FOR THE London theatergoer of the later nineties who asked more than entertainment the table was not bountifully spread. There was Shakespeare in the expert hands of Henry Irving and Ellen Terry, but little modern fare. The conviction of Oscar Wilde in 1895 had driven his plays temporarily from the stage and no heir to his brilliant, epigrammatic wit had appeared. George Bernard Shaw, now known for half a dozen plays, was also Irish and brilliant but with an uncomfortable difference. His wit was the lambent surface of a fierce puritanism that probed and questioned everywhere and raised disquieting thoughts. Beneath it he was too much like the serious foreigner Ibsen, with whose praises he belabored the public in the Saturday Review. London had put up a stout resistance to Ibsen. Ever since his discovery by Edmund Gosse in 1879, intelligent critics and managers had been trying to persuade the English public to accept him, but though the season of 1890-91 had seen five of his plays, audiences remained shy and the theatrical world had learned that he did not pay.
As an alternative to Shaw and Ibsen there were smoothly constructed and less disturbing social problem plays of Henry Arthur Jones and Arthur Wing Pinero. Jones, already a veteran who had been writing for twenty years, caused a sensation and something of a scandal in 1896 with Michael and His Lost Angel, a play dealing with clerical adultery. It closed after eleven nights but established for his plays a reputation greater than they deserved. For some years