George Bernard Shaw: Man of the Century

By Archibald Henderson | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 56
Problems of the Playwright

TAKEN TO TASK FOR KEEPING THE WORLD ON TENTERHOOKS IN EXPECTATION OF his autobiography, Shaw brusquely replied: "I have not kept you waiting. I have written more autobiography than any other living author. In fact I have been reproached for never writing anything else. But that is an exaggeration."

There is almost no phase of comedy, especially as illustrated by his own plays, upon which he has not touched. He has presented, in extenso, his views on dramatic technique, the nature of drama, its origin and not a little of its history; and a description of his method and intent in writing plays. But he is enough of a mystic to realize that he cannot describe the creative process.

Addressing an audience at Great Malvern in 1934, Shaw disclaimed any knowledge of the workings of the power which used him as an instrument for the writing of plays. To begin with, he used a phrase which is the title of one of the five parts of his own Back to Methuselah: "the thing happens." He knew only that, in writing drama, one was hemmed in by limitations, many of which cannot be surmounted. "The novelist has a glorious liberty and license which is denied to the playwright. The novelist can go all over the shop. Wells extends his operations to the moon. He has visitors from Mars. . . . He says, 'Nothing can happen on the stage.' That is quite true in a sense. I have sometimes been reproached with the accusation that people in my plays do nothing but talk. That is a very queer accusation, because there are no plays in which anything can happen but talk. Plays are all talk. . . .

"I depend entirely on inspiration. A play grows in my mind and I put it on paper. I do not know how or why. The funny thing is that it sometimes strikes me, when I see an early play of my own, that it looks as if I had elaborately constructed it. All the results of perfect construction are achieved in that way, but I do not mean that everybody can do it. I can produce literature and I can produce drama. I am a playwright and a great many other things as well, but I cannot tell you how it is done."1

To the journalist, Hannen Swaffer, he confided: "You must regard me as a hardened old professional who is inspired all the time during working hours. My subjects come to me anyhow, and when I have chosen my subject, the play writes itself. I can even begin without a subject with the same result. The

____________________
1
"How Shaw Writes his Plays," Sheffield Daily Telegraph, August 15, 1934.

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