George Bernard Shaw: Man of the Century

By Archibald Henderson | Go to book overview
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The Puppetmaster

WHETHER IMPUTED TO DEFECT OR NOT, IT IS INDUBITABLE THAT NOT A FEW OF Shaw's plays, especially those labeled moralities, have a curious puppetal semblance. They are novel forms of dramatic automation. In this sense, Shaw may be thought of as an authentic puppetmaster. Certain of his characters, because they are allegorized, appear to be intellectual simulacra rather than dramatized human characters. They seem to operate under mechanical guidance as if manipulated by wires. Their conversation gives the impression of emanating from some ventriloquist off stage. Indeed, Shaw has urged that schools for actors should make a careful study of the puppet show, from which they can learn "how much must be done by suggestion and illusion, and how fatal to this is a too industrious effort to imitate and simulate every action or symptom of emotion. . . ."1 Shaw might have said, pace Shakespeare, "All the world's a puppet show, and all the men and women merely marionettes."

In speaking of his morality plays--and in a broad sense all his plays are of this character--Shaw uses indiscriminately the terms allegory, parable, and fable. All allegorized characters, in particular those representing a single trait or characteristic, have something of the rigidity of the marionette. Shaw, our modern Hazlitt, was almost as enamored of puppets as was that friend of this drama critic who said that "he liked a comedy better than a tragedy, a farce better than a comedy, a pantomime better than a farce, but a peep-show best of all." There was also a childlike mood of wonder in Shaw which responded to that philosophic spirit of Henry Bergson, who found the basic meaning of humor emerging from consideration of man as a puppet, a mechanical toy. "Puppets," Shaw himself has observed, "have . . . a fascination of their own, because there is nothing wonderful in a living actor moving and speaking, but that wooden-headed dolls should do so is a marvel that never palls." Many cartoons have delineated Shaw as a puppetmaster, or drawn a scene with all the characters, female as well as male, with the bearded face of the Irishman. Certain critics have gone so far as to assert that to Shaw had occurred "the happy notion of relieving the British drama from the intolerable burden of human beings and substituting, as the docile vehicle of his inimitable monologue, a procession of fantastic puppets." To all such charges Shaw has re

Gerald Morice, "Punch and Puppetry Pars," World's Fair, Oldham, August 31, 1940.


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George Bernard Shaw: Man of the Century
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