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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1572

One of the most relentlessly prolific writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, George Bernard Shaw habitually wrote prefaces, introductions, and forewords to his and others’ works, sometimes to explain them, sometimes to argue points not fully covered in them, and sometimes to demolish criticism leveled at them. He also revised these prefaces over time, adding newer topical references to older works, deleting material he thought outdated, and at times exaggerating or misrepresenting events and opinions to suit his argument. The editors of The Complete Prefaces: Volume I, 1889-1913, have followed Shaw’s testamentary wishes by using the last printed versions of texts he authorized in his lifetime, although they have also restored some deleted passages, clearly indicating them as such. In addition, the editors have included judiciously chosen annotations to Shaw’s more obscure allusions and references without cluttering the text with them.

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Of the many kinds of prefaces in the volume, the editors identify three principal types in their introduction. They illustrate their categorization with detailed analyses of selected examples of Shaw’s rhetorical, epistolary, and argumentatively journalistic modes of writing. In whatever mode, Shaw’s prefaces appear to be living words, records of conversations that evolve in the course of his conversing on paper. Thus, he occasionally contradicts or undercuts himself, as if looking for another opening in the fray, taking another tack. He also appears to change his mind, at times savoring the witty phrase that does not quite convey his meaning but approximates it well enough in a nearly poetic vein.

The rhetorical Shaw is a lecturer in print, relying on an audience, engaging that audience, asking questions that may at first appear merely rhetorical but turn out to be precisely the sort of question an intelligent person might ask about the issues at hand. Moreover, his commands and exhortations to the audience, in which he asks them to direct their attention to something, to consider a point, to do their homework and read this or that commission report, are truly requests for cooperative, active listening and reading. He appears to work his audience adeptly, positing their anti-intellectual counterparts throughout London and the realm and allowing his hearers and readers to feel immensely superior to those unenlightened by him. Shaw is a propagandist, seeking to change minds, win approval, and prompt his readers to assert their own power to effect social change. This fits nicely with his own socialist agenda in his plays and essays, the gradualist strategy expressed in the motto of the Fabian Society: “Educate, Agitate, Organize.” Shaw writes and seems to speak to the reader, then, as an educator who is interested in stirring up his audience, in provoking their indignation, and in organizing them into an effective band bent upon political reform. As the editors note, the prefaces to Mrs. Warren’s Profession (1902) and Major Barbara (1907) are two among many examples of Shaw’s highly rhetorical work.

The epistolary Shaw, in such prefaces as Major Barbara’s “First Aid to Critics,” John Bull’s Other Island’s “Preface for Politicians” (1907), andMan and Superman’s “Epistle Dedicatory” (1903), is a familiar, avuncular correspondent who addresses his readers personally, informally, cajolingly. Here Shaw takes his reader by the arm or elbow and converses with him or her as they walk together toward or from the theater. He creates an instant intimacy, at times confessionally, intimating that he has his own doubts about his work, his projects, his agendas in the plays. In some respects, Shaw distances himself from his work in the prefaces, almost looking for encouragement from the reader, occasionally encouraging the reader to disagree with him, all the while looking for a response, any response, to what he says. This is the same Shaw who, as the audience applauded wildly after one of his plays, noticed one man railing against it and agreed with him in his dissent, reportedly adding a sly rhetorical query about what they two could do against so many who approved of the play.

Additionally, Shaw used his vast experience as a journalist, book reviewer, and art, music, and drama critic to inform his prefaces. He is a master of the pungent phrase and a self-appointed tutor to the universe whose works teem with topical allusions to contemporary news and newspaper reports. The journalistic Shaw reports on events of the day as they relate to the play or essays he introduces, using headlines for subtitles, interrupting the flow of his preface with reports of late-breaking news, situating his work along the very pulse of national and international events. His familiar, journalistic style ranges from that of the reserved editorialist for The Guardian or The Times or The Star (for which he wrote) to the flamboyant headline writer for the tabloid press, teasing the reader into turning to the metaphorical back pages to continue reading about the scandal he introduces on page 1.

In all three of these modes, the prefatory Shaw remains the consummate dramatist, creating characters, giving them actual lines of dialogue, providing them with complications and reversals of fortune or expectation, and often enough, as in his plays, leaving the solution to the posed problem or the resolution of the snarled situation up to the reader. A controversial interpretation of many of his plays applies to many of his prefaces: Shaw is often accused of preachily solving the world’s problems in both. A careful consideration of what he actually writes, however, often yields exactly the opposite finding, that he has no ultimate solutions and relies on the audience he educates and provokes to carry on the argument or thesis of the play and to find solutions for themselves. Shaw, as his prefaces attest, is not a systematic philosopher but a speculative one, often appearing more interested in the questions he raises than in the answers he might prefer they receive. A playwright who consciously strove to write uncomfortable plays, Shaw is also an essayist who frequently strives to make his readership uncomfortable with what he has to say.

Shaw the dramatist, for example, introduces both named and nameless reviewers into the prefaces to his plays and sets them in motion. He also alludes to characters from other plays and from novels, occasionally reproducing dialogue from those sources. He shapes and molds these characters—either his own inventions or his appropriations from others—as protagonists or antagonists in the drama of his own battles with reviewers of his plays. Not content to stop there, he uses what has been called his “compensating imagination” to create analogies among his prefatory characters, linking them in some obvious and some subtle ways. So in his preface to Mrs. Warren’s Profession he links the jeweled vamp with the neighborhood bookmaker with those who donate to charities with the poorer girls in the gallery who watch his play and, by extension, with the critics and, just as surely, with the playwright himself. Money and the means of acquiring it are the common ground for all of these characters and for the essayist himself.

As the editors justly note, the creation of dramatic characters and situations is not the only element of the playwright’s craft in the prefaces. The language of the stage, the cadencing of dialogue and monologue, and the crafting of cue lines are major if often unnoticed elements of the prefaces. The editors’ treatment of Shaw’s stylistics in their introduction underscores Shaw’s own concern that his prose both on and off the stage be highly wrought art inspired by his vast knowledge of musical composition and his love of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s and Richard Wagner’s music. Their careful analysis of a segment from the preface to Man and Superman is a paradigm for exploring the linguistic richness of Shaw’s style, the circling of the operatic tenor and countertenor in the arias of his prefaces as well as of the plays. Like operatic arias, Shaw’s prefaces build dramatically, sounding a theme and repeating it in variations until he achieves a dramatic close.

The abiding interest of Shaw’s prefaces presented in this volume is not their considerable, quaint antiquarian value, nor their valuable clues to performing or viewing his plays, nor yet the window they afford for looking nostalgically into a past that has vanished. Rather, their interest and their strength lie in the painful relevance they have for the generations that have come after Shaw. The issues and problems in Shaw’s plays and in his prefaces are universal issues and problems. Shaw himself recognized, in writing “To Introduce the Prefaces” (1934), with even more prefaces still to be written, that they were ahead of their time when he wrote them and remained ahead of their time in the 1930’s. His prefaces to Mrs. Warren’s Profession on economic realities, to Man and Superman on evolution, and to Major Barbara on revolution, for example, deal with concerns that are fundamental to the human condition. These prefaces typify the others in the volume in that their thrust and depth allow readers an entry into a consciousness that wrestled with the basic questions of human life and its meaning and influenced readers to do the same.

Sources for Further Study

Chicago Tribune. February 27, 1994, XIV, p. 1.

Choice. XXXI, July, 1994, p. 1724.

Library Journal. CXIX, February 15, 1994, p. 160.

New Statesman and Society. VI, July 16, 1993, p. 42.

The Times Literary Supplement. February 18, 1994, p. 5.

The Washington Post Book World. XXIV, February 13, 1994, p. 13.

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