by Richard Farr Dietrich -- USF
In Samuel Beckett’s early novel Murphy (1938), the hero in his will asks of his heirs that his ashes be taken to the toilet of the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, and flushed, “if possible during the performance of a piece.”1 With typical disdain, Beckett pronounces judgment on the commonplace, superficial, literal-minded mimetic realism that characterized not only much of the Abbey’s repertoire after O’Casey’s initial break with it but much of the popular modern stage in general. As led by Beckett in the fifties and sixties, the absurdist theater’s total onslaught against what Beckett called “the grotesque fallacy of a realistic art” would be far more drastic than realism’s revolution had been in the eighties and nineties.2 This chapter, however, is concerned with what led up to that revolt—the milder and more traditionalist revolt against realism that typified the poetic-drama movement of the thirties and forties, a movement that could variously be understood as an accomplishment in its own right, as something of a false start toward a dramaturgy that transcends mimetic realism, or as a roundabout path to that transcendent drama. The poetic-drama movement had two facets—the verse play revival, and the attempt to create some of the same theater values as the verse play through the use of poetic prose, symbolic action, evocative stage imagery, and other nonrealistic means.
The long attempt to restore verse drama to its former Greek and Elizabethan magnificence didn’t miss a beat in the modern era, with Tennyson’s efforts of the seventies and eighties followed closely in the period from 1900 to 1930 by the verse drama of John Masefield, Stephen Phillips, Lascelles Abercrombie, John Drinkwater, Gilbert Murray (in Euripidean translations), and a host of others.3 Kept up in the teeth of realism’s growing triumph, these early twentieth-century verse plays, often as imitative of Elizabethan models as nineteenth-century efforts had been, did little to justify the use of verse in a modern prose age; and though they had their enthusiastic supporters, and occasionally produced a sensation, generally they did poorly at the box office, seeming to the general theatergoer merely to manifest a cranky, stubborn refusal to admit that verse drama was strictly a thing of the past. Yeats heroically fought that judgment, and almost alone at this time produced verse drama of much value, significantly by avoiding the strict imitation of Elizabethan models and by creating a more modern look and sound. Yet Yeats compromised his own modernism by tying himself to decadent aristocratic traditions. Ultimately, too, his language was less modern than that of the age’s, and so his drama often fell short of the feel of relevance verse drama needs in order to connect with a modern audience. But as Yeats was running out of time, hope for a great verse drama revived in the thirties with the advent of, among others, T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, and Christopher Fry, poets who managed a modernization of verse drama that gave it greater credibility and a potential for development. Unfortunately, with but few exceptions, the bright promise of this period for a great verse drama has not as yet fulfilled itself.
Rather, from today’s perspective, the chief hope for the revival of a poetic drama in the modern period lay, not with verse dramatists, but with prose dramatists, such as Synge and O’Casey, who took the path of matching a heightened, lyrical prose to a symbolic action and an evocatively imagistic staging. In a time when the greatest drama was being produced in Europe and America, a desire for something different in dramaturgy was only half-satisfied in Britain with backward-looking experimentation—Shaw with the nineteenth-century extravaganza, Eliot and the other poets with a traditional verse drama, however modernized, and still others fiddling with realism. And so in Britain it was the poetic prose tradition, largely Irish (with its bums, tramps, and assorted proletarians in fundamentally metaphysical dilemmas), that contributed most to the revolution of the Beckettian and Pinteresque drama of the fifties and sixties, though it was largely stripped of its colorful rhetoric in a process of minimalization. The extreme nature of the fifties revolution made everything leading up to it seem tentative by contrast, as though the times simply waited for Beckett. No doubt the social disruptions of The Depression, the rise of fascism, and World War II contributed to the need to mark time—things had to wait for the century’s second Armageddon to exhaust itself. Beckett himself, for instance, was too busy dodging Nazis in the France of the early forties to think much about playwriting. On the other hand, the absurdity of World War II was perhaps a necessary stimulus to the revolutionizing of art forms.
Symptomatic of the decline of realism at this time and the accompanying urge for a more poetic, or at least transcendent, theater were, among others, the plays of Priestly, Carroll, Bridie, and Robinson, minor playwrights whose contributions to mimetic realism were sometimes tempered by a subversive experimentation or flirting with other modes.
Lennox Robinson (1886-1958), in addition to two stints as manager of the Abbey and a long term on its board of directors, wrote about thirty plays for it, beginning in 1908. Most were more or less realistic comedies and naturalistic “dramas,” but some were of an experimental nature, characterized by an occasional reaching for the poetic prose of Synge and O’Casey. His charming portrayal of the Irish, particularly in the comedies, won him considerable popularity. The White-headed Boy (1916) and The Far-Off Hills (1928) were among his biggest successes, but he kept up a steady production of plays in the thirties and forties as well.
The Irishman Paul Vincent Carroll (1900-1968) began as an Abbey playwright in 1930, achieving his greatest successes with Shadow and Substance in 1937 and The White Steed in 1939. Mostly realistic treatments of small-town life among schoolmasters, clergymen, and the like, his plays, imitative of O’Casey but without his strength and linguistic flair, offer social criticisms against the intolerant stultifiers of life and champion the crusading liberal intellectuals. In 1943 Carroll joined James Bridie and others in founding the Glasgow Citizens’ Theatre, for which he became a director and wrote plays.
James Bridie (1888-1951) was a Scottish playwright who wrote in both realistic and nonrealistic veins, on subjects ranging from the domestic to the theological, often with a strong moral or ethical bent, his favorite recurring character being the devil. His first play appeared in 1928, his first success—The Switchback—in 1929, and perhaps his best known—The Anatomist—in 1930. A steady production through the thirties and forties totaled about forty-two plays. In addition to his role in founding the Glasgow Citizens’ Theatre, Bridie founded in 1950 a College of Drama in Scotland.
The Englishman J. B. Priestly (1894-1984) was better known as a novelist and essayist, and as a public and media personality, but he wrote over thirty plays as well. The majority were largely realistic but the realism was often undermined by trick endings or by a philosophical- didactic strain that told against the realism. His best-known plays, Time and the Conways and I Have Been Here Before (both 1937), played with concepts of time and space in a manner subversive of realism, and later he attempted an overtly expressionistic style.
But still there were playwrights who seemed perfectly content with the realistic tradition, such as the Englishman Terence Rattigan (1911-77), who even attempted to revive the well-made play. Rattigan began a career in the mid-thirties with popular light comedies, but in the forties he attempted solider dramas such as The Winslow Boy (1946) and The Browning Version (1948). Most of his plays and TV and film work date from after 1950 and seem old-fashioned amidst the radical experimentation of the time.
The work of all of these playwrights, along with the contemporary drama of Coward and Maugham (not to mention R. C. Sherriff, Emlyn Williams, and a host of other minor playwrights), illustrates the taming or watering down of realism, weakened partly by an ambivalent desire for things beyond the ken of realism. But none of them were capable of the radical break with realism the times yearned for. And so, unknowingly, they waited for Beckett, the heroic spirit who would have the heart to do what Ezra Pound had commanded the modernist artist to do—”make things new.”
Among the poets who did their damnedest to “make things new” in drama, the most significant achievement was by T. S. Eliot, and will be dealt with later, with minor accomplishments by W. H. Auden (mostly in collaboration with Christopher Isherwood), Christopher Fry, Louis MacNeice, and Charles Williams.
Auden (1907-1973) and Isherwood (1904-1986) were like perennial “preppies” in their dramatic collaboration, more often having fun with private jargon and jokes than attempting a serious effort to communicate a coherent vision. Though their plays had scant success (i. e., beyond a coterie success), their radical dramaturgy, full of Auden’s cryptic poetry and nonrealistic, sometimes surrealistic, staging, strengthened the hand of those wishing to break with popular realism. For example, they provided the Group Theatre, an experimental group under the directorship of Rupert Doone (disciple of Tyrone Guthrie), material to conduct a revival of “total theatre”—a synthesis of dance, mime, and speech. One famous double bill, in 1935 at the Mercury Theatre, comprised Eliot’s Sweeney Agonistes and Auden’s The Dance of Death, plays joined by a spirit of revolt.
Auden had experimented in playwriting with Paid on Both Sides (1933), an obscure verse drama in charade style; its particular subject was feuding, but its more general subject was the spiritual and moral collapse of Western civilization (his recurrent theme); and The Dance of Death (1933), a verse ballet satirically depicting the death wish of the middle class in allegorical style, making use of all the forms of “low” theater—music hall, pantomime, revue, cabaret, and jazz band—to coney its anti-fascist theme. At this time, the novelist Christopher Isherwood, who had known Auden since prep school days and had kept up a friendship in their common pursuit of boys, fled from his beloved Berlin when the Nazi takeover made living there too dangerous for homosexuals and left-wingers. Soon the idea of collaboration grew on them, leading to three semi-Brechtian plays—The Dog Beneath the Skin (1935), a quest play built rather like an undergraduate revue, The Ascent of F6 (1936), another quest play but using mountaineering as its metaphor, and On the Frontier (1938), an expressionistic allegory of the developing conflict between opposing ideologies. All were mixtures of verse and prose, the last being more prose than verse in an unsuccessful effort to attract West End theaters. Their general worldview was that “there is only one sin: disobedience to the inner law of our own nature.”4 This psychology of overcoming repression, a modification of Freud along liberal lines, supported a left-wing critique of the day’s rising fascism. Though their plays seemed to endorse a “liberation” psychology, they grew less naive about “self-expression” (which could be complicated by neuroses), and they interjected some questioning of what was supposed to be their own ideology. They were desperate searchers among ideologies in the thirties, and the difficulty they had settling on endings for their plays was symptomatic of this lack of grounding. When they moved to America in 1939, Auden and Isherwood ceased their dramatic collaboration, though they afterward made some independent efforts in film writing and stage adaptation.
Of greater significance would seem to be the plays of Christopher Fry (1907-), though his detractors believe that it was impeccable timing that made them significant at all. He arrived in the postwar West End with sprightly, vigorous, gorgeously poetic comedies just when bombed-out London needed something to boost its spirit and lift its eyes out of the rubble. But the skeptics wondered about the quality of a verse drama that could succeed in such a cultural wasteland.
Fry was unique among the verse dramatists of his time in that his training came from practical stage experience rather than from the library or the study. He acted and directed with the Tunbridge Wells Repertory Players from 1934 to 1936, and he became director at the Oxford Playhouse in 1939, shortly before he was called up as a conscientious objector to serve in a non-combatant arm of the armed forces. He returned to the Oxford Playhouse in 1944, soon after which he became resident playwright at the Arts Theatre Club in London. Over the years he’s been a sort of theatrical jack-of-all-trades, writing music for the stage and children’s plays for the BBC, entertaining in cabarets, writing films, and translating the plays of Giraudoux and Anouilh. Fry published ten plays, three written for religious festivals—The Boy with a Cart (1929), Thor, with Angels (1950), and A Sleep of Prisoners (1951); five “comedies” (tragicomedies, really)—A Phoenix Too Frequent (1946), The Lady’s Not for Burning (1949), Venus Observed (1950), The Dark Is Light Enough (1954) and A Yard of Sun (1970); a tragedy—The Firstborn (1946); and a history play—Curtmantle (1961); with five or six other plays preceding his initial pubhcation.5 His major commercial successes occurred in the late forties and early fifties.
Although his recurrent theme of man’s estrangement makes him akin to the French existentialists, Fry eschewed their pessimism. While his plays are fully cognizant of the dark side of the human condition, even suggesting that the Christian idea of Original Sin is a metaphorical approximation of what ails us as a species, nevertheless Fry encourages a belief in some ultimate rightness or unity in human endeavor, however briefly and uncertainly we can envision it. He joined the Christian belief of his childhood with the Shavian-Bergsonian theory of Creative Evolution to form a precariously-held faith in Life; and in an age when positivism presented a dreary picture of life as mechanical and determined, Fry dramatized his intuitions of a mystery at the heart of existence, one both mystifying and mystical, imbuing flesh with spirit, the mundane with the divine, and chaos with unity. A wry acceptance of Life is Fry’s norm, reached after much searching and doubting, typically after an act of sacrificial love on the part of one character atones for the character who makes the affirmation. This act typically occurs in a rather fairy-tale world, usually set in the past, where freedom from realistic conventions allowed Fry whatever improbabilities of plot and character were necessary to the realization of his themes, his themes being ones of faith rather than logical deduction. With such faith, Fry’s plays imply, one may be perpetually amazed at how much marvel lies in the most humdrum of experiences.
Such themes found expression in a somewhat irregular blank verse and a Shakespearean tone of romantic exuberance, revitalized by strikingly fresh imagery and figurative language. Fry flaunted his style. Using such verbal bravura, in the Elizabethan manner, as wit-combat, bombast, exuberant invective, and punning, Fry audaciously proclaimed that modern verse, contrary to Eliot’s theory, could imitate Shakespeare and still be modern. Fry had noticed that contrary to Eliot’s theory, modern audiences reveled in Shakespeare precisely for his utter abandon in plot and character and his outlandish word music; Shakespeare was admired, not because his blank verse was connected with living Elizabethan speech, but because his verse had so little connection with modern speech, thus intimating a world beyond the horrible realities of realism and naturalism. Fry fed the postwar hunger for a reaffirmation of such worlds with an appropriate flamboyance and extravagance that compounded theme by tone, but with such tragicomic finesse and acknowledgment of a problematic universe that he could not be called unrealistic in his attitudes.
Fry’s detractors, accusing him of constructing a mere “theatre of words” in which “pretty words” take the place of viable dramatic action and character differentiation, found such verse “distractingly autonomous” and “self-consciously literary,” full of “spurious joviality” and “preciosity.”6 In a violation of dramatic decorum, they said, all his characters sound the same—”even flat, stock types use an extraordinarily rich, metaphorical language”7—and though four of his comedies were meant to represent the four seasons, “April sounds just like November.”8 Even worse was the accusation that Fry “applied a grand style to trivial themes, ‘what one might expect of Paradise Lost if it were rewritten by Ogden Nash.’”9
But surely a modern Paradise Lost (Waiting for Godot?) would be legitimately quite different from the original. Further, Fry’s questioning of modern identity and of the possibility of meaningful action in an ethical vacuum does not seem trivial, nor does the overstated poetry and hearty manner in which he chooses to ask it seem false to its context; in fact, that the manner lends itself to its subject in its time is one of the defenses of Fry’s apologists. His defenders reply variously that his detractors have missed Fry’s self-mocking ironies and his prose counter-voice, that his language is an extension of his theme, and that his “weaknesses” are really his strengths, for the autonomous language carries a dramatic vibrancy that more than compensates for the lack of conventional dramatic decorum. Critical consensus may not be possible with Fry, but at the least the historian must acknowledge that in Fry a very remarkable meteor shot through the postwar skies and considerably brightened a darkened and despairing world. If nothing else, he reinstated the comic spirit in a gloomy age.
Also worthy of note as verse dramatists were Louis MacNeice (1907-1964) and Charles Williams (1886-1945), MacNiece succeeding not so much with stage plays (Out of the Picture, 1937, being his only one) as with a series of radio plays written in the forties and fifties, starting with The Dark Tower in 1946; and Williams following Eliot’s lead in the writing of religious plays—historical dramas for festival performance, such as Thomas Cramner of Canterbury (1936) and Judgment at Chelmsford (1939), and shorter plays on religious themes, such as The House by the Stable (1938) and Seed of Adam (1939), both Nativity plays. Dylan Thomas’s verse drama falls outside our period, else much would be made of the great loss to the genre’s development incurred by his early death.10
However influential such minor verse dramatists were at the time, the verse plays of the most lasting value seem to belong to T. S. Eliot. Even so, though Eliot was undoubtedly a major poet and a major critic, it is going too far to call him a major dramatist. The major dramatist of the period was, surprisingly, still George Bernard Shaw, several of whose plays of his dotage were as good as anything being penned.
In 1930 George Bell, Bishop of Chichester, believing that drama should again become an ally of the Church, appointed E. Martin Browne as director of religious drama for his diocese, and it was Browne who gave T. S. Eliot the opportunity and the sort of production expertise the poet needed in order to find his way as a religious dramatist.
There had been a considerable dramatic quality in the poetry that made Eliot famous, such as in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1915) and The Waste Land (1922). In addition, throughout the twenties Eliot had written critical pieces on the theory of drama that suggested a desire to try out his theory. Finally, the two fragments that make up Sweeney Agonistes (1926-27) received a brief production as a play in 1933. But this inclination toward the dramatic received its chief practical encouragement from Browne’s commission to Eliot in 1933 to write a pageant play for a London church-building campaign. The result was The Rock (1934), which launched Eliot into the playwriting that was to be the chief creative occupation of his final phase, though the damper on the theaters brought on by World War II made him pause for a decade, during which, among other things, he finished Four Quartets. But this brings us in rather late on the Eliot story.
Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888-1965) was born in St. Louis, the seventh and youngest child of Henry Ware Eliot, president of the Hydraulic-Press Bricks Company, and Charlotte Chauncy Stearns, poetess and author of a life of Savonarola. Of pioneer stock, Eliot was descended from Isaac Stearn, of the Mayflower, and from Andrew Eliot, a judge in the Salem witch trails, and he was the grandson of the Reverend William Greenleaf Eliot, a prominent, philanthropic Unitarian who had moved from Boston in 1834 to save the soul of French Catholic St. Louis. In the stern pursuit of civic virtues, Rev. Eliot established the family emphasis on doing good works, against which Eliot would later rebel in putting “faith” above “works,” though he never rebelled against the family legacy without inner struggle and a residue of guilt. Young Eliot spent his winters in St. Louis and his summers on the Massachusetts coast, where there were still family connections.
Excluding a year of study at the Sorbonne in Paris (1910-11), where his studies in Sanskrit and Eastern religion made him consider becoming a Buddhist, Eliot attended Harvard from 1906 to 1914, deliberately falling just short of a Ph.D. in philosophy so he could avoid becoming an academic. At Harvard he became noted for his poetry, some bawdy stuff about King Bolo, but also the originals of his more serious early work. At Harvard too he met Emily Hale, the woman he perhaps should have married, who kept up a long correspondence and friendship with him. She missed her opportunity when Eliot left for Germany in 1914 on a Harvard Traveling Fellowship. Not long in Germany, he was driven back to England by the outbreak of war.
After briefly attending Oxford, Eliot settled for good in London, marrying a woman from a distinguished old family, Vivienne Haigh-Wood, a vivacious, multitalented lady who hoped to “bring out” her reserved spouse. The truth about this marriage of incompatibles is hard to come by, Eliot’s friends taking the partisan view that Vivienne was an advanced neurotic who may have served him as his muse but otherwise drove him to distraction, justifying his abandoning her in 1932, officially separating from her in 1933, and having her committed to a mental hospital in 1935 when she refused to abandon him. But Eliot’s deliberate suppression of the facts suggested to others that her occasionally bizarre behavior, apparently caused largely by improper medication for real illnesses, was exacerbated by his sometimes frigid, puritanical temperament, to which he retreated in moments of stress, and that his putting away a perfectly sane woman was an act of mental instability on his part.11 Whatever the truth, Eliot’s work does seem haunted at times by the torment of some guilt, sometimes explicitly connected to mistreatment of a woman. And many of his plays focus on a person’s discovering a “call” to abandon all family and worldly life for the service of God, the sort of call a man burdened with a very unhappy marriage might very well hear. It is certain too that the burden of having to deal with his wife’s illness, combined with overwork in literary endeavors and the bank job her family had gotten him in 1917, contributed to the breakdown that The Waste Land implies.
Eventually an editorship of the influential magazine the Criterion, in 1922, and an appointment as director at the publishing firm of Faber and Faber in 1927 got him out of the bank job and into more congenial work. In 1927 he received baptism in the Church of England and became a British citizen, afterward declaring himself a classicist in literature, a royalist in politics, and an Anglo-Catholic in religion, presenting the paradox of one of the most radical of the age in his literary forms becoming one of the most conservative and reactionary in his social forms.
For many years Eliot lived with or near Father Cheetham, rector of St. Stephen’s in Kensington, and then in Chelsea with the paraplegic John Hayward. Vivienne died in the mental hospital in 1947. The next year Eliot received the Nobel Prize. Not long after, in 1949, Valerie Fletcher became his secretary; it would take eight years for them to discover they were both interested in marriage, which they entered into in 1957. As they traveled about warmer climes to seek relief from the emphysema that would eventually kill him, she apparently made his last years the happiest of his life, and she remains a sort of dragon guarding the Eliot reputation, though his stipulation that no biographies be written has not prevented them despite her lack of cooperation. Eliot’s desire to separate “the man who suffers from the mind that creates,”12 while a laudable attempt to emphasize the work over the author in an age when that was not common, seems nevertheless, in the context of Eliot’s life, an expression of a “dissociated sensibility,” a condition he himself diagnosed as a modern malady.
That Eliot should have been driven toward the drama was perhaps inevitable, given his theories about poetry. He wanted poetry to be “an escape from emotion”13 and the life of an artist “a continual extinction of personality,”14 but this appears to be more a rationalization of his own needs than an objective account of things, for his own poetry is dominated by a subterranean romanticism that contradicts his theory. Perhaps bothered by this contradiction and seeking better means of escaping himself, he naturally gravitated toward the more objective form of the drama.
In the drama, he also seemed better able to realize his own ideal, as stated in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” of becoming the means to express a tradition, however much his individual talent might alter the tradition. The tradition he had in mind was part literary, that of verse drama, but more religious, that of Christian salvationism. The result was that Eliot’s drama has much less of the striking personal image that characterized his poetry and much more of the objectivity and impersonality he desired, to the extent that his plays at times seem to illustrate the triumph of abstract theology and dramatic technique over feeling, as sometimes the characters are less thinking and feeling beings than enactors of a patterned, predetermined thought. Curiously, we find in Eliot’s plays the old Scribean dominance of pattern over idea and character returning to haunt the stage, as Eliot tries, perhaps too hard, to become the stage craftsman.
Eliot’s formal achievements in reviving and modernizing verse drama offset to some extent his limitations as a dramatist. This traditionalist was one of the most extreme of his age in altering the tradition to accommodate his individual talent. For example, while standing firmly behind the tradition that verse drama is a superior mode, Eliot understood that the dominance of Shakespeare (Shaw’s “bardolatry”) prevented the genre’s revival. The tradition, if it was to live, must accommodate the present. And so Eliot’s first experiment, in the unfinished Sweeney Agonistes, was in the direction of eschewing Shakespearean blank verse and inventing a verse rhythm and diction appropriate for the modern context.
As David Jones points out, blank verse may originally have had a living relationship to Elizabethan spoken language, but soon it became divorced from it as the living language, constantly changing, moved on while the form of blank verse stood still. Thus the increasing air of unreality about verse drama from the late seventeenth century on. “The vital tension of poetic rhythm,” says Jones, “arises out of the subtle interaction of ordinary speech rhythms with the basic metric pattern,” and that tension is lost when the two are too widely separated. “Eliot saw quite early ... that the only solution to the problem was to go back beyond Shakespeare to earlier forms of dramatic verse and indeed to the root principles of English prosody—organization by stress rather than numerical division into syllabic units.”15 The greater flexibility of a stress measure would allow poetry to more accurately capture modern speech rhythms. In Sweeney Agonistes, which satirizes the modern wasteland through the evoking of a heroic past, the speech of lower-class individuals is caught in stresses that recreate while parodying such disparate language as is found in popular jazz songs, telephone conversations, music-hall routines, and banal, vacuous party chatter.
Eliot’s title is of course evocative of Samson Agonistes, but in Sweeney we have no Miltonic wrestling with fate, only a dim and rather inarticulate perception of the horror of modern secularized life, from Eliot’s view drained of meaning and significance by its abandonment of a spiritual dimension (fortune-telling being its debased idea of religion). The second fragment shows Apeneck Sweeney, type of the modern sensual man, responding to this horror with an expression of desire to escape from civilization, not to a higher, but to a lower, more primitive, sphere. Since Doris, the lady under seduction, prefers an urban life to Sweeney’s horrifying primitivist vision, Sweeney resigns himself to his inability to communicate, and to a morose and drunken acceptance of things as they are. Eliot’s general pattern in his other plays was to force an exceptional person into a conflict that exposed the spiritual desert and led the protagonist to spiritual growth and to an essentially Christian understanding of things. Perhaps he dropped Sweeney because he could not see him taking that path—Sweeney would if anything regress. But it’s unfortunate that Eliot dropped as well the experiment with this sort of colloquial, idiomatic, even vulgar language and strong jazz rhythms, not to mention the parodistic style of this “Aristophanic melodrama” (as he called Sweeney), for had he continued in this vein the age might not have waited so long for the Beckett revolution. Eliot seemed to recognize a lost opportunity when, much later, in deprecating his other plays, he spoke of Sweeney as his most promising effort in drama.16
The element in Sweeney that led him in a different direction was his use of minor characters as a chorus, expressive of communal feeling, for it was his talent in writing choral verse that was particularly called upon and developed in the commission from Martin Browne to contribute to the pageant play eventually called The Rock. Browne had written a scenario to order, based on a C. B. Cochran revue, and while Eliot apparently made small contributions to the story line (he claimed that only one scene was all his), he made major contributions to what was really the most dominant character—the chorus, half-masked to emphasize its impersonality. Written in aid of a church-building fund, The Rock made the building of a church in London its central action, relating that contemporary event to the long history of the Church’s struggle in England and to current events that threatened it (especially the challenge of the rival but godless creeds of fascism, communism, and capitalism), emphasizing that such building is essentially a spiritual enterprise that encounters constant testing of the faith. “The Rock” itself, first Christ and then Peter, reappears throughout to bolster the faith. The pageant play is a wide-ranging, all-encompassing form, appropriate for the occasion, but in its straying in time and space it sacrifices dramatic unity and intensity, and thus did not answer Eliot’s desire to achieve a truly dramatic voice. Concerned to provide links between episodes through choral commentary, for the most part he either provided fairly pedestrian descriptive-explanatory verse or verse that spoke of the evils of the day in the editorial, haranguing voice of the preacher. Despite his success with a more colloquial diction matched to a free verse organized by stresses rather than syllables, Eliot was not satisfied. On the other hand, the experience had introduced him to the practical life of the theater, to its craft, and had made him known as one who could do good choral work. No doubt the commission that came next, to write a play for the Canterbury Festival, was based partly on that.
Experimentation over, Eliot in 1935 became a full-fledged dramatist with the writing of Murder in the Cathedral. Canterbury Cathedral being the site of the twelfth-century murder of St. Thomas à Becket by men aligned with Henry II in the king’s struggle to assert the primacy of state over church, Becket was a natural subject for Eliot’s Canterbury commission. Further, Tom Eliot identified with Tom Becket in that Becket’s drastic midlife change upon becoming archbishop of Canterbury was similar to Eliot’s experience. There is some doubt about the actual saintliness of the historical Becket, but Eliot, who was accused of viewing history through a stained-glass window, chose to ignore the complexity of literal history for the sake of dramatizing the single imaginative truth he saw as central to this conflict between secular and spiritual power. Becket ultimately triumphed by being sainted for his martyrdom, the king having to do public penance at his tomb, and this for Eliot revealed that operating behind the scenes was a divine plan for the spiritual elect. The elect are made to suffer greatly for their insistence on the primacy of spiritual values, but in their martyrdom—a mere temporary defeat—they ultimately triumph over their persecutors by their death’s reaffirmation, among the people, of the redeeming nature of Christ’s original sacrifice, their unfair deaths being necessary to shock the people into an awareness of backsliding. Shaw’s Saint Joan had asked, “How long, 0 Lord, how long?” and Eliot’s answer to her plea to end the sacrifice of saints is that there can be no end, for the common people will always need the spiritual elect to show the way through martyrdom. (The saint’s triumph in defeat, incidentally, calls into question whether there can be such a thing as "Christian tragedy.")17
Employing allegorical figures and obviously poetic rhetoric and versification in the manner of Everyman, Eliot combined medieval dramatic techniques with a full-throated Greek chorus to dramatize both the importance of spiritual community and its periodic renewal, through martyrdom, after its disintegration. In part 1, after the threat of martyrdom to Becket is made known, Four Tempters appear as allegorical representatives of inner temptations, offering pleasures and worldly success and power. For the heroic Becket, it is the Fourth Tempter who presents the greatest challenge, for he strikes at Becket’s blind spot, his love of heroic action for the pridefulness of it; Becket’s severest test is in accepting martyrdom, not for the personal glory that comes with sainthood, but for the sake of fulfilling God’s divine plan. In an interlude between parts 1 and 2, Beckett addresses his congregation on Christmas Day, presenting his belief that he has made perfect his will by acceding to the will of God. In part 2, after the Four Knights murder Becket ritualistically, the audience and the chorus are forced to deal with the aftermath of the murder as the knights offer them a temptation to excuse the crime on perfectly reasonable, modern grounds. Eliot’s point is that for martyrdom to be efficacious, not only must the martyr accept his martyrdom in the right spirit, but the mass of men who may be redeemed by it must also accept the act in the right spirit, as part of God’s design for the world. In having the knights address the audience directly, in their own terms, the audience is forced to realize that modern assumptions about the primacy of state over church automatically exonerate Becket’s killers, and thus the audience sharing those assumptions is implicated in that murder. Redemption for the audience-congregation begins with the admission of guilt. That was a very effective bit of dramaturgy by an author who was rapidly learning his craft.
In Murder in the Cathedral, Eliot “has shown how drama can still be an instrument of community in the two senses corresponding to its original function as an extension of the liturgy and as an interpretation of God’s word in terms of flesh and blood.”18 But Eliot would emphasize, contrary to Shavian practice, that while drama of this sort can be a supplement to worship, it is not worship itself. Eliot sought, not to replace the Church, as Shaw did, but to bolster it by bringing the Church and its values to the secular West End. While Shaw and Eliot would have largely agreed on their diagnosis of the spiritual wasteland of modern life, they would have disagreed on the cure—for Eliot Christianity was the solution; for Shaw institutional Christianity was part of the pollution.
In 1936, seeking to break openly with the naturalistic stage, Eliot spoke of “the necessity for poetic drama at the present time to emphasize, not to minimize, the fact that it is written in verse,” and so in Murder in the Cathedral “we introduce rhyme, even doggerel, as a constant reminder that it is verse and not a compromise with prose.”19 But as Eliot became more interested in evangelically invading the West End, to close the gap between secular and religious drama as a means of cultural reintegration, he reversed his strategy, creating a verse drama that would be unobtrusively poetic and apparently naturalistic.
Eliot’s final four plays, all placed in contemporary settings naturalistically rendered, are dramaturgically and thematically similar; he increasingly thinned out the poetry to make it less obtrusive and employed popular literary and theatrical conventions for the sake of spreading the gospel. It has been argued that Eliot’s attempt to claim the West End for Christian drama ended in the West End’s claiming Eliot (just as it has been argued that the conversion of pagans to Christianity is usually more the conversion of Christianity to paganism). His use of the mythic method in basing his plays on Greek models added to this ambiguity, though his intention was to show how Greek plays could be understood as intuitions of the more fully realized Christian scheme of things.
Eliot’s first starting venture in the West End occurred in 1939 with performances of The Family Reunion starring Michael Redgrave at the Westminster Theatre. With teasing suggestions of a popular comedy and a detective thriller, the play lured audiences into something rather more complex and high-minded, a play based on Aeschylus’s The Oresteia but transmuted by a Christian view. Harry Monchensey, scion of a family of landed aristocrats, has returned to the family home, Wishwood, seeking to escape the Eumenides who pursue him, he thinks, to obtain satisfaction for his guilt, stemming from his wife’s falling overboard to her death on a cruise ship just after he had wished her dead. At Wishwood he discovers from his Aunt Agatha the cause of his own barrenness of heart—it is a family curse, an original sin, brought on by his father’s having wished his wife dead when she was pregnant with Harry, the father having fallen in love with Agatha. The play consists of Harry’s being led to the realization that he has been “elected,” in the Christian sense, for some special suffering, on behalf of a cursed family, suffering that through the proper purgation may lead to salvation. The Eumenides are thus to be viewed, not as vengeful agents, but as friendly spirits who drive him toward his salvation. Eliot, however, was not happy with the Eumenides’ original visibility to the audience, the play’s only violation of naturalistic decorum, later urging directors to present them as invisible agents sensed only by the spiritually aware.
The war then intervening, it was 1949 before Eliot returned to the theater with The Cocktail Party, the first of the three plays to be introduced at the Edinburgh Festival, before going on to Broadway and the West End. With an increased flexibility of verse, soliloquies and lyrical duets eliminated, elements of ritual and choric speaking reduced, symbolic figures given a naturalistic base (the spiritual advisor is here a psychiatrist; the chorus are friends of the family and speak individually), Eliot’s invasion of the West End became more subversive. Eliot wanted “to make his hearers forget about poetry as a special organization of language in order that they might respond to it as a special mode of awareness.”20 But the question remains whether in thinning out the poetry to make it sound like prose it didn’t vanish altogether—actors needed special drill from Martin Browne to give any feel of verse at all. Certainly A Cocktail Party, a three-acter with a circular plot, can have more of the look and sound of a slick social comedy than a religious drama in verse. But in basing the play on Euripides’ Alcestis, Eliot’s intention was to make the social surface a subject of satire, evidence of a spiritual desert. These are people in need of salvation.
Edward and Lavina Chamberlayne are at the center of the action, each having betrayed the other with an adulterous relationship. Their friends have been invited to a cocktail party at their place at a time of great social embarrassment—Lavinia is missing as hostess because she has left Edward on discovering that he has a mistress, Celia. The shock of being confronted with his wife’s defection sets Edward on a course of self-exploration, assisted by an Unidentified Guest, later discovered to be a psychiatrist (the secular world’s substitute for the father confessor) and by Guardians, Alex and Julia, who work for some sort of undeclared spiritual Red Cross Society. Edward, Lavinia, and Celia are led to an understanding that they have been imposing roles on each other that falsify the self; they are made to see that given life as it is (“fallen,” in the Christian view), one is faced with the choice of living an ordinary married existence, making the best of things, or living as a celibate wholly devoted to God. Realizing they are not heroic types, the Chamberlaynes choose the former, returning to their old life but with a renewed spirit. At the end, two years later, we find them preparing for a cocktail party that they will do their best to make a communion of souls. As Celia chooses atonement and the saint’s life, ending up martyred in Africa, the news of her horrible death causes the Chamberlaynes to identify with her as redeemer and acknowledge their complicity in her death; with heighted spiritual awareness, they draw closer together. Believing now that “life is only keeping on,” and “every moment is a fresh beginning,”21 they hope to elevate the cocktail party from a secular exchange of meaningless chatter to a religious ritual in which they keep the faith, however mundane their style.
The Confidential Clerk (1953), another three-act play, went even further in suiting West End requirements—the poetry is even thinner, the verse dialogue more conversational, the theological message more muted, and the tradition behind it partly that of mistaken-identity farce. The plot is too complicated for brief summary but involves questions of misplaced and illegitimate offspring, with young people turning out to have parentage different from what was thought. The point is that one’s heavenly Father is the one to be counted on, and with a right relationship to the spiritual Father, all other relationships fall into place. The title puns on clerk and cleric, the confidential clerk (private secretary) hired by Sir Claude, one Colby Simpkins, turning out to be, not Sir Claude’s illegitimate son, as they think, but a young man with a legitimate spiritual vocation, that of a cleric; the action of the play leads Colby to discover his true identity among the spiritual elect.
The Elder Statesman (1958), also in three acts, is loosely based on Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus, and like Sophocles Eliot too ended with a more mellow and optimistic view of things. Lord Claverton, a retired politician, has discovered that his lifelong cultivation of a public self has caused his inner self to atrophy, and now, a “hollow man” in retirement, he is terrified by loneliness. He is also haunted by vengeful “ghosts,” people from his past on whom he inflicted “crimes of the heart” and who return now to force his conscience, just what he needs to awaken the inner self, though he resists that path of rebirth. His son seems destined to make similar mistakes, but fortunately his daughter is loving enough to hear his confession and give him some absolution. He at last is reconciled to death by the discovery of love and forgiveness, and, having found himself as a father, he leaves his daughter and her fiancé to their celebration of mutual love. Unlike former Eliot plays, here the central character, though achieving some spiritual illumination, does not find himself among the spiritual elect who can expiate the sins of others. And he “finds his salvation not by rejection of ordinary family life, but by purification of the life within the family,”22 as Eliot himself was doing in his second marriage and in his frequent visiting with close relatives. Family love is now something not to rise above in heroic sacrifice, but to accept as a manifestation of the divine in ordinary life.
Arguments for verse drama by enthusiasts are usually one way— they emphasize gains but never losses. Eliot was no different in seeing the advantages but never the disadvantages of writing the kind of drama he was inclined to write anyway (though he encountered plenty of the disadvantages in his practice). Eliot argued that “the tendency . . of prose drama is to emphasize the ephemeral and superficial; if we want to get at the permanent and universal we tend to express ourselves in verse.”23 Such an argument was constantly disproved by the day’s best playwrights. And it indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of that realistic drama the modernists reacted so strongly against—the drama of Ibsen—which was anything but superficial and ephemeral. But these critical blindnesses aside, Eliot clearly stands as a significant ground breaker, who provided a rationale for verse drama that keeps its future open, and though his practice was flawed, it contains enough successful material to provide models and food for thought for young poets for some time to come. Certainly we need the enrichment of verse drama if the theater is not to become too monotone.
Curiously, at the same time Eliot was in some way groping toward the sort of poetic theater eventually realized by Beckett, Pinter, et al., he was also a reactionary figure. As Martin Browne points out, the tide that was gathering against the conventions of the theater of realism “Eliot forestalled . . ; he accepted the conventions because his audience would expect to start there.”24 He was a bit like conservatives on our own Supreme Court who for conservative reasons refuse to overthrow liberal precedents. And so while Eliot, as leader of the verse-drama movement after Yeats’s death, was driving toward a theater transcendent of the conventions of realism, he was simultaneously delaying the advance by compromising tactics that steered clear of a too radical overthrow of realism’s precedents. And so the times would have to wait for Beckett.
No longer wishing to be “Georged,” Bernard Shaw amazed the world with his resurgence as a playwright at age seventy-three. Six years after Saint Joan had seemed to cap his career, Shaw suddenly exploded with The Apple Cart in 1929, ushering in his final phase, in which he wrote enough significant plays to constitute a career for most playwrights. This final phase took the form of an increasingly oracular and sometimes apocalyptic performance, as Shaw, building on the prestige of receiving the Nobel Prize and having been proved right about World War I, found in radio, film, and international translations of his plays a wider and wider public forum, in which he was more and more celebrated. Of course celebration did not necessarily mean that people changed their ways or heeded his warnings about the catastrophe he foresaw, a fact that brought a bit of wistful sadness to the clown face and made him look more like the exasperated prophet he really was.
The news media, rapidly becoming more like our own, would not leave Shaw alone, no world event being complete without his opinion being solicited. With more devilment than reverence, reporters approached his Whitehall apartments near Parliament or his Ayot St. Lawrence estate north of London as though visiting the oracle at Delphi but expecting a quotable jest along with the riddling prophecy. As Shaw was accustomed to public performance, however privately weary of the role, he appeared to be enjoying himself as “G.B.S.,” the clown-prophet of international politics. The laughing oracle even took his act on the road, following his wife’s disposition to travel, and dispensed upon the continents a kindly but sometimes prickly wisdom that was not always understood even when indulged with good humor. Shaw’s international parade largely came to an end with his wife’s ill health in the thirties (she died in 1943). Perhaps his most ballyhooed trip was his visit to Stalin in 1931, accompanied by Lord and Lady Astor, in which he got a bit carried away with the clown act and made unfortunate testimonials to Stalin (while nevertheless satirizing Stalinist society; he was taken to see a horse race where he remarked that he was surprised to see more than one entry!). The increasing celebrity was no compensation for the increasing frailty of old age, but he found some comfort in a pen that continued to flow almost to the end.
Perhaps the epitome of his celebrity came with the establishment of a summer drama festival in Malvern, near Wales, featuring his plays. Not since Granville Barker’s Court Theatre days had a single theater so devoted itself to him. Established in 1929 by Barry Jackson, philanthropic entrepreneur of many theatrical ventures (beginning with the Birmingham Repertory Theatre), the Malvern Festival was stopped only by World War II. Several attempts have been made to revive it, so far with no lasting success. Shaw no doubt received much encouragement from Malvcrn to write new plays. Other encouragement paradoxically came from the discouraging times, which, with its increasing polarization of political Left and Right, cried out for dramatization. The “political extravaganza” was Shaw’s form for depicting the extravagance of the day’s politics.
Shaw’s celebrity had always been a mixture of fame and notoriety, and he took care to keep it that way. He had started out by shocking conventional thinking, and from then on whenever he saw the times coming his way, his ideas becoming conventional, he would instinctively attack the very ideas he had earlier seemed to espouse. He did not like to be at ease in Zion. Evolution, operating dialectically, he thought, moves on. (A reading of Shaw’s early work shows that all his ideas had actually been there from the beginning—it was just that the dialectic of history required different emphases at different times.) For example, in the thirties, after decades of working largely by diligent, courteous, peaceful Fabian means to institute social democracy, Shaw gained notoriety by seeming to turn against the parliamentary method of social reform and to take up with rude “strong men.” He made a few complimentary remarks about dictators (the old “Mussolini got the trains running on time” routine) and, as a friend of Lady Astor, was at home at Clivedon, an aristocratic house notorious for its anti-democratic sentiments. Guilty by association. But this is one of the most misunderstood aspects of Shaw’s career, granting that his own deteriorating forensic powers may have contributed.
Shaw had never been a democrat in the sense that he thought people at present and in general were capable of governing themselves or even of electing wise, capable rulers, and he had always admired what he believed to be more highly evolved talents. Well, never mind the political buffooneries of more recent history, one has only to contemplate the breakdown of the immature Western democracies in the thirties to see some justice in Shaw’s view, and the possibility that these democracies survived only because World War II allowed them to declare martial law under “strong man” rule is further supportive.
But Shaw’s skepticism of democracy as a political system did not prevent him from supporting the democracies in their war with the fascist states, just as he supported England in the Boer War, because it was a question of the survival of the more highly civilized. Nor did it prevent him from being a democrat in a more important sense—he had unusual fellow feeling for the humblest of beings and had no wish to keep anyone down. His belief in evolution was partly a hope that natural inequities would be overcome in the long run by a natural process of the lower rising to the higher, and he stood ready to welcome or encourage any such progress. As his John Tanner put it, in the idiom of Man and Superman, “a democracy of Supermen” is the goal, an ideal as ancient as Athens. But Shaw thought naive the notion that one could achieve a democracy of Supermen by goose-stepping and “Heil Hitlering” (the Superman would be known by his self-control, he wrote, not his control over others), and the plays and prefaces of his last phase made quite clear that he thought the fascist dictators a misguided lot, however much he liked to use them as sticks to brain the muddling-through, vote-peddling democratic politicians.
Being a member of the political Left himself, however, he was much more circumspect in criticizing the shortcomings of leftist dictatorships, such as Stalin’s, though he did criticize them. In the days of the rapid rise of the fascist bully boys, it seemed to many that the only hope for humane government lay with the Left, and so when news came of Stalin’s purges, Shaw did not want to believe that things had gone that wrong; rather than openly denounce Stalin, he characteristically tried to steer leftist thinking in a more civilized direction. In something resembling Swiftian irony of the “modest proposal” sort, Shaw in the preface to On the Rocks modestly proposed the Stalinist position that intractable political opponents of social progress must be eliminated, but he eventually made it clear that he thought a truly liberal education a better means of elimination—he preferred changing minds (i.e. killing bad ideas) to killing people. Under the guise of an ironic Stalinism, Shaw was still preaching social toleration and peaceful enlightenment, though he wished to make everyone see how desperate the times were.
Shaw’s last plays illustrate Tanner’s dictum from “The Revolutionist’s Handbook” that the true revolutionary becomes more radical with age but appears to grow conservative because he has lost faith in conventional methods of reform. These plays took what had always been a strong Shavian theme—the need for change to go deeper than mere social reform, the need for it to reach into the soul and psyche of individuals—and made it a dominant theme, as Shaw seemed to lose patience with transitory and mostly cosmetic social change while human nature continued incorrigible. This more radical stance found expression in the full flowering of his most radical nonrealistic form— the extravaganza.
In the 1890s, Shaw had had to cover his basic extravaganza method with a realistic veneer (accompanied by a brief propaganda for the realistic mode in his criticism) because extravaganza, a form employing fairy-tale worlds or “otherworlds” remote in time and place (such as a tropical island or a futuristic society), had gotten a reputation for being frivolous, mindless, and sometimes cynical. The extravaganza had come to Shaw (and Barrie) from J. R. Planché and W. S. Gilbert, with whom he associated “pointless fun and soured idealism.”25 Shaw was further put off extravaganza because, in correctly perceiving that there was something fantastic about the play worlds Shaw created, William Archer drew precisely the wrong conclusion that this therefore identified them with a tradition of trivial and cynical fun, which disqualified them as serious New Drama. But as the generation that shared Archer’s critical categories passed away, Shaw felt less constrained, and his career saw the gradual emergence into the open of an extravaganza method.
From The Apple Cart on, Shaw openly acknowedged extravaganza as his method; he nevertheless made clear that he was returning the genre to its Aristophanic seriousness of purpose. While Planché, and later Barrie, used it primarily for escapist reasons (their whimsical fairy tales were meant to charm one into a belief in the primacy of imaginative reality in the face of the day’s degrading materialism), and Gilbert to express his cynicism about the failure of the world to live up to imaginative ideals, Shaw used the imaginary world of the extravaganza to comment, satirically and ironically, on the everyday and commonplace world, particularly its foolish idealism.
At first Shaw had not wanted to relinquish the word “realist” to those who painted only surfaces, trying valiantly for a while to argue for himself as a ‘realist (though his reference was confusingly more to “visionary realism” than “mimetic realism”), but he gave up that game when he saw that his own need for expression required him more and more to use what everyone was calling (however incorrectly) “nonrealistic” modes. As Meisel sums it up, “He . . . turned from discrediting fixed idealisms by a standard of actuality to commenting upon actualities through a medium of fantasy.” This allowed him to use the drama as “a means of foreseeing and being prepared for realities as yet unexperienced, and of testing the feasibility and desirability of serious Utopias (Shaw’s definition of the ‘realistic imagination’).”26 Shaw’s otherworld method was to carry to their logical extremes tendencies already present in the political, social, and spiritual life of England, and to embody them in a mythical world of the future or the past (or, if of the present, placed in a strange, defamiliarizing environment). The extravaganza, with its remote and exotic world, looks romantic (and is romantic, in Planché and Barrie), but in Shaw that’s often a booby trap, for he makes the romantic the target of satire and burlesque. The extravaganza form aided Shaw in showing how unrealistic the world had become. Lending itself to the allegorical methods of parable and fable, and to anachronism (the deliberate confusion of different times and places), the extravaganza of his youth was the perfect device for the elderly Shaw to use to startle the West into an appreciation of how dreamlike modern life had become, on its way to Armageddon.
Shaw’s extravaganzas were labeled “political” or “philosophical,” but they were both political and philosophical—it was a matter of emphasis—and they served his “religion of the future” by being “parables of evolution” or “parables of futurity.” The extravaganzas reflect on a postwar world in which sensitive, thinking people are aware of living in a condition immortalized by Eliot in The Waste Land. Shaw deeply felt the nihilism of that period and understood his complicity in creating it (as embodied in Tanner’s maxim that “the Golden Rule is that there is no Golden Rule”). He knew too that the world would go to wrack and ruin if it rested in that vacuum (nature was already abhorring it by rushing in with military dictatorships), and so he worked desperately to find affirmations. Since his own belief system—Creative Evolution—worked well for him in overcoming the day’s negations, he tried in his last plays to give more direct expression to it. The extravaganza, a free form employing myth, fable, parable, and fairy tale, was the perfect vehicle for the expression of an essentially religious vision. Having a faith that would work for the future, Shaw tried desperately to impart it to others. That desperation some incorrectly took to be despair.
Of the fifteen plays of his last phase, over half were full-length, and their innovations placed Shaw once again in the vanguard. Stanley Weintraub has argued, in “The Avant-Garde Shaw,” that many of Shaw’s plays, especially the late plays, can be seen as leading directly to the Theater of the Absurd and other experimental drama of the fifties and sixties.27 Through the period of realism’s and naturalism’s strongest hold, Shaw helped keep alive the arts of the pre-realistic stage. The self-conscious theater that calls attention to itself as theater was Shaw’s forte long before it was Brecht’s or Beckett’s or lonesco’s. Too, in presenting an essentially grave message comically, Shaw anticipated the dark comedy of the absurdist theater. And when a character in Too True to Be Good defines man as an inefficient machine for making bad manure, the Augustinian scatology of several Beckett plays comes easily to mind. Of course Shaw would not go as far in embodying absurdity in absurdist forms as Beckett and lonesco would, but many of his late plays come closer to that than the plays of most of his younger contemporaries.
The Apple Cart (1929), set in a mythical kingdom of the future, typically (for the extravaganza) rationally follows out an irrational proposition—what would happen if a popular constitutional monarch should abdicate out of frustration with his powerlessness and run for office? King Magnus uses the probability that he would be elected as a threat to force the politicians and bureaucrats to govern more wisely. But ultimately, as Shaw wrote in the preface, “the conflict is not really between royalty and democracy. It is between both and plutocracy, which, having destroyed the royal power by frank force under democratic pretexts, has bought and swallowed democracy.”28 Capitalism in the form of a corporation called Breakages Limited runs everything for its own ends, to make money, and cares not what social wreckage it creates in the process, wreckage being as profitable as any business, if not more.
Perhaps the best of the late plays is Too True to Be Good (1931-32), which ironically depicts the plight, not of the poor, but of the rich. The real opposition to a civilized distribution of income, Shaw supposed, lay in the fear of the majority poor that the new system would cut off the possibilities of becoming filthy rich; he wrote therefore to disillusion the poor about the happiness of the rich. He shows that modern wealth, frequently detached from work, responsibility, tradition, and routine, leaves the idle rich with an unstructured life and an emptiness that grows emptier the more they try to fill it with pleasure-seeking. And soon they become sick unto death with a spiritual malaise, though they try to blame it on microbes and the like and bring in expensive doctors. Shaw’s opening scene finds a sick bacillus complaining to the audience not only that it is innocent of the illness of Mops, the spoiled, petulant rich girl in bed, but that Mops gave it the measles. Her illness being spiritual or psychosomatic, Mops is rescued by a burglar and his mistress-accomplice who persuade the girl to flee her boring, bedridden existence and join them in an adventurous life, made possible by selling her jewelry. The rest of the play is set in a strange Middle Eastern, Lawrence-of-Arabia sort of place, just what the adventurous require. Disguised, they meet others who are also pretending to be something they’re not. Complications ensue that eventually force out the truth about everyone’s identity and expose as well the nihilism that is at the root of their dilemma. After much discussion of the dilemma (that of Hemingway’s “lost generation”), they head for different fates, variously resolved. Mops, for example, finds her way to a more healthy existence by determining to found a sisterhood devoted to cleaning up the world. This general departure leaves the burglar, Aubrey, alone. Shaw may not have been waiting for Beckett, but Aubrey is. Secretly an ordained minister but demoralized by his having dropped bombs on civilians in World War I, Aubrey preaches in the void on the text of civilization and its discontents. Aubrey declares himself “the new Ecclesiastes,” obsessed with finding and preaching “the way of life,” but despairing because he has no Bible and no creed, for “the war has shot both out of [his] hands.”29 He goes on and on, in a marvelous rhetorical crescendo, seemingly words without end, but in the final stage directions Shaw dismisses Aubrey’s despair as long on talk and short on action, expressing his preference for the women who take action.
On the Rocks (1933) presents the disaster of The Depression in a contemporary setting (beginning at No. 10 Downing Street), but in the extravaganza manner of imagining what would follow if something so improbable should happen as a prime minister actually bringing himself up-to-date, thinking intelligently, and making the necessary radical proposals for reform. The play depicts the inability of an emergency coalition government to deal with either rampant unemployment or the prime minister’s unlikely transformation into an intelligent and informed statesman. And so, with the floundering of the masses in their leaderless condition, the ship of state drifts ever closer to the rocks.
The next major play, The Simpleton of the Unexpected Isles (1934-35), returned to the “philosophical extravaganza” method of Back to Methuselah, presenting an allegorical Day of Judgment. The setting is the tropical outposts of the British Empire, ranging from the present to about twenty years into the future. In the present a young Indian priest and priestess, Pra and Prola, persuade four English types, two male and two female, to participate in a polygamous eugenic experiment, to see if a mingling of East and West would produce superior offspring, capable of living fruitfully and happily in Utopia. Some illumination comes from the mixing of cultures, but twenty years later, on an island that has risen unexpectedly in the Pacific, the experiment has backfired. The four experimental children, though physically perfect and of a high artistic sensibility, are without moral purpose or sense. Pra and Prola, trying again, then lure “Iddy,” a simpleton English curate abandoned by pirates, into mating with the group’s two daughters; but the unions prove sterile. An outraged, parochial-minded Britain, hearing of the bigamous clergyman, persuades Western fleets to move on these immoral isles, but Eastern peoples unite in protecting them. At the brink of war between East and West, a rather unheroic angel descends to announce a Day of Judgment, one’s right to live being based on one’s social utility. News comes of people vanishing all over the world. Pra and Prola conclude that “in the Unexpected Isles all plans fail. . . . We are not here to fulfill prophecies and fit ourselves into puzzles, but to wrestle with life as it comes. And it never comes as we expect it to come.”30 The future belonging to “those who prefer surprise and wonder to security,”31 Prola and Pra will go on creating new children and new ideas, with no fear of a perpetual Day of Judgment, as they embrace a purposeful pursuit of the life to come. Shaw’s last plays are not hosannas to the emerging welfare state (that profanation of Fabian principles) but celebrations of heroic risk and adventure.
The Millionairess and Geneva have in common Shaw’s increasing fascination with “born bosses” who thrive on heroic risk and adventure. The Millionairess (1934-36) investigates both the character of Epifania, a millionairess who even when beggared rapidly rises to bossdom again by virtue of her mastering nature, and that of an Egyptian doctor, who is dedicated to the poor through his love of compassionate Allah but who cannot resist the vitality of a woman he morally disapproves of. “I think Allah loves those who make money,”32 Epifania cajoles the doctor, but the doctor, who has a talent for making money for others, perhaps sees in his union with Epifania a mysterious working out of the ways of Allah, a possible synthesis of their opposite talents for the good of the world. Geneva (1936-38) deals with the beginnings of modern internationalism and its unsuccessful attempts to control the dictators who are leading the nations toward war. The play comically supposes that the dictators could be summoned to trial before an international court, as though they were subject to English common law. Being poseurs and hams, however, the dictators rush to the spotlight—Battler (Hitler) dressed out as Wagner’s Siegfried, Bombardone (Mussolini) appearing in the drapery and laurel crown of a Roman emperor, and General Flanco (Franco) showing up in a gaudy military uniform. Shaw allows them to make points that expose the weaknesses of the liberal democracies, but the dictators are also satirized as dangerously deluded and monomaniacal. The trial exposes too the inability of any court to restrain such men, and with disaster imminent, the judge declares that “man is a failure as a political animal. The creative forces . . . must produce something better.”33 After news comes that Battler’s troops have invaded Ruritania (Poland), the end of the world is announced, which, though a false alarm, has the salutary effect of breaking up a farce of a trial. But the judge finds some hope for international law in the fact that at least the dictators came to the trial.
In Good King Charles’ Golden Days (1939) charmingly recreates the Restoration in anachronistic terms, as Shaw imagines what would happen if the likes of Charles II, his brother James, Sir Isaac Newton, George Fox (founder of the Quakers), Godfrey Kneller (the painter), and three of Charles’s mistresses—Nell Gwynn (the actress), the Duchess of Cleveland, and the Frenchwoman Louise de Keroualle—were all to meet in the same house and have to deal with opposing points of view, the scientific with the artistic, the unworldly with the worldly, the male with the female. The resulting uproar sends echoes all the way down to the mid-twentieth century, as we are forced to recognize the contentiousness of the modern world as mere consequence of earlier disharmony. Charles despairs of bringing order out of all this chaos, but his reassuring wife sends him back into the fray to at least try, as Shaw felt the nations on the brink of World War II must do. Charles, who rules by his wits, understands that “the riddle of how to choose a ruler . . . is the riddle of civilization.”34 The preface to this play proposes an interesting although partial solution—the “coupled vote.” Candidates for office would be paired as male and female and would vote in Parliament as one. Just as Charles gained much political insight from the constant criticisms of his mistresses and his wife, so “detailed criticism by women has become indispensable in Cabinets.”35 The “coupled vote” would institutionalize that arrangement.
Though at work on other matters during the war, Shaw produced no more new plays until 1947, when he completed Buoyant Billions, a play started in 1936. In its preface, Shaw apologizes for his need to write but explains that he is only a medium—”the play writes itself.”36 Though past the age that would justify his writing, he feels compelled to write one more “smiling comedy with some hope in it.”37 The hope in Buoyant Billions is that the Life Force will make irresistibly attractive to one another one Junius Smith, “world-betterer,” and Clemmy Buoyant, eldest and most capable child of a billionaire, who have met in faraway, exotic Panama, where Clemmy has fled to escape civilization, and Junius has fled to find himself. Their union is meant to give creative impulse to their instincts for making a better world. Junius has been “a missionary without an endowed established Church,” but with the buoyancy provided by marriage to this particular Buoyant, he feels that he can keep afloat in the uncertain waters ahead, even without the direction an established faith can provide. An interesting aspect of the play’s hopefulness is that it looks to an atomic-weaponry stalemate to keep the peace and to the peaceful use of atomic energy to make world-bettering a less frustrating occupation. Shaw at ninety-one was keeping up with the times.
In the preface to Farfetched Fables (1948-50), Shaw underscores that he has no panaceas to offer, only suggestions for sociopolitical experiments. And as people seem to understand such suggestions better when presented in the forms of popular entertainment, he employs “childish fables” for the task. Through a series of six fables, then, Shaw shows humankind becoming entranced with the idea of creating what we would call a “clean bomb” (a poison gas that kills people but leaves real estate untouched), using it destructively but somehow surviving into the distant future, continuing on the never-ending quest for knowledge and power, and evolving beyond the body to “a vortex in thought.” In the last of the fables, sixth-form students, throwbacks to the twentieth century (in a reversal of evolution), question their teacher about a legend that a Disembodied Race once escaped the body and became a vortex of thought that still uses physical beings, such as the students, by planting thoughts in their heads that encourage the pursuit of knowledge and power. In the midst of their discussion they are visited by an angel named Raphael, one of the Disembodied, who has again taken a body out of curiosity and out of a passion for discovery and exploration and has become “the word made flesh” to encourage these qualities in the students.
In closing his career, Shaw managed, in verse, a short puppet play for the Malvern Festival in 1949—Shakes vs. Shav. An outraged Shakes arrives in Malvern to do battle with the upstart Shav, who would rival his Stratford Festival. As they spar in Punch and Judy fashion, they cite their claims for literary fame. Shav concludes: “Peace, jealous Bard: I We both are mortal. For a moment suffer / My glimmering light to shine.” But Shakes has the last word, “Out, out, brief candle,” and puffs out the candle.38 Shaw may have completed another short comedy, Why She Would Not (1950), before his fatal accident in September of 1950, but his preface to Shakes vs. Shav announces that this is his final play, and whether or not that’s the case, it makes a more fitting conclusion to the career of the only serious challenger to the eminence of Shakespeare the British Isles (now known as Ireland and the United Kingdom) have known.
It is somewhat to England’s discredit that she has not done better by her second greatest playwright than she has in recent years or that Ireland hasn’t done better by her own Shakespeare. But this is not to say that Shaw’s star has completely fallen; it has only moved west, appropriately enough since it is now the North American continent that occupies the position in world affairs that Britain once held. In America and Canada Shaw still thrives, as the Shaw shelf has become second in drama only to Shakespeare in sheer weight. Theater companies devoted largely to Shaw, such as the ShawChicago Theater Co and Shaw New York (also known as “Project Shaw”) continue to do every single one of Shaw’s sixty-some odd plays and dramatic sketches. Even more remarkable is the Canadian achievement of establishing at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, just east of Shakespeare’s Stratford, Ontario, Festival, the very successful Shaw Festival Theater. In four theaters, including one of the most attractive in the world, the plays of Shaw and his contemporaries have been revived every year since 1962, supplemented by our contemporaries thought to have continued the spirit of Shaw. This critically acclaimed festival flourishes for six months annually, employing a permanent company of over seventy people, one of the largest repertory companies in the world. As one stretches out on the wonderful rolling picnic grounds that overlook the Niagara River as it rushes into Lake Ontario, sail boats and sea gulls everywhere, or simply bicycles around this charming old town, once the capital of Canada, it is easy to imagine that even so disembodied and turbulent a spirit as G.B.S. would be tempted into an occasional visit to Niagara-on-the-Lake. In the manner of his own fables, one might even fantasize that the rare peregrine falcons that have chosen the Shaw Festival Theatre for their nesting grounds are embodiments of those soaring spirits of the modern drama whose plays swoop down on us in the theater within, to the delight of their prey.
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