George Bernard Shaw Essay - Critical Essays

George Bernard Shaw Drama Analysis

A religious thinker, George Bernard Shaw saw the stage as his pulpit. His major interest was to advance the Life Force, a kind of immanent Holy Spirit that would help to improve and eventually perfect the world. Shaw believed that to help in this conscious purpose, human beings must live longer in order to use their intellectual maturity. They must be healthier, without the debilitating force of poverty, and—most important—they must be interested in purpose, not simply pleasure. As the giraffe could develop its long neck over aeons because of a need to eat from the tops of trees, so can human beings, with a sense of purpose, work toward the creation of healthier, longer-lived, more intelligent individuals.

According to Shaw, evolution is not merely haphazard but is tied to will. Human beings can know what they want and will what they know. Certainly, individuals cannot simply will that they live longer and expect to do so. Such desire might help, but it is the race, not the individual, that will eventually profit from such a common purpose. Ultimately, Shaw believed, this drive toward a more intelligent and spiritual species would result after aeons in human beings’ shucking off matter, which had been taken on by spirit in the world’s beginning so that evolution could work toward intelligence. When that intelligence achieves its full potential, matter will no longer be necessary. Humankind is working toward the creation of an infinite God.

Shaw’s plays are not restricted to such metaphysics. They treat political, social, and economic concerns: the false notion that people help criminals by putting them in jail or help themselves by atonement (Major Barbara, Captain Brassbound’s Conversion, The Simpleton of the Unexpected Isles), the need for tolerance (On the Rocks, Androcles and the Lion), the superstitious worship of medicine and science (The Philanderer, The Doctor’s Dilemma), the superiority of socialism to capitalism (Widowers’ Houses, The Apple Cart, The Inca of Perusalem), the evils of patriotism (O’Flaherty, V.C., Arms and the Man), the need for a supranational state (Geneva), the necessity for recognizing women’s equality with men (In Good King Charles’s Golden Days, Press Cuttings), and so on. Nevertheless, all of Shaw’s efforts to question social and political mores were subsumed by his religious purpose. All were meant to help free the human spirit in its striving toward the creation of a better and more intelligent person, the creation of a superman, the creation, finally, of a God.

Arms and the Man

In 1894, two years after completing his first play, Shaw wrote Arms and the Man. Although lighter and less complex than later plays, it is typical of the later plays in that Shaw uses comedy as a corrective—a corrective, as Louis Crompton effectively puts it, that is intended to shame the audience out of conformity, in contrast to Molière’s, which is intended to shame the audience into conformity.

The year is 1885. Bulgaria and Serbia are at war, the Serbs have just been routed, and the play opens with one of the Serbs’ officers, Captain Bluntschli, climbing through the window of a Bulgarian house. The house belongs to Major Petkoff, and Raina Petkoff lies dreaming of her lover, a dashing Byronic hero, Sergius Saranoff, who has led the cavalry charge that routed the Serbs. Bluntschli comes into her room, gun in hand, but convinces her not to give him away, more because a fight will ensue while she is not properly dressed than for any fear she has of being shot.

Bluntschli turns out to be Saranoff’s opposite. He is a practical Swiss who joined the Serbs merely because they were the first to enlist his services, not because he believed either side to be in the right. When the Bulgarian soldiers enter the house and demand to search Raina’s room, she hides Bluntschli on impulse. After the soldiers’ departure, he describes for Raina the recent battle in which some quixotic fool led a cavalry charge of frightened men against a battery of machine guns. All were trying to rein in their horses lest they get there first and be killed. The Serbs, however, happened not to have the right ammunition, and what should have been a slaughter of the Bulgarians turned out to be a rout of the Serbs. Yet for his irresponsible foolishness, this “Don Quixote” is sure to be rewarded by the Bulgarians. When Raina shows Bluntschli the picture of her lover, and Saranoff turns out to be “Quixote,” Bluntschli is duly embarrassed, tries to cover by suggesting that Saranoff might have known in advance of the Serbs’ ammunition problem, but only makes it worse by suggesting to this romantic girl that her lover would have been such a crass pretender and coward as to attack under such conditions.

This is Shaw’s first ridicule of chivalric notions of war. The viewpoint is corroborated in the next act by Saranoff when he returns disillusioned because he has not been promoted. He did not follow the scientific rules of war and was thus undeserving. Saranoff has discovered that soldiering is the cowardly art of attacking mercilessly when one is strong and keeping out of harm’s way when weak.

In this second act, which takes place at the war’s end only four months later, the audience is treated to some satire of Victorian “higher love,” which Saranoff carries on with Raina before more realistically flirting with her maid, Louka. Later, in a momentary slip from his chivalric treatment of Raina, Saranoff jokes about a practical Swiss who helped them with arrangements for prisoner exchange and who bragged about having been saved by infatuating a Bulgarian woman and her mother after visiting the young woman in her bedroom. Recognizing herself, Raina chides Saranoff for telling such a crass story in front of her, and he immediately apologizes and reverts to his gallant pose.

Finally in act 3, after Bluntschli has returned for an overcoat and Saranoff discovers that Raina and her mother were the women who saved the Swiss, Saranoff challenges Bluntschli to a duel. Bluntschli, however, will not return the romantic pose and calls Saranoff a blockhead for not realizing that Raina had no other choice at gunpoint. When Saranoff realizes that there is no romance in fighting this prosaic shopkeeper, he backs off. Bluntschli wins Raina’s hand, Saranoff wins Louka’s, and all ends happily. Yet at the very point at which the audience might expect the play to use its romantic, well-made plot to criticize romanticism, Shaw again changes direction by showing his antihero Bluntschli to be a romantic. To everyone’s consternation, Saranoff’s in particular, Bluntschli points out that most of his problems have been the result of an incurably romantic disposition: He ran away from home twice as a boy, joined the army rather than his father’s business, climbed the balcony of the Petkoff house instead of sensibly diving into the nearest cellar, and came back to this young girl, Raina, to get his coat when any man his age would have sent for it. Thus, Shaw uses Arms and the Man not only to attack romanticism about war or love but also to assert the importance of knowing and being true to oneself, to one’s life force. It matters little whether Bluntschli is a romantic. He knows and is true to himself. He does not pose and does not deceive himself, as do Saranoff and Raina.

Only one who is true to himself and does not deny himself can attune himself to the Life Force and help advance the evolutionary process. Although Saranoff changes his career when he renounces soldiering, he does so because he was not justly rewarded for his dashing cavalry charge. He does not abandon his habitual self-deception. Even his marriage to the servant girl, Louka, has something of the romantic pose about it; it is rebellious. Raina’s marriage to Bluntschli has more potential; at least she has come to see her own posing.

Although the play seems light when set beside the later, more complex triumphs, Shaw’s “religious” purpose can be seen here at the beginning of his career. It will be better argued in Man and Superman and more fully argued in Back to Methuselah, but the failure of the latter, more Utopian work shows that Shaw’s religious ideas most engaged his audience when they were rooted in the social, political, or economic criticism of his times, as they were in Arms and the Man.


A year after Arms and the Man, Shaw wrote Candida, his version of Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 play, Et dukkehjem (A Doll’s House, 1880). Candida showed that, while Shaw was as much a proponent of equality as was his early mentor, he saw women’s usual familial role from an opposite perspective. As Ibsen saw it, women suffer in marriage from being treated like children; a wife is denied the larger responsibilities that are the province of her husband. As a consequence, the wife’s personal maturity is arrested. She becomes, in a word, a doll. Shaw did not think this the usual marital paradigm; his view of marriage included a husband who does tend to see himself as the dominant force in the family, but the wife is seldom the petted child that Ibsen’s Nora is. Much more frequently, she is like Candida, the real strength of the family, who, like her husband’s mother before her, allows her husband to live in a “castle of comfort and indulgence” over which she stands sentinel. She makes him master, though he does not know it. Men, in other words, are more often the petted, indulged children, and women more often the sustaining force in the family.

Candida is set entirely in St. Dominic’s Parsonage, and the action is ostensibly a very unoriginal love triangle involving the parson, James Morell, his wife, Candida, and a young poet, Eugene Marchbanks. The originality comes from the unique twist given this stock situation. Morell is a liberal, aggressive preacher, worshiped by women and by his curate. Marchbanks is a shy, effeminate eighteen-year-old, in manner somewhat reminiscent of a young Percy Bysshe Shelley, and he is possessed too of Shelley’s inner strength, though this is not immediately apparent. The young poet declares to Morell his love for Candida, Morell’s beautiful thirty-three-year-old wife. The self-assured Morell indulges the young man and assures him that the whole world loves Candida; his is another version of puppy love that he will outgrow. The ethereal Marchbanks cannot believe that Morell thinks Candida capable of inspiring such trivial love in him. He is able, as no one else is, to see that Morell’s brilliant sermons and his equally brilliant conversation are nothing but the gift of gab; Morell is an inflated windbag. Marchbanks forces Morell to see himself in this way, and Morell shows that the poet has hit home when he almost throttles him.

Morell broaches the subject of Marchbanks’s love to Candida, at the young man’s insistence, and Candida assures her husband that she already knows Eugene is in love with her. She is surprised, however, to find Morell upset by it. Nevertheless, the two foolish men force a crisis by making Candida choose between them. When she plays their game and asks what each has to offer, Morell offers his strength for her defense, his honesty for her surety, his industry for her livelihood, and his authority and position for her dignity. Eugene offers his weakness and desolation.

Candida, bemused that neither offers love and that each wishes to own her, acknowledges that the poet has made a good offer. She informs them that she will give herself, because of his need, to the weaker of the two. Morell is desolate, but Eugene is, too, since he realizes that Candida means Morell. Eugene leaves with the now famous “secret in his heart.” The secret the poet knows is that he can live without happiness, that there is another love than that of woman—the love of purpose.

The twist Shaw gives the standard triangle, then, is not merely that the effeminate young poet is stronger than the commanding figure of Morell, but also that Candida is stronger than both. Morell is clearly the doll in this house. Even so, to identify Shaw with Marchbanks, as his fine biographer Archibald Henderson does, makes little sense. Marchbanks is an aesthete like Wilde or the young William Butler Yeats, and the poetic sentiments he expresses to Candida sound very like Shelley’s Epipsychidion. Shaw, who did not share Shelley’s rapture about romantic love and who liked aestheticism so little that he swore he would not face the toil of writing a single sentence for art’s sake alone, clearly cannot be confused with Marchbanks. He has more in common with Morell, who is socialistic and industrious. It is Morell who voices Shaw’s sentiments when he tells Marchbanks that people have no more right to consume happiness without producing it than they have to consume wealth without producing it. The character in this play who comes closest to Shaw, however, is Candida herself. Much stronger than Ibsen’s Nora, she is the only character who does not deceive herself. Morell does not realize that he needs to be coddled in order to play his role as a dynamic, liberal clergyman. Only at the play’s end and with Candida’s help, does Marchbanks discover the truth she has known all along.

Candida is subtitled A Mystery, and, though Shaw is treating a dramatic convention with humor, there is perhaps a more serious sense in which he uses the subtitle: There is some mystery involved in the ties that bind people together in marriage. In the climactic scene, in which Candida is made to choose between the two men, a traditional dramatist might have demonstrated the lover to be a cad and have thrown him out. A more romantic dramatist would have shown the husband to be a tyrant and had the wife and lover elope. Shaw chooses neither solution. He has the wife remain with the husband, but not because the lover is a cad or because she owes it to her husband contractually or for any of the standard reasons Morell offers, but because he needs her and she loves him. In this mystery about what binds partners in marriage, Shaw seems to suggest that it is not the contract, still less any ideal of purity, but simply mutual love and need.

What connects Candida with Arms and the Man, as well as with the later plays, is the demand that persons be true to themselves. Morell taught Candida to think for herself, she tells him, but it upsets him when that intellectual independence leads to conclusions different from his own. Candida will not submit to Christian moralism any more than she will to poetic romanticism. If there is any salvation for Marchbanks, it is that he has learned from Candida the secret that lies hidden in his heart: He is not dependent on happiness or on the love of a woman. In becoming aware of this, he has the potential to be a true artist, one attuned to purpose and not to self-indulgence. Thus, the play leads to the more lengthy dramatization of the struggle between the philosopher-artist and the woman-mother that is evident in Man and Superman.

Man and Superman

Man and Superman promotes Shaw’s philosophy of the Life Force more explicitly than do any of his previous plays. Indeed, much of the play is given to discussion, particularly during the long dream sequence in act 3; Shaw never thought that a play’s action need be physical. The dynamics of argument, of intellectual and verbal exchange, were for Shaw much more exciting than conventional action.

The drama originated in a suggestion by Arthur Bingham Walkley that Shaw write a Don Juan play. After all, did not Shaw suffer as a playwright from an excess of cerebration and a lack of physicality? Surely, Walkley reasoned, the subject of the amours of Don Juan would force him off his soapbox and into the boudoir. In response to this challenge, Shaw wrote a much more cerebral play than he had ever written before. In his lengthy “Epistle Dedicatory” to Walkley, Shaw explains why. The essence of the Don Juan legend is not, like Casanova’s, that its hero is an “oversexed tomcat.” Rather, its essence lies in Juan’s following his own instincts rather than law or convention.

The play is as diffuse and difficult to stage as Candida is concise and delightful to produce. Most of the difficulty has to do with the lengthy Don Juan in Hell dream sequence during act 3, which causes the play to run more than four hours. More often than not, the sequence has been separated from the play. Not until 1964, in fact, when the Association of Producing...

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