George Bernard Shaw, Plays

George Bernard Shaw's PlaysGeorge Bernard Shaw’s Plays by George Bernard Shaw

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An an introduction, I offer two facts that tell us what kind of a writer George Bernard Shaw was.

First, take one of his most famous plays, Man and Superman (1903). It is superficially a three-act romantic comedy of contemporary English manners; it’s often even staged that way. Except that it has four acts. Its third act is double the length of the others and interrupts the plot with a surreal dream-sequence set in Hell, where the damned conduct a Platonic dialogue, usually left out of productions. Moreover, the play has a 50-page preface, an “Epistle Dedicatory” to the fellow author who inspired Shaw to write it, in which the dramatist explains his intentions at length. As if this weren’t enough, Man and Superman is followed by a 70-page revolutionary tract written by its radical protagonist. And the most important fact of all is that the slender three-act comedy on which all this verbosity hangs isn’t really very interesting compared to the long preface that introduces it, the long Platonic dialogue that bisects it, and the long polemical treatise that concludes it. Shaw was acclaimed as the best Anglophone playwright of his generation, and perhaps the best Anglophone dramatist of all after Shakespeare, yet one of his best plays is about 60% non-play, and the non-play parts are much the most thought-provoking and entertaining.

Second: when W. B. Yeats was founding the Abbey Theater in Dublin with the aim of producing a cultural renaissance to bolster nationalist resistance against the British Empire, he supposedly solicited a drama from Shaw. (Like Yeats himself, Shaw was born to the Irish Protestant Ascendancy, though he was a Londoner for most of his adult life.) When Shaw submitted John Bull’s Other Island (1904), a long, loquacious satire on Irish servility and fecklessness in the face of English power—

[The Irishman] can’t be intelligently political, he dreams of what the Shan Van Vocht said in ninety-eight. If you want to interest him in Ireland you’ve got to call the unfortunate island Kathleen ni Hoolihan and pretend she’s a little old woman. It saves thinking. It saves working. It saves everything except imagination, imagination, imagination; and imagination’s such a torture that you can’t bear it without whisky.

—Yeats rejected the play with the claim that it would be too difficult to stage. Given Shaw’s characteristically long and complex stage directions—written as much for the page as for the stage—this is plausible. But more likely he was troubled by Shaw’s abrasive and hyper-articulate satire, in which a stupid, sentimental, and cynical English liberal land developer moons over the Irish yeomanry he intends to dispossess by opening a hotel and golf course in a rural Irish town. This is a far cry from the romantic nationalist theater Yeats wanted to promote, whether in his own and Lady Gregory’s symbolic dramas of the Celtic Twilight or in the vernacular energies of Synge. Though a more experimental writer than designations like “realist” or “satirist” would suggest, Shaw was already, early in his career, out of step with the emergent modernism that would define so much of the 20th century’s literary culture.

So what can Shaw mean to us today? Even this boastfully didactic writer’s loud political stances—his feminism, his socialism—only seem to chime with those in fashion now. Yet as a feminist he praised women as the natural “Life Force” that would enable a eugenic program to breed a superior person fit for the post-liberal future, the Nietzschean “Superman” of his famous play’s title. Though an early member of the Fabian Society, which was committed to pursuing socialist policies in England gradually through the electoral process, Shaw came in the end to praise Lenin, Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin as strong men who did what had to be done without democratic constraint.

Literarily, he has been somewhat eclipsed as the prevailing Anglo-Irish playwright and polemicist of his time by Oscar Wilde, at least in academe. The two writers shared an Irish Protestant heritage, an ambition to march on literary London from the colonial periphery, and a canny awareness of how emergent celebrity culture demanded that authors fashion themselves as icons and stars, hence Wilde’s logo-like green carnation and Shaw’s self-branding as “GBS.” Both sought to modernize often insular English literature and cultural criticism with outside influences from Flaubert and Mallarmé to Marx and Nietzsche to Ibsen and Tolstoy. But Wilde was an aesthete, eventually converting to Catholicism, while Shaw was a puritan, his secular freethinking Protestant to the core. Moreover, Wilde called himself a socialist just as Shaw did, but a perusal of his Soul of Man Under Socialism will quickly show that he was really an anarchist and individualist.

A comparative essay on the two writers by David J. Gordon in The Cambridge Companion to George Bernard Shaw assesses them as divergent Nietzcheans. Like Yeats and Lawrence, Shaw descends from the power-mad proto-fascist Nietzsche who dominated the 20th century’s baleful first half, or so Gordon argues; on the other hand, Wilde is heir to the Nietzsche who anticipated postmodern liberalism, who said that life was justified only as an aesthetic phenomenon and that truth was just an effect of language. Wilde was effectively martyred by his own society, while Shaw (though controversial) became celebrated, eventually awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925. But Shaw may remain captive to that bygone time; Wilde, by contrast, feels like one of us. (Ironically, the homosexual Wilde, who denounced nature in the name of artifice, had two children; the heterosexual Shaw, who celebrated the Life Force and breeding, had none.)

Despite all of these obstacles to his continued fame, Shaw is still a lively, readable classic, a living voice that comes across the century that separates us from most of his major work. If his plays seem too stagey and mechanical after a century of naturalism and experimentalism, his intentions were maximally inventive, and his drama’s prefaces, postfaces, and other paratexts are relevant and eloquent reflections (or, occasionally, harangues) on still-urgent questions.

In “The Author’s Apology” to his important early play Mrs. Warren’s Profession (1893), a long preface written in 1902 when the controversial drama of prostitution was finally allowed on the English stage, Shaw defends his loquacious style, his post-Ibsen and post-Wagner theater of ideas, against the persistent charge that it lacks feeling:

The drama of pure feeling is no longer in the hands of the playwright: it has been conquered by the musician, after whose enchantments all the verbal arts seem cold and tame. Romeo and Juliet with the loveliest Juliet is dry, tedious, and rhetorical in comparison with Wagner’s Tristan, even though Isolde be both fourteen stone and forty, as she often is in Germany. Indeed, it needed no Wagner to convince the public of this. The voluptuous sentimentality of Gounod’s Faust and Bizet’s Carmen has captured the common playgoer; and there is, flatly, no future now for any drama without music except the drama of thought. […] [I]t will be seen that only in the problem play is there any real drama, because drama is no mere setting up of the camera to nature: it is the presentation in parable of the conflict between Man’s will and his environment: in a word, of problem.

Such a literature of ideas, often under Shaw’s own mandate, would cast a long shadow over the 20th century—across the ideological spectrum onstage from Brecht to Miller to Stoppard, in political and philosophical novels by Lawrence, Orwell, and Mann (who lauded Shaw for “lifting mankind to a higher rung of social maturity”), and even in popular culture, where, for example, pioneering science fiction writers like Bradbury, Heinlein, and Ellison claimed Shaw as an influence on their social and political speculations.

Mrs. Warren’s Profession itself was written under the influence of Ibsen’s radical social dramas. Its heroine, a financially independent, freethinking, middle-class Late Victorian New Woman named Vivie Warren, discovers that her mother rose from the London slums through prostitution and is now the madame of a chain of European brothels. In other words, the high-minded and even puritanical feminist Vivie’s educational and professional opportunities, made possible by her mother’s wealth, are based on the sexual traffic of usually poor women, exploited by a respectable society that primly averts its eyes from sordid details of class and sex. Mrs. Warren, echoing her author’s literary ethic of truth, tells Vivie:

But I can’t stand saying one thing when everyone knows I mean another. Whats the use in such hypocrisy? If people arrange the world that way for women, theres no good pretending it’s arranged the other way.

Likewise, in “The Author’s Apology,” Shaw, reflecting on his play’s proscription by the censors from the English stage for so frankly broaching the subject of prostitution, comments, in lines that today’s political left, with its smug contempt for free speech, would do well to consider,

All censorships exist to prevent anyone from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current concepts, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships. There is the whole case against censorships in a nutshell.

The play itself is too concise, accomplished, and finally moving—Vivie’s final rejection of her mother is like Hal’s of Falstaff, and for similar reasons—to be judged apprentice work, but Major Barbara (1905), a later drama on the same theme of the corruption subtending respectable society, pursues the question with more emotional and metaphysical amplitude. Linking the two plays, Shaw originally wanted to call it Andrew Undershaft’s Profession. In this case, a high-minded daughter—the titular Barbara, a soul-saving “Major” in the cash-strapped Protestant charity, the Salvation Army—must reckon with her father’s having made his fortune as an arms manufacturer. Like Mrs. Warren, Mr. Undershaft lectures his daughter (and Shaw lectures the audience) on the unpleasant realities of money and power:

You must keep the true faith of an Armorer…To give arms to all men who offer an honest price for them, without respect of persons or principles: to aristocrat and republican, to Nihilist and Tsar, to Capitalist and Socialist, to Protestant and Catholic, to burglar and policeman, to black man, white man and yellow man, to all sorts and conditions, all nationalities, all faiths, all follies, all causes and all crimes.

This is a less tightly-plotted play than Shaw’s early work, moving leisurely from the drawing room of Undershaft’s estranged wife, the amusingly imperious Lady Britomart (a transparent derivative of Wilde’s Lady Bracknell), to life among the poor in the Salvation Army’s London headquarters to the clean and well-organized “company town” where Undershaft manufactures his weapons.

Still, the play is based on a comic contrivance: Undershaft, like Mrs. Warren before him, arose from the slums through his profession. He was an orphan selected by the Undershafts to inherit their fortune and lead the company, because the Undershaft heir and executive, by tradition, is always a foundling from outside the family. Undershaft, therefore, is looking to train his own foundling legatee (over Lady Britomart’s aristocratic protest that he is leaving his eldest son in the cold), when his eye lights on Barbara’s boyfriend, the Greek professor Adolphus Cusins. (Shaw based this character on the classicist Gilbert Murray, whose translations of Euripides did so much to introduce Anglophone audiences to this turbulent Ibsen or Shaw of Greek antiquity.) While Cusins is as idealistic as Barbara, they are both eventually bowled over by Undershaft’s thundering gospel of power, in lines that foreshadow Shaw’s later totalitarian politics:

UNDERSHAFT. I had the strongest scruples about poverty and starvation. Your moralists are quite unscrupulous about both: they make virtues of them. I had rather be a thief than a pauper. I had rather be a murderer than a slave. I don’t want to be either; but if you force the alternative on me, then, by Heaven, I’ll choose the braver and more moral one. I hate poverty and slavery worse than any other crimes whatsoever. And let me tell you this. Poverty and slavery have stood up for centuries to your sermons and leading articles: they will not stand up to my machine guns. Don’t preach at them: don’t reason with them. Kill them.

BARBARA. Killing. Is that your remedy for everything?

UNDERSHAFT. It is the final test of conviction, the only lever strong enough to overturn a social system, the only way of saying Must. Let six hundred and seventy fools loose in the street; and three policemen can scatter them. But huddle them together in a certain house in Westminster; and let them go through certain ceremonies and call themselves certain names until at last they get the courage to kill; and your six hundred and seventy fools become a government. Your pious mob fills up ballot papers and imagines it is governing its masters; but the ballot paper that really governs is the paper that has a bullet wrapped up in it.

CUSINS. That is perhaps why, like most intelligent people, I never vote.

UNDERSHAFT Vote! Bah! When you vote, you only change the names of the cabinet. When you shoot, you pull down governments, inaugurate new epochs, abolish old orders and set up new. Is that historically true, Mr Learned Man, or is it not?

CUSINS. It is historically true. I loathe having to admit it. I repudiate your sentiments. I abhor your nature. I defy you in every possible way. Still, it is true. But it ought not to be true.

UNDERSHAFT. Ought, ought, ought, ought, ought! Are you going to spend your life saying ought, like the rest of our moralists? Turn your oughts into shalls, man. Come and make explosives with me. Whatever can blow men up can blow society up.

Undershaft’s upthrusting phallic rhetoric is echoed later in Shaw’s most popular play, Pygmalion (1913), where a professor of phonetics, for the sake of experiment, picks a poor girl out of the London gutter and grooms her to be a lady in defiance of England’s class-as-caste-system. Shaw displays his feminism when he rewrites the original Pygmalion/Galatea myth not as a love story but as a quarrel between the sexes and the classes. The play’s Galatea, the spirited Eliza Doolittle, does not fall in love with its Pygmalion, the rude, aloof, and asexual intellectual Henry Higgins, but eventually cuts her own path through the world, as narrated in Shaw’s prose epilogue (which begins, “The rest of the story need not be shown in action,” so bracingly contemptuous is our dramatist of dramatic convention).

Yet Shaw’s feminism has its limit, too. When Higgins brutally schools Eliza on the importance of mind over emotion and truth over cant, Shaw can be heard scolding the audience, reared on the Victorian sentimentalism centered on the domestic hearth, for not appreciating his intellectual drama:

If you’re going to be a lady, you’ll have to give up feeling neglected if the men you know don’t spend half their time snivelling over you and the other half giving you black eyes. If you can’t stand the coldness of my sort of life, and the strain of it, go back to the gutter. Work til you are more a brute than a human being; and then cuddle and squabble and drink til you fall asleep. Oh, it’s a fine life, the life of the gutter. It’s real: it’s warm: it’s violent: you can feel it through the thickest skin: you can taste it and smell it without any training or any work. Not like Science and Literature and Classical Music and Philosophy and Art. You find me cold, unfeeling, selfish, don’t you? Very well: be off with you to the sort of people you like. Marry some sentimental hog or other with lots of money, and a thick pair of lips to kiss you with and a thick pair of boots to kick you with.

This dominance of male mind over female emotion, implied in Major Barbara and Pygmalion, is overtly theorized in the 1903 play with which I began, Man and Superman, Shaw’s conspicuously unerotic recasting of the Don Juan myth. Here Don Juan is one John Tanner, a voluble anarchist intellectual; the play stages his attempts to evade being ensnared into respectable marriage by his ward Ann Whitefield.

For Tanner, women represent the “Life Force,” the natural means by which humankind propagates itself, a necessary project, but dangerous and pointless if left to its own devices. It is up to humanity—to include whatever women are able to free themselves from sentimentalism and natural inclination—to direct this process of breeding to produce not a man but a superman. With the coming of this superman, the product of thought and intention rather than aimless feeling, nature attains self-awareness and self-direction, an argument Shaw works out in the long dream-sequence of Act III, set in Hell, where Tanner as Don Juan debates the Devil, who represents Shaw’s travesty of the Wildean aestheticist position that life should be about romance and pleasure:

THE DEVIL. You think, because you have a purpose, Nature must have one. You might as well expect it to have fingers and toes because you have them.

DON JUAN. But I should not have them if they served no purpose. And I, my friend, am as much a part of Nature as my own finger is a part of me. If my finger is the organ by which I grasp the sword and the mandoline, my brain is the organ by which Nature strives to understand itself. My dog’s brain serves only my dog’s purposes; but my brain labors at a knowledge which does nothing for me personally but make my body bitter to me and my decay and death a calamity. Were I not possessed with a purpose beyond my own I had better be a ploughman than a philosopher; for the ploughman lives as long as the philosopher, eats more, sleeps better, and rejoices in the wife of his bosom with less misgiving. This is because the philosopher is in the grip of the Life Force. This Life Force says to him “I have done a thousand wonderful things unconsciously by merely willing to live and following the line of least resistance: now I want to know myself and my destination, and choose my path; so I have made a special brain—a philosopher’s brain—to grasp this knowledge for me as the husbandman’s hand grasps the plough for me. And this” says the Life Force to the philosopher “must thou strive to do for me until thou diest, when I will make another brain and another philosopher to carry on the work.”

THE DEVIL. What is the use of knowing?

DON JUAN. Why, to be able to choose the line of greatest advantage instead of yielding in the direction of the least resistance. Does a ship sail to its destination no better than a log drifts nowhither? The philosopher is Nature’s pilot. And there you have our difference: to be in hell is to drift: to be in heaven is to steer.

This theory is further elaborated in Tanner’s book, The Revolutionists’ Handbook and Pocket Companion, the quotable tract Shaw appended to the play. (In the preface, Shaw charmingly congratulates himself for having provided the goods: “I am sorry to say that it is a common practice with romancers to announce their hero as a man of extraordinary genius, and to leave his works entirely to the reader’s imagination…I not only tell you that my hero wrote a revolutionists’ handbook: I give you the handbook at full length for your edification if you care to read it.”)

But again, the preface, the Platonic dream-interlude (sometimes published and performed separately as Don Juan in Hell), and The Revolutionists’ Handbook all make better reading than the lukewarmly comic drama with its relatively feeble attempts at Wildean paradox and epigrammatism—so marvelously prolix a writer as Shaw often fails to be a good aphorist, despite his many attempts. In the preface, Shaw sets out a theory of literature worth quoting at length. A masterpiece of latter-day Puritan rhetoric, it sets the prophet-preacher above the aesthete-entertainer in the ranks of authorship, even at the risk of demoting English icons like Shakespeare and Dickens:

Bunyan, Blake, Hogarth and Turner (these four apart and above all the English Classics), Goethe, Shelley, Schopenhaur, Wagner, Ibsen, Morris, Tolstoy, and Nietzsche are among the writers whose peculiar sense of the world I recognize as more or less akin to my own. Mark the word peculiar. I read Dickens and Shakespear without shame or stint; but their pregnant observations and demonstrations of life are not co-ordinated into any philosophy or religion: on the contrary, Dickens’s sentimental assumptions are violently contradicted by his observations; and Shakespear’s pessimism is only his wounded humanity. […] [Shakespeare and Dickens] have no constructive ideas: they regard those who have them as dangerous fanatics: in all their fictions there is no leading thought or inspiration for which any man could conceivably risk the spoiling of his hat in a shower, much less his life.

Shaw’s position isn’t as distinct from Wilde’s as he thinks it is, though. In his own Platonic dialogue, The Critic as Artist, Wilde acclaims Dante for providing the reader with vivid sensations and extraordinary visions, even though the Florentine poet intended to give us a religious testament. Shaw, too, allows that every spiritual doctrine, scientific theory, and political movement will be disproved and discarded in the end, leaving posterity only with their artistic excrescence as entertainment:

Effectiveness of assertion is the Alpha and Omega of style. He who has nothing to assert has no style and can have none: he who has something to assert will go as far in power of style as its momentousness and his conviction will carry him. Disprove his assertion after it is made, yet its style remains. Darwin has no more destroyed the style of Job nor of Handel than Martin Luther destroyed the style of Giotto. All the assertions get disproved sooner or later; and so we find the world full of a magnificent debris of artistic fossils, with the matter-of-fact credibility gone clean out of them, but the form still splendid.

All the prophecies and politics will pass, and, to tweak a famous Philip Larkin line, what will be left of us is literature. The aesthete-entertainers understand this better than the poet-prophets, and it explains why Shaw’s plays are less satisfying qua plays than the best of Shakespeare, though he disparages the bard’s frequent amoral resort to sensationalism and melodrama.

It might sound like I’m demoting Shaw as a second-rater who doesn’t really belong in the canon. Not at all. I do think he’s too abstract and polemical to equal the great playwrights or the great novelists in his own dramas. Compared as an artist to Shakespeare or Ibsen, Dickens or Tolstoy, he is probably of the second rank. He recruits Tolstoy and Ibsen to the side of the prophets as against the brainless aesthete-entertainers Shakespeare and Dickens; but Tolstoy and Ibsen include more of reality in their art than their ideas were large enough to contain. Could Shaw have written anything as natural as Kitty and Levin’s courtship or the reaping scene in Anna Karenina? Could this self-possessed prophet have allowed himself as staggering a recantation of sociopolitical certitude as The Wild Duck, with which Ibsen begins his transition from realism to symbolism?

For the most part, Shaw’s characters are types caught inextricably in the ideological contrivances of his plots, which are no less—and are perhaps more—artificial and enervating than the Shakespearean melodrama of murder and romance he complains of. The exceptions to this judgment—the moving argument between Mrs. Warren and Vivie, for example, where each character comes alive in excess of the point Shaw wishes to make; or the melancholy of the ex-priest, Father Keegan, who believes the world is hell in John Bull’s Other Island; or all of Act II of Major Barbara with its Salvation Army pageant of humanity halfway between a tavern in Shakespeare and an ash heap in Beckett—just prove the rule with their rarity. Otherwise, John Tanner and Ann Whitefield, Andrew Undershaft and Major Barbara, Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolitle, are fun while they last but come off mostly as marionettes in the hands of an ideological puppeteer, however deft his dancing fingers.

But polemicist-prophet is its own style of literary genius, one in which the Anglo-Protestant sensibility, whether English or Scottish or Irish, especially excelled in the British Isles from Burke to Orwell, climaxing in the spectacular careers of Victorian sages like Carlyle, Ruskin, and Arnold. Shaw belongs to this great tradition. Even the most memorable passages of his plays are detachable nonfiction sermons to place beside the eloquence of his prefaces and essays: the speeches of Mrs. Warren, John Tanner/Don Juan, and Andrew Undershaft, all of them speaking, more or less, for Shaw.

If the polemicist-prophet does not create a Grecian urn for us to circle and contemplate, the way aesthete-entertainers like Shakespeare and Wilde do, what is his purpose? If his ideas are broad and prescient enough, his style memorable and forceful enough, he will address questions of perennial concern and give answers that continue to incite careful and intricate thinking; his ideas, therefore, are his art objects, rather than his artistic works per se. So it is in Shaw’s case: he really did write “the drama of thought.”

What can we learn from this cantankerous, ingenious, hilarious, exhausting polymathic and hyper-articulate autodidact today? I will make only a few disquieting suggestions, ones of special relevance to our era when it is taken for granted by the bien pensant that self-styled progressives or leftists can never be wrong and anyone who queries them must be a mindless bigot.

We can learn from Shaw the following. First, that feminism, in asserting men and women’s intellectual and moral equivalence, elevates mind over matter and therefore entails a fear and contempt of the female body and female sexual desire that is not obviously distinct from the misogynist’s disgust. Second, that socialism, in positing class power as a zero-sum conflict based on violence, necessarily implies that democratic government is a sham, and that the oppressed are best served by the experts, whether Shaw or Stalin, who best understand how society is to be organized; in other words, despite the protestations of Fabians then and now, that “democratic socialism” is a straightforward oxymoron. Finally, that the concept of a linear and progressive history, with its right side and its wrong side, and its disposable “reactionaries” with their backward objections, may require a eugenic concept of humanity, since who will carry out progress but the successively more enlightened minority of illuminated individuals?

The economic, political, and cultural wars in which Shaw fought over a century ago don’t differ as much as we might like to believe from our own. The boldness and lucidity with which he expresses ideas that have the power to go on provoking, outraging, exciting, and educating earns him his place on our shelves.


Note. For the purposes of Goodreads, I have couched this essay as a “review” of the Norton Critical Edition of Shaw’s plays, which contains Mrs. Warren’s Profession, Man and Superman, Major Barbara, and Pygmalion—probably the best works to start with if you’ve never read Shaw before—alongside excellent critical essays and contextual material. However, this edition truncates the prefaces of the first three plays, excludes the quasi-cinematic scenes Shaw wrote for the final version of Pygmalion, and doesn’t provide Tanner’s Revolutionist’s Handbook from Man and Superman. This a high price to pay for the well-known virtues of a Norton Critical Edition. By contrast, Signet Classics’s edition of Shaw’s plays does give the complete texts of Mrs. Warren’s Profession and Man and Superman, alongside two early comedies, Arms and the Man and Candida. Shaw’s Irish play, John Bull’s Other Island, can be found in the Norton Critical Edition of Modern and Contemporary Irish Drama complete with primary and secondary sources contextualizing his conflict with Yeats over Irish theater and Irish politics. Otherwise, the Penguin Classics edition of the individual plays might be your best bet as a reader. Finally, Shaw’s pre-1925 work, which pragmatically includes all his most famous and acclaimed dramas, are in the public domain and can be read for free online.


One comment

  1. Shaw survives because of his wit, and because he was a genius at creating characters who embody and dramatize ideas. In the latter capacity he is similar to Dostoevsky, though not quite as deep psychologically.

    The downside of this is that he insisted on seeing other major artists through the prism of his own obsessions. Thus his treatise on Ibsen views the playwright as above all a social reformer, and his book on Wagner treats the Ring Cycle as an allegory of industrial capitalism. These approaches are fascinating but wrongheaded.

    BTW I wrote a blogpost on “Pygmalion” in my Linguists in Fiction series (coincidentally, referencing “The Tempest” at the same time). You can read it here:

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