George Bernard Shaw: Man of the Century

By Archibald Henderson | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 41
Pleasant Plays

THE CLOSE OF THE YEAR 1893 LIKEWISE MARKS THE CLOSE OF Shaw'S FIRST PHASE as a dramatist. As Brunetière challenged the Symbolists, so the English public challenged the Independent Theatre Society: "Gentlemen, produce your masterpieces!" Like an attorney for the defence, Shaw took up the case; and rather than let it collapse, he manufactured the evidence.

Though Shaw, after Widowers' Houses, snatched the torch and took up the London running from Ibsen--though there was some similarity between their class and early circumstances--though Shaw's quarrel with capitalist civilization was as implacable as Ibsen's and more clearly reasoned economically--though Shaw rated Ibsen so high that he declared it impossible to take Shakespeare seriously after him--yet their plays are as unlike as their figures and faces, despite the superficial resemblances that must exist more or less between all practicable stage plays written for the same type of theater. Shaw, like Ibsen, sometimes enlarges his drama by a retrospective first act; but this device, though never before carried to such masterly lengths as by Ibsen, is an old one, and is called by Shaw the Long Lost Child or Bohemian Girl gambit. The really new feature introduced by Ibsen is the final discussion of the whole business by the characters; and this is not only used in its simple Doll's House form by Shaw in Candida, but developed to such an extent that he often taunted the protesting critics by announcing his plays as discussions or debates. In Too True to be Good one of the characters, at the end of the first act, actually informs the audience that the play is now over; that the two following acts will consist of nothing but talk about it; and that the exit doors are open. Of course Shaw takes care to dramatize his debates so thoroughly that the exit doors are never resorted to; but still the discussions are real discussions. They are not, however, reminiscent of Ibsen any more than Ibsen is reminiscent of Dumas fils and the stage raisonneurs of Scribe and his school. It is true that Ibsen studied the Parisian school and accepted its mechanical constructive technique, to the great satisfaction of Archer; but as he was a great dramatic poet and the Parisian playwrights were only brilliant artisans, he takes his plays into an empyrean so remote from the Paris boards that only technical experts discover the connection.

Now Shaw maintained from the beginning that the Parisian method was

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