Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Shavian Dark Comedy

Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Shavian Dark Comedy

Article excerpt

THE CONVENTIONAL VIEW OF SHAW is that his plays are merely didactic tracts promoting his ideas on socialism, anti-Darwinism, linguistic reform, heroism, feminism, and maybe vegetarianism, while his characters are merely his mouthpieces. Shaw is a "playwright of ideas," with the famous Shavian wit only a sugarcoating for an instructional pill. Now that most of the ideas themselves have become stale, the pill is bitter indeed; socialism is in decline, anti-evolutionism is the monopoly of Christian fundamentalist morons (and Shaw opposed only the Darwinist mechanism, not the idea of evolution itself), the reform of English spelling is a dead issue, and vegetarianism is about as popular as it was in Shaw's time, which is to say, not very. Feminism remains topical (though greatly changed), but hero worship, which Shaw dabbled with in his final decades, now seems done with. Shaw admired both Mussolini and Stalin-hardly an advertisement for Shaw as a thinker or for the legendary Shavian heroes in his plays. Heroism itself seems outdated today. In his lifetime, Shaw experienced Mussolini, Lenin, Stalin, Churchill, FDR, and Mao, giant figures for good or ill. Who are the equivalent "heroes" today? George W. Bush? Gordon Brown? Vladimir Putin? The bureaucrats who run China? People do not want heroes anymore, onstage or in real life.

But if Shaw is passé, why are the plays themselves still so popular in the theatre? The answer is that the conventional view-actively promoted by Shaw himself in his prefaces and other non-dramatic writing-is wrong. Although Shaw was a talented platform orator, his plays are not mere oratory decked out with a few playwriting tricks. They do not promote socialism or any other doctrine; they raise questions rather than answer them, doing so not just through rhetoric but through the traditional dramaturgical elements of plot and character. The long didactic speeches, for example, are never directly addressed to the audience, but always to other characters. As for the Shavian heroes, most were created long before Mussolini or Stalin came to power, and unlike those political leaders they are not usually active in public affairs but are only spirited kibitzers. And as for socialism, the subject rarely comes up in the plays, while the characters are mostly middle class; when a working-class representative appears it is usually as a comic stereotype, like Doolittle in Pygmalion. (Eliza in the same play is an exception, but she is no revolutionary, aspiring only to middle-class respectability.) First and foremost, Shaw was a creative artist, a playwright no more-and no less-political than Euripides, Shakespeare, or Ibsen.

No play challenges the traditional view of Shaw more than his Major Barbara, written in 1905. No capitalists were more despised in those days than weapons manufacturers, "merchants of death"; Shaw makes one of them the hero, Andrew Undershaft. Socialists generally dismissed religion and charities as inadequate for dealing with the underlying problems of the poor; Shaw makes the title character (Undershaft's daughter) a major in the Salvation Army. Furthermore, Undershaft's chief antagonist in the play is not some charismatic socialist agitator, but Barbara's fiancé, a professor of Greek-by his own description "the most artificial and self-suppressed of human creatures." He not only fails to convert Undershaft to a pacifist viewpoint, he ends up becoming Undershaft's partner and heir.

The plot of Major Barbara is deceptively simple: Undershaft and his snooty wife Lady Britomart, long separated, have three grown children. Two are drearily conventional, taking after their mother, but the third, Barbara, has joined the Salvation Army, spending her days working with the poor in one of its bleak shelters in London's East End. Her fiancé Adolphus Cusins (based on Shaw's friend Gilbert Murray, the noted Greek scholar and translator) helps out.

With her children having reached their majority, and two of them engaged to be married, Lady Britomart summons her husband to her home to discuss finances. …

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