George Bernard Shaw: Man of the Century

By Archibald Henderson | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 32
On Stage: The Independent Theatre

LATE IN THE EIGHTIES, THE EDUCATED CLASS OF ENGLISH SOCIETY WAS ACTUALLY more conversant with the newer ideas of the day and more exacting in its demands for the most modern forms of entertainment, than the managers and authors who catered to them. Sooner or later, it was inevitable that this class would find the contemporary native drama, modeled after the "well- made plays" of the leading French dramatists of the Second Empire, both insipid and obsolescent. Even the leading critics, several of whom were irrevocably bound to the ideals of the past, were excelled in intellectual capacity and exacting standards of dramatic art by the more cultured, if more insurgent, spirits in intellectual circles. The intimate rapprochement between "culture" and the drama, during the eighties and even later, was gradually superseded by a spirit of dissatisfaction and unrest. The vigorous young school of native playwrights, headed by Pinero, Jones and Gilbert, and desperately written up by Archer as a new school, was in fact hopelessly secondhand both in ideas and method.

Arthur Wing Pinero's The Profligate, hailed at first as a play of profound ethical import, really contained no novelty, except a lack of the author's former whimsical humor, nor any promise for the future.1 The production of Ibsen's A Doll's House six weeks later, on June 7, by Charles Charrington and Janet Achurch, was the real inauguration of the New Movement. The English play of the day, in close conformity with Second Empire models and obviously machine made, was the final evolution of a type. The Scandinavian drama was the initial step in a new departure; the public was startled into thought, agitated with novel and disquieting emotions. The larger public, not yet educated to the point of giving to the realistic drama of ideas the requisite measure of attentive concentration, and already tiring of the outworn French models, was in a very anomalous condition. The lesser public was insistent in its demand for a native drama, arising from the new models and the new ideas filtering in from Norway. There were now brought to the attention of the public, at this critical emergency, various projects for "the foundation of a theatre which," as Shaw said, "should be to the newly gathered intel

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1
The Profligate was produced for the first time at the Garrick Theatre, London, on April 24, 1889.

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