Sidney P. Albert. Shaw, Plato, and Euripides: Classical Currents in "Major Barbara."

By Kornhaber, David | Comparative Drama, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

Sidney P. Albert. Shaw, Plato, and Euripides: Classical Currents in "Major Barbara."


Kornhaber, David, Comparative Drama


Sidney P. Albert. Shaw, Plato, and Euripides: Classical Currents in "Major Barbara." The Florida Bernard Shaw Series. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2012. Pp. xvii + 304. $74.95.

Perhaps no prior work of criticism has pursued George Bernard Shaw's debt to classical philosophy and tragedy in such great depth as Sidney P. Albert's meticulous and comprehensive Shaw, Plato, and Euripides: Classical Currents in "Major Barbara." Albert's monograph is that rare specimen in scholarship on twentieth-century drama: a book-length study of a single play. Yet for a volume that is so tightly focused on one work, its perspective is surprisingly--and satisfyingly--expansive. Albert does not so much offer an extended close reading of Shaw's masterwork as he posits a series of overlapping interpretations. The book is purposefully designed as a palimpsest: it returns multiple times to key sections of the play, in each instance bringing new aspects of Shaw's classical sources to light and generating readings that are uniformly rich but not always entirely in concord. At no point does Albert present a unified theory of the play; rather, he demonstrates a mode of reading Shaw's drama, a perspective on the depth of the playwright's achievement measured by the breadth of its various resonances.

In a sense, this is both a continuation and a culmination of work that Albert has been pursuing throughout his career. Aged ninety-seven at the time of this book's publication, Albert has been one of the foremost interpreters of Shaw's philosophical influences for more than half a century. His article "Bernard Shaw: The Artist as Philosopher;' first published in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism in 1950 and included as an appendix, is still one of the most cogent accounts of the various philosophical lineages from which Shaw drew throughout his career. Plato received special attention in that essay, and Albert returns to and expands on the connection. Yet at the same time he also moves beyond stories of straightforward philosophical transmission. The connection to The Bacchae sets Shaw's work in a context more theological than philosophical: Albert's Shaw is an artist grappling with elemental forces that go far beyond the kinds of political and economic issues with which he is most associated.

The book is divided into two sections devoted to Plato and Euripides respectively, both grounded in an introduction that sets out the merits of a classical perspective on Shaw and a history of previous attempts to draw linkages between Shaw and the Greeks. Part 1 of the book comprises an extended chapter on the play's connection to The Republic, which Shaw parodically references near the climax of the play: "Plato says, my friend, that society cannot be saved until either the Professors of Greek take to making gun-powder, or else the makers of gunpowder become Professors of Greek" (38). Albert's concerns in this chapter are as much formal as thematic. He takes Plato's philosophical dialogue as a model for Shaw's dramatic form, even explicitly reading Andrew Undershaft as Socratic interlocutor during several key exchanges. But Albert also observes that the conclusions to which Shaw's characters are drawn over the course of the drama bear a significant debt of origin to Plato's theory of the philosopher king. He offers a tripartite reading of Shaw's main characters drawn from Plato's vision of the tripartite soul divided among reason, will, and emotion, with the rationalist Adolphus Cusins ultimately emerging as the first among equals. Albert offers reasonable ground to support Shaw's frustrated claims that the outsized Undershaft was not in fact his model of the superman ideal as so many critics took him to be. If Undershaft's model factory town of Perivale St. Andrews is in any sense a version of Shaw's Republic, as Albert terms it, it is so only when it comes under the control of Cusins, the philosopher king.

Yet if Undershaft is dethroned by Cusins in the book's first section, he reemerges in the second half as something far greater than a king--perhaps even greater than a philosopher king. …

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