George Bernard Shaw: Man of the Century

By Archibald Henderson | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 40
Unpleasant Plays

THE PECULIAR AND PERSONAL IDIOSYNCRASIES OF TWO WOULD-BE COLLABORATORS in a play retarded for seven years the emergence into public view of the leading dramatist of our day. A short time after making each other's acquaintance, William Archer and Bernard Shaw agreed to write a play in collaboration. Shaw had asked Archer why he did not write a play. Archer replied that he could construct a play but could not write dialogue. "I can write dialogue by the thousand yards," said Shaw; "but construction means nothing to me. So do you go ahead with your construction and I'll guarantee the dialogue." Thus the collaboration began. It was an odd team: Archer, with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the world's drama, a naïve love for it, unbounded admiration for the "well-made piece" in the Scribe-Dumas fils manner, and an inventive faculty of the feeblest; Shaw, with a genius for clever and witty sayings, which he had developed by years of platform speaking, and with the utmost scorn for plays with plots, which he lumped with artificial flowers and clockwork mice. Collaboration promised strange results.

"I drew out, scene by scene," says Archer, "the scheme of a twaddling cup- and-saucer comedy vaguely suggested by Augier's Ceinture Dorée. The details I forget, but know it was to be called Rhinegold, was to open, as Widowers' Houses actually does, in a hotel garden on the Rhine, and was to have two heroines, a sentimental and a comic one, according to the accepted Robertson-Byron-Carton formula. I fancy the hero was to propose to the sentimental heroine, believing her to be the poor niece instead of the rich daughter of the sweater, or slum-landlord, or whatever he may have been; and I know he was to carry on in the most heroic fashion, and was ultimately to succeed in throwing the tainted treasure of his father-in-law, metaphorically speaking, into the Rhine. All this I gravely propounded to Mr. Shaw, who listened with no less admirable gravity. Then I thought the matter had dropped, for I heard no more of it for many weeks."1

Meanwhile, Shaw had not been idle. Archer saw him in the British Museum Reading Room, day after day, laboriously writing in Pitman shorthand

____________________
1
The World ( London), December 14, 1892. Consult also C. Archer, William Archer: Life, Work and Friendships ( London, 1931), pp. 136-137, 177-178.

-523-

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