by Richard Farr Dietrich – USF
1900-1930: THE TRIUMPH OF THE NEW DRAMA
The death of Queen Victoria in 1901, so soon after the demise of the nineteenth century, gave a sense of conclusion to modern drama’s initial period of the nineties; but the rest of the modern age does not so easily break down into sub-periods. The Edwardian Age (1901-10) certainly had a distinctive character, taking its cue from its fun-loving king and his flamboyant friends, but its drama was not significantly different from that which followed in the teens and twenties. The Great War of 1914-18 divided two very different cultures, prosperous prewar and diminished postwar, seriously affecting the content of the drama, but the general British drama in its basic forms and techniques was not much affected. In fact, a significant change in the drama did not come about on a large scale until the thirties, accompanying a change in mood brought on by the ripple effect of the American Depression, the general failure of immature Western democracies to achieve social justice for its citizens, and the rise of fascism in the world. Allardyce Nicoll, in his English Drama: 1900-1930, has argued persuasively that although there are no clear lines of demarcation, the year 1930 roughly marks a point in dramatic history when one kind of motivating force in drama was nearing its conclusion—most of the playwrights who achieved their first fame in the nineties or the Edwardian age being pretty much finished by then, if not before—and another kind was gradually taking its place.1 A few dramatists overlap ages, and Shaw of course uniquely lasted through all the periods, but the years 1900 to 1930 will serve as well as any in marking off an age of drama.
“The boundless grinding collision of the New with the Old” that Carlyle saw marking the Victorian age continued into the Edwardian age, but after Queen Victoria’s death in 1901 there was a sense that the New was winning, though few suspected how cataclysmic would be the death rattle of the Old. Or how hard it would die, for it is not dead yet. But at first there was earnest optimism, especially among the young, about their ability to remake the world. The conflict between Victorian and modern, insofar as it was generational, led to the habit of treating anything “new,” “young,” “modern” or “progressive” as inherently superior to their opposites. The old Victorians may have had wealth and influence, but the young Edwardians had the weapon of language, and with it they fashioned the term “modern” into a bludgeon to pummel the out-of-date. Shaw pointed out the irony that the fads of the young tended merely to be the resuscitated fashions of grandparents and great-grandparents (“retro” we call it nowadays), his own plays being revitalizations of forgotten drama, but many of the young were blithely unaware of any debt to the past, preferring to believe that rebellious youth could take on the whole of history and, in Ibsen’s words, “torpedo the ark.” Disdain for the past was matched by enthusiasm for the future, which, though vaguely envisioned, was energetically pursued—at least until the great disillusionment of World War I soured some, persuading them that youth was better served in “jazzing” than in social reconstruction.
This passion for reaching for the future added to the difficulties of artists, forcing them to be at least up-to-date, or, better yet, on “the cutting edge” of the avant-garde. And so as Pinero and Jones mostly kept on doing what they had succeeded with in the nineties, their drama seemed old-fashioned by the end of Edward’s reign (1910). For the next twenty years, realizing his dilemma, Pinero occasionally experimented, rather unsuccessfully, with nonrealistic forms; Jones, pretty much abandoning the drama after the war, settled into a despairing sort of existence, occasionally exploding with poison-pen attacks on Shaw, Wells, and others of the avant-garde, twisting himself into a very unattractive sort of jingoist and flag-waver. Shaw’s fate was the opposite. He had had the ironic good fortune to be censored and, seemingly, suppressed in the nineties, which meant that though forty-five at the death of Queen Victoria, he was a prime candidate for “discovery” by the young Edwardians, who identified with the king’s own sense of having been repressed during Victoria’s frustratingly long reign. Having belatedly been discovered, Shaw made sure he was not forgotten. He launched a campaign of ironic self-advertisement, delighted in by those who had suffered the ego repression of Victorian days, and wrote a series of plays of such power, eloquence, and dramatic verve that he earned the right to be considered a leader of the dramatic avant-garde for the next thirty years, a position that culminated, as far as the world was concerned, in his receiving the Nobel Prize in 1925.
1930 the New Drama,
preponderantly realistic social drama but including the Shavian drama of ideas,
had triumphed to the extent that it was widely acknowledged that a higher drama
existed exclusive of Shakespeare and the classics; that it was the legitimate
heir to the heroic tragedy that had been the nineteenth century’s standard for
high drama; and that the lower drama could no longer hog the whole of the West
End. A sizable segment of the audience was now too sophisticated, not to stoop
to attending lower drama, but to have that drama undisguised. And so the last
popular preference for musical theater, Variety, and winter pantomime was for a
theater much more entertaining than edifying. In the Edwardian age, the music
hall continued to dominate, as it had in the late Victorian age, though now it
was more respectable and preferred to be called "Variety." The names
of the theater idols with the widest name recognition, in
musical comedy also flourished in the West End, developing from its roots in
the Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera established by D’Oyly
Carte at the Savoy in 1881, and the George Edwardes’
Gaiety Theatre shows of the nineties, with their combination of spectacle,
dance, comic routine, showgirls, and stylish dress partly derived from
burlesque. The exotic orientalism of Edward Knoblock’s
Kismet (1911) and Oscar Asche’s
wartime smash hit, Chu Chin Chow
(1916), helped develop that
taste for what later would be known as “the Broadway musical” when
That such frothy stuff competed for audiences with straight drama was cause for concern for the latter of course, but one need not take too highbrow an attitude. The music hall, revue stage, and musical comedy, however lacking in emotional depth and intellectual scope, met the needs of an audience eager for such stimulus and cannot be said to have failed the Dionysian purposes of the theater—they did revive, or at least prop up, a population deadened by routine and convention. But their medicine was only therapeutic, not curative. And so it is always cause for despair when froth becomes the only fare, which came close to being the case during World War I.
the possible exception of Barrie’s Dear
Brutus, not a single major new play was produced in the West End
during the four years of the war, and there were precious few revivals of
classics. In addition to the lightest and silliest sort of musical comedy,
Variety, and revue, the stage was given over mostly to patriotic pageants (such
as Louis N. Parker’s Drake),
jingoistic recruiting plays (such as Horatio Bottomley’s
England Expects), nostalgia
pieces (such as an adaptation of David
Copperfield), nautical melodramas (such as The Freedom of the Seas and The Luck of the Navy), and
spot-the-murderer plays. A war-weary people, particularly the boys on furlough,
came to the
But, of course, this being an age that worshipped the new, and popular entertainment, for economic reasons, being most susceptible to fickle fashion, new technologies gradually did in at least two of the popular forms—music hall and revue—as radio, the gramophone, and the cinema, especially "the talkies" in the late twenties, stole their audience. In an increasingly democratic age, popular taste and its craving for novelty had more and more to be considered.
And so the major dramatists of the period, though they could now command West End theaters, often found that they had to accommodate West End commercial principles, as in the way Galsworthy introduced elements of the well-made thriller into some of his plays, Maugham and Coward “lightened” their comedies, and Barrie indulged in the sentimental. In some cases, the accommodation was made for them: Shaw’s anti-romantic Pygmalion was given a romantic ending by Herbert Beerbohm Tree (called the last of the great actor-managers and just as willing to “sell out” the playwright for the sake of the box office as most of that breed). All too often the greatest successes under the New Drama banner were slight, sentimental pieces such as R. C. Sherriff’s Journey’s End (1928), which rocked audiences with what was thought its tough anti-war look back at the Great War but which strikes us now as very naive and artificial.
hopeful in the 1900 to 1930 period was the modest, fitful, but steady success
of the repertory revival and the arts-theater movement (notwithstanding the
setback of the Great War), featuring, in mostly provincial and suburban
companies, the many varieties of the New Drama as well as the classics. This
success not only forced the
Our period opens with a mournful note at the death of the beloved queen, but many were in a celebratory mood at the accession to the throne of the former playboy Prince of Wales, now Edward VII, for it seemed to mean that they were “free at last” to be themselves, as was the king after decades of leading a double life. Though the queen had been less prudish than the age that bore her name, still she had not been amused at the stories of Edward’s “sporting life,” nor had Edward’s long-suffering wife, Alexandra, but the gossip had titillated and added color to the Victorian age, promising a golden day for the young at heart when at last the prince would become king and free all the slaves of Victorian convention.
Among the new king’s charms was his love of the theater, in all its forms (as well as its actresses, in all their forms). Victoria, as a youth and before her husband died, had frequently patronized the theater, thereby contributing to the rising respectability of actors and dramatists. But Edward was a dedicated theatergoer all his life, and in knighting the leading artists of the theater, he encouraged the idea of an aristocracy of talent. Immediately a prince arose to lead this new aristocracy, but Shaw so well disguised himself as a fool that few recognized him as that leader. This Shaw was quite as irrepressible and fun-loving as the king, and seemingly kindred in his rebellion against things Victorian; but his pleasures, it turned out, were on such a higher plane than those of the king, who preferred music halls to straight drama, that they found themselves at odds. The king never quite understood that Shaw’s jesting aimed to show that the Edwardian spirit, however welcome as an antidote to life-denying Victorian ideals, was making a fool of itself in its abuse of its new freedoms, particularly in its insistence on the privileges of wealth and rank, which divided society into “upstairs” and “downstairs.” Shaw’s point was that Edwardian self-indulgence, however understandable as a reaction, was not the answer to what he saw as the perverted, ghost-ridden Victorian idealism of self-denial.
“Court Jester” is aptly suggestive of Shaw’s role in the years 1900 to 1930. With the command performance before Edward VII of John Bull’s Other Island in 1905 (not to mention a second command performance at No. 10 Downing Street arranged by Prime Minister Asquith in 1911 for the newly crowned George V), an official stamp was put on Shaw as a sort of “privileged lunatic” serving the royal government, licensed to say outrageous things as long as they were amusing. But that Edward and his cronies seem to have missed some of Shaw’s subtler ironies and paradoxes, especially those aimed at themselves as the real privileged lunatics, adds another dimension—that of Lear’s fool, who plays not just to amuse the king but to administer to his follies and madness in their kind. And then, with Shaw’s reputation growing to international proportions but his seriousness as missed or ignored abroad as at home—to the end that the disregarding nations tumbled into world war, revolution, and unceasing civil strife—Shaw began to reveal more and more openly that, as Eric Bentley put it, “his fooling was holy” and that as a clown-prophet he was playing “the Fool in Christ” to the court of world opinion in an effort to save the world from its own savagery.3 The world responded as it usually does with its wise fools—persecuted him at first, gave up when he proved right, eventually honored and lionized him, and, finally, put him on its shelf of dusty idols, treatment Shaw protested to the end.
But Shaw might never have reached either that world court or Edward’s court had he not found favor first at a much smaller court, the Royal Court Theatre, located in Chelsea’s Sloan Square, well west of the West End. The Court has had a distinguished history as an avant-garde theater; it was the management of Harley Granville Barker and J. E. Vedrenne from 1904 to 1907, featuring the plays of Shaw, that set the tone. The Court pioneered in replacing the old-style actor-manager with an independent producer or director as leader of the theatrical team, a change similar to but less extreme than the notion Edward Gordon Craig expressed in Art of the Theatre (1905) that the director should be the supreme artist of the stage, with playwright, actors, and technical people all subordinated to his single-minded artistic vision. Barker himself, ever respectful of the text, did not go that far, but he helped open the way for the Craigian style of directing. For the moment in question, however, the Court provided the apotheosis, not of the director as artist, but of the playwright as artist, as Barker wisely allowed Shavian wit to captivate an audience eager to laugh at its Victorian past.
GENRE ANTI-TYPES: ANTIDOTES TO VICTORIANISM
Most of Shaw’s Victorian plays saw little or no performance in the nineties (except in Germany and America), so Barker was able to start with a considerable dramatic reservoir. Full of marvelously entertaining anti-Victorian sentiment, these zesty plays were perfect for those Edwardians who sought to free society of certain Victorian habits of thinking that seemed to them life-denying.
But the “fun” of a Shaw play is deceiving. In fact, Shaw acknowledged that his plays were sugarcoated. Because, though part of the audience might come to the theater to be edified, most came to escape reality, and thus great dramatists are forced to be extraordinarily entertaining “in order to induce our audience of shirkers and dreamers to swallow the pill.”4 Martin Meisel has explained best how Shaw made his sugarcoating functional by having it serve the purposes of his visionary realism. “Shaw does not cover his pill with an unrelated sugar-coating of conventional drama. Rather he combines edification with a comedy in which the conventions are themselves the butt of the joke, and in which the fun relieves the spectator of an immediate obligation to damn or say ‘Amen.’”5 The objects of satiric attack are the dramatic and theatrical conventions as embodiments of social idealisms. Because Shaw saw the theater as an important social institution, central to the well-being of society, he was attacking society in attacking the theater. Shaw exploited the popular genres for revolutionary purposes, elevating them to high drama by creating what Meisel calls “genre anti-types,” which expose how the conventions of a given type are humorously inadequate to account for reality and are thus artistically unacceptable in their pure, unparodied or uninverted state. Much of the fun for Shaw’s Edwardian and Georgian audiences lay in seeing Shaw explode recognizable conventions, conventions still played straight in other theaters, thus giving Shaw’s plays a powerful immediacy.
All of Shaw’s plays to date were partially parodistic exaggerations or comic inversions of standard melodramatic or romantic patterns; unfortunately, we have somewhat lost the key because we no longer know the plays they refer to. For example, Mrs. Warren’s Profession was the genre anti-type of two kinds of “fallen woman” play—the courtesan play (featuring the vocational “fallen woman” in a usually luxurious setting) and the Magdalen play (featuring the domestic fallen woman seeking to “get back”), two popular types of melodrama that tsk-tsked at prostitution or sexual delinquency while secretly promoting its glamorous attractions. In similar fashion, Candida was a genre anti-type of domestic comedy, Arms and the Man of military romance, Caesar and Cleopatra of the heroic history play, and so on. In each play, Shaw systematically ridiculed all the unrealistic conventions of popular Victorian drama.
The purpose of Shaw’s satiric attack on dramatic and theatrical conventions was to get at the larger social and moral conventions of which they were a part, conventions created by the general habit of mind he called “idealism,” which dehumanized behavior by mechanizing it, reducing idealists to knee-jerk ideological purity. If society was ever to reach a high state of civilization, fit for fully evolved human beings capable of thoughtful and felt moral responses, a forum had to be found for the reinforcement of the Realist vision. That forum, for Shaw, was the theater, whereby idealism could be overcome through immersion in a dramatic action of disillusionment, and realism made attractive in a portrayal of its fruitful enlightenment. And the specific medium he devised for realizing Realist (or Superman) potential was a “drama of ideas,” the drama that aims to change minds.
Shaw never abandoned the technique of generating comedy from the creation of genre anti-types, but he sought to create a new genre of his own as well, variously called “The Drama of Ideas” or “The Discussion Play,” in which he flaunted his difference from the old Theatrical Theater in its emphasis on plot at the cost of character and coherent action.
Drama had become so patterned that most plays had little or no content, thereby leaving out the ingredient that makes the pattern significant. Shaw’s emphasis on ideas was a strategy of overstatement designed to force playwrights to bring content back into drama. Unfortunately it led some inattentive critics to assume that Shaw’s dramas of ideas were all content and therefore simply essays in disguise or political or economic tracts, which is hardly the case. As Shaw explained, “there is only one way of dramatizing an idea, and that is by putting on the stage a human being possessed by that idea, yet none the less a human being with all the human impulses which make him akin and interesting to us.”6 When, for example, some critics dismissed Mrs. Warren’s Profession as a mere essay in economics, Shaw replied that his play “is no mere theorem, but a play of instincts and temperaments in conflict with each other,” and he later asked, “Would anyone but a buffleheaded idiot of a university professor, half crazy with correcting examination papers, infer that all my plays were written as economic essays, and not as plays of life, character, and human destiny like those of Shakespear [sic] or Euripides?”7
Much of the misunderstanding derived from the critics’ clinging to an old-fashioned faculty psychology, which divided “cold reason” from “warm passion,” as though the brain, bathed in blood and alive with electricity, was not the source of both. Shaw’s understanding of the brain as the seat of the passions, including moral thinking as the highest of the passions, was more akin to our own. Martin Meisel explains how Shaw’s advanced view of the workings of the brain contributed to his conversion of nineteenth-century drama into modern drama. “No aspect of Shaw’s accomplishment . . . was more important than his creation of a modern . . . rhetorical drama of impassioned ideas, . . . created . . . from the refractory materials and traditions that came to his hand. The rhetorical drama of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was a drama of passions and sentiments, not ideas. It used language, like action, for the externalization of emotion.” Such passionate drama “was thrilling, startling, electrifying, beyond anything dreamt of on our humdrum realistic stage.” But all too often the nineteenth-century form for this drama, such as melodrama, was mindless. Shaw needed a way to embody ideas, and a way that would be as thrilling, startling, and electrifying as the passionate drama, but it could not be as mindless as so much of the passionate drama was. And so he simply updated the obsolete rhetorical drama of the passions by treating ideas as passions, which indeed they are. Thus, says Meisel, “Shaw was able to fuse the new and the old into something theatrically viable, and to secure to this medium for ideas both the superabundant energy of the rhetorical convention and its superhuman expressiveness.” When his plays were criticized for being cold, rational, and lacking in passion, Shaw replied: “Not for a moment will you find in my plays any assumption that reason is more than an instrument. What you will find, however, is the belief that intellect is essentially a passion, and that the search for enlightenment of any sort is far more interesting and enduring than, say, the sexual pursuit of a woman by a man.”8 Shaw’s impassioned drama of ideas was anything but untheatrical. His practice was to replace “the thrusts, ripostes, parries, and passados” of the so-called Theatrical Theater with verbal fencing on an intellectual plane, accompanied by appropriate body language, producing thereby a very “athletic” drama.
With Man and Superman (1901-1903), his first declared drama of ideas, Shaw went from being a major playwright to becoming the playwright of the day. It catapulted him to a level of excellence that he maintained for twenty years, though he would occasionally stoop to lesser work. The play alone is of considerable complexity, with ironies piled on ironies, but the reverberations set off by its placement between two lengthy, complicated essays—”An Epistle Dedicatory” and a “Revolutionist’s Handbook”—compound the complexity.
The play involves the disposition of the will of the recently deceased Mr. Whitefield, a gentleman of advanced Liberal views, who has left behind a widow and two unmarried daughters, Ann, the elder, and Rhoda. Ann is a “vital genius,” Shaw tells us, meaning both that she possesses unusual vitality and that she is a genius at fulfilling it. Fulfilling one’s vital instincts in Victorian society required duplicity (thus all the pretense of mourning in the opening scene), and Ann has become a master at bullying everyone while playing the dutiful daughter who never gives her own will as a reason for doing anything. For example, she claims to be interested only in fulfilling her father’s last will in the matter of who her guardian will be (fatherless, unmarried females being expected to have guardians, no matter their age). Whitefield’s old friend and Liberal colleague, Roebuck Ramsden, had expected to be named guardian, but the will names him as co-guardian with John Tanner, also a friend of the family but a much younger and more revolutionary man, author in fact of the notorious “Revolutionist’s Handbook,” which Shaw kindly appended so that we would have proof of Tanner’s genius, and which Ramsden angrily denounces as anarchist drivel without having read it. The early conflict between Ramsden, yesterday’s settled-down Liberal, and Tanner, today’s fiery revolutionist, would seem to identify this as the youth versus age sort of romantic comedy, but that conflict eventually takes a back seat to Tanner and Ann’s duel of the sexes, instigated by Tanner’s belief that he, the Shavian Realist, sees through ‘Lady Mephistopheles’ “duplicity.”
The question is, whose will is it that Tanner should be Ann’s guardian and thus forced into constant touch with her? An eloquent Tanner leads us to believe that it is entirely Ann’s will, as usual plotting behind the scenes to influence her father’s choice. Tanner thinks that the object of her maneuvering is to get him into a position where she can manipulate him for her own ends, such as to approve her matrimonial designs on Octavius Robinson, a young poet of hopelessly idealistic notions about women. Tanner jokingly tells “Tavy” that he would warn him away from this “man-eater” if he weren’t concerned for his own flesh. Rather belatedly it occurs to Tanner that he is the marked-down prey of this “spider woman.” Leaping into his car, probably the first car to be driven on and off a stage, Tanner heads for the hills, his Cockney chauffeur, Henry Straker, running to catch up. But the driver soon learns that he is more “driven” than “driving.”
Arriving in the Sierra Madres, Tanner and Straker are “held up” by an amusingly quarrelsome band of Robin Hood socialists and anarchists and are invited by their lovesick leader, Mendoza, to spend the night. Here the Wellsian New Man, Henry Straker, reveals that a command of engineering principles is no guarantee of a command of social principles, his readiness to fight Mendoza for the sake of his sister’s honor (his sister Louisa being the object of Mendoza’s unrequited love) suggesting an atavism. After the arguments subside and they fall asleep, Shaw’s seemingly realistic social comedy is interrupted by an expressionistic “dream play,” in which Tanner envisions a debate in Hell between the Devil and Tanner’s ancestor, Don Juan, with interjections along the way from Mozart’s Donna Anna, just arrived in Hell, and her father, the statuesque Commander, who fought for her honor against “the vile seducer” but lost and who has just escaped to Hell from the very dull Heaven to which he claims he was misassigned. The dream is appropriate to an impudent and disruptive revolutionist’s play, for expressionism reveals the impudent and disruptive truth that lies under the polite surface of bourgeois society. The dream also provides rationalizations for the dreamer.
It is in this semi-Freudian dream that Tanner discovers a philosophical justification for letting Ann catch him—it is the will of the Life Force that the best women should be free to hunt out the best men, so that in their mating evolution may proceed from man to Superman, self-transcendence being the only hope for a species seemingly bent on self-destruction. That settled, on Tanner’s awakening there stands Ann, who has tracked him through Europe like Sherlock Holmes, proving that there is creative intelligence behind that siren beauty. Later, in an Edenic garden in Granada, across from the Alhambra, he capitulates, after a struggle, to her vital need for a husband.
It seemed that in reversing the sex chase, female pursuing male, Shaw was as usual merely scandalizing Victorian Idealists who dreamt that women were domestic angels despising sexuality but submitting to man’s beastly impulses out of angelic charity and dutifulness. Shaw did wish to counter such idealism with a realistic portrayal of women as flesh-and-blood sexual beings, impelled by their vital instincts to procreate, but that was a relatively superficial point. A deeper point was made by his reversal of an old Philistine joke on the Victorian ideal. The joke went that women run from men who pursue for sex, but they take care not to run so fast they can’t be caught; Shaw’s reversal put Tanner in the role of the “coy maiden.”9 That Ann catches Tanner is as much a testimony to his penchant for leaving clues as to her skill in finding them. (But the romantic "test of the hero" has definitely been assigned to her. The chase is a test of her speed, endurance, and intellectual acumen, qualities that make her a fit mother for the Superman.) It was Tanner who planted the idea in Whitefield’s mind that Ann should have a younger man as guardian—Whitefield’s will is thus Tanner’s will, as well as Ann’s. So Tanner is a flirt (a "shocking flirt," according to Ann), though coyly pretending otherwise. As his sleeping subconscious reveals to him in the dream, he’s perfectly suited for the fatherhood she seeks for him and is as enchanted by the procreative Life Force within him as she is.
But Tanner the philosopher needs more than procreative reasons for marrying. Just as a recently married Shaw, contracted into a childless marriage, was seeking to establish what purpose humanity had outside of replenishing the earth with babies to participate in the Darwinian struggle for survival of the fittest, so Tanner wants to know if he has any purpose beyond fertilizing the Mother Woman and providing for her children. As a philosopher, Tanner needs a philosophy to justify marrying Ann; the purely personal question of his relation to Ann must be understood in terms of the universal question of man’s relation to the universe. The dream provides him with a worthy reason to marry. The purpose of life is not enjoyment or happiness—the domestic bliss of bourgeois marriage as propagandized—nor is it mere brutal propagation and survival of the species; rather, the purpose is transcendence, to push life to higher forms of expression in search of God (which is to be created, we later learn, by the aspiring force of evolution).
Perhaps Tanner dreams of Don Juan because, as a seducer, the don was the type of man who did not want to be a mere instrument of woman’s procreative purpose but tried to use woman’s sexuality for his own purpose—on one level, to find some joy in existence, but on a higher level, to rebel against a stiflingly conformist society in order to create a new and, one hopes, better society, one in which sexual relations are conducted on a more open and honest basis. The don further appeals to Tanner’s imagination, because, in Shaw’s conception, the centuries have made him philosophical about sex, his libertinism now directed more at “free thinking” than “free love.” As a rebel against things as they are, but now a seducer of minds rather than bodies, Don Juan leads Tanner to a realization that the purpose of the universe is growth and transcendence, to the end of life’s becoming the omniscient and omnipotent God of theology. We are all experiments at godhead.
And so when a woman like Ann, consumed by her maternal instincts, selects for a mate a man who is consumed by an intellectual creative urge, that is source for high comedy, even “divine” comedy, given the cosmic implications. Particularly comic is the fact that the Realist Tanner romantically enjoys playing out the cosmic drama to the end, intensifying the love agony to the greatest degree bearable, thereby almost losing Ann. He struggles with his fate with such heroic resistance that he leaves Ann exhausted and ready to give up the hunt. But the second she gives up, Tanner immediately seizes her in his arms and proclaims his love.
Tanner is an amusing fellow, but perhaps we don’t realize how much fun Shaw has been having with him all along because he speaks Shaw’s own philosophy. The explanation is that Shaw’s satiric attack is always aimed at idealism, and when Shavian philosophy becomes just another idealism, it too is ripe for attack. Notice how Tanner, his head in the clouds of Shavian Vitalism, is forever being tripped up by facts, as when he misreads Violet’s pregnancy. Shaw once wrote that he was “interested, not in the class war, but in the struggle between human vitality and the artificial system of morality.”10 The joke here is that the apostle of Shavian Vitalism, a philosophy that champions the vital genius against the system, is the slave of his own system.
The process of forming ideals, of creating systems of thought, is crucial to the further development of the Life Force, as it grows from ideal to ideal (“Take out the world’s pursuit of illusions and you take out the world’s mainspring,” Shaw had said as early as 1896),”11 but comedy results when man becomes so absorbed in the system he has created that he forgets about life. Both are needed, life and the thinking about life. But babies first.
Man and Superman fulfills romantic comedy’s formula for resolution of the sex duel in marriage, but the love that conquers all here is the Life Force’s biological command, not some ethereal blending of kindred souls, and the marriage that results is more likely to be a debating match than a bower of wedded bliss. About what you’d expect from a marriage that was, after all, made in Hell (as are most marriages, in Shaw’s view), where debates between those of the hellish temperament and those of the heavenly temperament seem to be the only means of relieving the boredom. Shaw’s Hell is a realization of the utopian dreams of the romantic imagination, presented to show what a crashing bore self-indulgence and self-cultivation are when pursued for their own sakes. Hell is the place where, as the royal Edwardians wished, one has nothing to do but enjoy oneself, but without the limitations of the body. Don Juan makes clear Shaw’s preference for the heavenly temperament, which devotes itself to the pleasures of creative thought in the pursuit of transcendence.
Among the many complexities of this play, Shaw seems to be playing with archetypes of male and female, archetypes derived from ancient religions in which the goddess of life, the Great Mother, figures prominently. Shaw takes the traditional association of the goddess with earthly fertility as he finds it, but he arbitrates the antagonism between the goddess and the type of male who possesses his own sort of creativity, an antagonism that may have led in history to the patriarchal overthrow of the goddess. The outcome of his dramatic arbitration is to show that both kinds of creativity, biological and intellectual, may work in dialectical harmony, and that both sexes may possess both kinds. Shaw shows how fruitful sexual dialectics may replace destructive sexual politics.
This play had a decidedly liberating influence on sexual relations, making them more honest and open, and contributed to freeing “respectable” women from the tedious pretense that they were sexless in their motives. This liberation of sexuality was one aspect of the invoking of the Dionysian spirit upon that cast of mind we call Victorian. In subsequent plays Shaw interested himself in other aspects of the Dionysian force.
Many critics have noted how Shaw’s discovery of Ibsen’s Hegelian structuring of Emperor and Galilean (1873) reinforced his favorite dialectic between “pagan” and “Christian,” Caesar and Cleopatra being a play that attempts in the person of Caesar a synthesis of those opposing ideas, Caesar providing, in fact, a more successful embodiment of Ibsen’s “third empire” synthesis of life-affirming pagan values and Christian moral idealism than Ibsen’s own Julian the Apostate. But his Caesar represents not only the high point but also a temporary cessation of Shaw’s attempt to embody that synthesis in a single individual. In his middle period we mostly find that certain characters possess only pieces of that synthesis and must work with others to achieve an effective whole. And the idea of synthesis seems to be replaced by that of maintaining a fruitful tension between opposites. No wonder critics have been bewildered by Malor Barbara (1905), for they have tried to locate in a single character what Shaw intended for the ensemble. Here Barbara Undershaft, a major in the Salvation Army, finds that salvation is a complicated matter requiring more than simple faith. To be effective that faith must engage in dialectical play with, among other things, knowledge, creative moral intelligence, and “executive power,” which in practical terms, in this play, means marrying a professor of Greek and making a pact with her “devil” of a father.
The professor of Greek who courts Barbara is Adolphus Cusins, modeled on the classical scholar Gilbert Murray, whose translations of Euripides Barker was staging at the Court Theatre along with Shaw’s plays. Murray’s rendering of The Bacchae (or The Dionysians) seems also to have inspired Shaw’s characterization of “Dionysius Undershaft,” as Cusins refers to Barbara’s estranged father, who is the millionaire owner of a “devilish” munitions factory that supplies weapons to whoever has money to buy, in the best capitalist tradition. Capitalism in this repressive society being one of the few accepted vents for self-assertion, strong spirits such as Undershaft tend to overindulge. The plot consists principally of the struggle between Barbara and her father for each other’s soul, a struggle that finds Cusins in the middle pulled both ways.
The play starts at Wilton Crescent, home of Lady Britomart Undershaft, “a typical managing matron of the upper class,” mother of three children—Stephen, Barbara, and Sarah—who are supported by their absent father, the notorious Andrew Undershaft, dealer of death and destruction. In visiting the family from which he has long been separated, Andrew first dismisses Lady Britomart’s idea that their supercilious son, Stephen, is fit to inherit his business, but then he discovers that his idealistic daughter Barbara and her scholarly suitor Cusins have potential for succeeding him. Barbara scorns the way her father makes money, but after Undershaft points out that his money has made possible her upper-class life, saving her soul from poverty, daughter and father challenge each other to visit the other’s place of work to see who is most effective at saving souls. First Undershaft visits her Salvation Army shelter in the London slums, where the poor are ministered to, and then she, Cusins, and the family visit his munitions factories at Perivale St. Andrews, where the poor are employed. Barbara thinks that in going from shelter to factory she’s going from the path to heaven to the path to hell, and an audience raised on melodrama would agree, seeing in her father’s attempts to convert her the familiar pattern of the designing “heavy’s” beggaring of the pure, innocent heroine. But Shaw thought melodrama falsified reality when it portrayed human vitality as evil and human virtue as helpless and passive, and so he disappoints those with melodramatic imaginations by giving the character who ought to be the villain most of the best arguments and by giving vital self-assertiveness to the characters who ought to be virtuously passive.
A moral of many melodramas (such as Boucicault’s The Streets of London) was that “poverty is not a crime.” Hadn’t the saints made poverty a virtue, along with withdrawal from a corrupt world in an attitude of contemptus mundi? Shaw’s problem, however, was not with long-dead saints but with the habit of non-engagement chary modern progressive intellectuals had inherited from them. The play’s action shows how even two of the more assertive of moderns can fall into a habit of retreat and how easily these salvation shelters, romantic bowers, and ivory-tower retreats can be subverted, for the crime of poverty creeps in everywhere and forces one’s attention, destroying one’s splendid isolation.
And so Barbara undergoes something like Christ’s Passion in suffering the loss of her illusions about her ability to remain pure. In scenes evocative of the temptation of Christ, “Mephistopheles” Undershaft subjects his saintly daughter to the torture of seeing her most cherished ideals contradicted by fact and tempts her with a seemingly secular salvation. He first exposes her Salvation Army as an army without real power to save, for its acts of Christian charity further demean and corrupt the poor and make them more passive in accepting their wretched fate. And the more the millionaire gives to the Salvation Army, the more certain is he of escaping social unrest and additional taxes for poor relief. When the Salvation Army general accepts Undershaft’s “tainted” money, the angelic Barbara believes she stands alone in the midst of a very wicked world. Feeling the pain of an extreme alienation, Barbara echoes Christ’s cry on the cross, “My God: why hast thou forsaken me?” And she imagines her promised visit to her father’s munitions plant to be her descent into hell.
Meanwhile, pulled in a different direction by his aroused Hellenic passion for the Dionysian Life Force, Cusins suffers a different sort of abandonment, first to the music of the drum-and-brass band (“Blow, Machiavelli, blow!” cries the possessed Cusins to Undershaft on the trombone), as the Salvation Army marches off to the all-London meeting that will announce Undershaft and Bodger (a whiskey maker) as the great benefactors of the poor, then abandonment to the brandy of Undershaft, “The Prince of Darkness,” who entices him to an evening’s disillusioning discussion. Forced from his academic cloister and his romantic trifling with Barbara, the Greek scholar becomes enthralled with the Dionysian spirit he senses in Undershaft, though his Christian acculturation makes him still suspect that the cloven hoof of the Dionysian is that of the devil.
In the play’s concluding scenes, Undershaft intensifies his wooing of Barbara and Cusins, trying to convince them that they can create the heaven on earth they yearn for only by exercising, not abdicating, power; such abdication is the Christian game she has been playing and the ivory-tower game he has been playing, based on the superstition that the spiritually pure must avoid the taint of all-corrupting power. For every human relationship is a power relationship, and all money is “tainted.” As Shaw wrote in the preface, “there is no salvation through personal righteousness. . . .[They] must either share the world’s guilt or go to another planet. [They] must save the world’s honour if [they are] to save [their] own.” And so they learn to face the world as it is, for, as Barbara puts it, “turning our backs on Undershaft and Bodger is turning our backs on life.”12
Upon visiting Undershaft’s Perivale St. Andrews, Barbara and Cusins find it to be not hell on earth but a model workers’ town run on very enlightened principles, no poverty anywhere in sight. The “perfection” of this celestial city is a qualified one, however, for there is something fundamentally wrong in the fact that its well-being, like Barbara’s own, is based on the sale of weapons and munitions. Further, Barbara is delighted to discover that even in this workers’ utopia there is “divine discontent” and thus work to do for a saver of souls, work she can now do without bribing the poor with bread or promises of heaven. At the realization that God’s work can be done for its own sake, Barbara become “transfigured.” As she cries out, “Glory Hallelujah!” Barbara is described as having “gone right up into the skies.” Somewhat less transported but still taken with the idea of attempting to become Plato’s philosopher-king, Cusins bargains with Undershaft to be his apprentice, hoping that the humanely educated intellect he possesses, in league with the spiritual ministrations of Barbara, can somehow civilize the industrial forces of the world by “making war on war.” Undershaft’s steel furnaces can produce munitions to blow up the world or they can produce rail lines and automobiles that facilitate worldwide transportation and communication. The phosphates used to manufacture explosives can also be used to make fertilizer to grow food. The terrible ferocity of a blast-furnace fire, though conventionally imagined as hellish, can be an instrument for the creation of “heaven” as well.13
A century before, in Prometheus Unbound, Shelley had imagined the liberation of Prometheus, fire-bringer to mankind, largely in terms of intellectual enlightenment. Fire certainly sheds light, but first and foremost it is heat energy, like the heat of Undershaft’s furnaces, the atomic furnaces of the sun and stars, the earth’s molten core, and, most important, the furnace of the human body. Believing this last to be the source of the creative force necessary to evolution, Shaw would have that Dionysian force liberated along with the Promethean, with the caution that the Life Force can become a Death Force if it gets into the wrong hands. By getting Cusins and Barbara to join Undershaft in running Perivale St. Andrews, Shaw hoped he was putting the Life Force in the right hands. The three pistons, or “undershafts,” that Shaw supposed were needed to drive the civilization of the future are represented in this play by Andrew Undershaft’s mastering competitive drive and enterprising spirit, Cusins informed intellectual-moral passion, and Barbara’s natural, spiritual passion for salvation through acts of “brotherly love.” The dynamics of their interaction would produce sufficient energy for transcendence as well as for maintenance of civilization. One wonders if when Prime Minister Balfour sat watching this play he questioned whether he or Asquith or Lloyd George or Kaiser Wilhelm possessed the right hands for directing the civilization of the future. History suggests they did not.
Shaw subtitled Major Barbara “A Discussion” in order to express his exasperation with critics who were unable to appreciate his plays because they did not fit academic definitions of the genres. The year before, John Bull’s Other Island (1904), though drawing distinguished crowds, had initially been panned for being too discursive and had been declared “not a play.” Shaw struck back openly in 1911 with Fanny’s First Play, in which he satirized various critical reactions to his plays, especially that of the academic Idealist who would not allow plays to be called plays unless they fitted conventional models. Continuing his campaign in prose, in 1913 he revised The Quintessence of lbsenism for publication, including a new chapter titled “The Technical Novelty in Ibsen’s Plays,” declaring the Ibsen of the last scene in A Doll House to be the inventor of “discussion” in drama, a technique that post-Ibsen playwrights like himself had developed “until [discussion] so overspreads and interpenetrates the action that it finally assimilates it, making play and discussion practically identical.”14
From about 1904 to 1910, then, Shaw experimented with discussion to see if it could be made the dominant element of a play, to see if his drama of ideas could be, as in “Don Juan in Hell,” a drama of ideas discussed. Whereas in most of his earlier plays action had produced discussion, he now sought to put discussion first as a producer of action. The Doctor’s Dilemma (1906), a “discussion” of medical ethics, Getting Married (1908), a “disquisitory conversation” about parental relations with marriageable children, and Misalliance (1909-1910), a “debate” on the subject of how to get the right people married to each other, are the major plays of this period that illustrate Shaw’s attempt to generate action from discussion.
Though Shaw’s discussion plays are crowded with incident, the incidents are not the merely mechanical working out of an artificial complication of a sterile plot; rather, they follow naturally from the characters’ struggle to grapple with important ideas. Shaw’s problem, then, was with inattentive directors who, like certain critics, assumed that discussion plays were by definition static, consisting of actors standing around declaiming rhetoric at one another, just as bad directors turn Shakespeare’s plays into mere poetry recitals. But good directors, picking up on the “action cues” embedded in Shaw’s text, can produce an almost balletic effect realizing that Shaw not only imagined his plays operatically, with roles assigned by “voice,” but visualized his drama of ideas as a dance of ideas, with bodies moving to and fro to the rhythms of argument, the beat of agreement and disagreement, attraction and repulsion. When Shaw directed his own plays, actors found his rehearsal readings like opera and ballet and fencing combined.
JOURNEY TO HEARTBREAK
After the modest success at the Court Theatre, Barker and Vedrenne moved their highbrow repertory to the West End, hoping to gain wider support for the effort to establish a national theater. Shaw’s plays had been the staple of the repertory experiment since 1904, and though the Shavian audience was growing and distinguished, drawing leading political figures and the reformist intelligentsia, it was still not large enough to fill a large West End theater on a long-run basis. And so the notion grew that Shaw was not capable of a commercial success. Though contemptuous of such success, Shaw proceeded to prove them wrong, first by staging a highly successful production of Fanny’s First Play in 1911, and then by writing Pygmalion, a “smash hit” that later, in its conversion by Lerner and Lowe into the musical My Fair Lady, became one of the great box-office bonanzas of all time.
Partly accounting for their success, however, was the fact that the original Pygmalion production in 1914 had in common with My Fair Lady a perversion of Shaw’s original script. Intended as a genre anti-type of romantic comedy, the 1914 play production and later musical tacked on a romantic conclusion. The well-known story of Professor Higgins’s triumph in teaching Eliza Doolittle, Cockney flower girl and slum dweller, to speak and act like a lady was meant to satirize the class system. Shaw’s point was not just that the difference between rich and poor is a superficial difference of education and social training but also that the desire of the poor to be like the rich in manners is mistaken, for Eliza’s transformation into a lady does not constitute a transformation into a living, independent human being, since a lady is as much a slave of upper-class convention as the flower girl is a slave of poverty, both being mechanical wind-up dolls full of automatic responses to social stimuli.
Shaw’s intent was to deromanticize both the myth of Pygmalion and the fairy tale of Cinderella. In the myth, Pygmalion is a sculptor who, after creating the perfect woman as a statue, so falls in love with Galatea that he begs Aphrodite to give her life and then marries her when Aphrodite obliges. The Cinderella story also involves the transformation of a young woman into something better, with the reward of marriage to Prince Charming. Knowing the audience’s expectations and ignoring director Shaw’s explicit commands, Herbert Beerbohm Tree as Higgins threw flowers to Mrs. Pat Campbell’s Eliza at the curtain, suggesting a romantic future leading to marriage. Said Tree to Shaw, “My ending makes money; you ought to be grateful.” Shaw replied, “Your ending is damnable; you ought to be shot!”15 Shaw’s play had made the point that a modern Galatea would not really come alive until she determined to be, not a society doll, but herself, and that a modern Cinderella would be more likely to throw the slippers at Prince Charming, as Eliza does, than fit into his triple-A-size conception of what a woman should be. Tree’s romantic ending made nonsense of all the action leading up to the final parting of Eliza and Higgins, which in Shaw’s script suggests only future friendship and, possibly, professional rivalry. Trees’s ending returned Eliza to a master-slave relationship; Shaw wanted her not to capitulate to Higgins’s male chauvinism, but to prove the miracle of her transformation by going off to a life of productive independence.16
Shaw’s usual interest in the quality of change takes an interesting turn in Pygmalion. As a Fabian dedicated to the conversion of England through education, Shaw was asking how profound were the changes the socialist movement was bringing about. Unsatisfied by what he saw, he sought a more profound change, like the change of nature or character that Eliza finally undergoes, not just a social transformation. The social transformation was important, but it would only mean a change from Tweedledum to Tweedledee (as in the case of Alfred Doolittle, Eliza’s father) unless it penetrated to deeper layers and became a change in mentality as well.
The relation of male to female is also a significant part of what Shaw was addressing. So much of the radical change that was occurring was instigated by undereducated women, and Shaw as an elder Fabian, surrounded at Fabian summer schools by young Fabians, the majority of whom were women, saw how appropriate and true to life it was that in his modern fable the male teacher’s real success consisted in making the female student independent of him, and of the male in general.
But throwing slippers at male chauvinists was Shavian understatement, as far as the times were concerned. The women’s movement, particularly its drive for voting and legal rights, had been gathering steam for twenty years and was now producing women who were prepared to take desperate measures. The papers were full of sensational reports of the violence attendant upon the suffragette movement, both against the women and by them. But this was just part of a developing unrest among the disenfranchised. There was growing violence in the labor movement as well, and a sense of exploitation felt by colonized peoples was festering all over the world. The wealth that colonization was bringing to the privileged “trickled down” enough to make people supportive of national proprietary interests and of empire building, making necessary a certain military vigilance; but the empire builders were all, at bottom, small European countries, that, heady with the success of colonial exploitation, were overreaching themselves with nationalistic ambitions. With nationalism tied to highly competitive capitalist adventurism, it is small wonder the nations began to eye each other nervously, and not surprising that Germany, recently arrived at true nationhood and unpropitiously placed in central Europe, its seaports farther removed from colonial territory than most and its empire smaller, began to fear “encirclement” in the deadly game of international Monopoly they were all playing. And so it took only a shot at Sarejevo to trigger a German reach for empire, forcing other nations to ally themselves in a war of containment. The lighthearted atmosphere in London in the spring of 1914, at the opening of Pygmalion, took on more somber tones by the end of that year, as the shooting began in earnest and the young began dying in the millions.
Shaw had had premonitions of catastrophe for some time. The Devil’s chilling speech about man’s love of weapons and war in “Don Juan in Hell,” and the urgency of introducing the civilizing Barbara principles and Cusins principles into Undershaft’s munitions factory in Major Barbara, are clear signs of Shaw’s growing alarm. In 1913, for his play Androcles and the Lion, set in the time of the Roman persecution of Christians, Shaw imagined a character named Ferrovius, who in a crisis abandons his professed peace-loving creed of Christianity to revert back to being a disciple-warrior of the god Mars, as Shaw feared the nations of Europe were about to do.
During the war Shaw wrote a dark comedy, which he later thought his greatest play—Heartbreak House, subtitled A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes. It tells the story of the strange house of old Captain Shotover, retired from the sea and now barely scraping out a living with his inventions. The house is run rather haphazardly but charmingly by his voluptuous siren of a daughter, Hesione Hushabye, who keeps her dashing husband, Hector, as a pet, and who loves to invite interesting people to visit, particularly if there’s some love interest. Arriving first is young Ellie Dunn, later followed by her liberally idealistic but improverished father, Mazzini Dunn, both invited largely because Hesione wants to talk them out of marrying Ellie to the supposedly rich but middle-aged capitalist Boss Mangan, also invited, who they mistakenly think has been their benefactor. Arriving unexpectedly is Ariadne, Hesione’s long-absent sister and the wife of Sir Hastings Utterword, known for his forceful ruling style in the colonies. Ariadne is pursued by Randall Utterword, Hastings’s younger brother, in a forlorn and pathetic manner, expressed in flute solos. As the guests arrive, Ellie leading the way, each is met by confusion, neglect, and disorder, typical of this charmingly bohemian house. So strange are the manners of this house that a 1985 production (at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario) was not amiss in suggesting a sort of Alice-in-Wonderland adventure after the unwelcomed Ellie falls asleep in the opening scene. The rather dreamlike, wandering Chekhovian “plot” emphasizes outrageous game playing, particularly the stripping off of the masks of convention and pretension, a game the practiced perform engagingly and the newcomers, like Mangan, resist clumsily. The outcome is that while everyone is exposed (even Shotover secretly drinks rum to keep going), Mangan, and the money power he represents, is revealed as a fraud, causing Ellie to decide not to marry him but to follow Shotover instead in a quest for “life with a blessing.”
Martin Meisel argues that the play’s manner is both the fulfillment of Shaw’s discussion- play technique and its sublimation into another form. As a “fantasia,” the play, in keeping with that musical term, is not restricted by formal subject but, in playing variations on a theme according to the author’s impulse, drives toward a conclusion that satisfies the feeling of the play rather than logically resolving a prepackaged plot. This free development had been the goal of the discussion play from the beginning, but here the technique of free development also becomes the subject of discussion—the progressive stripping away of pose and illusion. The culmination of the process is Boss Mangan’s cry near the end of the play: “Look here: I’m going to take off all my clothes. . . . We’ve stripped ourselves morally naked: well, let us strip ourselves physically naked as well.” Meisel believes that in embodying the stripping technique of the discussion play in an action, Shaw was moving “from an illustrative and discursive dramatic technique to one that tries to give analogical form to the matter under discussion; from a drama concerned with ideas set in a more or less real, contemporary, country-house world, to a drama concerned with the contemporary world set in an altogether fantastic realm of embodied ideas.”17
The story of how this play came to be, and the circumstances attendant upon Shaw’s growing despair in writing it, are most completely told in Stanley Weintraub’s Journey to Heartbreak: The Crucible Years of Bernard Shaw 1914-1918.18 Weintraub believes that the original impulse for Heartbreak House lay in Shaw’s sense that he had succeeded all too well with his two primary objectives—that of Fabianizing the young and getting them into the government, and that of rejuvenating the British theater. By 1914 he was acknowledged as both a major playwright and an important public figure with an international audience. Having conquered, he was faced, at the age of fifty-eight, with the temptation to rest on his laurels and subside into contentment. And so, in Heartbreak House, he has old Captain Shotover, owner of a delightful country house architecturally suggestive of the ships he once dangerously sailed the seas in, but now landlocked and domesticated, complain of “the accursed happiness I have dreaded all my life long: the happiness that comes as life goes, the happiness of yielding and dreaming instead of resisting and doing, the sweetness of the fruit that is going rotten.”
What caused Shaw further despair was the
feeling that his successes were not enough in view of the malaise that was in
the air. The old order seemed to long
for its own ruin, and the new order was dizzy with its freedoms. Despite all he had said and done, the world
seemed bent on returning to barbarism.
Feeling old and “shot-over,” his best shots fired, he imagined himself
as this eccentric eighty-year-old man, of Carlylean
aspect, who wants desperately to retire but who can’t find a captain to replace
him. Most disturbing to Shaw was the
realization that too many of the young, whom he had helped to educate and
refine and liberate (as Higgins helped Eliza), seemed not to care anymore about
the larger world. The Fabians were
turning inward toward exclusively local concerns, and many bright young people
seemed to be content to drift, to be satisfied with the cultivation of fine
sentiment, private feeling, and happy love affairs (Shaw was particularly
concerned with the cult of sentimental personal relations among the Bloomsbury
intellectuals, many of whom where his friends or Fabian colleagues). And so you have Heartbreak House, “cultured, leisured
History records that many British found themselves delighted at the outbreak of World War I. Bells rang and people danced in the streets. Later, many got so caught up in the war hysteria that they forgot to be human; they became mechanical toy soldiers or heroic doll nurses or courageous citizens mouthing patriotic slogans. They believed they fought for the qualities of Goodness, Truth, Justice, and Freedom against the powers of darkness, the bloody Hun. This melodramatic view of the world that Shaw had spent so many years ridiculing and castigating was suddenly back in fashion and carried to absurd lengths. Exasperated, and concerned for the postwar future if that melodramatic view were to prevail, Shaw attacked this childishness in print (particularly in Commonsense about the War—1914) and on the podium, ridiculing the notion that the war was “a simple piece of knight errantry,” with England “as Lancelot- Galahad, and Germany as the wicked Giant, and brave little Belgium as the beautiful maiden we had to deliver.”20 He further exposed the fact that militaristic superpatriotism (“Junkerism”), as found on both sides, was simply a cover for the real cause of the war—capitalists fighting over raw materials, cheap labor, and markets. The result was that Shaw was declared a pro-German and an enemy of the people, a man who deserved to be hung, shot, or at least exiled. At one point this was no idle threat; Shaw was in real danger. It was not just his traditional enemies who turned on him but his former friends, people whose causes he had championed. Expelled from several literary societies (with Henry Arthur Jones leading the charge in one case), Shaw would nevertheless write of the very people who expelled him, understanding the frustration of their nobler instincts, that “the grimmest feature of this war . . . is the helplessness of the Intelligentsia. . . . Intelligence is not organized: everything else is, more or less . . . . [Some] are actually proud of their futile isolation, and call it their originality. . . . Now the question is, is the world which neglects us right? Do we matter, we literary sages, except as newsmen and storytellers?”21 For good reason, Eric Bentley called Heartbreak House, the play that suggests that not only literary sages but social reformers do not matter, “the nightmare of a Fabian.”22
The turnaround came as the horrendous “body counts” and reports of military futility began to reveal the full stupidity and horror of the war. The more awful the war, the more attention paid to Shaw. “My reputation grows with every military failure,” said Shaw.23 And, gradually, most of the turncoat “friends” came back. And others began hailing him as a wise man. After the war this former “enemy of the people” was treated as an oracle, especially as Leonard Woolf’s Fabian plan for a League of Nations, which Shaw had so assiduously promulgated, was finding favor with President Wilson. Shaw was even offered a knighthood by Ramsey MacDonald’s government (the first socialist government) in 1923, which he turned down just as he refused the money from the Nobel Prize awarded him in 1925, directing the money to be used in translating Scandinavian playwrights. But they did not listen to his arguments for what would have been a World War I equivalent of the Marshall Plan for restoring the conquered; rather, the allies insisted on German reparations, which, as Shaw predicted, led to the beggaring of Germany and the militaristic backlash of the thirties and forties.
And so the peculiar tone of Heartbreak House (finished in 1917; staged in 1920) is due partly to its personal background—Shaw’s wartime experience of disillusionment with his intellectual progeny and his sense of failing powers. Weintraub finds in this a parallel to King Lear, a parallel Shaw explicitly drew attention to in his late puppet play, Shakes vs. Shav (1949).24 As Weintraub explains it, abdication is the Lear problem, but the abdication in Shotover’s case is partly the consequence of his own philosophy. He has preached, in Shavian fashion, that the golden rule is that there is no golden rule. The authority figure has used his power to see that there will be no more authority figures; he has raised two generations of children to be independent, as Higgins taught Eliza. Before the war, the thanklessness of children is seen as a positive virtue, as it testifies to their coming of age; but in Heartbreak House it is cause for despair, as the children of the wise father turn on him and blame him for the moral vacuum he has created around him. The ship of state still needs steering, but the captain’s specially groomed replacement, the romantically handsome Hector, is not up to the job. Hector is lost in dreams of heroism; like Troy, Hector is defeated from within. And the men who are eager to rule, Hastings Utterword, whom Shotover calls “the numbskull” for his single-minded devotion to force, and Boss Mangan, exposed as more slave than boss, are not fit to rule, for they are driven only by the desire for personal gain and are inclined to use brute force to get it. The result of Utterword’s and Mangan’s rule, in favor of private wealth and class privilege, can only be war; and so the play follows through, joining to this consequence the other characters’ longing for excitement, ending with the dropping of the first bombs in an unannounced and unspecified war.
The best Hesione, Hector, and most of their charming guests can do is thrill to the excitement or reveal how bravely they can die. The parallel with Lear’s mistreatment at the hands of his children is meant to express Shaw’s feeling that as captain of the intelligentsia he was receiving ill treatment at the hands of his progeny, partly in the ironic form of worshipful indulgence, partly in the form of blame for his bringing them up in a way that makes them unfit for anything but breaking hearts or having their hearts broken. Even so, some hope is suggested: after Ellie Dunn rejects Boss Mangan and takes Captain Shotover in a mystic betrothal, the two separate from the others in looking forward to additional bombings, not because they have a death wish or a craving for excitement, but because the bombing will clear the ground of a rotting society (Mangan and a burglar—both robbers of society—and an ineffectual church are destroyed in the bombing), making possible a new society.
Though most of Shaw’s characters seem incapable of anything more than heroic death, he himself managed to go beyond the death of the old to the birth of the new, for after the war Shaw entered another phase of incredible productivity. And he worked all the harder on creating something that would fill the vacuum he and other destroyers of the old order had wrought, socialism apparently not being enough.
At the destruction of the church at the end of Heartbreak House, Mazzini Dunn’s pronouncement that “the poor clergyman will have to get a new house” was an incidental introduction to the major theme of Shaw’s next phase. For Shaw saw the war as largely attributable to the failure of organized Christianity both to produce true Christians and to provide an adequate response to the moral vacuum in which modern disbelievers suffered. It was time for religion to get a new house.
The question whether to form a new religion or revive the old one had been on Shaw’s mind from the beginning. As a teenager he announced a desire to found a new religion but mostly devoted himself to negating the religion that was. His first effort at playwriting on arriving in London was the uncompleted Passion Play, a debunking of established Christianity’s view of Jesus and other biblical characters. In his fifth novel (An Unsocial Socialist, 1883) he had his hero say, “With my tongue, my charlatanry, and my habit of having my own way, I am fit for no calling but that of saviour of mankind.”25 In Candida he allied Christianity with socialism in a way that hoped for but questioned Christianity’s ability to remake itself, and in Caesar and Cleopatra he attempted in Caesar’s synthesis of the qualities of king and Christ (Emperor and Galilean) the creation of a new religious hero. Man and Superman was then offered as a parable of a new “Religion of the Future,” although, as he later noted, “nobody noticed the new religion in the centre of the intellectual whirlpool.”26 Major Barbara also embodied that unstated religion in its creative dialectics among the saintly Barbara, the intellectual Cusins, and the masterful Undershaft. Becoming more overt, in 1906 Shaw delivered the first of a series of speeches on his new religion (now collected in The Religious Speeches of Bernard Shaw),27 one of which was entitled “The Religion of the Future” (1911), perhaps a better designation for his religion than the term “Creative Evolution” he borrowed from Henri Bergson. Androcles and the Lion (1913) and its notorious preface on the gospels further debunked official views, suggesting that the religion Jesus had attempted to found was either immediately ignored by the world or perversely converted to hypocritical uses, a religion which if revived would seem “new” because it had never really been tried. In the preface to Back to Methuselah, Shaw concluded that “there is no question of a new religion, but rather of redistilling the eternal spirit of religion.”28
For Shaw, socialism was the practical embodiment in a modern state of the gospel of brotherly love, but for many people socialism lacked this religious dimension. And with the debunking of all creeds and their replacement by scientific skepticism, many felt that all restraints on predation had been lifted along with any divinely sanctioned reason to oppose predation. We are all animals after all. Though personally not afflicted by any sense of a moral vacuum, Shaw felt the dilemma of others who were, and thus he spent the bulk of his remaining career attempting to erect some sort of scaffolding for the building of a new church, one that, as it redistilled the eternal spirit of religion, would restrain destructive impulses and encourage constructive ones.
With the understanding that “art has never been great when it was not providing an iconography for a live religion,”29 Shaw set about more explicitly than ever to create such an iconography—an imagery and a narrative that would compel belief in the Life Force’s dominion over the Death Force, that would give a reason to prefer life to death, and to prefer a moral life. Immodestly no doubt, but desperately, Shaw began to write a new Bible: Back to Methuselah (1918-1920), subtitled A Metabiological Pentateuch, constituting a new Old Testament, and Saint Joan (1923) providing a new New Testament.
preface to Back to Methuselah
focuses on the consequences of losing traditional religious beliefs. One consequence, in the aftermath of
To begin the creation of an iconography for “The Religion of the Future,” Shaw paradoxically went back to the past, back to Methuselah, for a myth of longevity that would serve the purposes of his argument. Shaw’s argument appears to be this: because our lives are short, we are mere babes in political capacity when we die; our political leaders represent our immaturity well when they posture and swagger like schoolboys with chips on their shoulders; and so we need to go back to the days of Methuselah when, according to the myth, great length of days was natural to humankind and there was time to mature. Actually, Shaw’s argument is not so much the Confucian one that old age brings wisdom, although it may to some, as the argument that the expectation of living hundreds of years (300 years being Shaw’s postulate as the minimum necessary) would cause one to behave less foolishly, in a political sense. One would be less inclined to rush onto a battlefield at twenty if one knew that another 280 years of life lay ahead; statesmen of fifty or sixty would be less likely to start wars if they knew that they had to live with the consequences for another two centuries or more; and the whole character of legislation might take on less of a rushed, jerry-built quality. In his preface, however, Shaw warned about taking the parables of any religion too literally, so perhaps this argument for longevity is meant only to convey our need to start behaving, in international politics, as though life were no brief candle to be recklessly expended.
The play, ranging from Adam and Eve’s decision to forego immortality of the individual in favor of immortality of the species (“In the Beginning”) to the ancients’ partial recovery of individual immortality, in the 32d millennium AD. (“As Far as Thought Can Reach”) is really five plays in one, too long for summary here. It can take up to nine hours to play, the New York Theatre Guild in 1922 and Barry Jackson’s Birmingham Repertory in 1923 being the first to brave the attempt, and the Shaw Festival at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, in 1986, and the Royal Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, England, in 2000, being the latest.
Methuselah signaled Shaw’s aesthetic coming of age as the fabulist he basically always was, and Saint Joan (1923) drove home the point. In the play’s preface Shaw spoke of how willing he was to sacrifice mere verisimilitude to convey the essence of Joan of Arc’s story, “the romance of her rise, the tragedy of her execution, and the comedy of the attempts of posterity to make amends for that execution.”31 He admitted to compressing the tale, changing characters, altering illustrative facts, and making everyone more articulate, saying “the things they actually would have said if they had known what they were really doing.”32 Of course the most startling device was his bringing Joan back to life in a comic epilogue to face down her persecutors and turncoat supporters and demonstrate that however canonized she might be, the world was still not ready for her (the saint, the Superman, the Realist) in the flesh. That Shaw should so subvert the tragic feeling he had built up in the play proper, especially when so many critics held tragedy to be the highest of dramatic forms and denigrated Shaw for being incapable of it, was surprising and outrageous. But, as usual, Shaw knew better than the critics, for a study of tragedy’s origins reveals that the Greeks too left them laughing—each trilogy of tragedies was followed by a comic satyr play that subverted the tragic feeling. The supposition is that the satyr play was a survival from ancient ritual that put the climactic emphasis on the rebirth and regeneration of the physical world, thus the satyr play’s apparently bawdy nature. At any rate, Shaw’s epilogue might best be understood as a modern satyr play (in the elevated Shavian style, to be sure), by tradition subversive of the tragedy preceding it.
A complete dramatic experience, for the Greeks and for Shaw, in the context of the life-worshipping religion both serve, is one that shows the entire cycle of the life of the god-surrogate (as tragic heroes seem to be), from death or deathly suffering to rebirth. The pattern is the ancient one of the vegetation gods the early Greeks worshipped—suffering and death followed by descent into Hades followed by rebirth. Comedy (from the Greek komos) revels in the resurrection and the life everlasting. As does Shaw’s play in reviving Joan. Shaw’s objection to the ending that leaves the god-surrogate defeated or dead is that it is irreligious, for it leads to the false worship of death as the principal force of the universe and to the notion that salvation lies only in “the other world.”
Shaw chose Joan for his Christ, because, for one thing, he saw her, not as the typical otherworldly saint, but as one impelled by her “voices,” which Shaw interpreted as those of the Life Force, to lead human evolution in its European phase into its next stage, the stage of Nationalism and Protestantism. In rallying the fragmented nationalist French forces to the cause of driving out the English and crowning the Dauphin as king of France, this Catholic saint-to-be heretically insisted not only that nation come before feudalism and the “universal” church but that the individual inspiration of an ill-educated country girl take precedence over the inherited group wisdom of the learned holy fathers, a belief Protestants were soon to follow in ever larger numbers. However much we have outgrown both Nationalism and Protestantism, Shaw showed how in Joan’s fifteenth century they were necessary to historical dynamics.
The canonizing of Joan in 1920 by the same Church that agreed to her burning as a heretic in 1431 perfectly fitted Shaw’s evolutionary thesis. Because today’s heretics are often tomorrow’s saints, it would be wise of authority not to be too eager to burn, hang, or otherwise crucify the person of revolutionary ideas. Less concern for social conformity and religious orthodoxy and more concern for the Life Force’s need to grow would seem to be called for. Toleration of exceptional persons, in short, would go far toward making the world at last ready for its saints. A look back at Shaw’s entire canon shows a preponderance of plays in which the hero or heroine challenges orthodoxy, incurs its wrath, but slips by or somehow undoes any threatened or actual “crucifixion.” Joan was simply the culmination of Shaw’s essentially religious vision, as derived from ancient drama, that made the celebration of the godsurrogate’s return to life—her “uncrucifixion”—its climactic point.33
Perhaps feeling he had achieved some sort of final vision on which he could not improve, Shaw wrote no more drama for six years; Saint Joan, with the imprimatur of the Nobel Prize upon it, was tough to follow. Jitta’s Atonement (1922), the latest in a series of one-act plays, saw its first production after Saint Joan, but otherwise the world had to be satisfied with revivals, of which there were many, in many tongues. In keeping with the increasing vagabondage of his plays, Shaw began to travel more, to his wife’s delight, circling the globe only to encounter the legend of G.B.S. wherever he went. Though weary of the legend, he couldn’t help adding to it at the insistence of the lion-hunting modern media. Traveling or not, he kept busy with a voluminous correspondence, an occasional talk, and especially with writing on whatever pertained to the development of a high civilization. He seemed to be winding down and winding up, as most authors are by their seventies. But this apostle of Dionysian resurrection had one more life to live, as the 1930s would show (see Chapter 4).
Known as Granville Barker until 1918, when he married his rich second wife and retired from the theater to a life of professorial criticism, theorizing, and translation, and afterward as Harley Granville-Barker, this consummate man of the theater lived, as the change of name suggests, a double life. We all live separate public and private lives, but Barker made a point of it with his name change. He came to think the aristocratically hyphenated version his real self, long suppressed, but most of his friends and colleagues thought the name change a sign of self-betrayal and even a betrayal of them and the cause of establishing an alternate theater. Whatever, both personas were instrumental in shaping modern drama and modern theater.
(1877-1946) was born in London, the son of an architect father and a
part-Italian mother who professionally entertained as a verse reciter and bird
mimic. The theme of a secret life begins here, for a legend has grown up that
Barker was the natural son of George Bernard Shaw, who later certainly treated
him as such. In his early years in
At thirteen Barker began a distinguished career as an actor, his first major role being Richard II in William Poel’s Elizabethan Stage Society production in 1899. He played a variety of parts, but perhaps will be remembered best for his many Shavian roles, particularly that of John Tanner, which he played (made up to look like Shaw) to Lillah McCarthy’s Ann Whitefield in 1904 (see Figure 9). This led to his marrying Lillah in 1906, more for companionship than out of love, and their subsequent teaming up in many productions. Lillah became the foremost Shavian actress of her day, joining Barker in developing a style of acting far more natural, versatile, and ensemble-oriented than the popular star-actor style of the time.
Excellent and original as his acting was, Barker’s principal contribution to modern drama and theater was as an innovative director, from 1900 to 1913 combining directing with acting. He was perhaps the first to practice, on a sustained basis, the modern idea of the director as author’s representative, one who unifies the production by exhaustively drilling actors in their ensemble effort to fulfill the author’s artistic vision, and by seeing that every detail of lighting, staging, costuming, etc., serves that vision. This conception of director (or “producer,” as he was then called) gradually replaced the prevailing model of the great actor-managers, who organized performances around their own peculiar talents, never mind the text, and left the minor details of stagecraft to a stage manager. Barker also demonstrated that the life of the drama is in the drama, not in a lavishly decorated stage or over-rhetorical display, as was the custom in the West end. He specialized in simplified staging of a poetically or symbolically suggestive nature, thus putting the emphasis back on character and dialogue. He was also known for his naturalistic crowd scenes, symptomatic of his policy of integrating leading actors into the group effort.
from the beginning, sensitive to the degradations and limitations of the commercial
theater, Barker was attracted to the dream of a subsidized national repertory
theater. He tied himself to William
Archer’s efforts in that cause by co-authoring with Archer A National Theatre: Schemes & Estimates in
1904, which he revised several times; and, as what we would call the “artistic
director” of the Royal Court Theatre in Sloan Square (with J. E. Vedrenne as business manager), he attempted the first
practical experiment of a national theater model in a London public
theater. Much was learned from both his
successes and his failures. He was
unable to arrange a daily alternating repertory as he wanted, feeling forced to
go with short runs, but in alternating matinees of one play with evening performances
of another play, he created the effect of repertory, a model not far from that
actually used by today’s National Theatre.
Barker’s very talented, well-schooled, highly motivated, but poorly paid
acting company echoed and reinforced the concurrent attempts of
when Barker, impatient with the small, out-of-the-way, and mostly artistic
successes of The Court Theatre, moved his experiment to the West End in 1907,
preliminary (he hoped) to its developing into the National Theatre itself, the
Court’s select clientele either got lost on the way or simply failed to fill
the larger theaters to a sufficient extent.
In different West End theaters, from 1907 to 1914, Barker attempted several repertory
1911 he considered moving to
Germany and its well-subsidized theater system, but Lillah persuaded him to
co-manage the Little Theatre, where Shaw’s Fanny’s First Play, with no help from Barker, had a
very long run. In 1912 they took leases
on the Kingsway Theatre and the
America he met and fell in love with a woman ten years older than he—Helen
Huntington, a minor poet and novelist and wife of a railroad multimillionaire.
Lillah bitterly resisted divorce but finally granted it in 1918. Returning from his stint as an intelligence
officer in the war, Barker married Helen soon after her divorce. Her wealth allowed Barker to retire from
practical work in the theater and to live a writer-scholar’s life of
contemplative leisure and occasional socializing at their country estate in
Devon or their
An indication of the way Barker was transformed from revolutionary to settled dignitary lies in the number of honors and positions that came his way—he was chairman of the council of the new British Drama League in 1919, president of the Royal Society of Literature in 1929, director of the British Institute of the Sorbonne in 1937, visiting lecturer at Harvard and Princeton in 1943-44, and special consultant to the Oxford University Drama Commission in 1945; he was offered, but was forced by ill health to decline, the chairmanship of the amalgamated National Theatre Committee and Governors of the Old Vic in 1945.
But the most important work of his last phase was his writing on the theater, such as The Exemplary Theatre in 1922, The Use of the Drama in 1944, and, especially, his seminal Prefaces on Shakespeare, published, revised, and expanded from 1923 to his death in 1946. His treatment of Shakespeare as playable in relatively simple terms, with respect for the text and emphasis on character, greatly helped to make Shakespeare possible for the modern stage.
In a history of theater, Barker would figure as one of the most versatile men of all time; but it is difficult to assess his importance as a dramatist. Certainly The Madras House is a major play; Waste and The Voysey Inheritance may also be important, but there’s something a little disturbing about the way he kept revising them. And the rest of his seventeen plays (including several one-acts, six collaborative efforts, six unpublished, and the majority unproduced) seem to be minor works, with one or two possible exceptions. Eric Salmon has argued that Barker’s best plays are his last two, The Secret Life and His Majesty, explaining their lack of performance by the fact that they were written exclusively for that ideal national theater Barker had so long dreamed about.34
The early view was that Barker’s plays were, largely, unnecessarily difficult copies of Ibsen’s problem plays and Shaw’s discussion plays. Lately criticism has stressed Barker’s originality and has pointed out other modifying influences, such as the Symbolist drama of Maeterlinck. Barker’s early use of a highly condensed, oblique, elliptical-style dialogue which baffled the critics, owes more to Maeterlinck than to Shaw and Ibsen, as does the suggestion of a secret world behind appearances and the tendency toward dramatic stasis that occasionally marked his work.
Barker began playwriting in 1895 in collaboration with actor Berte Thomas, four unpublished plays resulting. His first solo writing was The Marriage of Ann Leete in 1899, which he directed himself in 1902. Set in England at the end of the eighteenth century, it depicts the decision of a young girl to reject the old corrupt life of the landed aristocracy and take up a new life among the sort of humble people who were coming into their own in America and France, reinvigorating society with democratic values. There followed a one-act play called A Miracle (1899 or 1900), the only play he wrote in formal verse, and Agnes Colander (1900-1901), both unpublished and unproduced. In 1904 he collaborated with Laurence Houseman in the writing of a Harlequin play, Prunella, described as “post-Beardsley pastiche with commedia dell’arte figures,”35 and Barker’s fascination with this tradition led him to collaborate with Dion Calthorp in writing Harlequinade in 1913.
Of his major plays, in 1903 he began The Voysey Inheritance, finishing in 1905. Employing a relatively flat, conversational prose, and an Ibsenist retrospective plot, The Voysey Inheritance suited the critics’ conventional tastes. With a story well told, it is one of Barker’s more accessible plays. A secret from the past of the wealthy, highly respectable Voysey family explodes upon them in the present, presenting problems for all but especially for Edward, the son who has been chosen to continue his father’s law business. The father, and his father before him, in a rather buccaneer spirit, had secretly been using for their own purposes the capital of several clients whose family estates they were managing. Some of the investors being bilked are close friends of the family, including the family rector. Edward’s father has gone undetected because he has always managed to get his clients their regular dividends and has avoided suspicion by keeping up an opulent life-style. When Edward, initially a “well-principled prig,” discovers the truth, he reveals all to the family and argues that the sooner the truth is out the better, no matter the disgrace. But under the pressure of family argument and other circumstances, and with the dawning realization that it may be more honorable to try to gradually restore the capital of the investors through expert management, Edward decides to take upon himself the burden of continuing the family secret, though events force him to let some of the principal investors in on the secret. In the process he gains strength and comes into his manhood, causing Alice Maitland, who has frequently spurned his marriage proposals, to fall in love with him at last and to wish to aid him as his wife. Eric Salmon finds in The Voysey Inheritance “the poisoning of the inner, secret life by false and debased standards and arguments of expediency.”36 But the upbeat ending, as Salmon also notes, suggests not poisoning but strengthening and growth. The play can be read as a parable of the wisdom of struggling to improve upon the legacy of Original Sin, however compromising that struggle may be, rather than attempting to completely break with the past out of an impossibilist idealism—a “realistic” view, in the Shavian sense. Major Barbara, with its similarly qualified acceptance of “the Undershaft inheriance,” was this play’s exact contemporary.
The argument in Barker criticsm is whether his plays imply that self-realization is most possible in the socio-political realm, as Margery Morgan states in A Drama of Political Man,37 or, as Eric Salmon argues, in a private world that seeks to escape from “the tyrannies of both communal and domestic living.”38 But both agree that the question is usually raised in the context of the day’s most burning social question—the “woman question.” In querying the nature of the modern woman and her relation to men, Barker seemed to be seeking answers to the nature of creation itself, particularly the web of sex it spins.
In Waste (1906-7), written in the immediate aftermath of Court productions of Man and Superman and The Bacchae, both concerned with the phenomenon of sexual possession, a promising young politician named Trebell is ruined by a sexual misadventure with a flirtatious but lonely, separated married woman named Amy, for whom he has no special feeling. Trebell’s political promise largely lies in his having turned from the mere exercise of political skill and power to the championing of what he believes to be a high cause, that of disestablishment, the separating of church and state, which would bring more funds to education. Though an Independent in Parliament, usually associated with the Liberals, Trebell is willing to switch to the Conservatives, even to join their cabinet, if they will back his bill when they come into power, as they expect to do soon. They seem inclined to give their support, but the consequences of Trebell’s sexual indiscretion cause their support to crumble as the full scandal becomes known. Trebell’s fifteen-minute possession by sexual demons has ended in Amy’s becoming pregnant. When she seeks help from Trebell in securing an abortion, knowing he does not love her, she is amazed to discover that as an enthusiast of the Life Force he is shocked and horrified at the idea of killing human life. Shortly thereafter, Amy dies at the hands of a hack abortionist. As the ramifications slowly filter through the play’s closing action, Trebell, apprised that he has been rejected by the Conservatives and that his bill is doomed as well, shoots himself, not because of his lost career, or fear of scandal, but because he has associated the destruction of his disestablishment bill, the one purely disinterested and noble cause of his life, with the destruction of his unborn child. Overpowered by a sense of waste and emotional deprivation, Trebell discovers the Death Force in the midst of the Life Force. Barker felt wasted himself when he learned that the Lord Chamberlain had banned the play, ostensibly because of the abortion references but perhaps because of its portrayal of parliamentary politics. Though given two private performances in 1907 by the Stage Society, Waste was not seen in a public theater until 1936, notwithstanding the ban having been lifted in 1920.
The Madras House (1909-10) seems to be a comic counterpart to Waste, the dominating imagery of sterility treated
comically instead of tragically, the conclusion suggesting a redeeming
fecundity. The play borrows some of its
superficial look from realistic social drama, but contradicts that in refusing
to tell a story in a straight linear way. Rather, we’re confronted with a
series of scenes that show different layers of an implied story, the characters
also refusing to develop according to the dictates of realism. The “hero” is
Philip Madras, son of Constantine Madras, founder of
A series of one-acts followed. In 1911 Barker wrote a rather lonesco-like farce, Rococo, dealing with a family fight over a legacy. The year 1914 saw Vote by Ballot written, a light comedy about the hiding of political convictions in order to get along with friends. In 1916, caught in a limbo between wanting to break with Lillah and his old life and wanting to get on with a new life with Helen, Barker wrote A Farewell to the Theatre, which depicts the paralysis of an aging actress who wishes to give up the theater but can’t quite bring herself to do it; nor can she bring herself to retreat into a comfortable marriage with an old lover.
Then came a last attempt to write major plays, with A Secret Life (1919-22) and His Majesty (1923-28), plays that strove for a new sort of dramatic expression but only ended in creating a sense of willful obscurity. Both deal with Barker’s dominating theme of the struggle between the essential self and the social self, and the search for some equipoise between them that will allow the secret self some integrity in a world of compromising action. The critics declared them unplayable, and unplayed they have been until the Edinburgh Theatre Festival undertook them in 1992.
But it’s the National Theatre that ought to play them, owing a great debt of gratitude to Granville Barker for taking up the initiative of William Archer, J. T. Grein, and others and for being the guiding spirit behind the initial effort to establish a permanent public home for fine drama. Without the practical experience he gave the national theatre movement, it might never have gotten rolling. The National Theatre has made an installment payment on that debt by producing The Madras House in 1977, but as David Kennedy puts it, “other such payments would be an adequate epitaph."39 In particular the last two plays should be put to the test of performance. We know that Barker was a leading theater artist and an important critic and theorist; what we need to know is whether he was a major dramatist as well, and only performance will give us an answer to that.
Archer, Shaw, and Barker had all made attempts to get the leading novelists of the day to contribute to the New Drama, but with little success. Then in 1906 John Galsworthy (1867-1933), soon to publish the first volume of The Forsyte Saga, joined the cause. It took Barker and Shaw little more than a day after receiving the manuscript of The Silver Box to decide that Galsworthy was just the novelist the Court Theatre needed. Galsworthy’s conversion to drama was far from wholehearted, however; he remained primarily a novelist, writing plays almost as a respite, sometimes tossing them off in a matter of weeks. Yet he wrote a handful of plays that deserve to be remembered.
He’s remembered principally for writing realistic social dramas that hit hard on the subject of the class system, especially on there being one law for the rich and another for the poor. As the son of a wealthy solicitor and member of an old Devonshire family, educated at Harrow and Oxford, and aimed by his father at a lucrative law practice (which target he deliberately missed), Galsworthy was born into the “upstairs” world of wealth and privilege. The “downstairs” world of the servant class and their relatives in the slums he gradually came to know as an adult, knowledge which disillusioned him and played upon his very generous and sympathetic nature. Once established he regularly gave half his considerable income to the poor and other needy causes, motivated by both pity and guilt.
Though Galsworthy had a reputation as a social reformer, humanitarian, and animal-rights advocate, he really had little more in mind than reinforcing the old aristocratic code of noblesse oblige. His essential, rather innocent message was that the aristocracies of birth and wealth shouldn’t be so hard on the lower classes and on nonconformists of their own class; they should practice the charity of their religion and in general act on the principles of their nobility. But he was not so innocent that he did not see, finally, how the ideals of nobility were sometimes ineffectual in the capitalist world of every man for himself. When he saw that, the mood of “tragedy” came on him, as he could see no way out of a destructive denouement. Most of his social indignation and crusading zeal came from the outrage of a purely personal sense of justice rather than from political comprehension or commitment. For example, his exposure of social and legal conventions that made it difficult for abused women to escape an unhappy marriage was based much less on an intellectual grasp of the problems of modern marriage than on his personal experience with Ada. First his cousin’s abused wife, Ada eventually became his wife, and once he was able to marry her, help her live down the scandal of an illicit relationship of ten years, and restore her to her rightful social position, Galsworthy’s reformist spirit considerably evaporated.
Both Galsworthy’s plays and novels strike us now as having something of the highbrow soap-opera quality television’s “Masterpiece Theater” often indulges in, but at the time it was less noticed because disguised with a naturalistic method. Granville Barker was the perfect director for Galsworthy because Barker’s flair for atmospheric detail, ensemble acting, and stiff-upper-lip underplaying emphasized that naturalistic quality. Galsworthy thereby succeeded in creating the illusion of authorial neutrality so crucial to both the scientific pretensions of naturalism and the artistic creed of evenhandedness. Yet this reputation for a balanced presentation was seemingly contradicted by the fact that his plays were so powerfully persuasive of the need for reform. Galsworthy saw no contradiction, however, for, as he said, the best way for a playwright to be persuasive is to be “fair,” that is, to show both sides and let the truth arise naturally out of the conflict, allowing the audience to go where their feelings take them. Of course, as with all so-called naturalists, Galsworthy secretly stacked the deck. Believing that “the physical emotional thrill is all that really counts in a play,”40 he deliberately charged his plays with a heightened emotionalism that played on the audience’s feelings, much in the manner of nineteenth-century melodrama. With his supposedly naturalistic plays imbued with a sneaky theatricality, Galsworthy had his cake and ate it too.
In Galsworthy’s twenty-seven plays (including seven one-acts), written from 1906 to 1929, though a few experiment with comedy and poetic symbolism, there is a uniformity of style, tone, and subject matter that suggests artistic complacency or stagnation. From prewar to postwar, he stuck mostly to the social problem plays expected of him. Curiously, for a novelist, Galsworthy did not make his plays as readable as they were playable. Much of his language is rather flat, unrhetorical, unpoetic, and generally not of the sort that lifts the imagination by itself. But the spareness of the dialogue lends a certain swiftness and authenticity that adds up to greater clarity and a more direct emotional effect. Unlike Ibsen, who compensated for modern inexpressiveness with symbolic overtones, poetic imagery, and a psychological subtext, Galsworthy was unable to make his naturalistic language very evocative. And where Ibsen would be subtle, ambiguous, and suggestive, Galsworthy tended to be blatant and repetitious in making his points, as though less trusting of his audience. And whereas the famous realistic detail of an Ibsen play is crammed with suggestive meaning, Galsworthy’s detail, though convincing as “photography,” is not always significant. Several of his trial scenes, for instance, remind one of crime thrillers in which the detail of a court scene is presented for its ability to build tension but in lieu of more meaningful action. And, in what was otherwise a golden age of comedy, Galsworthy’s plays generally lack a sense of humor, even of the grim Ibsen sort, though occasionally he fell back on comic relief. Not comic sparklers, nor even bittersweet tragicomedies, his plays are mostly “dramas,” as the French came to call any non-comic play that wasn’t a tragedy. But even after tallying up all the ways that Galsworthy’s plays fall short of the day’s best models, we are left with the fact that audiences for over two decades found his plays compelling and worthy of high regard.
The Silver Box (1906), the only Court Theatre production of his plays during the great Barker experiment, set the mold for Galsworthy’s particular brand of genteel naturalism. The characters, unidealized and unheroic, are shown to be products of culture. They behave automatically, according to their conditioning, and it is the inhumanity of this machine of culture against which the play indirectly inveighs. Jack Barthwick, the son of a wealthy family, coming home drunk late one night, enlists the aid of one Jones, unemployed husband of the family’s charwoman, in unlocking the door. Invited in for a drink to reward his assistance, Jones steals a silver cigarette case and a purse containing money that, ironically, Jack had stolen earlier from a woman, apparently to pay her back for refusing him sex. Jones is eventually arrested, and the action of the play mostly consists of Jack’s parents coming to the awful realization that their dissolute son has committed a crime as serious as Jones’s, with no poverty to justify it, but resisting the implications of their knowledge. Typically in such Galsworthy plays, one of the hard-hearted wealthy, usually an older man, reveals a redeeming sentimental streak, susceptible to the sufferings of others, and here it is Mr. Barthwick who, after hearing Jones’s pathetic case tried in court and feeling uncomfortable with the parallel between Jones and his son, asks that most of the charges be dropped. But still Jones gets one month at hard labor while Jack gets off scot-free. The audience of 1906 was overwhelmed by what appeared to be the naked truth about the injustice of the class system.
Galsworthy’s next four plays were also directed by Barker, but not at the Court. Rather, they followed Barker around in his frustrating attempt to establish a base for the national theater movement in the West End. Joy (1907) disappointed those who were looking for the strong narrative line and social implication The Silver Box had led them to expect, but Barker liked it better for its greater subtlety, psychological allusiveness, and symbolic suggestiveness—it was more like an Ibsen play. Subtitled A Play on the Letter “I,” Joy gently satirizes the egotism of its characters. Characters tend to treat each other as possessions, and each views his or her life as a special case, exempt from the general rules they impose on others. The play advocates no specific social reform but simply shows the need for greater social tolerance.
Strife (1909) returns to the techniques of The Silver Box, depicting the conflict between two classes, here represented by the board of management of a tin-plate works and the workers, who have long been striking and are suffering great hardship. But the play focuses less on the class war than on the struggle to the death between two unyielding, idealistic men—Roberts, the leader of the men, and Old Anthony, founder of the firm and chairman of the board. In their purely personal, prideful struggle, the two men become unheeding of the suffering they create around them, until finally lesser men depose them and arrive at a settlement. Rather than advocating any specific reform in regulating industrial relations, which were getting increasingly ugly, this play merely exposes how personal extremism tragically interferes with normal social processes.
The Eldest Son (1909), not produced until 1912, returns to the theme of one law for the rich and another for the poor. After a baronet insists on his manservant marrying a village girl he has gotten pregnant, he discovers that his eldest son has also impregnated a servant girl. The high moral tone he has taken with the manservant is totally abandoned when his son’s future is at stake—”Morality be damned!” But his son is manfully prepared to do his duty and marry the girl. Galsworthy allows the baronet to escape this interesting dilemma, however, by a device very similar to the miraculous reversals of nineteenth-century comedy and melodrama—the eldest son is saved by the girl’s father’s proudly refusing a “charity marriage,” an ending that suggests a failure of nerve on Galsworthy’s part.
Next, Galsworthy embodied his drive for penal reform in Justice (1910), and the highly emotional reaction to this play persuaded young Winston Churchill, then home secretary, to effect some reforms. But Galsworthy insisted that the play was not primarily propagandist but tragic. It showed “the perhaps inevitable goring to death of the weak and sick members of the herd by the herd as a whole,” accomplished through the blindness of a system of justice that operated too mechanically.41 The story is that of one Falder, minor clerk in a law office, who is sent to prison for forging a check, a crime nobly motivated by the desire to assist a woman brutally abused by her husband. Three years later, broken by his prison term, Falder fails at the brink of reinstatement at the law firm when, because he has not reported to his parole officer, he faces another prison term. This, combined with the loss of the woman (whom he can no longer marry because of the discovery that she is a prostitute), motivates him to commit suicide. Arthur Miller, in his essay “Tragedy and the Common Man,” put his finger on the problem of this being considered tragic material when he wrote: “The possibility of victory must be there in tragedy. Where pathos rules, where pathos is finally derived, a character has fought a battle he could not possibly have won. The pathetic is achieved when the protagonist is, by virtue of his witlessness, his insensitivity, or the very air he gives off incapable of grappling with a much superior force.”42 While plays like Miller’s own Death of a Salesman and Galsworthy’s Justice do carry some tragic feeling, it is more pathos than tragedy that rules the world of the gored weak. For Falder himself is not capable of generating a sense of tragic loss; rather, the tragic loss lies in the general feeling that society is unable to live up to its most heroic ideals of justice.
established as a leader of the English stage, Galsworthy maintained his
position, but did not enhance it, with his next four full-length plays. The Fugitive (1913) and A Bit 0’ Love (1915) continued his
obsession with the figure of the woman unhappy in marriage (as
The Great War sorrowed and bewildered Galsworthy, but he did not follow the path of the conscientious objector he had mapped out in The Mob; rather, he threw himself and his resources wholeheartedly into the English cause. He came out of the war perhaps tougher-minded and a good deal more reactionary. He still radiated a benign liberalism, but it was contradicted now by an increasing detachment from the modern democratic world and the introduction of elitist sympathies into his novels. It’s true that he turned down a knighthood offered by Lloyd George, but the scruple suggested by that sacrifice did not extend to his novels, in which he radically altered course from being a satirizer of the upper-class Forsytes to being an apologist.
His wartime play, Foundations (1917), failed quickly in a West End given over to the lightest of fare for the sake of the troops home on furlough. But with The Skin Game (1920) he was launched on a new wave of popularity in the theater. The Skin Game portrays an almost bare-knuckle brawl between a family of landed gentry and a family of newly acquired riches headed by a crude, capitalist-boss type. In the end, though the gentry are scored for their snobbishness and social intolerance, they come out the victors by being shrewder and more ruthless than their adversaries, an ironic commentary on how good the old stock is. But Galsworthy’s heretofore nice balancing act between the classes seems to have tipped a bit in favor of the gentry.
A slight downturn then occurred—A Family Man (1921), about a provincial tycoon who brings ruin on himself through his own self-importance, and Windows (1922), dealing with the social rejection of a girl who has seen prison for infanticide, were considerably less successful, perhaps because too formulaic. And then in 1922 he wrote one of his best plays, Loyalties, which found him reclaiming some of his objectivity. Here he draws a very convincing picture of the conflicts that constantly tear at the fabric of society, illustrative of the paradox that loyalties are both the glue of society and the source of disruption. It was written at a time when the nationalistic loyalties of the war years were giving place to class loyalties, and the old disease of exclusivity was reasserting itself. Referring back to one of the most ancient of such loyalties, and thereby prefiguring the Hitlerian future, Galsworthy centered his play on the militant loyalty of certain Jews to their Jewishness. De Levis, a stereotypical portrait of the pushy, socialclimbing Jew, is invited along with others to a countryside weekend and finds his latent exclusivity exercised by the solidarity of the English when they refuse to believe that one of their own, Dancy, a dashing ex-army hero, has robbed him. Out of pride, De Levis forces the issue until an investigation turns up the truth and ends in Dancy’s killing himself as the arresting officers come for him. When Mrs. Dancy loyally says that “loyalties come before everything,” a wiser friend responds, no doubt for Galsworthy, “Ye-es; but loyalties cut up against each other sometimes, you know.” Laconic understatement was Galsworthy’s forte.
There followed a period of depression for Galsworthy when, with his wife’s increasingly neurotic restlessness and ill health, and the deaths of his favorite sister and his close friend Joseph Conrad, he experienced a personal sense of failure, which was exacerbated by the public failures of The Forest (1924), Old English (1924), and The Show (1925) to stimulate much interest. His fortune revived with a year’s full run of Escape (1926), an episodic play about a young man running from the law, having accidentally killed a policeman because the policeman unjustly accused a prostitute of soliciting. But very short runs, and critical disfavor, met his last two full-length plays, Exiled (1929) and The Roof (1929). And thus ended his dramatic career.
Galsworthy may not be a dramatist of the first rank, but he will be remembered as the one who most faithfully adapted the New Drama of the naturalistic sort to English modes. His documentary realism contributed to the cause, inherited from Ibsen and Shaw, of democratically leveling heroes and villains, to the end of emphasizing the mixed humanity of all. And in providing us with a dramatized social history of his times, he has left us with a fascinating portrait of the humanity that created us.
interpreting the plays of James Matthew Barrie (1860-1937), one can choose to
look at the Gorgon’s head of Barrie’s life or not. One may see the plays through the eyes
of the many children who have been delighted by the wonderful fantasies he
wrought. Even the plays dominated by
adult concerns and a more ironic temper seem charmingly innocent, whatever
satire there might be softened by the playful tone. It all seems such harmless fun. “Inoffensive Barry” was the way most of his
contemporaries naively viewed him, so skillfully had he hidden the truth.43 But if one looks at the Gorgon, the plays
change into hideous shapes, exposing a sexual nightmare as chilling as anything
Strindberg dreamed up. This discrepancy
between the two Barries is “absurd,” in the strict
sense Martin Esslin used the term in The Theatre of the Absurd, to
express the sense of disharmony one feels in experiencing a disjunction between
the world of fact and the world of wishing.
Gorgon’s head of a life began in Kirriemuir, a poor
town north of Edinburgh, where he was the son of an industrious, enterprising
handloom weaver, David Barrie, and a housekeeping mother, Margaret Olgivy, who maintained the fierce puritanism of her upbringing.
Fortunately, the oldest brother saw to it that Jamie’s education was put foremost, even though it meant his leaving home—he was educated at Dumfries Academy and Edinburgh (M.A. in 1882). Afterward, making his living first as a journalist, then as a novelist and dramatist, young Barrie made capital of the material gleaned from his mother’s therapeutic sessions, especially charming the English with his witty, whimsical, but sometimes sardonic accounts of Scottish life.
With his mother’s admonitions against
“impure thought” in his mind and fully subscribing to her belief that the most
perfect human relationship was that of mother and son, Barrie in Edinburgh
steered clear of both women and the rougher sort of men who spoke of women as
though they were flesh and blood. Besides, his small stature, barely over five
feet, made him believe that women “overlooked” him. And so he worshipped beautiful actresses from
afar. But after his move to
though largely possessed by his work, Barrie made the acquaintance of the Llewelyn Davies family, secretly falling in love with the
mother, Sylvia, about 1897. Soon
pattern started to repeat itself with Lady Scott and her heroic husband,
Captain Scott, of the ill-fated Antarctic expedition of 1910-1912. Hero-worshipping
Pressed to make a living by journalistic means, Barrie did not really get started as a playwright until the nineties. In the collection of plays he published in 1928, supposedly complete, he left out half his approximately forty plays (half of that half being one-acts or revue sketches), among them the five plays of the nineties that had gradually made him a success in the commercial theater—Richard Savage (written in collaboration, in 1891), Ibsen’s Ghosts (1891), Walker, London (1892, his first long run, and Mary Amstel’s starring vehicle), The Professor’s Love Story (1894), and a dramatization of his novel The Little Minister (1896-97). They do not add up to much besides popular entertainment.
1902 he showed signs of becoming
a more significant dramatist with productions of Quality Street and The
Admirable Crichton. Set in the period of the Napoleonic Wars,
Barrie’s next several plays suggest a continued regression. Little Mary (1903), the title instituting a slang term for the stomach, was little more than an elaborate gastronomic joke, though satirically directed at the overindulgence of the aristocracy, and then came Peter Pan (1904) and Alice-Sit-by-the-Fire (1905), out-and-out fantasies. Not that fantasy cannot be used for adult purposes—Shaw would show how it could be—but the otherworld islands or enchanted forests of Barrie’s extravaganzas were largely escapist regions, rather than devices for making telling satiric points about “the real world.”
Peter Llewelyn Davies, whose first name Barrie appropriated for Peter Pan, referred to Peter Pan as “that terrible masterpiece,” doubtless because by then he had come to understand the play as a disarming disguise, not only for Barnie’s sexual ambivalence but for a whole society’s.45 In addition, Peter had seen a younger brother drowned, his eldest brother killed in the Great War, and himself return a shell-shocked victim of that war—searing introductions to “the real world” Barrie had neglected to tell him about as a child. He also had a better appreciation of the curious “cuckoo’s nest” Barrie had made of his parents’ home, understanding how Barrie’s appropriation of his mother for sexless love played a crucial role in the conception of Peter Pan’s Mrs. Darling and her motherly daughter, Wendy. And he perhaps understood how Barrie, by giving sexual jealousy such a “small,” comic part in the character of Tinker Bell, whose flitting about and invisible machinations are portrayed as harmlessly troublesome, had fantastically understated the reality of his life. Davies realized that the great reality in Barrie’s imagination was eternal motherhood, which the twelve-year-old in him (“Nothing that happens after twelve matters very much,” Barrie had written in Margaret Olgivy)46 wanted to see as sexless, and the safest way to imagine that was by investing the play’s motherly qualities mostly in Wendy, whose prepubertal motherliness is exercised on ready-made children.
Pan begins by declaring his independence of any such mothering needs, but
Wendy’s sewing his shadow back on is not lost on him. Living amongst “the lost
boys”47 in fairyland,
Peter confesses to loneliness at the lack of female companionship, meaning
mothering. But when Wendy offers a kiss, Tinker Bell
conveniently interferes, and so Peter “is never touched by anyone in the play”
(30). Sublimating, Wendy offers
to tell stories to the lost boys.
Delighted and relieved, Peter sprinkles fairy dust on Wendy and her
brothers so they can fly with him to
Never Land is a very compact island, crammed with lovely, evasive mermaids, bloodthirsty pirates, war-painted Indians, a comic crocodile, and other things necessary to boyhood adventure. The crocodile has tasted Captain Hook’s flesh, thanks to Peter’s throwing him Hook’s arm in an earlier heroic battle, but luckily for Hook the crocodile has also swallowed a clock, whose ticking provides an early warning system. Hook plots revenge upon the boys with a poisoned cake, but when the pirates discover that the boys now have a mother in Wendy to warn them, they believe they are foiled. They then substitute the wicked idea of stealing Wendy for their own mother (mothers are needed everywhere!). Coming upon each other, the boys fight off the pirates, Hook wounds Peter, and Wendy gets stranded on a rock amidst a rising tide. She’s rescued by latching onto a kite, but Peter turns down her offer of a kiss and a duo flight.
Later, at the underground home of
the lost boys, Peter has been playing “father” to Wendy’s “mother,” and in that
guise comes home from a hard day of making treaties with the “redskins.” The
boys greet him so strenuously as “father” that Peter, in a scared voice, hopes
that his being their father is “only pretend, isn’t it . . . ?” Wendy
“droops” at his trying to escape their joint adult responsibility. She grills him, “What are your exact feelings
for me, Peter?” Girls are always ahead
of boys at this age. “Those of a devoted son, Wendy” (66), says Peter, quickly
abandoning fatherhood for sonhood, to her great
disappointment. But a lady can’t tell a
boy how to “grow up” (Freudian pun), and so she prepares for departure. The
lost boys will return with her to be adopted by the Darlings, but Peter
declines to go along—”I just want always to be a little boy and to have fun”
(70). Fun is right at hand, for
immediately the pirates slaughter the “redskins” and by a ruse capture Wendy
and the boys. Hook prepares a poison for Peter, but Tinker
And so they fly back to the Darlings, where motherhood proves true (Mrs.
Darling has left a window open), and Wendy for the last time puts to Peter a
question about “a very sweet subject” (90). But “no one is going to catch me ... and make me a man” (91), says Peter, squelching any
suggestions of romance. Mrs. Darling, not a feminist bone in her body, then
promises that Wendy may visit him once a year for spring cleaning (Peter knows
it not), and so a year later we find Wendy, her chores done, once again bidding
goodbye to Peter in Never Land. Sadly, Wendy has grown while Peter has not, and
he is displeased at being looked down on. She expresses a longing to hug him,
but the hopeless bachelor of twelve backs off. And so she
departs, flying now on a “witchy-bitchy” broomstick because she’s losing the
power of flight, leaving the eternally youthful Pan to his pipes. And in
the charm of his music we forget that the tune piped by the Greek Pan was a
sexual ditty, not just the song of preadolescent mischievousness, independence,
and high spirits
the many plays Barrie wrote after Peter
Pan, perhaps three could be called major. What Every Woman Knows (1908) was his best stage rendering of
Scottish character, its plot devoted to the old theme of the woman being the
power behind the throne, and content to be so, no Margaret Thatcher she. Dear
Brutus (1917) shows a
cast of rather unhappy characters transformed by a visit to a magic wood on
Midsummer Eve. Given a second chance, they come out with a better appreciation
of life’s limitations and their own faults, at least temporarily. For
Barrie seems curiously disconnected from the main currents of the significant
avant-garde drama of his day. e was friends with Granville Barker, and he and Shaw, close
neighbors at one time, had a bantering relationship, but his efforts were
directed almost entirely at the commercial theater. The only thing he did for
Barker’s great repertory experiment was persuade Charles Frohmann
to give Barker the Duke of York’s for a repertory season in 1910 and contribute
two one-act plays to it. (Frohmann’s drowning in the
sinking of the Lusitania in 1915, by
the way, not only left Barrie bereft of a good friend, but also of his
principal guide in the theater, which may account for the way Barrie drifted
around as a playwright from then on.) Even so,
hated seeing his works described as “whimsical,” “fantastic,” and “elusive,”
for, as he told the critics, “I never believed I was any of those things until
you dinned them into me. Few have tried harder to be simple and direct. I have
also thought that I was rather realistic.”49 We’re more
inclined these days to call “realistic” anything that envisions reality, never
mind whether it captures the surface look of things, so perhaps Barrie’s shade
may now be at rest on that score and not resent the labels “whimsical,”
“fantastic,” and “elusive,” which in our use does not deny the exploration of a
very significant piece of reality, however unhappily the playwright lived it at
times. The real miracle of
W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) picked up the tradition of the comedy of manners from Oscar Wilde and passed it on, somewhat domesticated, to Noel Coward. Compared to Restoration originals, or even The Importance of Being Earnest, Maugham produced a relatively polite comedy of manners, its irreverence mixed with circumspection. The circumspection seems to derive from Wilde’s scarifying example of two years at hard labor for flaunting his homosexuality (the law requiring this penalty not being repealed until 1967). That Wilde, Maugham, and Coward were homosexuals suggests that the particular slant on things typical of the comedy of manners requires a certain alienation, which in Restoration times could be achieved by being a man among fops but in modern times seems best achieved by being a fop among all the “manly men.” Thanks to the twist Wilde gave the comedy of manners, a genre devised to rationalize the sexual acquisitiveness of the rake has ironically ended up dramatizing the impossibility of marriage on the grounds of homosexuality. But in Maugham and Coward this is all politely disguised behind a screen of heterosexuality, its not being time yet to come out of the closet.
Willie Maugham was born in Paris of English
parents, his father a lawyer who handled the British embassy’s legal affairs.
The youngest of four sons, he appears to have received some permanent psychic
disfigurement upon his mother’s death when he was eight, for his subsequent misogyny
seems based on some conviction that women betray and disappoint, and his
frequent theme of human bondage, of the link between love and suffering,
appears to be rooted in the premature maternal death. According to biographer Ted Morgan, Maugham
soon developed, especially in his downward-turning mouth, “the face of a
permanently deprived child, robbed of [what Maugham would call] ‘the only love
in the world that is quite unselfish.’”50 His
father’s death when he was ten led to his being sent to his uncle’s to live, in
Orphaned and uprooted, and suddenly afflicted with a lifelong stammer,
he despised his new life, especially his uncle, a stern Church of England
clergyman, and the narrow-minded provincialism of the region. He hated equally his
school, the King’s School on the grounds of
is primarily known as a novelist, Of
Human Bondage (1915) and
The Moon and Sixpence (1919)
being his best-known novels, but perhaps his short stories will stand up as his
best work in the long run. He was known
as “the English Maupassant” for his clinical, detached style.32 Many of his stories are based on his
exotic travels, including his experiences as a spy during the war. With a villa
this most commercial of writers and advocate of a creed of writing only to
entertain did not achieve a popular success until 1907, with the production of his play Lady Frederick (written in 1903). His first produced plays were an Ibsenian
one-acter called Marriages Are Made in Heaven (written in 1896, produced in
1902 in Berlin under Max
Reinhardt) and A Man of Honour (written in 1898, produced in London in
1903 for the Stage Society with Granville Barker in the leading role). In
1907-1908 he became one of the
few playwrights ever to have four plays going in the same season, and he was
welcomed in the
Ronald E. Barnes summarizes the comedies thus: “Each play concludes with either the making, or the preserving, or the breaking of a marriage contract. . . . The ‘early’ plays . . . all conclude with the making of a marriage contract. The remaining plays prior to the First World War conclude with the preserving of the marriage contract. . . . The ‘final’ group, the plays which were produced following that war, conclude with the breaking of the marriage contract.”53 Barnes further finds that the changes in Maugham’s comedy follow closely historical changes in the English social pattern, the early plays reflecting a rather cynical Edwardian adherence to social forms, the middle plays reflecting a growing uncertainty or social insecurity in the years preceding the Great War, and the late plays reflecting “Maugham’s perception of the increasing disillusion which accompanied the post-war social, political and philosophical upheaval.”54 Read as “gay” code, they also parallel the struggle of the homosexual community, first, to accommodate respectability and, later, to break its tyranny. Certainly Maugham’s three best comedies embody a challenge to standard notions of marriage and morality.
Our Betters (written in 1915) was produced in New York in 1917 and
in London in 1923. It is the story of a rich young American named Bessie, in
London visiting her older sister, Pearl, who has married an English peer and
has settled into a life of cynical pleasure seeking, with a lover on the side
who bankrolls her entertaining. Pearl has maneuvered her way into being one of
London’s top hostesses, famous for her weekend parties. She is at present
trying to arrange a marriage between Bessie and Lord Bleane,
modeled on her own marriage of American wealth to English aristocracy,
believing that the best marriages are marriages of convenience. Most of
having some of the qualities of the Restoration comedy of manners, Our Betters is really more like
the bourgeois comedy of the 18th century, a genre that tamed the comedy of
manners. Our Betters has
some of the bitter wit and epigrammatic quality of the comedy of manners, and
The Circle (1919) is frequently cited as Maugham’s best comedy, possibly because it
best succeeds at adapting the comedy of manners to the well-made, realistic
play. The play presents the story of a romantic young wife, Elizabeth
Champion-Cheney, who, bored by her upper-class husband, Arnold, a fussy,
bloodless intellectual, falls in love with an equally romantic rubber planter
named Teddy Luton visiting from
The Constant Wife (1926) opened first in America, starring
Ethel Barrymore. Constance Middleton knows of an affair her husband, John, is
having with her best friend, the inconstant Marie-Louise, but avoids public
acknowledgment, even covering up for him, partly because she finds scandal
tasteless and partly because she is confused about what role a woman should
play when the sexual spark has vanished from her marriage. Eventually she
admits to knowing and forces herself to face some unpleasant truths. Her mother
takes the old Victorian line that women should remain faithful in the face of
their husbands’ infidelities, for such are passing fancies, the wife is
probably at fault anyway for not providing enough excitement, and a noble
forgiving attitude will result in the husband’s crawling back and begging for
mercy. Naughty John adopts a similar double standard, expecting that
Maugham commendably concluded his thirty-year career in the theater by writing plays as he liked, never mind the box office, but he seemed not to be able to write “serious” plays without falling into cliché. The Sacred Flame (1928), for instance, though well-meaning in its attack on conventional morality and its suggestion that euthanasia was sometimes acceptable, contains dialogue of such predictability that any soap-opera fan would immediately recognize it. In Sheppey (1933), his last play, the plot of a man who suddenly comes into money being declared insane when he decides to give his money to the poor in a literal imitation of Christ is easily anticipated, though there’s a staccato quality to the dialogue and an interpenetration of realism with allegory that is vaguely Pinteresque. In this as in many of Maugham’s works, one has the feeling that here is a writer who was not bold enough. He seems on the brink of discovery, but always pulls back. His adaptation of the comedy of manners to modern modes has its daring moments but overall seems less innovative than Wilde’s efforts. Perhaps it is enough that he kept the genre alive.
R. B. Parker comments on an inconsistency in Maugham’s attitudes toward playwriting. Though most of his career he argued for a theater of pure entertainment, “he began and ended his theatre career by writing serious, questioning plays, which he knew would not be ‘popular,’ and . . . he dropped the theatre eventually because he was ‘tired of giving half a truth because that was all [the audience] were prepared to take.’ His cynicism about playwriting, like his cynicism about life in general, must be recognized as at least partly defensive, an attempt to protect vulnerable uncertainties by pretending never to have had any very ambitious aims.”57 Parker also believes that unresolved tensions in Maugham’s plays are less deliberate artistic expressions of modern ambivalence than uncontrolled reflections of a divided loyalty in himself. “Maugham’s whole career seems to have been a struggle between his determination to make a comfortable life for himself by understanding and manipulating the way of the world, his existentialist belief that in a meaningless universe a man has to will his own pattern of values, and his continual nostalgia for a more relaxed trust in the natural rhythms of life.58 The cynicism was merely a mask for disappointed idealism and wounded humanity.
Whether Noel Coward (1899-1973) deserves much space in a volume such as this is still debated. During his lifetime the vast majority of critics, often after audiences had applauded themselves silly on opening nights, descended on his plays with the usual disapproving epithets— “thin,” “frothy,” “trivial,” “facile,” “mindless,” etc.—dismissing audience enthusiasm as the hysterics of a Coward claque, which to some extent it was. Serious scholarly criticism made a similar point by almost totally ignoring Coward. But after Coward’s death, John Lahr and Robert F. Kiernan discovered that there was method in Coward’s art-deco minimalism, that there was positive virtue in the way he “put dramaturgy itself on a diet,” producing “comedy as elegantly and stylishly thin as he was himself.”59 “His crisp dialogue was the death blow to Edwardian declamation—a climax to Shaw’s campaign to free the British theater from the nineteenth century.”60 Yet Lahr, who found so much of value in Coward, began by declaring that “Coward’s plays and songs were primarily vehicles to launch his elegant persona on the world. . . . Coward was a performer who wrote: not a writer who happened to perform,”61 which is similar to the favorite device of hostile critics of damning Coward as a playwright by praising him as primarily a performer. Of course Coward himself industriously contributed to this by devoting so much of his talent to the writing, directing, and performing of rather transitory musicals, revues, and cabaret acts, not to mention his constant impromptu performing with piano and voice at all the many parties for the rich and famous he hosted and attended. After a Coward evening of “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” and other examples of his sometimes witty and irreverent, sometimes sentimental and bittersweet, doggerel, critics may be forgiven for forgetting the lesson of Oscar Wilde and associating Coward’s taste for frivolity with a lack of artistic worth. Coward’s biographer and factotum, Cole Lesley, assures us that underneath all the glitz and glamour of his lifestyle, Coward was a disciplined artist who worked hard at his craft.62 That he kept busy there is little doubt, but one is not reassured by the fact that most of his major plays were tossed off in a matter of days (the ghost of Ibsen must rise indignantly at the very idea!). Further, it’s instructive to note that when the real minimalists came along—Beckett, Ionesco, Pinter—embodying the absurdist vision they shared with Coward in a truly absurdist form, Coward was largely insensitive to the hard-won poetic resonance of this postmodernist work.
Coward was born in a suburb of London, the
son of an indolent piano salesman and a woman who had the instincts of a
show-biz mother. Though his father was musical too, it was his mother who,
while running a boarding house in South London, encouraged young Noel to pursue
a performing career, which began professionally when he was eleven. He appeared mostly in children’s plays,
including Peter Pan, getting his first
Writes John Lahr: “Coward was not a thinker . . . . His genius was for style. When his plays aspired to seriousness, the result was always slick. . . . Only when Coward is frivolous does he become in any sense profound. . . . Frivolity, as Coward embodied it, was an act of freedom, of disenchantment. He had been among the first popular entertainers to give a shape to his generation’s sense of absence. His frivolity celebrates a metaphysical stalemate, calling it quits with meanings and certainties.”64 Lahr believes Coward’s best plays are “comedies of bad manners,” in which grown-up adolescents, with little commitment to anything outside themselves and obsessed with their own talent or happiness, charmingly and wittily flaunt their selfishness and vanity as a necessary antidote to the grave nihilism of twentieth-century events. In a world in which man’s animal nature has been unmasked and revealed as predatory, the only thing left is to put on a good show, and Coward’s criticism of the “good manners” of the earnest past is less that they were hypocritical than that they were boring, not a good show. It is much more entertaining and, secretly, more heroic, to live frivolously, self-consciously playing roles for the fun of it, the way, for example, the characters in Hay Fever kill melodrama with mimicry. It is more honest to admit that every life is a pose and more virtuous to play one’s role gaily, for its entertainment value. As Lahr puts it, “Frivolity acknowledges the futility of life while adding flavour to it.”65 Of course there are star actors in life as well as the stage, and an aristocracy of success must be admitted (just as Coward wrote parts for Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, Bea Lillie, Gertrude Lawrence, etc.), but, true to the tradition of the comedy of manners, one can pause in one’s role-playing to applaud the achievements of others or to make merry of the dull who earnestly refuse to play the game or play it badly.
Did the insistent gaiety of the Coward manner have anything to do with homosexuals being called “gays”? Without answering that directly, Lahr says that “Coward’s acute awareness (and insistence) on the performing self comes out of a homosexual world where disguise is crucial for survival.”66 Seeing public life as a charade in its reference to private life, Coward dramatized life as farcical theater. “Coward’s frivolity is a serious strategy for avoiding the stalemate of conventional manners and meanings. To dethrone the serious, to neutralize moral indignation, to promote playfulness, to show irony in action is what . . . high camp want[s] to accomplish.”67 Coward followed Maugham’s example of writing of homosexual dilemmas in heterosexual code, but his style was quite different—less repressed, more joyous, and without misogyny (his best friends were women)—and ultimately, in 1966, he broke with Maugham altogether by satirizing the bearish old man in A Song of Twilight, even making himself up to look like Maugham, not, as some thought, to reveal his own homosexuality, but to expose how the strain of living behind a facade, if not relieved by the self-mocking, camp insouciance of a Noel Coward, could destroy, as it had with Maugham, a capacity for true feeling. Noel Coward died beloved, celebrated, and relatively sane, testimony to the wisdom of playing it for laughs.
Based on the derogatory remarks Coward made, not only about the avant-garde drama of the fifties and sixties but also about homosexuals who were earnestly public about it, Coward would probably not want to be remembered as a transitional figure who led to both Beckett and the Harvey Fierstein of Torchsong Trilogy, but that is in fact his chief importance to the history of the drama (the history of the theater being something else—his versatility in that area makes him a more considerable figure). He built bridges to the future that he himself was not entirely aware of and would not have considered tasteful to travel. His plays can be played now only as charming but harmless period pieces, referring to our curiously absurd ancestors; they are something to fall back on whenever a theater or a drama festival needs something light to balance its repertoire. And lord knows there’s “immortality” enough in that, and the gratitude of many.
Link to Chapter 4: “Irish Drama: Soul Music from John Bull’s Other Island”
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