Arthur Ganz (essay date December 1971)

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SOURCE: Ganz, Arthur. “The Ascent to Heaven: A Shavian Pattern (Early Plays, 1894-1898).” Modern Drama 14, no. 3 (December 1971): 253-63.

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[In the following essay, Ganz discusses the negative vision in Shaw's early plays, contending that there is a recurring pattern of his characters withdrawing from the real world into an intellectual, contemplative existence.]

It is the peculiar character of Shaw's plays that from the first they embody Romantic optimism and Romantic disillusion simultaneously. One is reminded of William Archer's account of seeing Shaw for the first time in the British Museum studying alternately the French translation of Das Kapital and the score of Tristan und Isolde. Characteristically Shaw could be attracted not only by optimism, progress, and social action but by their opposites, passivity, withdrawal, and fulfillment in death.

The continuing dramatic tension in Shaw's work is generated, at least in part, by the clash of a vision of man as perfectible and the world as capable of continuing reform and improvement with an opposing vision of man as distasteful and irredeemable and the world as forever the abode of vulgarity and brute stupidity. The optimistic vision is by far the more conscious one. It is the vision of the man of ideas, the social reformer, the satirist determined to laugh men into a recognition of their follies. Ostensibly it is the vision that underlies the theory of Creative Evolution, that notable example of Romantic optimism, with its commitment to eternal progress and unlimited possibilities. But in fact that curious theory is an aspect of the negative, pessimistic vision, for the ultimate end of Creative Evolution is a withdrawal from the failures and limitations of the human condition into a realm of pure, self-contemplating intellect. Though Shaw the activist embodies a sense of Romantic optimism, a faith in progress and perfectibility, Shaw the negativist embodies with equal force a sense of Romantic disillusion and its attendant withdrawal and rejection.

We can recognize the preachments of the optimistic Shaw easily enough, but the presence of the other is usually, though not always, harder to perceive. It appears most strikingly in a pattern of dramatic action which we may appropriately characterize as an ascent to heaven, sometimes a literal ascent, usually a figurative one. At the end of some process of education or discovery the central character in a Shavian play will usually withdraw from the world of action, of commitment, of life in fact, to a different one, sometimes conceived of as a world of pure intellectual contemplation, always remote from the ordinary human world, supposedly superior to it. Though this intellectual “heaven” takes many different forms in the plays, it is always an alternative to, in some sense a refuge from, the failures and imperfections of existence.

When Shaw is most aware of these failures and distressed by these imperfections, the act of withdrawal from the human world is made most deliberately and decisively. Then it is seen as the necessary act, the ultimate and unqualified response to the limitations of life. But Shaw's vision is not always so dark. In many plays the heaven to which one withdraws is comparatively near the ordinary world; the ascent to it is not immutable. Some counterbalancing commitment to life and social action is made, that mitigates the absoluteness of the withdrawal. Much of the interest in following the progress of Shaw's world lies in tracing the variety and complexity of the balances he contrives between his conflicting impulses. But inevitably it is not always easy to do so: though the optimistic Shaw is a public personage, the despairing Shaw is a private one. His commitments to life and action can be made openly and directly, but his impulse to withdraw must be expressed through such...

(The entire section contains 25961 words.)

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