The Playwrighting Self of Bernard Shaw

The Playwrighting Self of Bernard Shaw

The Playwrighting Self of Bernard Shaw

The Playwrighting Self of Bernard Shaw


Bernard Shaw claimed that he built his plays from "atoms of dust." Showing where these atoms are and explaining how they fit together to form meaning, Bertolini demolishes the conventional argument that Shaw was not a meticulous, self-conscious writer.

Bertolini provides close, subtle readings of six of Shaw's major plays: Caesar and Cleopatra, Man and Superman, Major Barbara, The Doctor's Dilemma, Pygmalion, and Saint Joan. He also devotes a full chapter to the one-act plays.

Focusing sharply on details of language and- to a greater extent than any other Shavian- stage directions, Bertolini probes dramatic structure, examines motifs, and points out patterns to demonstrate Shaw's artistry and to develop a coherent picture of the playwrighting self of Bernard Shaw. His triumph is to piece together a portrait of the artist from the clues provided by the artist.

To complete this portrait, Bertolini examines the many authors, artists, or artist-figures who are characters in Shaw's plays. Through these dramatic creations, Bertolini contends, Shaw reveals his ideas and feelings about himself as an artist and about the art of writing plays.

In his chapter on Pygmalion, for example, Bertolini argues that the mother-fixated (Shaw's term) Henry Higgins seeks to create a duchess out of Eliza Doolittle as a way of denying his creation by his mother. This characterization of Higgins expresses Shaw's anxiety about his own originality, an apprehension fueled by his sense of rivalry with Shakespeare.

Bertolini presents a Shaw who is less iconoclastic, less abrasive, than the Shaw of legend. He sees Bernard Shaw not as a political writer, but as a traditional literary link in the long line of comic classical dramatists that includes Shakespeare, Molière, and Sheridan.


Bernard Shaw probably had more selves than most great writers have: responsible employee, unsuccessful novelist, autodidact, social critic, art critic, music critic, drama critic, dramatist, Fabian socialist, photographer, vestryman, husband of an Irish millionairess, Irishman in England, writer of many letters, public orator and debater, commentator on world affairs, thinker--the list could easily be doubled. But I shall be concerned here only with one of Shaw's several selves, his playwrighting self: how he wrought his plays, and what he thought about himself as a writer of plays.

Some of Shaw's critics (Chesterton and Edmund Wilson, for example) have been struck by the paradoxical nature of Shaw's mind, that is, how he could be so consummately an artist on the one hand, and have his head so full of economic facts and political science on the other. William Archer felt drawn to introduce himself to Shaw in the reading room of the British Museum when he saw Shaw day after day studying methodically and alternately the orchestral score of Wagner Tristan und Isolde and a French translation of Karl Marx Das Kapital, both of which lay open before him. Shaw himself reports that Sir George Grove, though inclined to disdain Shaw for his socialism, felt that anyone who "knew Beethoven's symphonies from the opening bar of the first to the final chord of the ninth, and yet made new discoveries about them at every fresh perfor-

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