Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6900
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 Artists staged the play at New York City’s Phoenix Theatre was the entire play produced in the United States.
As the delightful first act opens, Ann Whitefield has lost her father, and everyone is waiting to learn from the will who her guardian will be. Roebuck Ramsden, close friend of her father and self-styled liberal, is the leading candidate and is at the moment lecturing Ann’s young suitor, Octavius, on his friend, Jack Tanner, who is not fit to be seen with Octavius, much less with Ann. Tanner has scandalized this Victorian liberal by his newly published “The Revolutionist’s Handbook,” whose entire text Shaw appends to the play. “The Revolutionist’s Handbook” is a didact’s device for getting across some of the ideas that would have been unpalatable in the play, as when Tanner argues (here without opposition) that the Life Force would be served better if people were given more freedom in mating. That is to say, people who might not be compatible as marriage partners might nevertheless produce the finest offspring.
When Tanner appears, the audience is delighted by his wit. He good-humoredly but repeatedly scandalizes Ramsden, particularly when he announces that he and Ramsden have been named joint guardians of Ann. Tanner is not eager to undertake his role; he knows how manipulative Ann can be, but he does not yet recognize what even his chauffeur could have told him: Ann has designs on him and not on his friend, Octavius. Ann is in the grip of the Life Force, which drives all women in their capacity as mothers to want to reproduce, and she implicitly knows that Tanner would be the proper father for her offspring, not the romantic but spiritually flabby young Octavius. Tanner, however, is Shaw’s philosopher-artist and, as such, Tanner knows that he must flee the stifling bliss of marriage and domesticity to pursue his own purpose—something that Marchbanks learned at the end of Candida.
When Tanner learns of Ann’s designs, he flees to Spain. Here, he and his chauffeur are captured by a group of brigands led by an Englishman named Mendoza. While captive, Tanner dreams the lengthy dream that constitutes the Don Juan in Hell scene. The scene is a brilliant debate involving Don Juan (looking like John Tanner), the Devil (looking like Mendoza), Doña Ana (looking remarkably like Ann Whitefield), and Ana’s father, Don Gonzalo (looking like Roebuck Ramsden). The debate centers on the relative merits of Heaven and Hell. Doña Ana, “a good Catholic,” is astonished to find herself a newcomer to Hell and has to have it explained to her that some of the best company are here. One can go to Heaven if he or she wishes, but one must remember that the gulf between the two is really a matter of natural inclination or temperament. Hell is a place for those in whom enjoyment predominates over purpose, desires over reason, the heart over the head, the aesthetic over the ideological, and romance over realism. Don Juan is about to depart for Heaven because he is sick of the Devil’s cant about the aesthetic values, the enjoyment of music, the pleasures of the heart. An eternity of enjoyment is an intolerable bore. He wishes not to enjoy life but to help it in its struggle upward. The reason Juan went to Hell to begin with was that he thought he was a pleasure-seeker, but he has discovered, as Shaw indicates in the dedicatory epistle, that his amours were more a form of rebellion than of pleasure-seeking. Realizing that he is temperamentally a philosophical man, who seeks to learn in contemplation the inner will of the world, to discover in invention the means of achieving that will, and to follow in action those means, he prefers Heaven.
The dream sequence is also concerned with woman’s maternal role in advancing the Life Force. If it seems, at first glance, that the ardent feminist who authored Candida has here turned his coat and relegated women to a merely sexual role, it must be remembered that for the moment Shaw is speaking only of one side of woman. When Ana corrects Don Juan’s view of woman’s mind, he points out to her that he speaks not of woman’s whole mind but only of her view of man as a separate sex. Only sexually is woman’s nature a contrivance for perpetuating its highest achievement. She too can be the philosopher-artist attuned to the work of advancing the Life Force. Thus, two ways of achieving the inner will of the world are open to her.
In the fourth and final act, having awakened from his dreams, Tanner shows that he is not yet as forceful as his ancestor, Don Juan, when he gives in to Ann’s superior force and agrees to marry her. Ironically, the romantic Octavius is the one who resigns himself to bachelorhood.
The play, then, is a philosophical comedy whose theme is that the Life Force is dependent on man and woman if it is to move creation upward. A man or woman possessed of a sense of purpose must attune himself or herself to the Life Force, since the only true joy lies in being used for its purposes, in being willing to burn oneself out and heap oneself on the scrap pile at the end without any promise of a personal reward. Although a number of critics see Tanner as the epitome of Shavian man, Tanner does capitulate to Ann. He lacks the fiber of Don Juan, who realizes the boredom of a life of pleasure. Indeed, Marchbanks of Candida is more truly Shavian than Tanner.
Notwithstanding Shaw’s overt didacticism in this play, he is true to his belief that, like the Ancient Mariner, he must tell his tale entertainingly if he is to hold the attention of the wedding guest. Consequently, he claims full responsibility for the opinions of Don Juan but claims equal responsibility for those of the other characters. For the dramatic moment, each character’s viewpoint is also Shaw’s. Those who believe there is an absolutely right point of view, he says in the “Epistle Dedicatory,” usually believe it is their own and cannot, in consequence, be true dramatists.
In Major Barbara, published not long after Man and Superman, Shaw’s dramatic means of advancing his theory of the Life Force was to assert that poverty was the world’s greatest evil. What critics, even astute ones such as G. K. Chesterton, thought materialistic in Shaw, the author would insist was spiritual. Only with money could one save one’s soul.
Major Barbara opens in the home of Lady Britomart Undershaft, whose estranged millionaire husband has been invited to the house for the first time since the children, now adults, were toddlers. Her purpose in inviting this scandalous old atheist to her house is to get more money for her daughters, Barbara and Sarah, who are about to marry. Moreover, she would like Andrew Undershaft to break the ridiculous custom of having the Undershaft munitions business go to an orphan and instead give it to his own son, Stephen. When Undershaft meets his family, he is favorably impressed by Barbara, who is a major in the Salvation Army, and by Adolphus Cusins, her suitor, who is a professor of Greek. He recognizes that Stephen is hopelessly inept and that Charles Lomax, Sarah’s young man, is less pompous than Stephen but no less foolish. Barbara invites her father to West Ham so that he might see the constructive work of the Salvation Army, and he agrees, provided that she come to see his munitions plant at Perivale St. Andrews. Thus, the play’s structure is neatly determined, with a second act at West Ham and a third at Perivale St. Andrews.
In act 2, Barbara shows her father the Salvation Army’s good work, only to learn from her father and the Army’s Commissioner, Mrs. Baines, the painful fact that the Army—like all religious organizations—depends on contributions from whiskey distillers and munitions owners such as her father. When Barbara is told that the Army could not subsist without this “tainted” money, she realizes that she is not changing the essential condition of the poor but simply keeping them alive with a bowl of soup; she is helping the capitalists justify themselves with conscience money. She thus serves capital rather than God.
When in act 3 the family visits the munitions factory, Undershaft surprisingly reveals the existence of a model socialist community at Perivale St. Andrews. Though Undershaft lives off the need of people to conduct war, he accepts that need and uses it to destroy society’s greatest evil, poverty. In his community, all men work, earn a decent wage, and can thus turn to matters of the soul, such as religion, without being bribed to do so. Since Barbara has come to realize that religious organizations exist by selling themselves to the rich, she decides to get Peter Shirley a job rather than feed him and ask him to pray in thanksgiving at West Ham. She herself joins her father’s model village, especially since Cusins is conveniently discovered to be an orphan and the ideal person to inherit the munitions factory.
Shaw’s lengthy preface to the play sets out a good deal of his ethical philosophy: Poverty is the worst evil against which man struggles; religious people should work for the betterment of the one world they have and not turn from it for a vision of private bliss in the hereafter. The world will never be bettered by people who believe that they can atone for their sins and who do not understand that their misdeeds are irrevocable. While society should divide wealth equally, no adult should receive his allowance unless he or she produces by personal exertion more than he or she consumes. Society should not punish those guilty of crime, especially by putting them in prisons that render them worse, but neither should it hesitate to put to death anyone whose misconduct is incorrigible, just as people would not hesitate to destroy a mad dog.
Though these ideas are familiar to Shavians, and though most of them are fleshed out in the play itself, Major Barbara may first take a reader by surprise. Can the pacifist and socialist Shaw be making a hero of a capitalist who makes his living on the profits of warfare? It is not enough to answer that the capitalist uses his capital to create an ideal socialist community; for this, Shaw could have chosen a banker. On the contrary, he deliberately chooses a munitions manufacturer because the irony helps make his point. However horrid warfare is, it is not so horrid as poverty. Undershaft tells Barbara and Cusins in the final act that poverty is the worst of crimes, for it blights whole cities, spreads pestilence, and strikes dead any souls within its compass. Barbara cannot save souls in West Ham by words and dreams, but if she gives a West Ham ruffian thirty-eight shillings a week, with a sound house in a handsome street and a permanent job, she will save his soul.
When Barbara turns from the Salvation Army to Undershaft’s community at Perivale St. Andrews, she is not giving up religion. She is turning, Shaw would have it, from a phony religion dependent on a bribe to the poor and on the maintenance of inequitable present conditions, to a genuine religion that will bring significant social change. Her conversion is completely consistent with her character. When her father asks her to tell Cusins what power is, she answers that before joining the Salvation Army, she was in her own power and, as a consequence, did not know what to do with herself. Once she joined the Army, she thought herself in the power of God and did not have enough time for all that needed to be done. Undershaft helps her to transfer this commitment to a more realistic cause, which will genuinely improve the lot of the poor, but a cause that is still essentially spiritual.
Because Undershaft sees his work in the same light as Barbara sees hers, he can insist that he is not a secularist but a confirmed mystic. Perivale St. Andrews is driven by a will of which he is a part. Thus, once again, Shaw’s hero is chosen because he is attuned to the Life Force. It matters little that he is a munitions maker. In Saint Joan, the heroine is a saint, yet she is chosen not as a representative of Christian orthodoxy but because she was mystic enough to see that she served a will greater than her own.
In Major Barbara, Shaw also makes use of a host of lesser characters to dramatize his political, moral, and ethical theories. When Stephen Undershaft is asked by his father what he is able to do in life, so that Undershaft can give him a fair start, he makes it evident that he is capable of nothing, except—he asserts defensively—of knowing the difference between good and evil, something he implies his father does not know. With this, Undershaft has great fun. Stephen knows nothing of law, of business, of art, or of philosophy, yet he claims to know the secret that has baffled philosophers for ages. Because Stephen knows nothing but claims to know everything, Undershaft declares him fit for politics. To this remark, Stephen takes exception; he will not hear his father insult his country’s government. Undershaft once again, however, reflects Shaw’s conviction that big business rules government when he sputters, “The government of your country! I am the government of your country.”
Peter Shirley, rather than Barbara, provides the real contrast with Undershaft. Barbara shares her father’s “heavenly” temper, his sense of purpose. The Army shares with him the recognition that it needs money. Peter Shirley, the unemployed visitor at West Ham, plays Lazarus to Undershaft’s Dives, as Shaw puts it. Because the majority of the world believes that an “honest” poor man such as Shirley is morally superior to a “wicked” rich one such as Undershaft, the misery of the world continues. It is significant that when Undershaft gives Shirley a job, the man is unhappy.
Bill Walker, who beats up an old woman visiting the West Ham shelter and then a young woman member of the Army itself, tries to atone by having himself beaten up in turn by a professional boxer, Todger Fermile. Such a grotesque instance of atonement is no more grotesque than any other attempt at atonement, Shaw believes, and both Barbara and Cusins agree with Undershaft that one cannot atone for evil; one does good only by changing evil ways. It can be argued, as in the case of many other Shavian criticisms of Christianity, that Shaw did not understand the Christian doctrine. Perhaps, however, he understood de facto Christianity all too well.
Adolphus Cusins also plays a significant role in the drama, certainly the most significant after those of Undershaft and Barbara, and he eventually takes over the munitions factory. A man of greater intelligence and more humane sympathies than Undershaft, he may be the hope for the Life Force taking a significant step forward. Undershaft repeatedly refers to this professor of Greek as “Dionysius,” which suggests in Cusins a capacity to stand outside himself to achieve union with the Life Force. Clearly, Undershaft invites him to make war on war when he turns over the munitions works to him.
Major Barbara is perhaps freighted with too much paradox to do its job convincingly. Certainly, act 1 is sparkling comedy as Undershaft meets his family without knowing who is who. Moreover, the contrast between Undershaft’s “gospel” and Barbara’s is convincingly set forth. Act 2 is occasionally excellent comedy, and comedy fused with meaning, as when Barbara deals with the bully Bill Walker, but Walker’s part becomes a bit too obtrusive a vehicle for attacking atonement, and Undershaft’s demonstration of how all religious organizations exist by selling themselves to the rich is somewhat more asserted than dramatized. Perhaps the concluding act is the least successful, since Barbara’s and Cusins’s conversion is necessarily hurried to preserve the unities, and Shaw has difficulty making his Utopia convincing, a difficulty he later experienced more keenly in Back to Methuselah. To do Shaw justice, he acknowledged that, while one can know that the Life Force is driving upward, one cannot know precisely how. Thus, attempts to dramatize future points of progress in creative evolution present insuperable obstacles.
More than in Major Barbara and perhaps more than in Man and Superman, Shaw found in Saint Joan a fit medium to dramatize his major religious ideas. He had intended to write a play about Christ, but he was not permitted to portray divinity on the English stage. Yet no play by Shaw succeeds more unobtrusively in carrying his ideas about the Life Force. As captivating a play as Major Barbara is, Undershaft has straw men with whom to do battle, and, though such was not the case in Man and Superman, Shaw needed for his purposes the lengthy dream sequence that has made the play so difficult to stage. Candida might be a more perfectly structured play, but it does not carry so much of Shaw’s mature philosophy. Among Shaw’s major dramas, then, Saint Joan is perhaps the finest blend of matter and form.
Saint Joan is divided into six scenes and an epilogue. In the first scene, Joan appeals to Robert de Baudricourt for horse and armor to aid in the siege of Orleans and to see to the coronation of the Dauphin. Although he at first scoffs at this request, made through his servant, when faced with Joan, he is persuaded by the strength of her person, as everyone else is. In scene 2, the courtiers try to dupe her and pretend that Gilles de Rais is the Dauphin. Not taken in, she carries the Dauphin, too, by her force of persuasion and convinces this weakling that he, too, has a divine mission that he must be strong enough to accept. In scene 3, Joan joins Dunois, the leader of the French forces, and under their combined leadership, France enjoys a series of victories. In scene 4, the Earl of Warwick and the Bishop of Beauvais plan Joan’s eventual execution. The Englishman wants her dead for obvious military reasons; the Frenchman, because she is a dangerous heretic. In scene 5, she is told to give up fighting, that there is no need for more victories. She is told to let the English have Paris. Her sense of destiny, however, convinces her that the English must be driven from French soil. In scene 6, Joan has been arrested. She is given by the Inquisition what Shaw considers a fairer trial than is available to defendants today. She finally recants what the clergymen consider her heresy, but when told that she must remain forever in prison as punishment for her spiritual offenses, she tears up her recantation and goes to the stake under Warwick’s authority. The epilogue gets the play back into the comic frame and allows Joan and the rest of the cast of characters to appear twenty-five years later before Charles, now King, and discuss the Church’s recent reversal in favor of Joan. There is even a time-shift of several centuries, to the year 1920, so that Joan’s canonization can be mentioned. Yet the epilogue ultimately suggests that, were she to return to France in the twentieth century, Joan would again be put to death by the very people who now praise her.
The greatness of Saint Joan lies in its scrupulous dramatization of a universal problem. The problem of how one reconciles the dictates of the individual conscience with the demands of authority is one without easy solutions, whether the individual stands against ecclesiastical, civil, military, or familial authority. The sympathy Shaw extends to Joan in declaring her one of the first “Protestant” saints he extends also to the Inquisitors, who, he asserts, tried Joan more fairly than they themselves were later tried when the judgment on Joan was reversed.
Shaw’s fairness is evident in scene 4, for example, when Peter Cauchon makes clear to the Earl of Warwick that, even though both men want Joan captured, they differ in every other respect. Cauchon, Bishop of Beauvais, does not believe that Joan is a witch and will not allow Warwick to get rid of her on this trumped-up charge. Joan is a heretic, much more dangerous than a witch, but he would prefer to save her soul. She is a pious and honest girl who, through pride, is caught up in the Devil’s mighty purpose: to wrack the Church with discord and dissension—the same purpose for which the Devil used John Huss and John Wycliffe. If a reformer will not finally effect reform within the pale of Church authority, every crackpot who sees visions will be followed by the naïve populace, and the Church will be wrecked beyond repair.
These arguments are completely familiar to the present age, in which soldiers are told they must obey commanding officers who order the extinction of noncombatants. Can one obey such orders? Yet there surely must be obedience to authority, despite doubts about its wisdom, or there will be anarchy. Humankind has come no closer to finding a solution to the tensions between individual conscience and authority than it had in Joan’s day, and it is that insoluble problem that forces audiences to move beyond easy condemnation of the Inquisition and equally easy sanctification of Joan.
Critics have often objected to Shaw’s epilogue on the ground that Joan’s tragedy is trivialized by it, yet the epilogue is necessary for Shaw’s theme: that from the same elements, the same tragedy would come again. The trial at which Joan’s judges were judged and she was exonerated was a much more unscrupulous affair than was Joan’s trial. Ladvenu, who had been the most sympathetic of those who tried Joan, tells King Charles that the old trial was faultless in every respect except in its unjust verdict, while the new trial is filled with perjury and corruption yet results in a just verdict. Charles, who is concerned only about his having been crowned by a woman who was considered a witch and a heretic, and who is relieved now by having his reign validated, asserts that no matter what the verdict, were Joan brought back to life, her present admirers would burn her within six months.
In his preface, Shaw argues that there was no inconsistency in the Church’s reversal on Joan. Although the Catholic Church does not defer to private judgment, it recognizes that the highest wisdom may come to an individual through private revelation and that, on sufficient evidence, the Church will eventually declare such an individual a saint. Thus, many saints have been at odds with the Church before their canonization. In fact, Shaw contends, had Francis of Assisi lived longer, he might have gone to the stake, while Galileo might yet be declared a saint. Thus, the epilogue helps dramatize the complexity inherent in Joan’s struggle with the Church.
In none of the plays discussed—perhaps nowhere else in his canon, with the possible exception of Caesar and Cleopatra—does Shaw present an example of a character in the grip of the Life Force so convincingly as he does in the character of Joan. Bluntschli is an amusing soldier-adventurer; Marchbanks, a callow poet; Tanner, a failed revolutionary; and Undershaft, a munitions maker who has built a socialist community. Joan is both a Christian and a Shavian saint. She is caught up in a sense of purpose to a degree none of Shaw’s other characters is. Saint Joan, then, is the culmination of Shaw’s art. Although other plays might embrace more of his standard literary and philosophical obsessions, none takes his most central obsessions, those relating to the Life Force and creative evolution, and fleshes them out with such dramatic integrity.