Being (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1942), pp.
The Saint as Tragic Hero 147
The Family Reunion^ where he too, even more boldly than O'Neill, has tried
to borrow the Furies from Aeschylus. Eliot deploys his Furies, quite impo-
litely, in the middle of Ibsen's drawing room. As we might expect, they
were not welcome: "We tried every possible manner of presenting them, 3 '
says Eliot. "We put them on the stage, and they looked like uninvited guests
who had strayed in from a fancy-dress ball. We concealed them behind
gauze, and they suggested a still out of a Walt Disney film. We made them
dimmer, and they looked like shrubbery just outside the window. I have
seen other expedients tried": Eliot adds, "I have seen them signalling from
across the garden, or swarming onto the stage like a football team, and they
are never right. They never succeed in being either Greek goddesses or
modern spooks. But their failure/ 5 he concludes, "is merely a symptom of
the failure to adjust the ancient with the modern." 8 Or, we might say, a
failure to adjust the ancient Aeschylean symbol of a secret cause with the
modern human sufferer.
How, then, can it be done? It is in their approach to this problem that
Saint Joan and Murder in the Cathedral reveal their peculiar power, in an
approach that seems to have been made possible by this fact: that both
Shaw and Eliot feel they cannot depend upon their audience to accept their
saintly heroes as divinely inspired. The dramaturgy of both plays is based
upon a deliberate manipulation of the elements of religious skepticism or
uncertainty in the audience.
As Eliot's play moves toward the somber conclusion of its first half, the
Four Tempters cry out in the temptation of self-pity ("It's just a dirty
Man's life is a cheat and a disappointment . . .
All things become less real, man passes
From unreality to unreality.
This man [Becket] is obstinate, blind, intent
Passing from deception to deception,
From grandeur to grandeur to final illusion . . .
And a page later the Chorus too cries out from the world of Ernest Heming-
way, with also, perhaps, a slight reminiscence of the millrace in Rosmersholm:
We have seen the young man mutilated,
The torn girl trembling by the mill-stream.
And meanwhile we have gone on living,
Living and partly living,
Picking together the pieces,
8 T. S. Eliot, Poetry and Drama (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1951),
148 Louis L. Martz
Gathering faggots at nightfall,
Building a partial shelter,
For sleeping, and eating and drinking and laughter.
And then, at the very close of Part I, Becket sums up the whole attitude
when he turns sharply to address the audience:
What yet remains to show you of my history
Will seem to most of you at best futility,
Senseless self-slaughter of a lunatic,
Arrogant passion of a fanatic.
I know that history at all times draws
The strangest consequence from remotest cause.
It is exactly the challenge that Shaw has thrown at his readers in the Preface
to Saint Joan: "For us to set up our condition as a standard of sanity, and
declare Joan mad because she never condescended to it, is to prove that
we are not only lost but irredeemable."
Eliot and Shaw, then, seem to be assuming that the least touch of theology
in their plays will serve to raise a question. And so the saint may become
a figure well adapted to arouse something very close to a tragic experience:
for here the words sacred, glorious, sacrifice, and the expression in vain
may become once again easily appropriate; while at the same time the
uncertainty of the audience's attitude and to some extent the dramatist's
own may enable him to deal also with the painful and pitiful aspects of
experience that form the other side of the tragic tension.
But this conflict, this double vision, is not, in these plays, primarily con-
tained within the figure of the saint as tragic hero: Joan and Becket do not
here represent humanity in the way of Hamlet, or King Oedipus by focus-
ing within themselves the full tragic tension. They are much more like
Oedipus at Golonus, who, although a pitiful beggar in appearance, speaks
now through the power of a superhuman insight. Most of his mind lies
beyond suffering: he feels that he has found the secret cause, and under the
impulse of that cause he moves onward magnificently to his death and
transfiguration. The sense of human suffering in Oedipus at Colonus is conveyed
chiefly in retrospect, or in the sympathetic outcries of the Chorus, the weep-
ing of the rejected Polynices, and the anguish of the two daughters whom
Oedipus must leave behind.
To see these plays as in any sense tragic it seems that we must abandon
the concept of a play built upon an ideal Aristotelian hero, and look instead
for a tragic experience that arises from the interaction between a hero who
represents the secret cause, and the other characters, who represent the
human sufferers. The point is brought out, ironically, by the Archbishop,
The Saint as Tragic Hero j^q
near the end of Shaw's play, when he warns Joan against the sin of pride,
saying, "The old Greek tragedy is rising among us. It is the chastisement
of hubris." Joan replies with her usual bluntness, asking, "How can you
say that I am disobedient when I always obey my voices, because they come
from God." But when the Archbishop insists that "all the voices that come
to you are the echoes of your own wilfulness," when he declares angrily,
"You stand alone: absolutely alone, trusting to your own conceit, your own
ignorance, your own headstrong presumption, your own impiety," we are
reminded of Creon berating Oedipus at Colonus, and we are reminded too
of Oedipus' long declaration of innocence when Joan turns away, "her eyes
skyward," saying, "I have better friends and better counsel than yours."
There is nothing complex about the character of Shaw's Joan; it is the
whole fabric of the play that creates something like a tragic tension. For
whatever he may say in his preface, Shaw the dramatist, through his huge
cast of varied human types, probes the whole range of belief and disbelief
in Joan's voices. "They come from your imagination," says the feeble
de Baudricourt in the opening scene. "Of course," says Joan, "That is how
the messages of God come to us." Gauchon believes the girl to be "inspired,
but diabolically inspired." "Many saints have said as much as Joan,"
Ladvenu suggests. Dunois, her only friend, senses some aura of divinity
about her, but becomes extremely uneasy when she talks about her voices.
"I should think," he says, "you were a bit cracked if I hadn't noticed that
you give me very sensible reasons for what you do, though I hear you telling
others you are only obeying Madame Saint Catherine." "Well," she replies,
"I have to find reasons for you, because you do not believe hi my voices.
But the voices come first; and I find the reasons after: whatever you may
choose to believe." Whatever you may choose to believe: there is the point, and
as the figure of Joan flashes onward through the play, with only one lapse
in confidence her brief recantation Shaw keeps his play hovering among
choices in a highly modern state of uncertainty: we know and do not know:
until at the close Shaw seems to send us over on the side of affirmation.
We agree, at least, with the words of the French captain in the opening
scene: "There is something about her. . . . Something. ... I think the
girl herself is a bit of a miracle."
She is, as Eliot would say, "a white light still and moving," the simple
cause of every other word and action in the play; and her absolute simplicity
of vision cuts raspingly through all the malign or well-intentioned errors of
the world, until in its wrath the world rises up in the form of all its assembled
institutions and declares by the voice of all its assembled doctors that this
girl is as Shaw says insufferable?
Thus Joan's apparent resemblance to the Aristotelian hero: her extreme
9 See the amusing anecdote recorded by Archibald Henderson, Bernard Shaw, Playboy
and Prophet (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1932), pp. 693-95.
15 Louis L. Martz
self-confidence, her brashness, her appearance of rash impetuosity all this
becomes in the end a piece of Shavian irony, for her only real error in the
play is the one point where her superb self-confidence breaks down in the
panic of recantation. And so the hubris is not Joan's but Everyman's.
The characters who accuse Joan of pride and error are in those accusations
convicting themselves of the pride of self-righteousness and the errors of
human certitude. It is true that the suffering that results from this pride and
error remains in Shaw's play rather theoretical and remote: and yet we feel
it in some degree: in the pallor and anguish of Joan as she resists the tempta-
tion to doubt her voices, in the rather unconvincing screams of Stogumber
at the close, and, much more effectively, in the quiet, controlled sympathy
of Ladvenu. It would seem, then, that some degree of tragedy resides in this
failure of Everyman to recognize absolute Reality, the secret cause, when
it appears in the flesh. Must then, cries Gauchon in the Epilogue, "Must
then a Christ perish in torment in every age to save those that have no
imagination?" It is the same symbolism that Eliot has evoked in the begin-
ning of his play, where the Chorus asks: "Shall the Son of Man be born
again in the litter of scorn?"
We need not be too greatly concerned with Shaw's bland assertions that
he is letting us in on the truth about the Middle Ages, telling us in the play
all we need to know about Joan. Books and articles have appeared a whole
cloudburst of them devoted to proving that Shaw's methods of historical
research in his play and in his preface are open to serious question. But Shaw
gave that game away long ago when he announced: "I deal with all periods;
but I never study any period but the present, which I have not yet mastered
and never shall"; 10 or when he said, with regard to Cleopatra's cure for
Caesar's baldness, that his methods of scholarship, as compared with Gilbert
Murray's, consisted in "pure divination." u The Preface to Saint Joan lays
down a long barrage of historicity, which in the end is revealed as a remark-
able piece of Shavio-Swiftian hoaxing: for in the last few pages of that long
preface he adds, incidentally, that his use of the "available documentation"
has been accompanied by "such powers of divination as I possess"; he con-
cedes that for some figures in his play he has invented "appropriate charac-
ters" "in Shakespear's manner"; and that, fundamentally, his play is built
upon what he calls "the inevitable flatteries of tragedy." That is, there is no
historical basis for his highly favorable characterizations of Cauchon and
the Inquisitor, upon which the power and point of the trial scene are
I do not mean to say, however, that our sense of history is irrelevant to
an appreciation of Shaw's play. There is a point to be made by considering
such a book as J. M. Robertson's Mr. Shaw and " The Maid," which complains
10 Shaw, Preface to The Sanity of Art (New York: B. R. Tucker, 1908), p. 5.
II See Shaw's notes appended to Caesar and Cleopatra: Nine Plays, p. 471.
The Saint as Tragic Hero 151
bitterly, upon historical grounds, against Shaw's "instinct to put things both
ways." 12 This is a book, incidentally, which Eliot has praised very highly
because it points out that in this kind of subject "Facts matter," and that
"to Mr. Shaw, truth and falsehood ... do not seem to have the same
meaning as to ordinary people." 13 But the point lies rather in the tribute
that such remarks pay to the effectiveness of Shaw's realistic dramaturgy.
Shaw is writing, as he and Ibsen had to write, within the conventions of
the modern realistic theater conventions which Eliot escaped in Murder in
the Cathedral because he was writing this play for performance at the Canter-
bury Festival. But in his later plays, composed for the theater proper, Eliot
has also been forced to, at least he has chosen to, write within these stern
Now in the realistic theater, as Francis Fergusson has suggested, the artist
seems to be under the obligation to pretend that he is not an artist at all,
but is simply interested in pursuing the truth "in some pseudo-scientific
sense." 14 Thus we find the relation of art to life so often driven home on the
modern stage by such deep symbolic actions as removing the cubes from ice
trays or cooking an omelette for dinner. Shaw knows that on this stage facts
matter or at least the appearance of facts and in this need for a dramatic
realism lies the basic justification for Shaw's elaborately argued presentation
of Joan as a Protestant and Nationalist martyr killed by the combined
institutional forces of feudalism and the Church. Through these historical
theories, developed within the body of the play, Joan is presented as the
agent of a transformation in the actual world; the theories have enough
plausibility for dramatic purposes, and perhaps a bit more; this, together
with Shaw's adaptation of the records of Joan's trial, gives him all the
"facts" that he needs to make his point in the modern theater.
Some of Joan's most Shavian remarks are in fact her own words as set
down in the long records of her trial: as, for example, where her questioner
asks whether Michael does not appear to her as a naked man. "Do you
think God cannot afford clothes for him?" answers Joan, in the play and
in the records. Shaw has made a skillful selection of these answers, using,
apparently, the English translation of the documents edited by Douglas
Murray; 15 and he has set these answers together with speeches of his own
12 J. M. Robertson, Mr. Shaw and "The Maid" (London: Cobden-Sanderson, 1926),
1S T. S. Eliot, Criterion, 4 (April 1926), 390.
14 Francis Fergusson, The Idea of a Theater (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1949),
16 Jeanne D'Arc, Maid of Orleans, Deliverer of France; Being the Story of her Life, her Achieve-
ments, and her Death, as attested on Oath and Set forth in the Original Documents, ed. by T. Douglas
Murray (New York: McQLure, Phillips, 1902; published in England the same year). See
p. 42: "Do you think God has not wherewithal to clothe him?" This contains a translation
of the official Latin documents published by Jules Quicherat in 1841-49.
152 Louis L. Martz
modeled upon their tone and manner. In this way he has been able to bring
within the limits of the realistic theater the very voice that rings throughout
these trial records, the voice of the lone girl fencing with, stabbing at,
baffling, and defeating the crowd of some sixty learned men: a voice that
is not speaking within the range of the other voices that assail her. Thus we
hear her in the following speech adapted from half-a-dozen places in the
ec l have said again and again that I will tell you all that concerns this trial.
But I cannot tell you the whole truth: God does not allow the whole truth to
be told. . . . It is an old saying that he who tells too much truth is sure to be
hanged. ... I have sworn as much as I will swear; and I will swear no more." 16
Or, following the documents much more closely, her answers thus resound
when the questioners attempt to force her to submit her case to the Church
on earth: "I will obey The Church," says Joan, "provided it does not com-
mand anything impossible/'
If you command me to declare that all that I have done and said, and all
the visions and revelations I have had, were not from God, then that is impos-
sible: I will not declare it for anything in the world. What God made me do
I will never go back on; and what He has commanded or shall command I will
not fail to do in spite of any man alive. That is what I mean by impossible.
And in case The Church should bid me do anything contrary to the command
I have from God, I will not consent to it, no matter what it may be.
In thus maintaining the tone of that extraordinary voice, Shaw has,
I think, achieved an effect that is in some ways very close to the effect of
the "intersection of the timeless with time" which Eliot has achieved in his
play, and which he has described in "The Dry Salvages":
Men's curiosity searches past and future
And clings to that dimension. But to apprehend
The point of intersection of the timeless
With time, is an occupation for the saint
No occupation either, but something given
And taken, in a lifetime's death in love,
Ardour and selflessness and self-surrender.
An obvious similarity between the two plays may be seen in the tone of
satirical wit that runs through both notably in the ludicrous prose speeches
that Eliot's murdering Knights deliver to the audience in self-defense. These
have an essentially Shavian purpose: "to shock the audience out of their
16 Cf. Murray, pp. 5-6, 8-9, 14-15, 18, 22, 33.
The Saint as Tragic Hero 153
complacency," as Eliot has recently said, going on to admit, "I may, for
aught I know, have been slightly under the influence of St. Joan" l7 The
atmosphere of wit is evident also in the first part of Eliot's play, in the cynical
attitude of the Herald who announces Becket's return:
The streets of the city will be packed to suffocation.
And I think that his horse will be deprived of its tail,
A single hair of which becomes a precious relic.
Or, more important, in the speeches of the Four Tempters, who match the
Four Knights of Part II, and who tend to speak, as the Knights also do in
places, in a carefully calculated doggerel that betrays their fundamental
I leave you to the pleasures of your higher vices,
Which will have to be paid for at higher prices.
Farewell, my Lord, I do not wait upon ceremony,
I leave as I came, forgetting all acrimony,
Hoping that your present gravity
Will find excuse for my humble levity.
If you will remember me, my Lord, at your prayers,
Til remember you at kissing-time below the stairs.
In all these ways Eliot, like Shaw, maintains his action in the "real"
world: and by other means as well. By keeping before us the central question
of our own time: "Is it war or peace?" asks Eliot's priest. "Peace," replies
the Herald, "but not the kiss of peace./ A patched up affair, if you ask my
opinion." By the frequently realistic imagery of the Chorus, made up of
"the scrubbers and sweepers of Canterbury." By the frequent use in Part IT
of the recorded words that passed between Becket and the Knights in the
year 1 1 70. 18 By throwing our minds back to the literary forms of the Middle
Ages: to Everyman, from which Eliot has taken a good many hints for the
tone and manner of Becket's encounter with the Tempters, and which, as
he says, he has kept in mind as a model for the versification of his dialogue. 19
To this last we should also add a special device of heavy alliteration (par-
ticularly notable in the Second Temptation), which seems to work in two
ways: it reminds us of the English alliterative verse of the Middle Ages,
and thus gives the play a further historical focus, and it also suggests here
a rhetoric of worldly ambition in keeping with the temptation that Becket
17 Eliot, Poetry and Drama, p. 30.
18 See William Holden Hutton, S. Thomas of Canterbury. An account of his Life and Fame
from the Contemporary Biographers and other Chroniclers (London, 1889), esp. pp. 234-245.
u Eliot, Poetry and Drama, pp. 27-28.
154 Louis L, Martz
Think, my Lord,
Power obtained grows to glory,
Life lasting, a permanent possession,
A templed tomb, monument of marble.
Rule over men reckon no madness.
Both Eliot and Shaw, then, have in their own ways taken pains to place
their action simultaneously in the "real" past and the "real 55 present: an
action firmly fixed in time must underlie the shock of intersection.
But of course, in Eliot's play the cause of intersection, the agent of trans-
formation, the saint, is utterly different from Shaw's, and thus the plays
become, so obviously, different. Shaw's Joan is the active saint, operating
in the world; Eliot's Becket is a contemplative figure, ascetic, "withdrawn
to contemplation," holding within his mind, and reconciling there alone,
the stresses of the world. His immobility is his strength, he is the still point,
the center of the world that moves about him, as his sermon is the center
of the play.
One is struck here by the similarity between the total conception of Eliot's
play and of Oedipus at Colonus* Both heroes, after a long period of wandering,
have found, at their entrance, their place of rest and their place of death,
in a sacred spot: Becket in his Cathedral, Oedipus in the sacred wood of
the Furies or Eumenides. Both heroes maintain the attitude that Oedipus
states at the outset: "nevermore will I depart from my rest in this land."
Both reveal in their opening speeches the view that, as Oedipus says, "pa-
tience is the lesson of suffering." 20 Both are then subjected to various kinds
of temptations to leave the spot; both are forced to recapitulate their past
while enduring these trials; both remain immobile, unmovable; both win
a glorious death and by that death benefit the land in which they die. Both
are surrounded by a large cast of varied human sufferers, who do not under-
stand the saint, who try to deflect him from his ways, and who in some
cases mourn his loss bitterly: the cry of Eliot's priest at the end is like the
cries of Antigone and Ismene:
O father, father, gone from us, lost to us,
How shall we find you, from what far place
Do you look down on us?
I suspect that Oedipus at Colonies has in fact had a deep and early influence
upon Eliot's whole career: "Sweeney among the Nightingales" alludes to
this very wood, which Sophocles' Chorus describes as a place where
The sweet, sojourning nightingale
Murmurs all day long. . . .
20 The Tragedies of Sophocles, trans. Sir Richard C. Jebb (Cambridge: Cambridge Uni-
versity Press, 1904), pp. 63, 61.
The Saint as Tragic Hero 155
And here the choiring Muses come,
And the divinity of love
With the gold reins in her hand. 21
The fact that the Muses haunt this wood may throw some light too upon
the title of Eliot's first book of essays. The Sacred Wood, the book in which he
revealed his early interest in the possibility of a poetic drama.
But our main point here is the way in which this deeply religious tragedy
of Sophocles, which had already provided a strong formative precedent for
Milton's Samson Agonistes, now provides us with a precedent for regarding
Eliot's saint's play as a tragedy. The precedent may also explain why a
strong coloring of Greek-like fatalism runs throughout Eliot's Christian play:
a coloring which some of Eliot's critics have found disturbing. But these
classical reminiscences of Destiny and Fate and Fortune's wheel remind us
only of the base upon which Eliot is building: they do not delimit his total
meaning. We can see this amalgamation of Greek and Christian at work
in Becket's opening speech the most important speech of the play, which
all the rest of the play explores and illustrates. It is the speech which Becket 3 s
Fourth Tempter, his inmost self, repeats in mockery, word for word, twenty
pages later, and thus suggests that these Temptations of pleasure, worldly
power, and spiritual pride are to be regarded as fundamentally a recapitu-
lation of the stages by which Becket has reached the state of mind he displays
at his entrance. He believes that he has found a secret cause, and he enters
prepared to die in that belief: "Peace," he says to the worried priest, and
then, referring to the Chorus of anxious women, continues:
They speak better than they know, and beyond your understanding.
They know and do not know, what it is to act or suffer.
They know and do not know, that acting is suffering
And suffering is action. Neither does the actor suffer
Nor the patient act. But both are fixed
In an eternal action, an eternal patience
To which all must consent that it may be willed
And which all must suffer that they may will it,
That the pattern may subsist, for the pattern is the action
And the suffering, that the wheel may turn and still
Be forever still.
We can worry the ambiguities of those words "suffering" and "patient 5 ' as
long as we wish: in the end Becket keeps his secret almost as stubbornly as
Joan or Oedipus:
11 Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus, trans. Robert Fitzgerald (New York: Harcourt, Brace
& World, Inc., 1941), pp. 55~56-
156 Louis L. Martz
I have had a tremor of bliss, a wink of heaven, a whisper,
And I would no longer be denied; all things
Proceed to a joyful consummation.
But halfway between these two passages lies Becket's Christmas sermon,
presented as a four-page interlude between the play's two parts. It is one
of the most surprisingly successful moments in the modern theater, for who
would expect to find a sermon, and an interesting sermon, here? It owes its
success to an atmosphere of restrained and controlled mystery, and to the
fact that it is not really an interlude at all, but a deep expression of the
play's central theme, binding the play's two parts into one. Becket is speaking
of this word Peace, the word that dominates the play, for all the actors and
sufferers in the play are seeking peace, on their own terms. But the meaning
of the word for Becket is conveyed only obliquely, by Becket's tone, his poise,
his humility, his acceptance, "Thus devoted, concentrated in purpose." He
can display only by his own action and suffering what this word Peace
means to him, for he is trying to explain the meaning of the unspoken Word
that lies locked in the visible and verbal paradoxes of acting and suffering.
And only in this way, too, can Becket display that submission of the will
by which he avoids the final temptation of spiritual pride. The Temptations
make it clear that Becket has been a proud man even an arrogant man:
the first priest, the Tempters, and the Knights all accuse him, with some
reason, of pride. And we hear him speaking at times, throughout the play,
and even at the very end, in a harsh, acid tone, which here and there is
uncomfortably close to condescension. Eliot's control of the character is not
perhaps as firm as we could wish; though there is nothing that a skillful
actor cannot handle, for the central conception is clear: like Oedipus,
Becket is still a man, and retains the marks of his natural character: but
in the sermon we grasp his saintliness.
At the same time Becket conveys to us the essence of the view of Tragedy
that we are here considering. Becket's sermon ponders the fact that in the
services of Christmas the Church celebrates birth and death simultaneously.
Now, "as the World sees," Becket says, "this is to behave in a strange
fashion. For who in the World will both mourn and rejoice at once and
for the same reason?" And this is true on other occasions, he adds: "so also,
in a smaller figure, we both rejoice and mourn in the death of martyrs. We
mourn, for the sins of the world that has martyred them; we rejoice, that
another soul is numbered among the Saints. . . ."
It is this tension, this double vision, that Eliot presents in his great choral
odes. What Eliot has done is to allow everyone in his play except the Chorus
and Becket to remain the simplest possible types simpler even than Shaw's:
ciphers who serve their functions: to provide an outline of the action and
a setting for the problem. Into the cries of the Chorus he has poured the
The Saint as Tragic Hero 157
tragic experience of suffering humanity, caught in the grip of a secret cause:
"We are forced to bear witness."
The Chorus opens the play with fear and reluctance and hopelessness,
asking who it is who shall
Stretch out his hand to the fire, and deny his master? who shall be warm
By the fire, and deny his master?
They know and do not know who it is themselves bending to the earth
like animals seeking their protective coloring:
Now I fear disturbance of the quiet seasons:
Winter shall come bringing death from the sea,
Ruinous spring shall beat at our doors,
Root and shoot shall eat our eyes and our ears,
Disastrous summer burn up the beds of our streams
And the poor shall wait for another decaying October.
These dead do not desire resurrection; and when their Lord Archbishop
reappears to them, they can only cry out, "O Thomas, return, Archbishop;
return, return to France. . . . Leave us to perish in quiet," They would
like to go on "living and partly living," like Shaw's Dauphin, who irritably
shies away from Joan, saying, "I want to sleep in a comfortable bed."
Eliot's Chorus starts from this point by the fireside and the bed a point
which Shaw's chorus of varied actors hardly goes beyond. But Eliot's Chorus
moves far beyond this point, undergoing what Kenneth Burke or Francis
Fergusson might call a ritual of transformation. They are not at all the
"foolish, immodest and babbling women" which Eliot's priest calls them,
but the heart of humanity moving under the impulse of a half-realized cause.
Under this impulse they have moved, by the end of Part I, into the range
of a "stifling scent of despair," which nevertheless is not spreading blindly
outwards: for the Chorus
The forms take shape in the dark air:
Puss-purr of leopard, footfall of padding bear,
Palm-pat of nodding ape, square hyaena waiting
For laughter, laughter, laughter. The Lords of Hell are here.
But after Becket's sermon the Chorus has taken some heart: they no longer
seem to fear the spring:
When the leaf is out on the tree, when the elder and may
Burst over the stream, and the air is clear and high,
And voices trill at windows, and children tumble in front of the door,
What work shall have been done, what wrong
158 Louis L* Martz
Shall the bird's song cover, the green tree cover, what wrong
Shall the fresh earth cover?
From this oscillation between despair and a half-hope arises the play's
greatest poetry, as the Chorus moves on far out of the range of ordinary
fears and hopes into a nightmare vision that renews and extends the animal
imagery, and the dense imagery of taste and smell and the other senses,
by which the Chorus had expressed its horror at the close of Part I; but now
there is more than horror: the Chorus is moving on here to a vision of
humanity's living relation with all being, to a sense that all of creation from
the worm to the Prince is involved in this sacrifice:
I have smelt them, the death-bringers, senses are quickened
By subtile forebodings . . .
I have tasted
The savour of putrid flesh in the spoon. I have felt
The heaving of earth at nightfall, restless, absurd. I have heard
Laughter in the noises of beasts that make strange noises . . .
I have eaten
Smooth creatures still living, with the strong salt taste of living things
under sea . . .
In the air
Flirted with the passage of the kite, I have plunged with the kite and
cowered with the wren. . . .
I have seen
Rings of light coiling downwards, leading
To the horror of the ape. . . .
I have consented, Lord Archbishop, have consented.
Beyond this recognition of responsibility for the action and the suffering,
there lies a step into the vision of ultimate horror which they face just before
the murder: a vision of utter spiritual death: the Dark Night of the Soul:
Emptiness, absence, separation from God;
The horror of the effortless journey, to the empty land
Which is no land, only emptiness, absence, the Void. . . .
This, paradoxically, is their moment of deepest vision, of greatest courage;
the point at which they fully comprehend their need for the sacrifice about
to be permitted, suffered, and which provides the answer to their cries
during the very act of the murder:
Clear the air! clean the sky! wash the wind! take the stone from
the stone, take the skin from the arm, take the muscle from the
bone, and wash them. Wash the stone, wash the bone, wash the
brain, wash the soul, wash them wash them!
The Saint as Tragic Hero 1 59
Like King Oedipus they are, without quite realizing it, being washed in this
"rain of blood" that is blinding their eyes.
As these cries from the conscience of humanity fade away, the lights fade
out and then come on again in the foreground with a glaring brightness
as the four Murderers step forward, make their bows, and present their
ridiculous speeches of defense in the manner of an after-dinner speaker:
"I knew Becket well, in various official relations; and I may say that I have
never known a man so well qualified for the highest rank of the Civil Service."
Or in the manner of the parliamentary orator: "I must repeat one point
that the last speaker has made. While the late Archbishop was Chancellor,
he wholeheartedly supported the King's designs: this is an important point,
which, if necessary, I can substantiate." Or in the manner of the brisk
attorney: "I think, with these facts before you, you will unhesitatingly render
a verdict of Suicide while of Unsound Mind."
The lights fade out again, the Knights disappear, and then gradually the
lights come on once more, to reveal the priests and the Chorus in their old
positions. It is as if the Knights had never spoken: the conscience of humanity
has been working deep within while the Knights were speaking on the
surface, and now the Chorus sums up its discoveries, its transformation,
in a psalm of praise, in which once again it affirms a union with the whole
creation, but this time in a tone of joy and peace:
We praise Thee, O God, for Thy glory displayed in all the creatures
of the earth,
In the snow, in the rain, in the wind, in the storm; in all of Thy
creatures, both the hunters and the hunted. . . .
They affirm Thee in living; all things affirm Thee in living; the bird
in the air, both the hawk and the finch; the beast on the earth, both
the wolf and the lamb; the worm in the soil and the worm in the
belly. . . .
Even in us the voices of seasons, the snufHe of winter, the song of spring,
the drone of summer, the voices of beasts and of birds, praise Thee.
Those words from the final chorus may remind us again of the long tentacles
of correlated imagery that reach throughout these choral odes: imagery of
beasts and birds and worms; of seasons, of violent death, of the daily hard-
ships of the partly living life: with the result that these choral odes grow
together into a long poem, interwoven with verse and prose pitched at a
lower intensity; and by this interweaving of the odes, even more than by
Becket, the play is drawn into unity.
We can see now the effect that these different manifestations of a secret
cause have had upon the total construction of our two saint's plays. Eliot's
play, focused on a contemplative saint, displays what we might call a semi-
circular structure: with Becket as the still center, and the Chorus sweeping
160 Louis L. Martz
out around him in a broad dramatic action, a poetical ballet of transforma-
tion. Shaw's play, based on an active saint, develops instead a linear struc-
ture, as of a spear driving straight for the mark. It is marred, here and there,
by irrelevant or maladjusted witticisms, and the whole character of
Stogumber is a misfortune. Yet Joan and her voices seem to work like key
symbols in a poem: appearing in a carefully designed sequence of different
contexts: six scenes, with six differing moods, moving from farce to high
comedy, to a romantic glimpse of the warrior Joan in shining armor, and
from here into an area of deepening somberness, until, by the fifth scene,
the world of Shaw's play, too, has been transformed from the foolish to the
tragic. Now we have in his play, too, the dim silence of the Cathedral, with
Joan praying symbolically before the stations of the Gross: her white raiment
revealing the saint whose mission is now nearly complete. The king is
crowned; she has shown France how to win; and now, as her allies, one by
one, and even Dunois, fail to answer the unbearable demands of the super-
human, Joan goes forth to meet the cheering crowd who will kiss her gar-
ments and line her roadway with palms. The way is now prepared for the
massive trial scene, the tragic agon, which presents what Eliot calls "a
symbol perfected in death."
And then, the Epilogue. Many have found this a disconcerting, inartistic
mixture of farce, satire, and didactic explanation. I agree. But I do not see
why the Epilogue should spoil the play. An epilogue is no part of the dramatic
action: it is the author's chance to step forward, relaxed and garrulous, and
to talk the play over with the audience. Traditionally, it is true, the epilogue
is recited by only one performer by Prospero, for instance. There is a slight
difference here: Shaw has had his entire cast recite the Epilogue. But it is
still appended commentary on the action, not a part of the action. Moreover,
this kind of thing is not without precedent in performances of tragedy. The
ancient Greeks appear to have liked exactly this kind of release in their
festivals of tragedy, since they demanded that each dramatist, after pre-
senting his three tragedies, should provide them with their satyr-play, usually
of an uproarious and ribald variety, sometimes burlesquing elements of the
very story that had just been seen in tragic dignity. The Epilogue is Shaw's
satyr-play: a bursting forth of that strong sense of the ridiculous which Shaw
has, during the play proper, subjected to a remarkable control remarkable,
that is, for Shaw.
It seems possible, then, to find some place, within the spacious area of
tragedy, for our two saint's plays. It seems possible, if we will not demand
an Aristotelian hero, and if we may view the area of tragedy as a sort of
scale or spectrum ranging between the two poles of doubt and affirmation:
or, to put it more precisely, between the pole of fruitless suffering and the
pole of universal cause. Not a scale of value, but a spectrum of various
qualities, with A Farewell to Arms marking one extreme, outside the area of
The Saint as Tragic Hero 161
tragedy, and Shakespeare's Tempest, perhaps, marking the other extreme. In
between, within the area of tragedy, would lie an enormous variety of works
that would defy any rigorous attempt at definition, except that all would
show in some degree a mingled atmosphere of doubt and affirmation, of
human suffering and secret cause. Far over toward the side of fruitless
suffering we might find the plays of Ibsen, or Othello; somewhere in the
middle, Hamlet, or Oedipus Rex; and far over toward the other side we might
find a triad of strongly affirmative tragedies: Oedipus at Colonus, Samson
Agonistes, and Murder in the Cathedral; and still farther over, perhaps hanging
on by his hands to the very rim of tragedy we might even find a place for
The Shavian Machine
by T. R. Henn
He understands everything in life except its paradoxes, especially that
ultimate paradox that the very things we cannot comprehend are the
things we have to take for granted. 1
G. K. CHESTERTON
It Is related that Yeats perceived, in a dream or vision, Shaw as a
sewing-machine "that clicked and clicked continually." There is a pleas-
antly surrealist quality about such a vision, and we must discount many of
Yeats's statements about his friends and enemies; but there is, as often, a
germ of the truth here. The two Irishmen, opposed in almost every con-
ceivable aspect of background, upbringing and personality, offer some
interesting material for a consideration of twentieth-century Tragedy.
Shaw professed an immense admiration for his own interpretation of the
Ibsen tradition; Yeats and Synge, in different ways, rebelled against the
"pallid and joyless realism" that they saw there, although Yeats had a far
more sensitive understanding of Ibsen than had Synge. For Ibsen was a poet;
Shaw, taking over from those elements of Ibsen's art which best fitted his
own optimistic scepticism, could only produce poetry from the teeth out-
wards; in spite of three notable attempts. 2
The social and intellectual climate of England in the period 1880 to 1920
was perhaps less fitted to provide favourable conditions for a tragic
Anschauung than either the Norway of Ibsen or the Ireland of Yeats and
O' Casey. The slowly-broadening freedom, the inanities and inconsistencies
of a world that was still sorting out its own "complexities of mire and blood"
offered magnificent material for the socialist satirist, but little or nothing
towards a constructive vision based upon conflicting antinomies. The pres-
<c The Shavian Machine" by X. R. Henn. From The Harvest of Tragedy by T. R. Henn
(London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1956). Copyright 1956 by Methuen & Co. Ltd.
Reprinted by permission of Methuen & Co. Ltd.
1 George Bernard Shaw, p. 192.
1 In The Doctor's DHemma y John Bull's Other Island, and Saint Joan.
The Shavian Machine 163
sures, religious, philosophical or national, were either insufficient to provide
a sense of urgency, or obscured in the indefiniteness of objectives suggested
by twentieth-century warfare. The vast problems of centralization raised by
new methods of communication, the bewildering impact of "news" upon
the public mind, were beginning to exercise those peculiar powers of indura-
tion and confusion which persist today. But to Shaw it must have seemed
that the only refuge lay in a creative scepticism extended impartially over
militarism, feminism, journalism, economics, medicine, big business and
political philosophy, and in the Nietzschean romanticism of the Superman.
Three only of Shaw's plays deserve consideration as tragedies: The Doctor's
Dilemma, Mrs. Warren's Profession, and Saint Joan.
At first sight The Doctor's Dilemma affords a striking example of the Hege-
lian theory of tragedy, the conflict of two balanced and irreconcilable claims,
which by their conflict raise important questions of value but which point
to a division in the substance of The Good. If circumstances allow the
salvation of only one life, which is to be preferred; that of the morally
worthless artist or that of the worthy general practitioner? By what scale
is the choice to be justified? The stage is set, the victim dies; the famous
Epilogue is spoken by Ridgeon:
Then I have committed a purely disinterested murder!
The play is well constructed, theoretically effective, with excellent charac-
terization; and yet the tragic failure is complete.
There are, I think, several reasons. The Doctor's Dilemma is the supreme
example of the multiple-aspect-and-object play whose artistic statement is
wholly vitiated by the impurity of its intention and the failure (in spite of
signs that Shaw attempted this late in the play) to achieve a true balance
within that statement. As usual we must first consider the Preface with its
ninety-four pages, in which Shaw teUs us specifically what he is attacking:
the shortcomings of doctors; the evils of poverty (generally, and specifically
as regards doctors); inoculation; vivisection; cruelty; national health; medi-
cal training and organization. We must supplement these "topics," in the
Ibsen manner, by ancillary discussions of the shortcomings of journalists,
and the place of the artist in the State. The long and unrelieved first act is
cumbered with endless medical debate, allowing just enough character to
emerge to serve the developing mechanics of the plot, but adding appreciably
to the subjects proposed in the Preface: criminal law, cremation, Jewish or.
Gentile commercial morality, bourgeois views on marriage, and Christian
Science. Behind these is the oscillating attack of the Puritan-Moralist on
164 T. R. Henn
the artist and his function in society. And because of the very multiplicity
of these topics, the play fails utterly to accumulate momentum; the whole
of the first act is "discussion." The third is concerned with the anagnorisis of
Dubedat's character as a scoundrel with artistic gifts, and provides further
material for the Shavian polemic; for a moment we have some hint of human
relationship in the opening between Dubedat and Jennifer, which is not
picked up again till the death-scene. In this there are two speeches, admirably
designed to illustrate Shaw's idea of the power of the false word his concep-
tion of rhetoric to persuade to that which is not. But such an analysis is too
simple; Shaw would, I think, like us to be carried away by Dubedat's
eloquence, is aware that it is pastiche, and by sheer brilliance introduces, as
it were, a double falsification. The following piece of dialogue is illuminating,
from Dubedat's death-scene:
Louis. I want you to be beautiful. I want people to see in your eyes that you were
married to me. The people in Italy used to point at Dante and say "There goes
the man who has been in hell." I want them to point at you and say "There goes
a woman who has been in heaven." It has been heaven, darling, hasn't it
Mrs. Dubedat. Oh yes, yes. Always, always.
Louis. If you wear black and cry, people will say "Look at that miserable woman:
her husband made her miserable."
Mrs. Dubedat. No, never. You are the light and blessing of my life. I never lived until
I knew you.
Louis (his eyes glistening}. Then you must always wear beautiful dresses and splendid
magic jewels. Think of all the wonderful pictures I shall never paint. (She wins a
terrible victory over a sob.} Well, you must be transfigured with all the beauty of those
pictures. Men must get such dreams from seeing you as they could never get from
any daubing with paints and brushes. Painters must paint you as they never
painted any mortal woman before. There must be a great tradition of beauty, a
great atmosphere of wonder and romance. That is what men must always think
of when they think of me. That is the sort of immortality I want. You can make
that for me, Jennifer. There are lots of things you don't understand that every
woman in the street understands; but you can understand that and do it as nobody
else can. Promise me that immortality. Promise me you will not make a little hell
of crape and crying and undertaker's horrors and withering flowers and all that
vulgar rubbish. (Act IV)
Beneath the surface the weakness and sentimentality is apparent; partly
because Shaw has failed to build up sufficient stature for either of the char-
acters in the earlier part of the play, partly because the emotional pressure
is insufficient to carry conviction. And two redundancies the allusions to
The Shavian Machine 105
"the woman in the street" and to funeral customs are admirable illustra-
tions of Shaw's failure to achieve unity of tone.
By contrast, Mrs. Warren* s Profession comes very close to a true tragedy in
the Ibsen manner. It is not hard to see why. The theme and its characters
are integral, the psychological insight more subtle than usual; and because
the speech of the characters is wholly in tone with the playwright's concep-
tion of them, it does not jar by any attempt at the self-consciously poetic.
The ending is modulated sufficiently into the unspoken to leave room for
the imagination to work upon the whole; Shaw's fondness for abruptness
and finality has for the moment been abandoned. And while the component
themes are drawn from Shaw's stock-in-trade (poverty, morality, clerical
hypocrisy, parent-child relationships) they are sufficiently absorbed into the
idea of the play not to appear discordant.
In some strange manner, too, the play has links with the great classical
themes; the nature of "nature" between mother and daughter, father and
son; hypocrisy, and the power of the individual and of society to rationalize
or mask it; perhaps, too, the shadow of incest in the discovery of the relation-
ship between Vivien and Frank. Through them the "society" which Shaw
attacks so constantly achieves a kind of monstrous objectivity of its own.
The sentimental artist, Praed, produces the ironic criticism of conventional
values, though he is a little distorted. There is indeed much truth in Shaw's
statement in the Preface:
Thus it comes about that the more completely the dramatist is emancipated
from the illusion that men and women are primarily reasonable beings, and the
more powerfully he insists on the ruthless indifference of their great dramatic
antagonist, the external world, to their whims and emotions, the surer he is to
be denounced as blind to the distinction on which his whole work is built. Far
from ignoring idiosyncrasy, will, passion, impulse, whim, as factors in human
action, I have placed them so nakedly on the stage that the elderly citizen,
accustomed to see them clothed with the veil of manufactured logic about duty,
and to disguise even his own impulses from himself in this way, finds the picture
as unnatural as Carlyle's suggested painting of parliament sitting without its
We can remember with profit Timon, Lear and Swift. When this social
criticism is successfully merged with the dramatic structure the ironies of
speech and situation support the whole, and when Shaw's sense of the theatre
allows him to trust his audience to complete the pattern of the unspoken,
1 66 T. R. Henn
we have an approach to the only kind of tragedy his genius allowed him to
compass, the tragedy of woman.
Saint Joan is for our purposes the single most interesting play: not merely
because controversy has raged for so long about its value as a tragedy, but
because Shaw has in the Preface given us some account of what he conceives
to be the essential tragic principles:
There are no villains in the piece. Crime, like disease, is not interesting: it is
something to be done away with by general consent, and that is all about it.
It is what men and women do at their best, with good intentions, and what
normal men and women find that they must do and will do in spite of their
intentions, that really concern us. The rascally bishop and the cruel inquisitor
of Mark Twain and Andrew Lang are dull as pickpockets; and they reduce
Joan to the level of the even less interesting person whose pocket is picked. I
have represented both of them as capable and eloquent exponents of the Church
Militant and the Church Litigant, because only by doing so can I maintain my drama
on the level of high tragedy and save it from becoming a mere police court sensation. A
villain in a play can never be anything more than a diabolus ex machina, possibly
a more exciting expedient than a deus ex machina^ but both equally mechanical,
and therefore interesting only as mechanism.
We are led by this statement to look for a Hegelian balance, like that
proposed in The Doctor's Dilemma; a balance to "maintain the play on the
level of high tragedy." This careful manipulation of the scales is predom-
inantly intellectual; and it appears to involve the exclusion of any philosophy
of evil 3 in favour of stupidity, ignorance, self-will; and a general blindness
to the ultimate outcome of a given action in time. The conflict is, in the most
generalized terms, between Genius and Discipline, as Shaw points out in
But this intellectual framework, this immense care to present both sides
of the conflict and to provide a rational basis for the supranatural, 4 has some
interesting effects. Both sets of protagonists are deflated, impartially, by the
darts of Shaw's wit; and have scarcely any breath left to sustain the moments
of high tragedy in the trial scene. We have thus an interesting reflection on
the whole question of comic relief in modern tragedy; it seems that the
humour must be carefully adjusted to the characters without depriving them
3 This is made clear by the irony of Ladvenu's reading of the confession she is required
4 Cf. Shaw's care to stress the commonplace aspect of Joan's "voices"; as well as the
commonplace character from several aspects of Joan herself.
The Shavian Machine 167
of the potentiality for rising, momentarily at least, above the memory of
their demonstrated weakness. And we are led to the suspicion that Shaw is
obsessed with the idea of the "ordinary," as opposed to the theatrical, rep-
resentations of his characters, an "ordinariness" which is itself treated
theatrically in order to emphasize it even at the expense of a certain cheap-
ness of wit. In the trial scene the Inquisitor alone retains his full dignity;
the Chaplain is over-caricatured, the anti-imperialism handled with far too
heavy a touch. It becomes very clear that the central problem of the modern
writer of tragedy is to achieve this delicate balance between the ordinary
and the theatrical, so that the ordinary is not robbed of its power of exalta-
tion, nor the theatrical degraded to the sentimental. And the wit must, in
some manner, be merged into humour, if we are to believe in the capacity
of the main protagonists to rise, in the later stages of the play, to the high
emotion that will be demanded of them. But most interesting of all is Shaw's
attempt to solve the problem of lyric speech at the moment of greatest
Yes: they told me you were fools (the word gives great offence), and that I was
not to listen to your fine words nor trust to your charity. You promised me my
life, but you lied (indignant exclamations). You think that life is nothing but not
being stone dead. It is not the bread and water I fear: I can live on bread: when
have I asked for more? It is no hardship for me to drink water if the water be
clean. Bread has no sorrow for me, and water no affliction. But to shut me from
the light of the sky and the sight of the fields and flowers; to chain my feet so
that I can never again ride with the soldiers nor climb the hills; to make me
breathe foul damp darkness, and keep me from everything that brings me back
to the love of God when your wickedness and foolishness tempt me to hate Him:
all this is worse than the furnace in the Bible that was heated seven times. I
could do without my war horse; I could drag about in a skirt; I could let the
banners and the trumpets and the knights and soldiers pass me and leave me
behind as they leave the other women, if only I could still hear the wind in the
trees, the larks in the sunshine, the young lambs crying through the healthy
frost, and the blessed church bells that send my angel voices floating to me on
the wind. But without these things I cannot live; and by your wanting to take
them away from me I know that your counsel is of the devil, and that mine is
of God. (Scene VI)
The rhythms here are an interesting index to the quality of the emotion;
having in mind the previous delineation of Joan's character; and the two
stage directions in the first two lines show that Shaw could never leave the
obvious to the good sense and tact of his readers. We suspect the playwright's
integrity because of the lack of rhythmic unity in the passage as a whole,
as well as for the occasional clumsiness. ("You think that life is nothing but
not being stone dead.") The passage that starts "if only I could hear the wind
i68 T. R. Henn
in the trees" 5 is consciously "poetic," quite out of keeping both with
Joan's character and with the sentences that precede and follow it.
The Epilogues to Shaw's plays, both in The Doctor's Dilemma and in Saint
Joan, have been the source of endless controversy. They serve several pur-
poses. They stand in part for a negation of the traditional ending, that of
the death of the hero. The play and life continue; the extension is, perhaps,
designed to tempt us to view them sub specie aeternitatis. Any intention of the
kind is denied by the irresistible opportunities they offer for a deflation of
traditional attitudes, and to hammer home some of the propositions already
set in the play. Shaw takes a final critical and ironical look at what has gone
before. Death is neither eloquent, nor just, nor mighty, nor yet "a queer
untidy thing." It is a chemical change through cremation. Ideas live on,
modify themselves; illusion and stupidity continue in different forms; and,
standing aside, Shaw's world is seen to have some measure of intellectual
pity, but not of fear.
But why? Does this mean that Shaw, or Shaw's audience, demand a
Weltanschauung sufficiently distanced that, like Troilus, they can laugh "from
the hoi we of the seventh sphere," at human stupidity? There are grounds
for believing that this is so. "The tragedy of such murders is that they are
not committed by murderers" (cf. The Doctor's Dilemma). "They are judicial
murders, pious murders; and this contradiction at once brings an element
of comedy into the tragedy: the angels may weep at the murder, but the
gods laugh at the murderers." 6
But to extend the tragedy in time and space in order to perceive the
comedy is to remove at a stroke the possibility of a full tragic response.
Any tragedy, thus produced in time, is seen, from an altitude, to provide its
own resolution; as in medieval religious drama. It removes from the audience
the need for any individual response or responsibility in the present. There
are none of the old misgivings, the crooked questions that lie at the roots
of individual experience; and Joan's cry "How long . . . ?" fades into the
commonplaces of history.
Such considerations, themselves negative as regards Shaw's position as a
tragic artist, may yet suggest certain thoughts on the nature of tragedy. The
5 1 do not think it is fantastic to perceive curiously Synge-like rhythms as well as sub-
stance in this passage: "but you'll be hearing the herons crying out over the black lakes,
and you'll be hearing the grouse and the owls with them, and the larks and the big
thrushes when the days are warm . . . but its fine songs you'll be hearing when the sun
goes up, and there'll be no old fellow wheezing, the like of a sick sheep, close to your ear.**
(The Shadow of the Glen.)
8 Preface to Saint Joan, p. Ivi.
The Shavian Machine 169
tragic artist must present the problems which he handles as intrinsic with
the plot, character, and imagery, the whole a colloidal mixture rather than
a series of separate globules existing in a kind of surface-tension relationship.
There would appear also to be a limit to the number of propositions that
form the raw material; it is, for example, apparent that Shaw's "subjects"
are far more numerous, and less relevant to the central theme, than say,
those of Ibsen or of Brieux. The sense of a tragic pattern is all-important;
if this does not emerge from the interaction of character, the pattern must
be brought out by imagery or symbol in the broad poetic statement. That
poetic statement cannot be applique' 'd, at those points of the play where the
dramatist thinks that they are demanded by the theatrical context; it must
be, as it were, latent from the very beginning of the play, as much in its
Image 7 as in its language. Comic relief, in general, must illuminate, contrast
with, or round off this total idea; it must not be designed merely to puncture,
deflate or wound for its own sake. And finally, the dramatist must achieve
a certain measure of identification with his characters and situations; if he
stands (even for a moment) outside them to criticize them with his own lips,
he has withdrawn from them in just that measure their whole poetic life*
Arland Ussher's words are worth quoting in this context:
The tension we miss in him consists of those wholly un-Shavian ideas sin,
temptation and remorse; or in an older language than the Christian, in fear
and pity those emotions which the adolescent superman-worshipper will always
despise pity for the unalterability of the human lot, fear of the forces which
lurk under the most polished social surface. 8
7 I use the word in Abercrombie's sense. Cf. Principles of English Prosody.
8 Arland Ussher, Three Great Irishmen, p. 58.
Bernard Shaw and William Blake
by Irving Fiske
Bernard Shaw, in the Preface to the volume of his plays containing The
Devil's Disciple, acknowledges his indebtedness to William Blake for the
philosophical basis of that play in these words: "Let those who have praised
my originality in conceiving Dick Dudgeon's strange religion read Blake's
Marriage of Heaven and Hell; and I shall be fortunate if they do not rail
at me for a plagiarist/ 5
In his Preface to Man and Superman^ Shaw names Blake, together with
Bunyan, Hogarth and Turner "(these four apart and above all the English
classics)" he adds as pre-eminent among those "whose peculiar sense of
the world I recognize as more or less akin to my own"; and he reproaches
the "polite critics of the rgth century" for "ignoring William Blake as super-
ficially as the 1 8th had ignored Hogarth or the i7th Bunyan." In regard to
the people of his Heartbreak House, he speaks of their futility and purpose-
lessness even though "you would find Blake among the poets" on their
guestroom tables, and "Blake and the other major poets" on their library
shelves. Blake, elsewhere, is to Shaw "the most religious of our great poets."
The clue to the nature of the kinship that he feels with Blake is provided,
it is true, by the fact that Shaw appraises both Blake and himself as dealing
with man and the world from a point of view essentially religious.
"Art has never been great," says Shaw, "when it is not providing an
iconography for a live religion." To Shaw, to be an "iconographer of the
religion of my time, and thus fulfil my natural function as an artist," is his
central task; and, he says, "the thought is the life." William Blake speaks
of his own purpose as
. . . My great task!
To open the Eternal Worlds, to open the immortal Eyes
Of Man inwards into the Worlds of Thought, into Eternity. . . .
"Bernard Shaw and William Blake" (original title: "Bernard Shaw's Debt to William
Blake 9 *) by Irving Fiske. From The Shavian, Tract No. 2 (The Shaw Society, 1951).
Copyright 1951 by The Shaw Society, London, England. Reprinted by permission of
The Shaw Society.
Bernard Shaw and William Blake iji
But for Blake, as for Shaw, it is a task in which any touch of false reserve or
self-effacement would be meaningless and distasteful; and one to be pursued
with no concern for that surface "originality" which Emerson stated was
never the preoccupation of the first-rate artist.
"I, a playwright of Shakespearean eminence," Shaw describes himself.
"I, William Blake, a Mental Prince," and "in heaven a Prince among
Princes," says Blake. "I really cannot respond to this demand for mock-
modesty," Shaw declares. "If a man is master of his profession, he cannot be
ignorant that he is so," Blake puts it, and:
... In melodious accents I
Will sit me down and cry I, I.
"The cart and trumpet for me," cries Shaw.
"I should make formal acknowledgment to the authors whom I have
pillaged," says Shaw of Man and Superman, "if I could recollect them all."
"The Bad Artist Seems to copy a Great deal," says Blake. "The Good one
Really does Copy a Great deal." Nevertheless, for both men, it is the magni-
tude or newness of an idea that produces true originality of substance and
of form. "New Ideas make their technique as water makes its channel," says
Shaw; and Blake: "The Great Style is always Novel or New in all its
But Shaw's indebtedness to Blake is in reality much broader than this,
and extends quite unmistakeably through the entire range of speculation
by both men in regard to art, science, literature, religion, and virtually
every question of human nature and human destiny. "A genius," says Shaw,
"is a person who, seeing farther and probing deeper than other people, has
a different set of ethical valuations from theirs," with energy enough to
express these valuations, he continues, "in whatever manner best suits his
or her specific talents."
With all allowance for the fact that Blake's specific talent is lyrical, and
Shaw's dramatic, there is still in the pronouncements of both men a similarity
explicable only on the basis of their closely related creative positions a
similarity, however, which is the natural and inevitable result of that rela-
tionship. The prose and expository writings of both men are, moreover, very
similar in their unadorned directness of statement, unflagging didacticism,
and insistence on tightness and definiteness of idea. "Obscurity," says Blake
(despite his supposed taste for it) "is Neither the Source of the Sublime nor
of any Thing Else," and: "Grandeur of Ideas is founded on Precision of
Ideas" ... a statement paralleled by Shaw's "Lucidity is one of the most
precious of gifts: the gift of the teacher: the gift of explanation." On com-
parison, Blake is, if anything, more inflexibly assertive, and more of a
thoroughgoing extremist in his evaluations and conclusions.
1 72 Irving Fiske
. . , What is a Church & What Is a Theatre? Are they Two & not One?
can they exist Separate?
and "a theatre," Shaw says, "as a place where two or three are gathered
together, takes from that presence an inalienable sanctity." "Excess of sorrow
laughs. Excess of joy weeps," says Blake, and: "Fun I love, but too much
Fun is of all things the most loathsome." "Tears in adult life are the natural
expression of happiness," says Shaw, "as laughter is at all ages the natural
recognition of destruction, confusion, and ruin"; and of his own plays: "Any
fool can make an audience laugh. I want to see how many of them, laughing
or grave, have tears in their eyes" an idea summed up by Blake's
Joy & Woe are woven fine
A Clothing for the Soul divine;
Under every grief & pine
Runs a joy with silken twine.
And yet, though Blake is still widely referred to, rather surprisingly, as a
romantic, he has as little use as Shaw for those three prominent romantic
emotions: nostalgia, romantic sorrow, and romantic love.
Nostalgia, to Blake, conies into being only under the pressure of stifled
and imprisoned lives:
They view their former life: they number
moments over and over,
Stringing them on their remembrance as
on a thread of sorrow . . .;
and "Sorrow," he says, "is not fit for Immortals & is utterly useless to any
one." Of romantic love, says Shaw's John Tanner hi Man and Superman:
"But a lifetime of happiness! No man alive could bear it: it would be hell
on earth." Blake has it
Grown old in Love from Seven till Seven times Seven.
I oft have wish'd for Hell for Ease from Heaven.
Both men reject the notion of progress in art and human affairs "this
goose-cackle about Progress," Shaw calls it. "Mankind," says Blake, "are
In a less distinguished Situation with regard to mind than they were in the
time of Homer." "My reason then," says Shaw, with exaggerated patience,
"for ignoring the popular conception of Progress in Caesar and Cleopatra
is that there is no reason to suppose that any Progress has taken place since
"To suppose that Art can go beyond the finest specimens of Art that are
now in the world," Blake declares, "is not knowing what Art is"; and he
places Shakespeare among those who artistically "are the extent of the
Bernard Shaw and William Blake 173
human mind." "No man will ever write a better tragedy than Lear," says
Shaw, and: "Moliere and Mozart, upon whose art no human hand can
improve." But Shakespeare, for both, is intellectually incomplete. To Shaw,
Shakespeare is "irreligious," "anarchical," without "constructive ideas," and
ignorant "as to what philosophy means." Shakespeare, says Blake, was
"curb'd by the general malady & infection from the silly Greek & Latin
slaves of the Sword" meaning the Greek and Latin classics, towards which
Shaw, on the whole, is not hostile, but which Blake detests.
"Are not Religion & Politics the Same Thing?" asks Blake. "A vocation
for politics," to Shaw, is "essentially a religious vocation." "If Men were
Wise," Blake asserts, "The Most arbitrary Princes could not hurt them.
If they are not wise, the Freest Government is compelPd to be a Tyranny,"
"Fools must be governed according to their folly," states Shaw, "and not to
a wisdom they do not possess."
To both, the prophet is allied to the artist, and prophecy a direct expression
of artistic insight into worldly affairs, with nothing supernatural about it.
"A prophet in the true sense" is defined by Shaw as "a man of exceptional
sanity who is in the right when we are in the wrong." "Prophets, in the
modern sense of the word, have never existed," says Blake, and the true
prophet, he elaborates, "utters his opinion both of private & public matters.
Thus: If you go on So, the result is So. He never says, such a thing shall
happen let you do what you will. A Prophet is a Seer, not an Arbitrary
Dictator." Shaw alludes to Christ as "an artist and a Bohemian in his manner
of life"; and "Jesus & his Apostles & Disciples were all Artists," says Blake.
All men, for both Blake and Shaw, are indissolubly bound together
"members one of another," Shaw states it, and Blake:
Can I see another's woe,
And not be in sorrow too?
"I feel his pain in my own heart," cries the poet of his rival in Shaw's
Candida. But hardness, not softness of response, is for Blake as for Shaw the
meaning of real compassion.
. . Pity divides the soul
And man unmans,
writes Blake. Shaw speaks of a tale of brutality "with an edge that will cut
the soft cruel hearts and strike fire from the hard kind ones." Pity is labelled
"the scavenger of misery" by Shaw's Undershaft hi Major Barbara. Pity, to
Blake, is "Miseries' increase."
Shaw proclaims himself always inspired when he writes; and "Inspira-
tion," says Blake, is "my Eternal Dwelling place." For both, however,
inspiration is a thing of complete awareness, not unconscious rapture. "Plato
has made Socrates say that Poets & Prophets do not know or Understand
174 Irving Fiske
what they write or Utter; this is a most Pernicious Falsehood," Blake asserts.
"Produce me your best critic, and I will criticize his head off," says Shaw.
Science, as it is practised, is to Blake "Thy self-destroying, beast form'd
Science"; and to Shaw a "revival of tribal soothsaying" responsible for the
modern idea of scientific predestination, 1 which he calls "so imbecile and
dangerous a creed." Predestination to Blake is "Cursed Folly."
Both are particularly incensed by the corruption of the substance of
religion into its forms and shadows. "Christ's Crucifix shall be made an
excuse for Executing Criminals," says Blake; and Shaw: "Christianity means
nothing to the masses but a sensational public execution which is made an
excuse for other executions." Abstruse theological mysticism is to Shaw
merely "artificial intellectual mystification"; but to Blake "the dismal shade
Of Mystery," "the Ashes of Mystery," and "Mystery Accursed."
The key to the creative point of view shared by Shaw and Blake is to be
found in their insistence on the fundamental unity and validity of all human
drives and human appetites. From this point of view, the profoundest and
most significant of man's appetites is his appetite for religion and the central
one lying behind all of his activities. "There is only one religion, though
there are a hundred versions of it," Shaw writes. "All religions are one,"
says Blake, and "have one source," which he calls "the Poetic Genius."
"Art, science, and religion," says Shaw, "are really identical and inseparable
in their foundations." "The Thing I have most at Heart," Blake affirms,
"Is the Interest of True Religion & Science." But while all religions are true
enough in origin and inspiration, all established religions, to both, are other-
wise greatly in error.
"Our religion," Shaw says, is "gravely wrong"; and: "At present there
is not a single credible established religion in the world." Formal religion
is to Blake "a pretence of Religion to destroy Religion," and "the Wheel
of Religion," of which he says
Jesus died because he strove
Against the current of this Wheel; its Name
Is Caiaphas. . . .
The most formidable obstructions of man's religious impulse, to Blake and
Shaw, are the self-negating concepts invented by man himself as substitutes
for a genuinely satisfying religion. Among such substitutes are nature-
worship, morality, humility, and the idea of man's insignificance in the
universe. "Where man is not, nature is barren," Blake maintains. "The-
mountains are corpses," says Shaw's Ancient in Back to Methuselah. "If
1 [Note by G.B.S.] Science, as it is practised, is to Blake "Thy self-destroying, beast
form'd Science"; and to Shaw a "revival of tribal soothsaying" responsible for the modern
idea of scientific predestination, etc. altered by Shaw to read responsible for the modern
idea of scientific determinism, etc.
Bernard Shaw and William Blake 175
Morality was Christianity," Blake caustically observes, "Socrates was the
The Moral Christian is the Cause
Of the Unbeliever & his Laws.
Shaw speaks of the "confusion of virtue with the mere morality that steals
its name." "Our Fundamentalists," to Shaw, "are the worst enemies of
religion to-day." "Jesus was all virtue, and acted from impulse, not from
rules," Blake concludes. "Opinion is a dead thing and impulse a live thing,"
Shaw's Jesus says in the Preface to On the Rocks.
Humility Shaw calls "the wicked doctrine of docility in poverty and
humility under oppression," conceived by the coward as "a religion of his
cowardice." Humility is for Blake not of God, but of Satan:
God wants not Man to Humble himself:
This is the trick of the ancient Elf,
Humility is only doubt,
And does the Sun & Moon blot out.
To Blake it is the accepted scientists and philosophers lumped together by
him as "Bacon & Newton & Locke" whose guilt it is that they "teach
Humility to Man."
An excessive devotion to the gratification of physical desires, or an ascetic
renunciation of them, are for Blake and Shaw equally irrelevant and un-
wholesome. "The substitution of sensuous ecstasy for intellectual activity and
honesty is the very devil," Shaw expresses it. "Hell, in short," says his Man
and Superman, "is a place where you have nothing to do but amuse yourself."
"Hell," says Blake, "is the being shut up in the possession of corporeal desires
which shortly weary the man"; and a state where "Intellect is no more.
There is no time for any thing but the torments of love & desire."
But "I am the last man in the world to be cited as ascetic," Shaw says.
He insists upon "the satisfaction of physical cravings before they become
mental anxieties." "Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted
desires," Blake asserts, much more emphatically. Of man's ultimate spiritual
illumination he says: "This will come to pass by an improvement of sensual
Only by embracing all of his desires can man eliminate the destructive
inversions arising from their repression, and so release his underlying reli-
gious impulse to manifest itself freely. What will then emerge, according
to Shaw, is man's "evolutionary appetite" the drive of the Life Force in
him towards the creation of "higher and higher individuals." This is Shaw's
1 76 Irving Fiske
Creative Evolution basically a substitution of the idea of biologic progress
for the customary concept of progress which he attacks. 2 The goal of Shaw's
Life Force is ever "greater power of contemplating itself" and "self-under-
standing." "If God is anything he is Understanding," says Blake.
To Blake, however, man's perfect state is always potentially present, and
need not wait upon any act of outer creation. "The outward Creation,"
says Blake, "is as the dirt upon my feet" a denial not of its being, but of
its supposedly crushing magnitude to man.
Shaw's Don Juan in Man and Superman sings "the philosophic man," and
philosophy is for Shaw a valid instrument of search. But philosophy to Blake
is "Abstract Philosophy warring in enmity against Imagination"; and ab-
straction itself a "fleeing from Identity In abstract false Expanses." The
scientist-philosopher, in particular, he accuses of misleading men by "Calling
the Rocks Atomic Origins of Existence, denying Eternity." For Blake, all
the works of accepted science and philosophy are as nothing compared with
that awareness of man's inner magnificence and resources which Israel
brought into the western world:
The Atoms of Democritus
And Newton's Particles of light
Are sands upon the Red sea shore,
Where Israel's tents do shine so bright.
Caesar, in Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra, shocks and bewilders his associates
by insisting on treating his personal enemies with magnanimous forgiveness
not out of benevolence, but on the grounds that it is most profitable for him
to do so. "In order to produce an impression of complete disinterestedness,"
is Shaw's explanation, "he has only to act with entire selfishness." Profitable-
ness as a test of human behaviour is for Blake the practical essence of genuine
Christianity. "The Christian Religion teaches that No Man is Indifferent
to you, but that every one is Either your friend or your enemy," says Blake,
"And that he will be equally profitable both ways if you treat him as he
One of man's most crucial errors, as seen by Blake and Shaw, is his habit
of appraising human conduct in measures of good and evil, of moral right
and wrong, instead of in terms of human profit and loss. Mere good inten-
tions, to both, are not enough.
. . . Caiaphas was in his own Mind
A benefactor to Mankind,
1 [Note by G.B.S.'] This is Shaw's Creative Evolution basically a substitution of the idea
of biologic progress for the customary concept of progress which he attacks. altered by
Shaw to read basically a substitution of the idea of biologic development for the utilitarian
concept of progress which he attacks.
Bernard Shaw and William Blake 177
Blake says of the accuser of Jesus; and "the Mischief is just the same whether
a Man does it Ignorantly or Knowingly." "Hell is paved with good inten-
tions," says Shaw, "not with bad ones."
In place of moralistic self-righteousness, both preach the need of accuracy
and thoroughness of intellectual judgment. "Severity of judgment is a great
virtue," Blake contends. "The secret of forgiving everything is to understand
nothing," Shaw says. In their view, every falsehood, evasion or confusion
of the issue, deliberate or not, in man's weighing of human affairs must pay
its price in misery and blood. If clarity of judgment, without preconception
or illusion, is not displayed by individuals, it will be exercised by events*
Illusion "is productive of the most dreadful Consequences," writes Blake,
"even of Torments, Despair, Eternal Death" to those possessed by it. He
attributes to incorrect habits of thought "A World in which Man is by his
Nature the Enemy of Man." Shaw says of the devastations of the first World
War that "They were all as preventible as the great Plague of London, and
came solely because they had not been prevented."
This reprisal of events, to both, is the everyday actuality behind man's
religious expectation of a Last Judgment. "In sober fact, every day is a day
of judgment," Shaw asserts; and "Judgment is valuation." "Civilizations
live by their valuations," he writes. "If the valuations are false, the civiliza-
tion perishes as all the ancient ones we know of did."
Says Blake, savagely, "A Last Judgment is Necessary because Fools flour-
ish" which is exactly the theme of Shaw's The Simpleton of the Unexpected
Isles. "We must stop making fools," that play declares, and "There just
shouldn't be any fools." On the Day of Judgment with which the play deals,
not only do man's illusory ideals "cease to exist," Shaw explains, "it becomes
apparent that they never did exist." "Error," Blake says of the Judgment
Day, "will be Burned up." "It is Burnt up," he adds, "the Moment Men
cease to behold it."
Man's only real original sin, to Blake and Shaw, is his subjection to the
concept of sin itself, which fills his mind and diverts it from the genuine
issues. Man forgets that there was in the Garden of Eden not only the tree
of the knowledge of good and evil, to eat of which was death; but also the
tree of life, of which he was not forbidden to eat, but did not taste. "The
original sin," Shaw says, "was not the eating of the forbidden fruit, but
the consciousness of sin which the fruit produced." The concept of sin Blake
describes as one of Satan's own delusions. "Satan thinks that Sin is dis-
pleasing to God," says Blake, "he ought to know that Nothing is displeasing
to God but Unbelief & Eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good & Evil."
A free exchange of ideas is therefore, to Shaw and Blake alike, a prime
requirement of man's welfare, no matter how dangerous or appalling those
ideas may at first appear. "The counsel men agree with is vain: it is only
the echo of their own voices," Shaw's Jesus replies to Pilate. "But he who
*?8 Irving Fiske
does not fear you and shews you the other side is a pearl of the greatest
price." Freedom of expression Blake regards not merely as a human right,
but a divine necessity. "As the breath of the Almighty such are the words
of man to man," he writes.
Man's redeemed and illuminated state, for Blake, is a state in which man
has emerged from "Satan's Labyrinth" of moral evaluations of good and
evil, with his intelligence and imagination freed to operate creatively, un-
hampered by moralistic modes of thought. "Here they are no longer talking
of what is Good & Evil," Blake says, "or of what is Right or Wrong, &
puzzling themselves in Satan's Labyrinth, But are Conversing with Eternal
Realities as they Exist in the Human Imagination." The same conviction,
in essence, is summed up by the hero of Shaw's The Shewing-Up of Blanco
Posnet. "There's no good and bad," declares Posnet, "but by Jimmy, gents,
there's a rotten game, and there's 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
Chronology of Important Dates
1856 George Bernard Shaw born in Dublin, Ireland, July 26th.
1876 Arrived in London to make his way.
1879-83 Wrote five unsuccessful novels in laborious succession: Immaturity,
1879; Irrational Knot, 1880; Love Among the Artists, 1881; Cashel
Byron's Profession, 1882; and An Unsocial Socialist, 1883.
1882 Heard Henry George, American author of Progress and Poverty,
address a London meeting. It "changed the whole current of my
life." Read Marx's Das Kapital at the British Museum. It "made
a man of me."
1884 Fabian Society formed; Shaw elected a member.
1890 Wrote Quintessence of Ibsenism.
1888-94 Brilliant success as music critic.
1892 First play, Widowers* Houses, produced.
1893 Mrs. Warren's Profession banned. First produced in 1902.
1894 Arms and the Man and Candida. Shaw's first stage successes.
1895-98 London's leading drama critic in Frank Harris' Saturday Review.
1895 The Sanity of Art.
1896 You Never Can Tell, perhaps Shaw's most underrated comedy.
1 898 Married Charlotte Payne-Townshend, an heiress and fellow Social-
1899 Wrote Captain Brassbound's Conversion for Ellen Terry, and Caesar
1901-03 Man and Superman (produced in 1905) began Shaw's great period.
First play to have full-scale Shavian preface.
1904-07 Vedrenne and Granville Barker Court Theatre productions of
Shaw, Shakespeare, and Euripides established Shaw's permanent
theatrical reputation with 701 performances of eleven Shaw plays.
1904 John Bull's Other Island, least known of Shaw's major plays.
1905 Major Barbara.
1906 The Doctor's Dilemma. Bought "Shaw's Corner" at Ayot St. Law-
1908 Getting Married.
1911 Androcles and the Lion.
1912 Pygmalion. Shaw sculpted by Rodin.
1914 Courageous and much reviled attack on super-patriotism and the
insanity of war, Commonsense About the War.
1913-16 Heartbreak House (produced in 1920).
1921 Back to Methuselah, Shaw's "Metabiological Pentateuch."
1923 Saint Joan.
1925 Awarded Nobel Prize for Literature.
1928 The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism.
1929 The Apple Cart (his last play of arguable major stature).
1943 Mrs. Shaw died.
1947 Wrote last complete play at the age of 91: Buoyant Billions. His
career as a publishing writer exceeded seventy years.
1950 Shaw died at his home in Ayot St. Lawrence, November 2nd.
Motes on the Editor and Authors
R. J. KAUFMANN, editor of the anthology, is Professor of History and English at the
University of Rochester. He has written frequently about Shakespearian drama and
aspects of modern literature and criticism.
ERIC BENTLEY is Brander Matthews Professor of Dramatic Literature at Columbia
University. He has done much to raise the standards of contemporary theater in
America through his work as a critic, reviewer, producer, anthologist, and translator.
His numerous books include A Century of Hero Worship, The Playwright as Thinker,
Shaw, The Dramatic Event, and The Life of the Drama.
BERTOLT BRECHT has been one of the revolutionary forces in the modern theater
through his plays, through his fertile theorizings about acting, and through his genius
as director of his own and other plays. His Mother Courage, Threepenny Opera, Good
Woman of Setzuan, and The Caucasian Chalk Circle belong to the classic canon of modern
ROBERT BRUSTEIN is Professor of Dramatic Literature at Columbia University and
theater critic for the New Republic. In 1962 he won the George Jean Nathan award
as the outstanding drama critic in the United States. The Theater of ^Revolt is his first
Louis CROMPTON, a Canadian who teaches at the University of Nebraska, is com-
pleting a book on Shaw. He has published on Ibsen, Dickens, Hardy, and other
ERIK H. ERIKSON is one of America's most distinguished psychiatrists. Professor of
Human Development at Harvard University, his books include Childhood and Society,
Young Man Luther, and Insight and Responsibility.
IRVING FISKE is an English Shavian,
T. R. HENN is Senior Lecturer at St. Catherine's College, Cambridge. He has written
books on Longinus and on Yeats and is the author of The Apple and the Spectroscope,
a book on the interplay of science and poetry.
G. WILSON KNIGHT, who retired in 1963 as Professor of English at Leeds, is one of
the most influential modern interpreters of Shakespeare. Among his many books are:
The Wheel of Fire, The Imperial Theme, The Christian Renaissance, The Crown of Life, and
The Golden Labyrinth.
Louis L. MARTZ is Douglas Tracy Smith Professor of English and American Litera-
ture at Yale University. He is the author of the well-known Poetry of Meditation and,
most recently, The Paradise Within.
MARGERY M. MORGAN is Senior Lecturer in English at Monash University, Aus-
tralia. She is author of A Drama of Political Man: A Study in the Plays of Harley GranoilU
NORBERT F. O'DONNELL teaches at Bowling Green State in Ohio. He is the author
of numerous essays on Shaw.
RICHARD M. OHMANN is Associate Professor of English at Wesleyan University.
Besides Shaw: The Style and the Man, he has published The Making of Myth.
BRUCE R. PARK teaches at Brooklyn College. He is co-author of The State of the Jazz
Lyric and is completing a book called The Protocols of Comedy.
Shaw's own work in very extensive. All his fifty-two plays and playlets are reprinted
in the thirty-six-volume Constable Standard Edition of the Works of Bernard Shaw
(London, 1930-50). The Standard Edition also includes Shaw's important drama
criticism (Our Theatre in the Nineties, 3 vols.), most of his music criticism, his major
political and social criticism (of which The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism and
Capitalism, 1928, provides the most complete summary of Shaw's position), and
Major Critical Essays (which contains Shaw's Quintessence of Ibsenism, The Perfect
Wagnerite, and The Sanity of Art). Read together, these three latter works from the
'nineties shed as much light on the formation of Shaw's aesthetics as anything avail-
Shaw was a busy letter writer and a good one. An edition of his complete corre-
spondence is in progress by Dan H. Laurence, who has also issued three carefully
edited volumes of material not in the collected edition. Respectively, they gather
Shaw's fugitive music criticism, speeches (mainly on religious topics), and commen-
taries on Irish questions. Volumes of Shaw's correspondence with the great actresses
Mrs. Patrick Campbell and Ellen Terry, and with his favorite co-worker in the
theater, the actor and dramatist Granville Barker, have been published. Hardly
anything better reveals the inner workings of Shaw's personality than these intimate
The standard biography of Shaw is Archibald Henderson's Bernard Shaw: Playboy
and Prophet, 1932. It is massive and critically heavy-handed but packed with informa-
tion. Of the very numerous approximations to a definitive critical biography, William
Irvine's The Universe of G. B. S., 1949, is perhaps the best.
Being a contentious man, Shaw has provoked an immense literature of spirited
critical comment. Much of it is marred by prejudice and journalistic improvisation.
The early study by G. K. Chesterton, George Bernard Shaw, 1909, and Eric Bentley's
Bernard Shaw, 1947, are recommended as keenly intelligent points of entry to Shaw's
multifarious intellectual and artistic activities.
Aside from Richard Ohmann's Shaw: The Style and the Man, Martin Meisel's Shaw
and the Nineteenth Century Theater (Princeton, 1963), perhaps contributes most originally
to the scholarly reassessment of Shaw now in progress.
The periodical literature on Shaw is so copious that specific recommendations in
so brief a listing are largely arbitrary and possibly unfair. However, Stanley
Weintraub, Frederick McDowell, John Gassner, and Eric Bentley are devoted and
accomplished Shavian critics. Their frequent essays and articles provide informed
insights into the Shavian topics they discuss.
A two-part bibliography of books and articles on Shaw from 1945 to 1955 compiled
by Earl Farley and Marvin Carlson appeared in Modern Drama, September and
December 1959. More recent studies are chronicled annually in the PMLA bib-
Finally, Shaw's Prefaces compete with his plays for admiration. The most substan-
tial and revealing ones are sometimes attached to relatively minor plays, as are those
for Getting Married^ Misalliance, and Androcles and the Lion. These prefaces are really
little books in themselves and can be read independently as Shaw's systematic explora-
tions of such topics as parenthood, marriage, education, Christianity, and poverty.
(continued from front flap)
among critics that Shaw now stands as
the finest all-round English dramatist
Among the contributors are:
G. WILSON KNIGHT
Louis L. MARTZ
RALPH J. KAUFMANN, the editor of this
volume in the Twentieth Century Views
series, holds a Ph.D. from Princeton Uni-
versity and is Professor of History and
English at the University of Rochester.
He is the author of Richard Brome:
Caroline Playwright and Elizabethan
Drama: Modern Essays in Criticism. He
was formerly the American editor of
Jacket design, Major Barbara*
by STANLEY WYATT
Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey
765 Printed in U.S. of Ameri,:a