Charles A. Berst (essay date fall 1974)

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

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[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...

(The entire section contains 17039 words.)

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