George Bernard Shaw

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Charles A. Berst (essay date fall 1974)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8121

SOURCE: Berst, Charles A. “The Craft of Candida.College Literature 1, no. 3 (fall 1974): 157-73.

[In the following essay, Berst addresses several common criticisms of Shaw's work through an analysis of his Candida, contending that the play “refutes many of the facile critical generalizations so often repeated about Shavian drama.”]

A year before Shaw wrote Candida the prominent critic William Archer reviewed his first play, Widowers' Houses, in the London World. Archer was most condescending: “It is a pity that Mr Shaw should labour under a delusion as to the true bent of his talent, and … should perhaps be tempted to devote further time and energy to a form of production for which he has no special ability and some constitutional disabilities … it does not appear that Mr Shaw has any more specific talent for the drama than he has for painting or sculpture.”1 Such critical condescension was to be cast upon Shaw for many years, hindering popular acceptance of his plays for a decade and enduring even to the American production of Saint Joan in 1923. By 1923, however, the critics were more wary, qualified, and humble. By that time Shaw had become so great a force in the theater that few could afford to be supercilious, and most were content to generally acknowledge his greatness while jabbing at him here and there, faulting individual characters or scenes, or deploring his looseness and verbosity.2

Time and Shaw's genius have buried most of his least perceptive detractors. However, many of their echoes persist, a few of which possess the power, and concomitant danger, of half-truths. Half-truths have the virtue of frequently provoking new insight, but they have the vice of also being half-false, with their portion of truth rendering their falsehood unusually tenacious. Such is the case with the recurring assertions that Shaw is overly intellectual as a dramatist, his plays are plays of ideas, his characters are mere Shavian mouthpieces, his structures are loose, and his dialogue expands for its own sake where it might well be trimmed or excised. These noises from the past impinge upon the present, and since Shaw wrote so much (his corpus of plays and playlets numbers over fifty) evidence can always be ferreted out in support of one or another of them. What they neglect most frequently is a balanced appraisal of the special aspects of Shaw's talent, those aspects which either grandly incorporate such seeming flaws, transmuting them into considerable art, or which contradict them almost entirely as irrelevant to his major plays. Candida is an important work to consider in this context, since it is an early play and refutes many of the facile critical generalizations so often repeated about Shavian drama. If Shaw had firm control of his medium at such an early stage, his later development as a playwright may be seen to derive from sound and even impressive dramatic sensibilities.

In Candida emotions and characterization are far more important than ideas, the characters are complex individuals greatly removed from Shaw, the structure is extremely tight, and the dialogue is masterfully concentrated to reveal the most about the dramatic situation in the least possible time. The objection to Shaw as a man and playwright too exclusively intellectual and deficient in the profounder depths of the emotions has some merit. A part of his appeal indeed results from the cerebral sparkle of his wit, and he seldom descends into the lachrymose regions of Dickens or the heart-wringing pathos of Tennessee Williams. Yet clearly the central element of Candida has less to do with Morell's socialism or Marchbanks' poetic idealism than with their love relationship to Candida, a love which in each case is profoundly felt and serves as a fulcrum for the play's action. Although Marchbanks sounds distinctly Shavian at the end of Act I as he challenges Morell—“I'm not afraid of a clergyman's ideas. I'll fight your ideas.”3—it is clear that he is motivated less by intellect than by his infatuation with Candida. And Morell's response to this challenge is less that of an insulted preacher than an indignant, hurt, and threatened husband. Candida, in her turn, is less concerned with the ideas of either Marchbanks or Morell than with her role as a mother to both and a wife to one. Her world is primarily that of her marriage and secondarily one of tender care toward an idealistic adolescent. Ideas are involved in the characters' varying concepts of love and marriage, but they are informed in a most basic way by layers of deepfelt emotions.

And before either emotions or ideas come complex factors of personality and personal disposition. Contrary to those critics who for so long insisted that Shaw provided himself only with so many mouthpieces, the three principal characters of Candida are richly individualistic. Only if we fully perceive their individualism can we clearly appreciate the dynamics of their interaction and the subtle reaches of the play. Even more than most great playwrights, Shaw rejected stereotypes, being highly sensitive to the fact that they dehumanize the individual and reflect a melodramatic consciousness which is false to the vital wellsprings of life. Stereotyping is the refuge of the unimaginative, thoughtless, insensitive man who regards human affairs as well as fiction in terms of black-or-white distinctions. Shaw's eye, in contrast, explores the ubiquitous gray shades of life where good and evil, right and wrong, justice and injustice may be all mixed, inverted, or perverted.4 So the critic who too easily pigeonholes Candida, Morell, or Marchbanks is likely to be in error, reflecting his own tendency to stereotype, misrepresenting Shaw's ambiguous art.5 The essence of Candida lies outside easy categories, engaging fully the contradictions which exist in each individual, and, even more, the multifold perspectives which result from the complexities of one character confronting the complexities of another.

Candida herself is the most outstanding case in point. As a vibrant actress such as Katharine Cornell would play her (and the part demands such a vibrant actress) Candida will emerge as forceful, charming, practical, dignified, intelligent; she will be a projection of the person whom Shaw describes in his introductory description of her—an ideal of femininity and motherhood—and may well live up to his praise in a letter to the actress Ellen Terry: “Candida, between you and me, is the Virgin Mother and nobody else.”6 But there is an underside to her character which makes her even more intriguing. Shaw hints at it in his description of her ability to “manage” people, as one who makes “the most of her sexual attractions for trivially selfish ends” (p. 25). The play itself qualifies her further. If we are observant, we can see a strong strain of vanity moving Candida as she not only glories in being the center of attention but manipulates the men to acknowledge her primacy. Her humor is self-serving and her world view is ultimately mundanely cramped and domestic. Her very virtues have an obverse side: her charm and forcefulness serve to reduce men to children (there is a sub-strain of emasculation); her practical nature instinctively values household matters more than the socialism or idealism of the men; and her intelligence contrives to abet her vanity, promote the emasculation, and rationalize the supreme importance of her domestic role. In short, behind the beauty and charm is a feminist conceit; behind the Virgin Mother is a variety of witch. And as the latter emerge in large part through the attractiveness of the former, her portrait is charged with life and fascination.

More obviously Marchbanks is also a bundle of contraries. As he is introduced to Burgess he is painfully shy and inept, a youth so hypersensitive and shrinking that he seems scarcely past puberty. In his adoration of Candida he reveals all the blindness and exuberance of adolescent romanticism, the impulse of youth reaching out tentatively toward the mystery of an attractive older woman whose appeal rests somewhere between that of platonic ideal and mother's womb. Regarding Morell, on the other hand, he is boldly, brilliantly aggressive, a skilled rhetorician, ruthless iconoclast, and daring rival in love. Marchbanks' character, so full of contraries, has the full vitality of its extremes. The contraries, far from rendering him inconsistent, provide him with the urgent tremor of their interaction, giving his portrait the depth of each quality and the variety of all. Keen insight regarding Morell, blindness regarding Candida, aggressiveness in iconoclasm, and shyness in society go hand in hand to compassionately depict the sensitivities of a poetic youth newly engaging the complexities of life.

Morell is perhaps the easiest role to misrepresent, especially if we take him at the valuation of the other two major characters. In Act I Marchbanks effectively exposes Morell's complacent ministerial assumptions, his touch of pomposity, his inflated rhetoric. In Act II Candida charmingly but at the same time ruthlessly and cruelly reduces him further—he is an ineffectual sermonizer to Sunday Christians, a romantic idol of numerous Prossys, a stolidly convention-ridden husband. But such observations are only half true, and the actor who plays up Morell's pomposity and thick-headedness will be missing the full reverberations and strength of his character which result from contrary qualities. As weaknesses lie beneath Candida's strengths, strengths lie beneath Morell's weaknesses. He reveals how it is possible to be a windbag but also sincere beneath inflated rhetoric; to be a complacent minister but also a sensitive, kindly man; to be vain and conventional but also humble, serious, hard-working, socially-conscious, and compassionate. As Shaw carefully notes in his introductory description of him, Morell is “a first rate clergyman” (p. 13). The admiration afforded him by Lexy and Prossy, and his kind treatment of them, cannot be dismissed too lightly; but even more telling are the hard-headed respect he has won from Burgess as a practical social reformer, his constant generosity of spirit, and his genuine sensitivity to the attacks of Marchbanks and Candida. Such qualities interpenetrate the dignified, self-satisfied portrait, giving it reverberant humanity and rendering Morell in many ways the most admirable character in the play.7

Lexy, Proserpine, and Burgess are distinct characterizations in their own right, though they function primarily to reflect on the major characters. They reveal Shaw's skill at sharply etching a convincing personality with a few brief strokes in the process of utilizing it for a larger purpose. His minor characters are seldom dull dramatically even when dullness is a part of their nature. Lexy, the least memorable, augments Morell by his sycophancy and feeble attempt to be a carbon copy, personifying a clerical shallowness which Morell so naturally transcends. Prissy Prossy, seemingly so minor, grows the more one examines her. She not only serves generally as an example of “Prossy's complaint” in her adoration of Morell, but functions personally and dramatically as a vital antagonist to the men's adoration of Candida, to Burgess' superciliousness toward the working classes, and to Marchbanks' blindness regarding the attractiveness of Morell.

Burgess, though more heavily drawn, effectively personalizes the very human duplicity of a “good” businessman. Coarse, vulgar, ignorant, and with an avaricious talent for exploiting the labor of others, he esteems himself as a sensible, personally admirable exponent of the free-enterprise system. He is necessary to the play not only as he acknowledges and emphasizes Morell's social importance (Morell is “hinfluential,” having shamed the Board of Guardians into refusing Burgess' sweat-shop product), but also as he gives us a clue about Candida's temperament. When Candida denigrates Morell's social influence in Act II she appears to be less knowledgeable and generous than her father in Act I; and via Burgess it is clear that Candida's marriage, while being a step downward economically for her, was a step upward socially: she candidly (hence “Candida”) embraced a gentleman (and a higher morality, hence “Morell”), shaking off her bourgeois (“Burgess”) boots. Thus despite her assertion in Act III of Morell's total debt to her, Candida owes him much more than she deigns to recognize. And further, in her insensitivity to the true poetic depths of Marchbanks we may perceive her bourgeois origins. In sum, the Burgess part of Candida offers a penetrating rationale for the assertive bourgeois woman behind the genteel madonna.

If one appreciates the full complexity of these characters, both major and minor, one can hardly fall into the error of tagging any of them as Shavian mouthpieces or as dramatized ideas. Certainly there are ideas aplenty here, but they rise naturally out of the stirring interaction of deeply founded, various characterizations rather than from an overriding thesis. The real action of the play derives from the major characters asserting different attitudes toward life, different value systems, attitudes and systems rising out of their most basic psychological promptings and estimates of reality. To Morell, reality is based in his happy, conventional marriage to an attractive woman and in his Christian Socialism which seeks to bring a bit of heaven to earth for all to share. To Marchbanks, reality resides in a poetic aspiration for beauty and love and truth above the grimy mundanities of the world. To Candida, reality is her own role in her domestic sphere of home, husband, and family, ultimately as mother to all, indispensable to the spoiled husband and the aspiring poet, both of whom she manages so well.

Shaw himself may in part be seen (if one wishes to dig him out) in Morell's socialist work ethic, in Marchbanks' iconoclasm, and in Candida's feminist assertiveness, but so is any great artist to some degree in all his characters, and in the case of these three there are at least as many qualities he would deplore as support. Morell's complacency and conventionality, Marchbanks' adolescent artistic escapism, and Candida's bourgeois domestic values make each of them strongly non-Shavian in a fundamental way. The basic problem, the essence of the conflict and drama, is that these three do not deeply understand one another because of their divergent views of reality. Hence the repeated refrain of “I don't understand” and its debased complement in Burgess' referring to others as “mad.” All three are in a dramatic context where their understanding of themselves and the others is explored and tested. Notably, Morell and Marchbanks each grows in understanding by the end of the play, while Candida remains self-righteously, self-consciously, self-adoringly static.

In writing Candida and his later plays, Shaw remarked that he was employing an innovation in structure which he had derived from Ibsen. Instead of following the traditional pattern of the well-made play which was the stock in trade of the French playwrights Eugéne Scribe and Victorien Sardou, his plays were to emphasize discussion. Thus, while Scribe developed Acts I, II, and III as exposition/situation/unravelling, respectively, Shaw developed them as exposition/situation/discussion.8 His primary motive was to break the contrived bonds of structure in favor of exploring the implications of the action, the implications being of far more interest to him than the action itself. This innovation, while giving Shaw much of his special quality, has rendered him an easy target for critics who like plot and who can easily observe that Shaw sacrifices action and structure for talk—frequently, interminable talk.9 Some of Shaw's minor plays and a few scenes in his major ones indeed bear out such criticism. But these for the most part carry talk to rhetorical and dramatic heights; and while Shaw does indeed like talk, in his major plays it almost always has the life of distinct characterizations set within a structure which is conducive to the vigor of the situation. This is certainly the case with Candida.

As the primary object of Candida is to dramatically explore and open up three diverse views of reality, the play is tightly structured toward that end. Its debt, in fact, is far more to the well-made play than Shaw was willing to admit. Act I quickly establishes the clergyman's role not only by his own workaday activity, but through evaluations of him by Lexy, Prossy, and Burgess. At the same time expectations about Candida are carefully primed by Morell and Marchbanks' praise of her and by Prossy's counterstatement, the opposition of the men's view with the woman's giving her vibrancy even before she enters. After Candida settles the dispute between Morell and Burgess, incidentally revealing herself in full control of those about her, Marchbanks vigorously assaults Morell's private image of himself and his happy marriage, severely shaking him, clearly introducing the central issues of love, understanding, and the men's relative “strength.” By its end, Act I has dramatically objectified the major themes and the strengths of each character.

Act II immediately qualifies Marchbanks, illumining his blind, romantic nature as he cannot understand Prossy's admiration for Morell, as he spouts immature purple passages and as he is scorned by Morell for his social irresponsibility. Candida's attack on Morell's public image follows, structurally complementing Marchbanks' attack on his private image in Act I, and in the course of the attack she reveals not only Morell's limitations but Marchbanks' adolescent need and her own overweening self-confidence and casual cruelty. The possibility of a Marchbanks-Candida romance is then squarely fronted by Morell as he forces a climax by proposing to leave them alone for an evening together. As Act I revealed the characters' strengths, Act II thus gives insight into their weaknesses.

Act III offers three moments of truth. The opening is directly indebted to French farce or Restoration comedy: the husband is out of the way, and the wife and her poet lover are free to consummate their relationship. The fact that Marchbanks reads poetry while Candida daydreams, bored by it all, illumines their actual disparity of temperament, with Marchbanks' platonic naïvete frustrating the sexual climax of French farce via a poignantly Shavian twist. The husband's confrontation of the poet which immediately follows reveals the two planes on which they are operating—one on a level of home and family, the other on a level of the Virgin and ideal love. The final climactic confrontation resolves the issues raised in Act I, as the husband's mundane dependence on his wife is made clear, as her managerial role is reaffirmed, and as the poet, stronger than the clergyman, rejects such mundanity to pursue his ideals in the starry night. Each role and theme has been fully explored.

The dramatic economy of this structuring should be apparent. It serves interchange by interchange, act by act, to turn each character fully about, adroitly testing each of many facets, finally resolving the action in terms of a climactic moment of truth, one in which the sensitive audience may see more than the characters themselves. There are virtually no digressions; nothing is extrinsic to the full development of the central purpose of illuminating each of the contestants. Suspense, initiated by the challenge in Act I, augmented by the revelations of character in Act II, climaxes and is resolved at the end of Act III. Tightness, fullness, and dramatic values complement each other fully.

Even more striking than the structure are the economy and fertility of the play's details and dialogue. In a typical Shavian manner these give the action, characterizations, and structure an extra vitality and integrity. Shaw would occasionally agree that some of his plays were too long to by practicable—that Act III of Caesar and Cleopatra and the hell scene of Man and Superman might be cut for the stage—but more frequently he resisted the impulse of directors to alter or reduce his scripts.10 The details of his major plays are almost always integral to their aesthetic totality, and frequently are supercharged in terms of allusiveness, meaning, cross-reference, or complex character revelations. A close focus on selected details from Act I, and a few brief references to the later acts of Candida will illustrate this point.

By starting the play in the midst of Morell's scheduling his lectures Shaw quickly dramatizes his popularity, his wide-ranging social interests, and his temperament—he would rather lecture half a dozen anarchist costermongers, because they are fellow children of God, than attend a City dinner. Morell's acknowledgement here of his debt to his wife typifies Shaw's aesthetic compaction. He urges Lexy to marry a good woman like Candida:

Thats a foretaste of what will be best in the Kingdom of Heaven we are trying to establish on earth. That will cure you of dawdling. An honest man feels that he must pay Heaven for every hour of happiness with a good spelr of hard unselfish work to make others happy. We have no more right to consume happiness without producing it than to consume wealth without producing it. Get a wife like my Candida; and youll always be in arrear with your repayment. (p. 16) [The author adds in a footnote: The author has preserved Shaw's idiosyncrasy of omitting apostrophes from contractions as well as the British custom of omitting the period after Mr and Mrs.]

The passage is a nonchalant tour de force of characterization, theme, and structure. The striving for a Kingdom of Heaven on earth capsulizes Morelr's Christian Socialism, which seeks human dignity and happiness here and now as opposed to orthodox Christianity's promise of rewards after death. Such striving offers a deeply altruistic rationale for his strenuous lecturing life, the highest of motives for a work ethic, by informing religion with socialism and socialism with religion. It is echoed later by Morell as also the greatest goal of Marchbanks' poetic talents, a goal which fuses social, religious, and poetic aspiration (p. 35). In addition, the passage links personal happiness to a social debt and principle, a concept embodying the noblest outreach of spirit in practical terms. And, above all, it originates from an openhearted recognition of Candida's importance to his well-being. Structurally and thematically this last is most telling and ingenious, since here at the very beginning of the play we have Morell personally volunteering that same debt to Candida which she elicits from him at the very end. The strategic difference is that his acknowledgement at the end is in her terms (virtually coerced from him) of mother, wife, and sisters all in one. Hence his final “revelation” or “education” is in many respects bogus, and the fact that Candida forces it from him reveals more about her concerted sense of self-importance than it does about Morell.

Prossy's opinion at this point—that the men with their “amorous delusions” overpraise Candida—offers not only a female corrective to the prevailing male idealism, but also dramatically sparks our curiosity, characterizes the speaker, and ultimately proves to be in some degree justified. Lexy tries to confound Prossy by borrowing from Morell: “Ah, if you women only had the same clue to Man's strength that you have to his weakness, Miss Prossy, there would be no Woman Question” (p. 18). This speech in turn not only characterizes Lexy as a pathetic imitator—Prossy recognizes it as Morell's—it also undergirds a truth which emerges in Acts II and III: Candida emphasizes only Morell's weakness, ineffectuality, and dependence on her; she has little appreciation for the strengths of his character and social commitment.

Even Morell's incidental personal concern for Lexy, which closely follows, has poignant implications in reference to a later major point. He says, “Take my silk handkerchief and wrap your throat up. Theres a cold wind” (p. 20). This is elaborately paralleled by Candida's famous “shawl” speech of Act II: “Ah, James, how little you understand me, to talk of your confidence in my goodness and purity! I would give them both to poor Eugene as willingly as I would give my shawl to a beggar dying of cold, if there were nothing else to restrain me. Put your trust in my love for you, James; for if that went, I should care very little for your sermons: mere phrases that you cheat yourself and others with every day” (p. 55). The difference between the two speeches is revealing: Morell with instinctive kindliness and care simply gives his handkerchief to Lexy to protect him from the cold. Candida, on the other hand, is extensively theorizing. In a most unkind way she is dangling the specter of infidelity before her conventional, trusting husband. This may be necessary to straighten him out, but it is harshly superfluous in the face of facts, since she reveals no practical intention at any point of actually giving her goodness and purity to Marchbanks. She proves to be merely verbally adventuresome, declaring her independence, jolting her husband, leading on Marchbanks. In fact at the end of the play she literally lets Marchbanks go out into the night, unwarmed by a lesson in love, or, even, by a shawl. Her assertion of the importance of her love for Morell over goodness and purity has authentic, enlightened force, but that love seems perverse and destructive when she concludes the sentence by claiming that his sermons are a mere cheat. Since clearly Morell's profession is in a deep sense his life, the wife who attacks in this manner appears insensitive at best, mean-spirited at worst. The parallel between the two speeches, woven subliminally into the play and spanning an act in time, quietly and incidentally objectifies a key difference in the quality of the two characters.

The entrance of Burgess, with his delightfully ironic entreaty to Morell to “be a Kerischin, and shake 'ands” (p. 23) serves multiple functions. It not only gives us a glimpse of Candida's bourgeois origins and demonstrates Morell's social effectiveness, it also probes the nature of the sweatshop operator, comments on the clergyman's role in society, and both reveals and paradoxically qualifies Morell's attractive qualities. Morell admirably urges that he and Burgess be strictly frank with each other as “fool” and “scoundrel,” since “I like a man to be true to himself” (p. 24). In this he is forthrightly in tune with the “understanding” motif of the play. But as this also echoes Polonius (“to thine own self be true”) we see Morell's honesty laced with naïve self-assurance, complacency, and a modicum of foolish sententiousness. Even his social power is cast into an ironic light as Burgess reveals that, in large part because of Morell's influence with the local authorities, he has fired his underpaid women employes in favor of machinery. Social good on a piecemeal basis, it would seem, is ineffectual—Morell is confronting not only a sweat-shop scoundrel but the Industrial Revolution, an epochal force calling for more basic social measures than those of a well-meaning parson. Shaw, with his typical complex vision, makes a personal, social, and historical observation all in one passing exchange.

Our two glimpses of Candida in Act I are so brief that it may be difficult at first viewing to gauge her dramatically, but once again Shaw's strict economy should provide the careful observer with some primary insights. Her opening words in resolution of the Morell-Burgess estrangement—“Say yes, James” (p. 25)—typify her power. Here is the charming manager at work: genial, conciliatory, coaxing, but firm and assertive. Her passing reference to the Titian autotype which Marchbanks has given them and to Marchbanks' “queerness” have a touch of condescension and insensitivity, however, and this is pointed up as she comments about him: “Oh, James dear, he was going to give the cabman ten shillings! ten shillings for a three minutes drive! Oh dear!” (p. 31). Light as this mockery may be, it is nonetheless a cutting kind of banter, making fun at someone else's expense. It is typical of Candida's humor throughout the play, such as at Morell's traumatic moment in Act II when she laughs at him for being conventional. In both cases her touch of cruelty reveals a cast of mind far more insular than those of the men to whom she condescends.

Morell's response here is equally offhand but just as representative of him: “Never mind her, Marchbanks. The overpaying instinct is a generous one: better than the underpaying instinct, and not so common.” With ministerial aplomb this lifts a personal observation to the level of a maxim and is typical of Morell's tendency to moralize in generalities, to preach, while at the same time it is typical of his positive side, its impulse being entirely, kindly, seeking to console, encourage, and build where others tear down. In abjection and dejection Marchbanks replies, “No: cowardice, incompetence. Mrs Morell's quite right.” The speech, though less aggressive than forthcoming ones, is representative: in a sense he one-ups Morell, as he does elsewhere, his control of language being more precise, graphic, and cutting; in another sense he gives Candida far too much credit, as he does elsewhere, for while intellectually she may be right, emotionally and in humane terms she is quite wrong. Derogatory laughter inferring another's cowardice or incompetence is scarcely “right,” especially if its subject is naïve and vulnerable. Candida's complacent cap-line—“Of course she is”—ought to cause the sensitive observer to grit his teeth as it so piquantly suggests a casual superciliousness founded more on self-esteem than on true understanding. She follows with a succession of orders—“Give me my rug. … Now hang my cloak across my arm. … Now my hat. … Now open the door for me. … Thanks”—and, swish, she exits. Marchbanks obeys each command slavishly, scurrying around much like a puppy chasing up slippers. The visual and psychic effect is graphic, forcefully supporting Morell's later observation, which Marchbanks vigorously rejects, that this is puppy (“calf”) love. All told, the dramatic economy of this brief four-speech interchange is remarkable—it grasps essentials of each character, provides a visual objectification, and briefly indicates so much of what is to follow.

Marchbanks' confrontation of Morell which concludes the act ties in structurally and thematically with its beginning and then leaps forward into the concerns of Acts II and III. His exclamation, “Happy! Your marriage! You think that!” (p 33), challenges Morell's emphatic opening assumption that the happiness of his marriage is a foretaste of the Kingdom of Heaven. It is clear here that while Marchbanks' factual opposition to Morell is social—“I love your wife” (p. 34)—the immediate heat of his dialectical energy is emotional: he cannot stand the parson's self-satisfied complacency. Morell instinctively and with every good intention falls into the role of the consultant clergyman who invites his troubled parishioner to be seated for a confidential chat: “Come: sit down quietly; and tell me what it is. And remember: we are friends …” (p. 33). Marchbanks, hardly of a temperament to play such games, reacts rudely, advancing the theme which ties this scene to the end of the play: “Don't look at me in that self-complacent way. You think yourself stronger than I am; but I shall stagger you if you have a heart in your breast” (p. 34). When this speech is linked to a forthcoming one—“you darent let her choose between your ideas and mine” (p. 37)—we can see how carefully structured the play is in terms of theme. The happiness-in-marriage issue is proposed at the opening of Act I, challenged at the end of Act I, and charged as an issue in Acts II and III. The question of the relative strength of Marchbanks and Morell is raised here and not resolved until the climactic “choice” scene. In addition the theme of understanding is soon specifically introduced by Marchbanks, to endure until the very end.

Morell's laughter in response to Marchbanks' profession of love for Candida may put things in perspective, but, good-humored though it may be, it can scarcely be expected to endear the condescending adult to the fanatical adolescent. Morell like Candida, is tied to a mundane time scheme, and, like Candida at the end of the play, he attaches it to age: “Youre under twenty: she's over thirty. Doesnt it look rather too like a case of calf love?” (p 34). Marchbanks' response is typical and instinctively, dialectically clever. He cannot handle the truth of the personal challenge, so he redirects it: “You dare say that of her! You think that way of the love she inspires! It is an insult to her!” There is very little truth in this, but it does the dialectical trick, shifting the insult from himself to Candida, and Morell, not so clever a debator as Marchbanks, falls for the bait: “To her! Eugene: take care. … Dont force me to shew you the indulgence I should shew to a child. Be a man.” Once again Morell is trying as charitably but as firmly as possible to put things on an adult level, but Marchbanks once again outmaneuvers him, changing the context—“Oh, let us put aside all that cant”—charging that Morell has “selfishly and blindly sacrificed her to minister to your self-sufficiency: you! who have not one thought—one sense—in common with her.” This passage is typical of Marchbanks throughout the debate: combined with his talent for shifting the argument to his own purposes is a keen sense for sharp words which aptly cut through “cant”; but at the same time he has a romantic cant all his own which asserts half-truths or quarter-truths as Absolute Truth. Contrary to his statement here, it will become quite clear later in the play that Candida has not been sacrificed, that she willingly accepts and loves her domestic role, and that she and Morell share a common philistinism.

Marchbanks' insights and debating talents are precocious, and while they may be only half true and unfair they have enough quintessential bite to be unnerving to the unwary adversary.11 On the other hand, the fact that Morell is shaken is as much a testimony to his considerate good nature in taking this young man seriously and to his native sensitivity as it is to his weakness. Morell has the charity and intelligence to appreciate Marchbanks' assertion that we are frequently fools about real and true things. The assertion not only offers a perceptive insight, but also is precisely the point he himself had made to Burgess earlier. In a very real way he and the young man have many kindred sensibilities. Morell's acknowledgement of the potential poet in Marchbanks is dramatically brilliant, serving multiple functions: “You will be one of the makers of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth; and—who knows?—you may be a master builder where I am only a humble journeyman; for dont think, my boy, that I cannot see in you, young as you are, promise of higher powers than I can ever pretend to. I well know that it is in the poet that the holy spirit of man—the god within him—is most godlike … the heavy burthen and great gift of a poet may be laid upon you” (pp. 35-36). First, this captures the inherent kindliness of Morell as it is a generous and conciliatory gesture perhaps giving Marchbanks more credit and dignity than he deserves; second, it exemplifies the strain of pompousness in that kindliness as it is a fine bit of rhetoric, a display-piece for Morell's resonant voice, confidence, and ministerial forbearance; third, it reflects, nonetheless, a humble attitude and reveals Morell's sensitivity to the potential of higher powers and nobler ends in the poetic spirit; fourth, in a most Shavian way it fuses the highest poetic ambition with Morell's highest social ambition—the making of a heaven on earth; fifth, it is enriched by an incidental but evocative allusion to the mystical aspiration of Halvard Solness in Ibsen's Master Builder; and sixth, it dramatically builds up the audience's estimate of Marchbanks both as a worthy adversary and as a poet. The compaction of so much dramatically relevant material into so short a passage is poetic in itself.

Less condensed but equally ingenious for its purpose is Morell's next attempt to breach Marchbanks' youthful obduracy:

In the future, when you are as happy as I am, I will be your true brother in the faith. I will help you to believe that God has given us a world that nothing but our own folly keeps from being a paradise. I will help you to believe that every stroke of your work is sowing happiness for the great harvest that all—even the humblest—shall one day reap. And last, but trust me, not least, I will help you to believe that your wife loves you and is happy in her home. We need such help, Marchbanks: we need it greatly and always. There are so many things to make us doubt, if once we let our understanding be troubled. Even at home, we sit as if in camp, encompassed by a hostile army of doubts. Will you play the traitor and let them in on me?

(p. 36)

Strategic to this speech is Shaw's direction that it represents “genuine feeling,” and the actor who modulates it with sincerity rather than for its strictly oratorical values will capture the quintessential Morell, a man in whom rhetoric and feeling coalesce. At the same time its rhetorical structure is an artful model, and the sense of both art and model should not be lost in a sincere delivery. The first sentence is a noble introduction, given poignancy by its personal profession of happiness and generality by its closing cliché. The next three sentences are points one, two, and three of the model sermonette, each rhetorically introduced with “I will help you to believe,” each more immediate, respectively sharpening in focus from (1) God, to (2) self and society, to (3) wife and home. The peroration is an elaborate rhetorical appeal, first couched generally in terms of one man helping another, followed by a platitude on doubt, a simile on doubt, with the simile at last lapping into Morell's confession of personal vulnerability. The concluding personal note reflects back to the opening personal note, with the irony that Morell has orated himself from happiness to doubt.

Marchbanks' keen ear immediately detects the artificiality of the appeal's form, but his brash youth entirely misses the sincerity of its feeling: “Is it like this for her here always? A woman, with a great soul, craving for reality, truth, freedom; and being fed on metaphors, sermons, stale perorations, mere rhetoric.” He is essentially right about the sermons and rhetoric, but only half just in the “stale,” the “mere,” and in assuming that they are constantly fed to Candida; he is brutally derogatory in calling Morell's talent “the gift of gab” but quite justified in asking, “What has your knack of fine talking to do with the truth, any more than playing the organ has?” At the same time his high-flying praise of Candida tends to elevate her character in absentia, much as he himself has been elevated as a “poet” by Morell. His perceptions and attack thus run a gamut from perceptive insight to partial truths, but his dialectical force is constant. With the skill of a ruthless debator he finally hits Morell where it hurts the most by entering the clergyman's territory, employing the Bible against the man of God: Morell is like King David, appealing to fools, “‘But his wife despised him in her heart’” (p. 37). This, at last, is hardly true at all, and Morell, outmaneuvered, outdebated, and outraged, reveals, his personal defenselessness by slipping from a ministerial convention into a melodramatic one: “you are never going to cross our threshold again” (p. 38).

References at this point abound with relevance to the previous action. Marchbanks as a “snivelling little whelp” is like Candida's puppy-lover, beaten; his comment on being unable to “lift a heavy trunk down from the top of a cab like you” reflects the envy he must have felt, outside, at the beginning of the act when Morell handled the luggage; his “drunken navvy” reference recalls Morell as King David, whose parishioners behaved “as if they were drunk.” By such cross-references Shaw renders his action and dialectic organically taut down to the last detail.

A final dramatically integrated revelation comes at the very end of the scene as the “understanding” theme is introduced. In his humiliation at being manhandled by Morell, Marchbanks is more assertive than ever, espousing with confidence that Candida “will understand me” (p. 38). Almost immediately Shaw puts this understanding to a dramatic test by bringing in Candida, and she fails. Noticing Marchbanks' disheveled appearance, she comments, “Well, dear me, just look at you, going out into the street in that state! You are a poet, certainly.” To Candida rumpled appearance indicates the poet, just as “queerness” did earlier and “moonshine” does in Act III. Like a mother tending a small boy she proceeds to tidy him up, and when he gallantly kisses her hand, she responds, “Dont be silly.” Is this the woman of supernal understanding, who has a “great soul, craving for reality, truth, freedom”? By juxtaposing the somewhat obtuse, self-assured, motherly woman with Marchbanks' eulogies regarding her, Shaw dramatically objectifies the faultiness of Marchbanks' romantic idealism and defines the heroine by contrasting her with the praise.

Acts II and III move forward in close relationship to the material presented in Act I, but hopefully the foregoing has cited enough to indicate the dramatic tightness, control, and evocativeness of Shaw's method. Most notable in Act II are the multifaceted revelations of characters—of Marchbanks' poetic immaturity in his terrible Shelleyesque purple passages;12 of his social blindness and snobbery as perceived by Morell; of Morell's religious inefficacy and husbandly conventionality as lightly mocked by Candida; of Candida's thoughtless cruelty toward her husband as perceived by Marchbanks. Gently touching here is Morell's response to being utterly humiliated by Candida's bantering abuse: “I beg all your pardons: I was not conscious of making a fuss. [Pulling himself together] Well, well, well, well, well!” (p. 56). The speechlessness of the normally voluble sermonizer drives home his intense sense of psychic defeat. But defeat forces him back into his inner strength as he squarely faces up to the challenge by urging Candida and Marchbanks to spend the evening together in his absence. (Consistently, he presumably wants them all to be “true to themselves.”) Marchbanks perceives the quality of the gesture—“Thats brave. Thats beautiful.” But, refreshingly, Candida is for once at a loss, and the end of Act II links firmly with the end of Act I as she stammers, “I cant understand—” (p. 60).

Conventions of structure and action would make the beginning of Act III the obligatory love scene between the wife and her poet lover. Rather, Shaw plays against convention, pictorializing, symbolizing, and punning in the process of poetically dramatizing Marchbanks and Candida's uniquely different relationship. Marchbanks, stiff in the children's chair, has been reading poetry; Candida, reclining in the easy chair, is bored with poetry and is daydreaming. But sex and virility are present in symbol—Candida is staring intently at the point of a light brass poker which is upright in her hand, an instrument which makes the platonic poet “horribly uneasy,” since it reminds him of a “weapon.” Typically, he converts the fertility symbol into one of chivalric chastity—“If I were a hero of old I should have laid my drawn sword between us” (p. 62)—and ultimately his romantic climax is pseudo-religious: he is content to pray, repeating “Candida” (almost orgasmically) like so many Ave Marias. His adoration, which has been visually and symbolically in front of us all along in Titian's “Virgin of the Assumption,” is thus dramatically opposed to what love and life mean for Candida—husband, home, and family.13 The young man obsessed by poetry and madonnas is in another world from the woman who prizes her pet scrubbing brush and is dreamily “hypnotized” by an upright poker.

Soon afterward Marchbanks uses the sword image once again, as once again he taunts Morell with a biblical allusion: “Then she became an angel; and there was a flaming sword that turned every way, so that I couldnt go in; for I saw that that gate was really the gate of Hell” (p. 65). In Genesis 3:24 the reference is to God barring Adam and Eve from Paradise. Lyrically, Marchbanks converts it into a combined spiritual and Freudian image: Candida is translated into an angel, protected by the sword of divine prohibition, her physical gate offering but a hell to the spiritual aspirant. However, the metaphor is also unintentionally ironic: the sword is in one sense that same sword of chastity which Marchbanks substituted for the poker, but in another sense it is still by double-entendre a phallic symbol, since Morell's virility is the practical obstacle to the poet's consummation of love; and as the gate is metaphorically the gate of Candida's paradise, and that paradise is ultimately domestic, it would be hell for the aspiring poet. This last awareness constitutes the “poet's secret” at the end as from the visitor's chair Marchbanks now sees Morell in the children's chair, with Candida triumphing in her mundane trinity of mother, wife, and sisters. Life to Marchbanks is nobler than this coddling, domestic paradise, and he must seek his reality elsewhere.14

These few examples have necessarily been selective. Their very fecundity will have to suggest Shaw's skilled craftsmanship and general aesthetic richness. Shaw is no doubt assertively intellectual, his plays have many ideas woven into them, mutations of his views are apparent in some of his characters, and his dialogue at times soars, but in his best plays these qualities are absorbed into complex, evocative, tightly integrated art. His denigrators tend to generalize, and their criticism suffers the infirmity of generalizations. Close analysis bears out an impressive positive view, and this, no doubt, is why Shaw continues to be a classic force in the theater.


  1. 24 May 1893. Quoted in Irving McKee, “Shaw's Saint Joan and the American Critics,” Shavian, 2 (1964), 13.

  2. See Alice Griffin, “The New York Critics and Saint Joan.ShawB, I, no. 7 (1955), 10-15; and McKee, 13-16.

  3. Bernard Shaw, Candida, ed. Raymond S. Nelson (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1973), p. 37. This edition is cited because it is the best inexpensive one available, with an introduction, notes, bibliography, and comments by Shaw. Subsequent references to the play from this edition will be in parentheses in the text.

  4. Hence Shaw remarks in his “Preface to the Pleasant Plays”: “But the obvious conflicts of unmistakeable good with unmistakeable evil can only supply the crude drama of villian and hero, in which some absolute view is taken. … In such cheap wares I do not deal.” Candida, ed. Nelson, p. 5. See also Paul Lauter, “Candida and Pygmalion: Shaw's Subversion of Stereotypes,” ShawR, 3, no. 3 (1960), 14-19.

  5. Arthur H. Nethercot's discussion of Candida as a philistine, Morell as an idealist, and Marchbanks as a realist, according to Shaw's definition of these terms in The Quintessence of Ibsenism, offers an interesting perspective but tends to fall into this category. See his Men and Supermen, 2nd ed. (New York: Blom, 1966), pp. 7-17.

  6. 6 April 1896. In Ellen Terry and Bernard Shaw: A Correspondence, ed. Christopher St. John (New York: Putnam's, 1932), p. 23. For further Shavian comments and a collection of criticism on the play see Stephen S. Stanton, ed., A Casebook on “Candida” (New York: Crowell, 1962).

  7. For a more detailed analysis of the ambiguities of the principal characters see my Bernard Shaw and the Art of Drama (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1973).

  8. For a structural approach to Shaw's plays see Bernard F. Dukore, Bernard Shaw, Playwright (Columbia: Univ. of Missouri Press, 1973), pp. 53-119. Candida's musical structuring is discussed by Charles L. Holt, “Candida: The Music of Ideas,” ShawR, 9 (1966), 2-14. See also Stephen Stanton, “Shaw's Debt to Scribe,” PLMA, 76 (1961), 575-85.

  9. Thus Richard Mansfield, the American actor, turned down Candida, writing Shaw on 14 April 1895: “it is not a play. … Here are three long acts of talk-talk-talk.” Quoted in Archibald Henderson, George Bernard Shaw: Man of the Century (New York: Appleton, 1956), p. 438.

  10. When Beerbohm Tree inserted a romantic suggestion at the end of Pygmalion, Shaw vigorously objected. The Theatre Guild wanted to shorten Saint Joan, but Shaw said it had already been cut to the bone. See Myron Matlaw, “Will Higgins Marry Eliza?” Shavian, 1, no. 12 (1958), 14; and Lawrence Langner, G. B. S. and the Lunatic (London: Hutchinson, 1964), p. 67.

  11. For a discussion of Candida as a conflict of two rhetoricians see Walter N. King, “The Rhetoric of Candida,MD, 2 (1959), 71-83.

  12. Marchbanks is in part patterned on Shelley. See Roland A. Duerkson, “Shelley and Shaw,” PLMA, 78 (1963), 114-27.

  13. The religious and Pre-Raphaelite aspects of Candida are discussed by Elsie P. Adams, Bernard Shaw and the Aesthetes (Columbus: Ohio State Univ. Press, 1971), pp. 24-30. Louis Crompton is perceptive and clear on background elements and Pre-Raphaelitism. Shaw the Dramatist (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1969), pp. 29-44.

  14. Shaw became increasingly skeptical about the role of Candida, at one point referring to her domestic sphere as a “greasy fool's paradise.” See his letter to James Huneker (April 1904), reproduced in Stanton, Casebook, pp. 165-66. For his comments on “the secret in the poet's heart” see Stanton, pp. 165-70.

Walter Lazenby (essay date March 1977)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8918

SOURCE: Lazenby, Walter. “Love and ‘Vitality’ in Candida.Modern Drama 20, no. 1 (March 1977): 1-19.

[In the following essay, Lazenby examines aspects of the dramatic irony, imagery, and plot of Candida and traces the “vitalization” of the three major characters in the play.]

Most critics of Shaw's Candida have approached the play “as if it were a geometry problem whose basic axioms can be located in The Quintessence and other Shaviana.”1 They have assumed that Shaw was here merely illustrating his three types (Philistine, Idealist, Realist) and that the play demands a simplistic stock response: automatic scorn for Idealists and Philistines, automatic approval for Realists—that is, after one has identified the characters who represent the types. Unfortunately, they have not been able to agree on whether Morell is Idealist or Philistine; whether Marchbanks is Idealist or Realist; and, curiously, whether Candida herself is a Realist or a Philistine!2

One who surveys critical opinions on the play will not find much detailed, cogent analysis of what actually happens in it. True, there has been considerable general discussion of how the play's action affects Marchbanks and Morell, resulting in agreement that both come to be enlightened. But several specific questions remain to be explored: what and how does Eugene learn about love, and what is Morell's state of mind at the end? More important, critics have neglected Candida's reactions to the play's events; in fact Eric Bentley's emphatic assertion that she is merely a link between the two men and alone remains “unchanged at the end”3 seems to have put an end to consideration of her as a character capable of growth. What does happen in her story?

By attending to patterns in the plot, to hitherto neglected imagery (particularly visual aspects of the staging), and to the effects of dramatic irony, I hope to refine perceptions about the play and to answer these questions. I propose to show that each major character becomes more “vital” (in Shaw's sense) in proportion as he learns more about the reality of love and that this pattern of vitalization, subsuming developments related to all three major characters, earns for each a measure of approval, of dramatic sympathy, which mere recognition of him as a “type” would rule out. The result may be a reappraisal of the overall effect of the play.


At various times in the play Candida exhibits different aspects of her multi-faceted character; and it is extremely difficult, as is evident from faulty and contradictory critical statements about her, to frame valid generalizations about her character. Shaw's own overstated generalizations (applicable to only one aspect or another of her character) have tended to obfuscate rather than to clarify: he called her “the Virgin Mother and nobody else,” said that she possessed “unerring wisdom on the domestic plane,” and averred that she was a thoroughly immoral woman.4 Similarly Beatrice Webb's characterization of her as a “sentimental prostitute” focuses on only one scene in the play.5 In her earliest appearances she seems the efficient managing woman, in firm control of the household (though not always of the situation developing there); later she takes on the role of concerned wife and helpmeet to Morell, and nurse or mother to Marchbanks. In Act Three she combines sacred and profane love, and appears as a “heavenly” mother posing temporarily as a siren. Finally, her role culminates in a scene where she extends her motherliness not to her own biological children (in fact they never appear on the stage) but to her husband as well as her young guest.

In studying a character who exhibits such multiplicity it might be easy to mistake gradual revelation of these facets of character for actual change; yet I shall maintain that she does indeed change. Though Candida begins by playing the role of subservient wife deferring to her husband's authority, she gives evidence of being an independent thinker in Act Two and finally takes courage, in the auction scene, to emancipate herself completely from her pretense—in fact from the abstractions that can render a marriage lifeless. And the change results from her new perception of self, husband, and marriage—a perception brought about by her involvement with and love for Marchbanks.

Throughout Act One and well into Act Two, she manages and maneuvers her menfolk in efficient, business-like fashion, her relationship to each submerged in her role as manageress-automaton. Her initial words in the play are a command to her husband: “Say yes, James.” Subsequently she orders him to go out to pay the cabman, and tells her father not to miss his train and to come back in the afternoon. With more subtlety she exhibits control over Marchbanks by a gently ironic speech: “And youll go to the Freeman Founders to dine with him [her father], wont you?” But as she exits, she issues these instructions to him: “Give me my rug. … Now hang my cloak across my arm. … Now my hat. … Now open the door for me …” The force of her commands is seen in his behavior while she is out of the room, when at her bidding he twice declines the expected invitation to lunch. When she re-enters, now wearing “her housekeeping dress,” she makes the disheveled poet stand still, takes him by the coat, moves him, buttons his collar, ties his neckerchief, arranges his hair, and tells him to stay to lunch. Then, maintaining the fiction that Morell is master, she makes a show of deference to his authority by asking, “Shall he stay, James, if he promises to be a good boy and help me to lay the table?” And in Act Two, she continues to bustle about, busy with household chores, suggesting at one point that Eugene might take over the job of trimming the lamp. She scolds James for not looking after things properly: her favorite scrubbing brush has been used for blackleading. After Eugene's attack of the “poetic horrors” at the thought, she says that she will allow him to give her a new brush, and specifies the kind: “a nice one, with an ivory back with mother-of-pearl.” Subsequently she rebuffs Morell for deflating Eugene's poetic flight and then punishes Eugene for taunting Morell by telling him that tomorrow he will have to perform Morell's chore, cleaning the boots. When Candida must return to the kitchen to peel onions, she tells her admiring guest to come and help. Dragging him out by the wrist, she scandalizes her father, who says that she should not handle an earl's nephew like that. Even later, in the prologue to her wifely confrontation with Morell, she sprinkles her conversation with imperatives, as usual: “Come here. … Let me look at you. … Turn your face to the light. … Here … youve done enough writing for today. Leave Prossy to finish it. Come and talk to me.”

So far, Candida has given little evidence of tenderness or kindliness to dispel the impression that she is behaving automatically, from a habit of bossiness, except in her gentleness to the young poet (even so, she has spoken unfeelingly to him of his “queerness,” laughed at his wanting to overpay the cabman, and called him a “great baby”). Now her compassionate nature becomes more evident. On her first occasion to be alone with Morell, she begins the conversation with seeming wifely concern; but before the scene ends, her candor harrows his feelings. In her charge that his preaching does little good, she seems intentionally cruel because she does not know of the doubts that Marchbanks has awakened in his mind during the morning. Turning the conversation to their young guest, of whom she has grown quite fond recently, she admits to being jealous for him, because he does not receive the love he ought to, whereas Morell receives more than his share. She inadvertently repeats some of the things that Marchbanks has said, hurting Morell more painfully.

From this point on, the widening discrepancy between Morell's awareness and hers, known to us through dramatic irony, undercuts her seeming wisdom, at the same time increasing sympathy for him. She tells Morell that Marchbanks is ready to fall in love with her, but Morell knows that he has already fallen. Her candid revelation that she pities the love-starved youngster and cares what he may think of her in later years if she does not teach him about love increases Morell's uneasiness more than she can know. If she did not have some illusions about Morell and their marriage, she could not be surprised at his parsonlike response, that he puts confidence in her goodness and her purity. As it is, she taunts him by saying, “What a nasty uncomfortable thing to say to me! Oh, you are a clergyman, James …” and later, “Ah, James, how little you understand me …” She unconventionally avers that she would give her purity and goodness to Eugene as readily as she would give her shawl to a beggar dying of cold—if she were not restrained by her love for Morell. Interpreting his apparent shock as arising from rigid conventionality, she taunts him further and gives Eugene, returning, occasion to remonstrate bitterly with her over what he interprets as cruelty to Morell. When Morell thwarts her wish that she and the others should all attend his evening lecture, by insisting that the two potential lovers should stay alone in the house during the others' absence, she loses control of events. Unnerved slightly by Morell's now obviously unconventional move and protesting that she does not understand, she cannot know just how “heroic” his behavior is at this point. Momentarily, at least, she is not the all-wise managing figure she has been; she is subject to Morell's incomprehensible wishes and puzzled.

At the beginning of Act Three, Candida's feeling for Marchbanks moves her to appear in a new role or aspect. Though she momentarily becomes the seductress (without, however, seeming overly aggressive), she is at the same time being true to her “divine” instinct to mother the men around her. Her behavior arouses suspense regarding the question whether a good woman will “lose” her character or reputation—a staple of interest in many plays of the period by Oscar Wilde, Henry Arthur Jones, and Arthur Wing Pinero. But her unconventional outlook revealed in her earlier conversation with Morell does not allow her to worry about such a question. As the curtain rises, she looks significantly different: now instead of bustling about, she is sitting almost paralyzed, staring at the poker in her hand. Mesmerized by it, she seems virtually powerless, not even in control of herself. Her immobility might suggest the stillness of the spider waiting for its prey, an image that Shaw applied to other women characters, if we had no inkling of her kindly intentions. Presumably still considering her companion's need for love, she is either pondering how she can teach him about love short of allowing herself to be seduced or debating whether to give herself to him. But her exact thoughts must remain ambiguous if the later auction scene is to be effective.

The only clue to her thoughts, aside from what dramatic irony provides, is the poker itself, to which Shaw calls a great deal of attention by allowing it to engage the attention of both characters. Largely ignored until Charles A. Berst commented on it rather extensively in 1973, this symbol has one meaning in relation to Candida's state of mind and, as we shall see, another in relation to Eugene's; but both meanings share sexual connotations. Berst sees two alternatives: the poker represents either Candida's “subconscious desire for the virility of the absent Morell” or “her even more subliminal desire for physical satisfaction from the vital boy-poet.”6 Yet in context with her unconventional talk in Act Two, her fascination with it may signify her awareness that she is about to stir the boy's passion. Could it not also denote her awareness of the unconventionality of her behavior (disregarding her “duty” to her husband) and—if she is the wise woman we like to think—of the potential psychological harm she might do to the sensitive, young, uninitiated male? If the young man had finical reticence or puritanical notions, he might become frightened or disgusted, and she might be transformed in his eyes into a castrating female or ogress or bitch. She has earlier called him, by implication, a “poetic” man (which may mean “naive”) who imagines “all women are angels” (though of course Marchbanks does not, for instance, consider Prossy so). In either case, she is metaphorically playing with fire.

Evidently, she decides to proceed toward a staged seduction. To please Eugene, she lays the poker aside and invites him to establish physical intimacy with her by sitting on the hearthrug near her feet to “talk moonshine.” Her discarding the poker makes her seem more passive; but in effect, she is maneuvering him into the position of a suppliant approaching a deity or a lover extolling his mistress. She is also now playing the role in which he has cast her. When he begs to be allowed to say “wicked” things, she denies him the pleasure but encourages him to say whatever he sincerely feels. By demonstrating her affection in this rather daring way, she frees him from the need to pose as a love-starved unfortunate. She succeeds in eliciting from him an incantatory prayer to his “goddess” and then pointedly—suggestively—asks him if he wants anything more than to be able to pray. His reply, that he has come into heaven “where want is unknown,” relieves her of the necessity to seek further clarification of his wants. Perhaps it also indicates that she has satisfied his surprisingly meager need.

Her behavior upon Morell's return shows her reversion from siren to housewife (she goes out to dismiss a servant) to motherly type: on re-entering, she vows her determination to protect her “boy” (Morell) and foreshadows her choice in the auction. After the interlude with the other characters returning from their champagne supper, she treats both Morell and Marchbanks as little boys having an argument—an argument which she as “mother” must settle, but momentarily revives the pretense that her husband is master when she defers to his wish that the poet remain in the room. Her discovery that Marchbanks has declared his love for her that morning finally explains to her the deep perturbation underlying Morell's uncharacteristic behavior during the afternoon. Now learning that they are seriously proposing that she should choose between them, she realizes how far things have got out of hand; it would not be inappropriate for her to laugh hysterically. In another situation not of her own making, their wills are being imposed on her.

Her behavior beyond this point restores her own authority and gives her greater independence than ever before. By quick cleverness she throws off the roles both men have cast her in, but she also acts in such a way as to bring each man to a new realization of self. Told that the men await her decision, she says, “Oh! I am to choose am I? I suppose it is quite settled that I must belong to one or the other,” dramatizing her awareness that she is, or can be, her own possession. Regaining control of the situation by offering to be her own auctioneer and pretending that she is indeed up for auction, she proceeds: “And pray, my lords and masters, what have you to offer for my choice?” echoing her ironic pretense earlier that Morell was “master” in their home and expressing her scorn of them for treating her like chattel and misunderstanding her love. By suggesting the bidding, she gains time to decide how to reply, but also incidentally offers each bidder a chance to clarify his own self-appraisal, with happy consequences, as it turns out.

Candida does not take the bids at their apparent rhetorical value, wisely aware that both bidders misunderstand their own worth. She must be aware of the deep irony in Morell's posing as her strong defender while exhibiting apparent weakness (he breaks into tears, falters when he tries to speak, and almost suffocatedly cries out her name) and a similar irony in Eugene's stoically enduring the ordeal while pleading weakness. But paradoxically, weakness is the winning card in this game. Her riddling choice of the “weaker” grows from her perception of the ironies. Of course she is not literally choosing between the two men; it was not her idea to make (or pretend to make) such a choice. She is only expressing her deep affection for Morell, the warm affection without which marriage would be intolerable, according to Shaw.7 Now, more than ever, she can be sure of Morell's sincere love for her, on the evidence of his near breakdown. But going through the form of the auction fortuitously gives her the chance to reveal the truth to Morell, freeing him from his illusions of strength and self-sufficiency, and at the same time to disappoint Eugene gently, flattering his ego and completing his process of growing up. All her early responses to Eugene's blandishments have been discouragingly down-to-earth, tending to dampen the poetic spirit in which they were uttered (true, on one occasion she scolded Morell for spoiling the effect of one of Eugene's speeches). They suggest, along with her inattentiveness to Eugene's poetry and her missing the point of his allusions to medieval chivalric codes, that she would be ill-cast in the role of the goddess whom Eugene wants to worship perpetually.

More important from her point of view, the auction gives her a chance to escape from the conventionality of her wifely role, of which she has only recently become aware. At the beginning of the play she has come back from her visit in the country “with her mind and ideas thoroughly aired out”8 by Eugene. She has become convinced that he is “always right,” and his comments have led her to a new perception of her status in the marriage. If she is not willing to become Eugene's goddess, neither is she now the subservient or slavish wife willing to pretend forever that she needs her husband's proffered abstractions: his “strength … honesty … ability and industry … authority and position …” During the play she has come to realize that Morell views her as his dutiful helpmeet, bound to him by such abstractions as the notions of purity and goodness. When she emphatically states that she Gives Herself to the weaker, she stresses her freedom from abstractions and her ability to exercise her will in making a free gift of her love. She does not have to run away with a poet to achieve her freedom.

In thus redefining her role in the marriage, she redefines herself. Breaking out of the mold of Womanly Womanliness which Morell has seemed to want, she becomes an independent woman who freely gives her love. Thus she emancipates herself, according to Shaw's prescription: “… unless Woman repudiates her womanliness, her duty to her husband, to her children, to society, to the law, and to everyone but herself, she cannot emancipate herself.”9 By her completely free “choice” of Morell, she abolishes the compulsory character of her marriage to him, affirming that she is bound by only the silken cords of love.

In the adult, friendly discussion which follows, she explains, by her long account of Morell's upbringing and her recapitulation of Eugene's difficulties with his family, how she has been used as a means to the ends of building up Morell's ego and image, and of serving as a substitute for Eugene's old nurse. (To be so used, said Shaw, is to be denied one's right to live.10) Gone is the pretense that Morell is the tower of strength, for it is she who builds “a castle of comfort and indulgence and love for him.” Gone also is any hint of condescension to Eugene; she has “mothered” him in the best sense, helping him to become a man. Her account serves as edification and enlightenment for both men, but it also satisfies her own desire for recognition of her efforts. Her revelation to Eugene of the nature of her love for Morell is partly reciprocation for Eugene's helping her to see her marriage in a new light, partly realization that she did not need to seduce him to teach him about love.

Thus the denouement is especially happy for Candida. Though her nature has not changed, her outlook has; and through her timely action she has altered her status. She will still trim the lamps, peel the nasty little Spanish onions, and keep the “castle” in good running order, but Morell will know that she does it for love, not simply because she is his wife. She has become completely vital herself and has brought vitality to their marriage.


In early moments of the play Morell begins to undergo an ordeal unrelated to the aspect of his story which most criticism has focused on: namely, Candida's disillusioning him about his effectiveness and self-sufficiency. His “suffering” (albeit comically resolved) grows from concern for both his happiness in marriage and his being an effective minister. In reacting to the threat which Marchbanks poses, Morell evinces character traits which show him able to cope with the disillusionments in the other strand of his story. In fact, the rivalry precipitates his enlightenment about love and helps him finally to emerge as fully human, having cast off the image of stuffy parsonliness in the manner that a germinating seed sloughs off the outer husk as it grows.11

Initially, this muscular minister and talented orator and complacent husband appears to be in a state of almost heavenly contentment regarding his work and marriage. Attempting to fit one more speaking engagement into a crowded schedule and, more obviously, uttering pious sentiments, he gives the impression of being what he later says his public considers him: “a talking machine.” His cutely scolding rebuke to Prossy for slighting the group that has invited him to speak (they are near relatives of his—they have the same Father in Heaven) suggests that he mechanically follows a rule of benevolence and tolerance, a rule which he will soon break. Perhaps when he preaches to Lexy Mill the virtues of being married to a woman like Candida (married love is a foretaste of the Kingdom of Heaven which he and fellow socialists are trying to establish on earth), he also mechanically echoes sentiments of Shaw's prototypical Idealist. The smooth surface of his contentment on both counts will soon be rippled, even furrowed by waves.

Comic irony in the discrepancy between his talk and his actions begins to appear almost immediately. In his encounter with Burgess, although at first humbugged by the old hypocrite, he resorts to immoderate language, for a parson (“Damn your impudence!”), to gain the upper hand. Thus his façade of benevolence begins to crumble. On hearing, with pleasure, that Marchbanks has returned with Candida, he visibly brightens, ironic in view of the perturbation that Marchbanks will soon cause him. Speaking to his young friend indulgently and with fatherly kindness, he again rhapsodizes about his happily married state. This moment of ironic joy begins his downfall, for Marchbanks seizes on it to scorn the parson's supposed happiness. When Morell hears the poet declare his love for Candida, he starts, then laughs, thinking that it is only puppy love. Then he begins to be really disturbed when Marchbanks suggests that Candida is not happy in her marriage. His surprising confession of doubts about Candida's happiness may indicate that his praise of married bliss is not altogether sincere, that he is masking the face of truth with an illusion; it also foreshadows his later abandoning the Idealist's stance. He begs Marchbanks not to use his rhetorical or poetic gifts to aggravate his doubts. The conflict becomes intense when the boy draws an analogy between Candida and King David's wife, who despised her husband in her heart; and Morell, the strong Christian, loses control, first ordering him out and then offering physical violence, his benevolence completely gone. Though here he seems to have gained another victory over an opponent, an immediate ironic reversal takes place: the bully offers to let the weakling stay so as not to have to tell his wife what they fell out about. When the first act closes, Morell's demeanor and his soliloquy indicate that the walls of his fortress of rationalized happiness have been breached by disturbing emotions.

The significant moments involving Morell in Act Two increase his perturbation. Alone with Candida, he hears her charge that everybody is in love with him, that he is in love with preaching because he does it so well, and that his sermons are beautiful phrases with which he cheats himself and others; and he responds by charging her with “soul-destroying” cynicism. That it is her soul, not his own, that he is concerned about is clear; for immediately he takes up the possibility that Candida may be jealous of the attention he gets. Alarmed slightly at her admission of being jealous for Eugene because he does not receive enough love, he gives his seemingly trusting response: that he has faith in her goodness and purity. Having uttered a pat, conventional sentiment, he must hear her indignant reply that he is a true parson, an echo of what Eugene has said. Learning that she would give her “purity” to Eugene prompts him to recoil from her kiss and wave her away, saying, “Dont touch me.” He is both shocked as a minister and deeply alarmed as a husband, assuming either that she is mad or that Eugene was right in saying she despised him. Taunted for being conventional, he in turn performs a daring and unparsonly act which has been neglected by critics: having earlier canceled his evening speaking engagement, he determines to keep it, and insists that Candida and Eugene stay at home alone. In 1894 a married woman's being alone at night with a man not her husband might ruin her reputation (see, for instance, this reality reflected in Pinero's The Benefit of the Doubt). Thus, by thrusting her into potentially scandalous circumstances, Morell accepts Eugene's challenge, treating him as a rival but attempting, by sarcasm, to minimize the threat. His heroics elicit an approving and admiring response from Eugene and some puzzlement from Candida, and should also earn him a measure of respect from the viewer/reader. Having taught Candida to think for herself, he willingly gives her a free choice. With some courage he accepts the (admittedly faint) possibility that Eugene might win her love and sets up a situation whose outcome, even if unpleasant, will at least bring certainty. That he has taken her criticism of his ineffectualness in stride is shown by his agreement to go on speaking. Later, he asserts that he spoke exceptionally well and is corroborated by two witnesses.

As we first see Morell in the third act, he is a tortured husband trying to get his young rival to explain what has happened during his absence, but dramatic irony keeps the tone comic. He wants to know whether the other “man” has succeeded in gaining his wife's affection. He is confused, agonized by doubt and fear, and tantalized by Eugene's metaphorical explanations (earlier the poet had scorned the minister's metaphors). He hazards a guess that Candida repulsed Eugene; but hearing Eugene deny this and seeing that Eugene is in rapture, he begins to worry about what will happen to Candida if she is mad enough to run away. Yet he says nothing about himself: either he is truly concerned for her welfare, under the delusion that she needs him, or, if not altogether sincere, he masks his own possessive feeling for her with seeming consideration of what she needs. And from this point on, his mind does not return to the factual question of what happened at the fireside, as a jealous cuckold's might.

During the auction scene, Morell shows finally how fully human he is. Though he adopts a stance of strength, he belies his weakness in what he says and does. The most significant indication of this humanization is his faltering just before he manages to offer what his parson's and Idealist's notions lead him to think proper for a husband to offer his wife: he breaks down and cries out only the first syllable of her name, while his eyes and throat fill with tears; the parson and orator become the wounded animal. The “parsonic ideal has been sharply distinguished from the genuine Morell.”12 His pure emotion—a genuine altruistic concern mingled with a possessive love for her—shines through his role-playing; he has become “vital.” Then, as if by prophetic insight, he takes the child's chair and learns that he has indeed been chosen.

His sitting in the child's chair is a visual cue which has been ignored until recently.13 Though potentially comic, it is not a demeaning image; in addition to symbolizing his actual role in the marriage, before unknown to him, it paradoxically reflects his being elevated to a childlike happiness. He is now evidently the grown-up man who has become like a child again—the one that Candida needs. This visual image attains added force when one remembers that in Act One Eugene seemed the child and Morell the grown man. The reversal fully restores his marital happiness and puts him once again in his heaven.

To those critics who assume that Morell has been humiliated by Candida's criticism of his work, upset by her unconventional behavior, and crushed by her naming him the weaker of the two rivals,14 the ending cannot be brightly comic but must be tinged with pathos. But the ending can be seen to be distinctly happy for him, because it brings relief from the problem that has plagued him most painfully. It allays the doubts he had already formed before Marchbanks taunted him, removes Marchbanks from the scene, and demonstrates dramatically that Candida actively loves him and wants to go on guaranteeing his productivity as parson. The relatively minor loss of two illusions, the one involving his effectiveness as a minister and the other his false estimate of his position in marriage—indeed, of how his marriage is happy—does not augur his inability to go on with his career. If the evidence of his behavior in Acts One and Two is trustworthy, he can face unpleasant facts. Morell, who has been a partly comic figure throughout, has had his comic eccentricity (his Idealistic behavior) removed by the denouement; and there is no longer any reason to laugh at him. He has been not a buffoonish caricature of weakness but a subtle mixture of weaknesses and strengths.15 The strengths, which I consider to have dominated, are the only traits remaining.


Much of the play's action shows Marchbanks being driven by what he understands to be love. The first act centers on his brave declaration of love for Candida. A large proportion of Act Two (“large” through emphasis) deals with his longing to be loved and Candida's awareness of this need. The climax of the act builds suspense about whether she will teach him about love, presumably erotic love, suspense which is followed up in the unusually titillating opening scene of Act Three. In the “seduction” scene he becomes convinced that Candida does love him and reaches a peak of happiness. Subsequently, and perhaps mysteriously, he gives up this very happiness and goes out into the night, “old as the world,” with a “secret” in his heart. As Walter N. King asserts, Shaw's extra-textual explanation of the secret (i.e., “that domestic life is not the poet's destiny”) is “adequate as far as it goes”; but “the secret embraces as well everything that Marchbanks has learned about himself, about Candida, and about love and happiness.”16 To trace this developing understanding, we must consider more than the rather unexplicit dialogue late in Act Three.

Early in Act One, the grotesquely shy and childlike Eugene, who has seemed to creep into the parsonage to take refuge from the outside world, interrupts Morell's fulminations on marital bliss to do what many a brawnier, more assured man would lack courage to do. Scorning Morell's belief that his marriage is a happy one, he boldly declares that he is in love with Candida. He is acting on his “love” for her, which is both an antagonism toward the “windbag” and “moralist” Morell, and a conviction that Candida is destined for a finer existence than Morell can give her, that her soul cannot be fed by Morell's talent for preaching. Already aware of how Candida indulges her husband, he seriously accuses Morell—and rightly, as Candida's rebellion shows—of selfishly and blindly sacrificing her to his own sense of self-sufficiency, and thus echoes Shaw's comment on the Womanly Woman: “… our society, being directly dominated by men, comes to regard Woman, not as an end in herself like Man, but solely as a means of ministering to his appetite. The ideal wife is one who does everything the ideal husband likes, and nothing else.”17 When he alludes to King David's wife despising him in her heart for dancing before the people, he shows his awareness that Candida takes a somewhat cynical view of Morell's preacherly success. On the basis of understanding her better than Morell does, this seemingly pathetic and ineffectual boy sets himself up as rival for Candida's affection. By the end of the act he has succeeded at least to the extent of declaring that he is “the happiest of mortals” because Candida will allow him to help her lay the table for lunch.

Act Two exposes more of his notions about love and moves him a step further toward his eventual enlightenment. In his conversation with Prossy he comically reveals his lovesickness, especially in uttering this impassioned generalization: “We all go about longing for love: it is the first need of our natures, the first prayer of our hearts …” He also makes it clear that he feels incapable, because of his shyness, of speaking of his love to anyone with whom he would want to “mingle” it, since love is “like a ghost: it cannot speak unless it is first spoken to.” Inquiring whether it is possible for a woman to love a man like Morell, he unexpectedly discovers that Prossy does indeed love him. Though disconcerted, he is thus partially prepared to accept Candida's love for Morell later. Subsequently, he utters something like love poetry directly to Candida in Morell's presence. When Candida calms his horror over the misuse of her pet scrubbing brush, he tells her that instead of a new brush he would like to give her “… a boat: a tiny shallop to sail away in, far from the world, where the marble floors are washed by the rain and dried by the sun; where the south wind dusts the beautiful green and purple carpets. Or a chariot! to carry us up into the sky, where the lamps are stars, and dont need to be filled with paraffin oil every day.” Describing this Eden of freedom from domestic cares, he thinks that (like the serpent in the Garden) he will tantalize Candida, assuming that she shares his scorn and “horror” of daily housekeeping. By including himself (“us”) in the romantically escapist vision, he makes it unmistakable to Morell that he is tempting Candida; hence Morell, who later remarks that the “child” can speak with the cunning of a serpent, interrupts the poetic flight to point out that such a life would be “idle, selfish and useless.” Eugene retorts, “Yes … idle, selfish and useless: that is, … beautiful and free and happy. …” Here the young poet resembles a type which Shaw decried, the feverish, selfish little clods “of ailments and grievances” who go about “complaining that the world will not devote itself to making [them] happy.”18 He also takes on a likeness to the Devil in Man and Superman who, as Shaw said, can “use love as mere sentiment and pleasure. …”19 But at least he is unselfish enough to want to share the beauty and freedom and happiness with the woman he loves.

Near the end of the act, he has an experience which complicates his feelings toward his opponent and reduces his uncritical admiration of Candida. This too is an aspect of his awareness of love. When Candida taunts Morell for being, as she thinks, conventional, Eugene takes this as cruelty and cringes at it, both seeing a new side of Candida's nature and coming to feel sympathy for Morell. As a speech in Act Three indicates, he here perceives that Morell loves Candida. When Morell boldly insists on leaving Candida and Eugene at home alone, Eugene calls the offer “brave” and “beautiful.” Surely he recognizes that the suffering husband is treating him as an adult. At any rate, he has gained admiration and respect for him.

Suspense about Eugene's initiation into the mystery of love provides a large share of the interest of the opening of Act Three. It is a scene which figuratively seems to fulfill his earlier wish to ascend into the heavens with his lady love, as some of the imagery suggests; but, more important for the present, it bares the full extent of his boyish notions about romance. At the rise of the curtain, seated appropriately in the child's chair, he has been reading poems, some of them concerning an angel (cf. Candida's earlier statement that poetic men think all women angels). When Candida puts down the poker which has distracted her attention from the poems, Marchbanks confesses that the poker made him “horribly uneasy” and explains: “It looked as if it were a weapon. If I were a hero of old I should have laid my drawn sword between us. If Morell had come in he would have thought you had taken up the poker because there was no sword between us.” Though Candida does not understand this, it gives a valuable commentary on his point of view. His overly dramatic mention of the drawn sword, chivalric symbol of protection of the lady's honor, reveals his honorable intentions, up to this point. But the transformation of the poker, in his imagination, into a weapon taken up by his lady fair as a means of defense against his putative advances shows that he still thinks of love in terms of violent attack and defense against it. (Comic irony should arise from the recognition that he imagines himself to look like a seducer.) It is clear that his feelings about Candida do contain an element of sexuality, despite King's insistence that they are Platonic.20 (True, he restrains his feelings in obedience to an abstract ideal.) The poet has assumed that without the poker in her hands, Candida would also be uneasy, thus imputing to her a share in his puerile views; he cannot, even with his fertile imagination, conceive of her complete inability to be scandalized. Once Candida has laid the poker aside, her defenses are down, in Eugene's eyes; in fact, he can hardly fail to note that, far from being uneasy, she now takes the initiative by luring him to sit near her. Again appropriately, he leaves the child's chair and presents himself as a “grown-up wicked deceiver,” sitting at her feet and leaning his head back across her knees. Then he kneels and puts his clasped (i.e., supplicating) hands and arms on her lap. According to stage directions, “his blood [begins] to stir”; and Candida behaves “without the least fear or coldness, and with perfect respect for his passion. …” He wants to say “wicked” things, that is, the kind of shameful things said by those who do not really love, without, of course, becoming “wicked” himself (cf. his definition in Act Two). This desire hardly seems like an illustration of Platonic feeling. The scene seems set for the expected seduction. What, besides dramatic propriety, keeps it from occurring?

Essentially, Candida “speaks first” to his love by putting him on his “honor and truth” to say what his real self feels. Freed from shyness, he replies with a love song, of sorts: for the first time during the play he repeats her given name, and in such a way as to convey his worshipful adoration. Asked whether he wants anything other than to be able to pray (that is, to adore her), he declares, “No: I have come into heaven, where want is unknown.” If he is being truthful, then the “first need” of his nature has been satisfied, the “first prayer” of his heart has been answered.

Why does Marchbanks choose not to ask for anything more than the opportunity to adore? Is he genuinely overcome with gratitude and truly selfless adoring love, or are there other possibilities that would explain his self-restraint? Has Candida's forwardness backfired and caused him to shrink away in disgust or fear (Shaw said that everyone “who becomes the object” of “the infatuation of passionate sexual desire … shrinks from it instinctively”21)? Does he feel an incest taboo, proportionate to his awareness of Candida as a crampingly maternal figure? Does he subconsciously wish to retain his innocence and remain a “child,” realizing already that Candida wants a child-man to protect? Does he realize that he cannot violate the goddess or impute sexual desire to her and still maintain his worship for her?

For a clarification of Eugene's thinking during these moments, we must study his later resumé to Morell of this fireside tête-à-tête. Though the primary effect of his somewhat ambiguous account is the comic irony of knowing what actually happened and comparing it with what Morell, at each new detail, suspects, the recapitulation also gives a valuable gloss on Eugene's state of mind and what he understands Candida's to have been. First he reveals that his intentions were to play the role of the Good Man at home while Morell played the same role in public. He announces with some pride that he was “standing outside the gate of Heaven, and refusing to go in. Oh … how heroic it was, and how uncomfortable!” In addition to echoing Morell's earlier mouthings about marriage, this hyperbolic allusion also has an inescapable sexual connotation. Then, Marchbanks confesses, when Candida “couldnt bear being read to any longer,” he approached the heavenly gate at last—that is, when he sat at her feet and came into physical intimacy with her. Then, ironically, the siren “became an angel” to him precisely at the moment when she did not shrink from his passion. He saw that she was not treating him as a lovesick boy but respected his honest adult feelings, perhaps enough to disregard her marriage vows. Besides enhancing his self-image and elevating him to the status of grown-up, her adult treatment of him prompted gratitude and worshipful adoration. Hence her forwardness did not disgust him; witness his continued ecstatic and worshipful tone when he tells Morell that Candida has “divine insight” and loves “our souls.”

What happened next is not narrated in sequence, because Shaw's dramatic strategy withholds Eugene's declaration that Candida offered herself to him until after Eugene has stressed his self-restraint and Morell has surmised that Candida rebuked him, thereby building to a climax. But at this point Candida underwent another transformation in the young poet's creative mind. Even more than angel, she became Queen of Heaven, seen in Pre-Raphaelite splendor: “She offered me all that I chose to ask for: her shawl, her wings, the wreath of stars on her head, the lilies in her hand, the crescent moon beneath her feet—” His impassioned utterance, by its elevated elaboration of imagined detail, and his statement that he did not have time to “come down from the highest summits” before he was interrupted, indicate that his experience was indeed almost mystically ecstatic for him. A sense of mystical union would certainly supersede a mundane desire to possess the beloved.

When Candida asked him whether he wanted anything more than to be able to “pray” to her, he became aware of the flaming sword which kept him from entering the ultimate paradise. That is, in his imagination the medieval drawn sword whose absence he had noted earlier (and not the poker, as at least two commentators have maintained) had become the biblical sword which prevented access to the Tree of Life after Adam and Eve transgressed and were expelled from the Garden. Consciousness of the admonishing sword prompted Eugene's realization that the heavenly “gate is really the gate of Hell”; that is, in Berst's words, that “physical consummation would debase his spiritual communion with Candida. …”22 Yet, as I have pointed out, his “communion” with her is not entirely unearthly. In his restraint I see a choice that likens him to John Tanner and foreshadows his later exit into the night. In effect, he has prepared himself (perhaps unconsciously) to be a “master of reality” by rejecting the “heaven” of gratifying the senses (which is really a hell, as Shaw asserted in Man and Superman).

Hence he has achieved a state of selfless love. As he says in his “plain prose” summary, “I loved her so exquisitely that I wanted nothing more than the happiness of being in such love.” His offer to give up Candida (if Morell will too) and go in search of a lover worthy of her, “some beautiful archangel with purple wings,” is an extension of this. Yet it is important to notice at the conclusion of his narration to Morell that, unaware of Candida's love for Morell, he is still convinced that she would choose him, Eugene, given the opportunity. This is the only misconception which he still holds, and he will shortly be disabused of it. Insisting that he is “the man” she wants, i.e., the “grown up man who has become as a little child again,” he presses for the auction. Perhaps this insistence argues that by restraining himself earlier, he paradoxically showed his mature manhood and kept his childlike innocence to be worthy of her choice. At the same time, it seems to rule out the possibility that he has felt an incest taboo.

Eugene's final perceptions about love come as a corollary of the auction scene. At its outset he has correctly divined that Candida's motivation is a “divinely” maternal affection for men's souls; her vow to protect her “boy” (Morell) corroborates his insight. At this point he can begin to foresee his rejection. Hence it would not be inappropriate for the actor performing this role to offer the “bid” as a tongue-in-cheek pretense of weakness, in a last-ditch effort to seem weak enough to claim a share of Candida's love and to outbid Morell by making the right rhetorical appeal. His immediate acceptance of her decision would then seem more plausible. Though he cannot but be gratified by Candida's earlier concern for his need to be loved and pleased at his own elevation to manhood, still he must be somewhat chagrined at her eluding his attempts to cast her as heavenly siren and her willingness to settle for domesticity. Yet she is evidently exercising her own will, and she has at least freed herself from being sacrificed to Morell's self-sufficiency. Eugene can know that she has regained her “soul” and can glory somewhat in her triumph. He can see that, far from being selfishly concerned about happiness, she selflessly gives herself up to the “loving” which, according to Shaw, is a woman's business; her example perhaps corroborates his new idea that there are nobler things than searching for happiness. But full knowledge of the nature of Candida's love, which comes when Morell admits that she is wife and mother and sisters to him, involves the realization that, because of his new-found strength, her love is not necessary to him and, in fact, would stifle him: with a “fierce gesture of disgust” he offers to go. Having once come to be loved, he must give up the pose of love-starved swain which was his major comic eccentricity. With comic overtones removed, he is ready to become Shaw's male saint who can “put love aside when it has once done its work as a developing and enlightening experience.”23 Having done what the “artist-philosopher” characteristically does (“He gets into intimate relations with [women] to study them, to strip the mask of convention from them …” [Man and Superman, I]), he has realized that the vision of Candida as Queen of Heaven was largely false, thus escaping the blindness to reality which, in Shaw's view, is death of the soul.24 Because his feelings for his former rival have changed (he now loves the man for filling the heart of the woman he loved—past tense), he gives away his happiness to Morell, renouncing the “clod's” search for happiness. Withal, he becomes vital. Very likely he will go on to adopt Shaw's position that “the true joy in life” consists in “being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one. …”25


The vitalization of character which I have traced arises in each case from the character's changed perspectives on his “love” relationship to those around him; it is shown in an act or acts of the will which mark him as an individual and not as an automaton acting from rigid notions and misconceptions or conforming to an artificial system of morality. Candida re-evaluates her love for Morell, whom she sees in a new light (with prodding from Eugene), and decides that her sense of selfhood will not allow her to remain in a worshipful, subservient, uncomplaining role, just as it will not allow her to be drawn into the frame of Eugene's idealized picture of womanhood. By exercising her will, she transforms her “duties” as wife into a free expression of love for a real, unidealized man, giving up mere obedience to vows or abstractions. Morell, fearing that his sense of married bliss was an illusion and realizing that no law will bind Candida if he has lost her love and Eugene has gained it, abandons notions of propriety and (though he knows and Candida does not know that Eugene is in love with her) allows the boy to tempt his wife during a whole evening. This act of his will, though it puts him through some torture, eventuates in his coming to understand in a new way Candida's love for him and his for her, when his genuine feeling thwarts his attempt to remain Idealist and parson-orator. Marchbanks, seeing that Candida's love is essentially a maternal love for whatever “child” happens to need her at the moment, reckons with his newly acquired strength and accepts that he no longer deserves or needs her love. Also, he understands that he has not respected her individual “soul” or will in picturing her ideally as a figure out of medieval legend or belonging in the stars. Willingly he embraces freedom from his misconception and from her actual smothering love.

The greater degree of initial faultiness in the men's vision makes them more comic than Candida, who has less to learn and gives an almost heroic impression, especially in her emancipation. But appropriately by the end of the play, all their individual eyesights have improved. In addition to not having reason any longer to laugh at them, we also approve of their changes, which exemplify the twin Shavian themes that getting rid of illusions is healthy and that the individual must resist system to be vital. Thus we should feel not pathos in Eugene's departure or Morell's disillusionment, but joy in their discoveries; not misty-eyed relief in the “saving” of the Morells' marriage but awareness that it has been transformed through Candida's rebellion. To disregard these effects of the play's final moments is to ignore the intellectual content of what really happens in Candida.


  1. Walter N. King, “The Rhetoric of Candida,Modern Drama 2 (September 1959), 74.

  2. Stephen S. Stanton's A Casebook on “Candida” (New York, 1962) is a handy compendium of these criticisms; in fact, it reprints portions of most of the sources listed below.

  3. The Playwright as Thinker (New York, 1946), p. 167.

  4. “Letter to Ellen Terry,” April 6, 1896, reprinted in Stanton, p. 88; “Letter to James Huneker,” in Stanton, p. 165.

  5. “Letter: Ellen Terry to Shaw,” October 24, 1896, in Stanton, p. 90.

  6. Bernard Shaw and the Art of Drama (Urbana, Illinois, 1973), p. 50.

  7. The Quintessence of Ibsenism (New York, 1957), p. 40.

  8. William Irvine, The Universe of G.B.S. (New York, 1949), p. 175.

  9. Quintessence, p. 56.

  10. Ibid., p. 52.

  11. I am indebted to Tom Driver, Romantic Quest and Modern Query: A History of the Modern Theater (New York, 1970), p. 262, for this comparison.

  12. Charles A. Carpenter, Bernard Shaw and the Art of Destroying Ideals (Madison, Wisconsin, 1969), p. 121.

  13. Berst, p. 53, notices it in passing.

  14. H. C. Duffin, The Quintessence of Bernard Shaw (London, 1920), p. 98; A. H. Nethercot, Men and Supermen: The Shavian Portrait Gallery (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1954), p. 12; and Irvine, p. 178.

  15. Edmund Fuller, George Bernard Shaw: Critic of the Western Morale (New York, 1950), p. 27.

  16. P. 82.

  17. Quintessence, p. 52.

  18. “Epistle Dedicatory” to Man and Superman.

  19. Program notes to accompany a performance of “Don Juan in Hell,” in Stanton, p. 98.

  20. P. 81.

  21. Quintessence, p. 50.

  22. P. 61.

  23. Program notes, p. 98.

  24. Richard M. Ohmann, “Born to Set It Right: The Roots of Shaw's Style,” in R. J. Kaufmann, ed., G. B. Shaw: A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1965), p. 39.

  25. “Epistle Dedicatory.”

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