Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 885
Some of George Bernard Shaw’s critics bring the twofold charge against him that his characters are too academic and lifeless, and that his plays are merely tracts for expressing Shaw’s ideas on love, war, property, morals, and revolution. This charge is not, however, often leveled at Candida. Generally the harshest critics concede that this play is, aside from a few comments on socialism and corruption in government, free from really revolutionary ideas. In fact, in Candida, Shaw is saluting that old, established institution, marriage. Of course, as he salutes, he does wink at the audience.
Candida belongs to the group of his Plays: Pleasant and Unpleasant published in 1898. It was given its first public London production in 1904, after a private presentation in 1897, and went on to become one of the most popular plays in the Shaw repertory. It was an early favorite with Shaw himself, and he held on to it for some time before allowing its production, preferring to read it privately to his friends, who, it is said, would weep aloud at the more touching scenes.
Candida is put together in a masterly way and has a uniformity often lacking in some of Shaw’s other works. Here is a play that gives an audience intensely comic scenes as well as moments of serious insights. Moreover, it is a very actable play. Candida is one of the great roles in twentieth century theater, that of the self-possessed woman who, as in many homes, subtly runs the household while appearing to be subservient to her husband. The Reverend James Mavor Morell is also an excellent role: the hearty Christian Socialist clergyman, the popular speaker always in demand, the unintimidated man who is happy and secure in his important position until a young, wild, seemingly effeminate friend of the family, the poet Eugene Marchbanks, threatens his security. The role of Marchbanks, the eighteen-year-old worshiper of Candida, has also been a favorite of many stage juveniles. As the boy who grows faint at the thought of Candida’s peeling onions, who rants, raves, and whines over the thought that the earthly, boorish Morell is married to such a poetic delight and inspiration as Candida, Marchbanks bears striking resemblances to the young and ethereal Shelley; possibly he is a younger Shaw.
A resemblance between Candida and Henrik Ibsen’s Et dukkehjem (1879; A Doll’s House, 1880) is also evident, though in his play Shaw reverses Ibsen’s situation. In Ibsen’s play, Nora is the doll, but in Candida it is Morell, the likable, high-principled husband, who is the doll. As he eventually learns, it is his wife who is responsible for his success. When Candida is “forced” to choose between Marchbanks and Morell, she chooses Morell, the weaker of the two. This is, supposedly, Shaw’s Virgin Mother play; certainly Candida plays the role of Morell’s wife, mother, and sisters rolled into one. She is the one who arranges his affairs, who keeps him happy and content, and who peels his onions for him. Morell eventually comes to realize her true status, though later he might try to rationalize his way out of his paradoxical victory. Many regard this, a husband and wife coming to a fuller understanding of each other, as the central aspect of the play.
This aspect bears a certain resemblance to romantic drama, which may be the secret of the play’s success among non-Shavian theatergoers. Shaw indulged in tirades against romanticism, but Candida is infused with romantic ideas and situations. Although Candida discovers a typical Shavian thought—that service and not necessarily contentment is the greatest triumph in...
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life—the play, with its celebration of the wife-mother role, is romantic in comparison with other Shavian drama.
In the growing awareness between the husband and wife, Marchbanks serves as the catalyst who brings about the final result. Because of Marchbanks’s poetic railings, Morell begins to wonder if he might actually be too commonplace for Candida. Yet when Morell is chosen and the poet spurned, Marchbanks leaves as a more mature being with a secret in his heart, and he seems quite eager to go out into the night. It may well be that Marchbanks realizes that mundane domesticity is not for him—his is a greater destiny. Candida reveals the average happy marriage to him, and he realizes there is no poetry in it. A poet must go out into the night and on to greater and more exalted triumphs.
The force of the concept that the man of genius is out of place in conventional society is somewhat weakened by the fact that Marchbanks’s role is somewhat overdrawn. Through his excessive behavior, the conflict between Marchbanks and Morell fails to convince many readers and viewers; to some, there is no choice at all between the likable clergyman and the effeminate boy. Others, however, are willing to overlook this flaw and to ignore the charge that Candida, in the “choosing” scene, behaves in a most conceited fashion. Audiences have generally preferred simply to delight in the high comedy of Candida, its amusing situations, and the consistently witty, sparkling dialogue throughout. There is no doubt that its great popularity is due not only to its tight construction but also to the fact that Candida is Shaw’s safest play.