George Bernard Shaw: Man of the Century

By Archibald Henderson | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 55
Major Influences: Bunyan, Dickens, Molière

Shaw'S THREE GREAT MASTERS AND MODELS, FROM WHOM HE DERIVED THE FERtile and creative principles which guided him in the creation of new types of drama, were Shakespeare, Molière, and Dickens. From Shakespeare he derived the technique of ultra-naturalism in dialogue. From Molière came the concept of the plotless conversation piece. From Dickens he derived the practice, which was perfectly attuned to his own artistic sense, of depicting characters exaggerated far beyond verisimilitude, thereby furnishing through caricatural portraiture extra-realistic, super-humorous figures of greater veridical qualities than the restrained and rigid figures of photogaphic portraiture. Singularly enough, this Gargantuan exaggerative humor displayed by Shaw in character-drawing has been almost entirely overlooked, perhaps because of the critics' overaccentuation of his brilliant wit, pointed epigrams, and shattering satire. Most critics blindly deny Shaw the possession of humor, one of the warmer human attributes; and find his wit caustic, his epigrams semi-veristic, and his satire cold and heartless.

From his childhood Shaw was saturated with Dickens, and as a young man knew his works as intimately as he knew both Shakespeare and Shelley. It was not until he joined the Fabian Society, conceived the plan of a vast fictive study of Socialism (of which, as we have seen, only a first part was ever written, in An Unsocial Socialist) and was caught up in the great social and humanitarian movements of the eighties and nineties, that he began to see in Dickens, with his own enlarged perspective and clarified vision, the makings of a great political and social reformer. It became clear to him that Dickens, from the very beginning, exhibited the burning spirit of the reformer, although this was shaded considerably by the uproarious fun and hilarious humor. In attacking debtors' prisons, the evils of unpaid magistracy, and the chicaneries of legal practice, he was exhibiting the darker side of the life of the lower middle and lower classes without imputing blame to the prevailing system of constitutional government. And the readers of Dickens's novels only dimly realized, if at all, that Dickens by indirection was deliberately indicating the dire need for reforms of various phases of social, political, and religious life. The horrors of the crime-breeding slums, the injustices of the Poor Law of 1834, the inadequacy of the farcically ineffective Yorkshire schools, the

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