George Bernard Shaw

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Arthur Ganz (essay date December 1971)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4877

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

[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 metaphors as the one which this study develops: the ascent to heaven.

Only at its harshest and most remote is this strange heaven directly recognizable. Edmund Wilson, for example, speaks of the “lunar horror” of Back to Methuselah, in which the Ancients of the final play aspire to ascend from the flesh and become pure intelligences.1 Earlier Ludwig Lewisohn had described this “bleak parable” as “the monument of a great despair.”2 Lewisohn implies that this despairing position is one that Shaw arrived at only in old age and after contemplating the horrors of the first world war. But such a conception of Shaw's mind or its development is extremely doubtful, for throughout Shaw's career when his plays are at their richest and most brilliant other heavens and other ascents appear, more interesting for being less obvious.

Of these one of the most intriguing is found at the end of Shaw's third play, Mrs. Warren's Profession. Not only is this play, at least arguably, Shaw's first one of general theatrical and artistic significance, but it establishes most strikingly the pattern with which we are concerned and deserves, therefore, a detailed discussion. Ostensibly, the play is occupied with an immediate social issue, the exploitation of female labor as the economic basis of prostitution. In the climactic confrontation at the end of Act II, Mrs. Warren makes her daughter recognize that for a poor girl prostitution is the only escape from the degradation of poverty. “It's far better than any other employment open to her,” Mrs. Warren explains and goes on to say, “I always thought that oughtn't to be. It can't be right, Vivie, that there shouldn't be better opportunities for women. I stick to that: it's wrong. But it's so, right or wrong; and a girl must make the best of it.” Despite the hortatory tone of this passage (“better opportunities for women”), the scene works dramatically because of the psychological force of Mrs. Warren's attack on Vivie and the whimsical ingenuity with which Shaw makes Mrs. Warren reverse the clichés of conventional morality (“if there's a thing I hate in a woman, it's want of character. … It's not work that any woman would do for pleasure, goodness knows. … Of course it's worth while to a poor girl, if she can resist temptation. …”) Nevertheless, the economics of this passage are dated; most working girls need not turn to prostitution in order to survive. In the next act, there is a scene in which the economics remain more nearly valid. When Crofts explains to Vivie that the income he derives as an investor in Mrs. Warren's business is not different in kind from the income others get from investment in industries that exploit their workers, he is unconsciously offering a general criticism of laissez-faire capitalism.3 “If you're going to pick and choose your acquaintance on moral principles, you'd better clear out of this country,” he says forcefully, “unless you want to cut yourself out of all decent society.”

But even this more striking point, that everyone in a society participates in its economic immoralities, is confined to a comparatively brief scene, nor is the confrontation between Vivie and Mrs. Warren an extensive one. Most of the play, in fact, is taken up with other matters; Vivie, not her mother, is its central personage, and Vivie's education through the sequence of persons whom she encounters is its central concern. Praed, for example, is absolutely essential to Shaw's purposes in this respect, but the thread by which he is connected to the action is, to put it mildly, fragile. He has not, we are to believe, known Mrs. Warren sexually, or even known what her business is, much less invested in it (perhaps because Shaw is pardonably reluctant to say that art too is supported by the brothel); he is Mrs. Warren's “friend,” though what the cultivated aesthete and the hearty, vulgar madam have to say to each other is not easy to conceive. But however unlikely his presence, he must appear on stage to sing the beauties of Italian art, to ask Vivie, “Are you to have no romance, no beauty in your life?” and to receive her answer, “I don't care for either, I assure you.”

Just as Praed embodies the claims of the sentimental Romantic artist,4 as Shaw conceives of him, foolishly dedicated to beauty as an end in itself, so Frank Gardner is present in order to represent the claims of Romantic love. Since it is to Shaw's purposes that these claims be rejected even more forcefully than Praed's, he is at considerable pains to make Frank an ostentatiously undesirable young man. Though charming and intelligent, Frank is weak, shiftless, self-indulgent, and entirely irresponsible. Moreover, he may very well be Vivie's half-brother. Shaw introduces the incest motif in part to get a Grand Climax at the end of Act III but more importantly to get a strong emotional prohibition against the Frank-Vivie relationship. When, immediately after Crofts' revelation, Frank invites Vivie into his arms, she replies “[with a cry of disgust], Ah, not that, not that. You make all my flesh creep.” Yet having got his prohibition, Shaw is not prepared to deal with it—that is, with the subject of frustrated incestuous passion—and by the beginning of the fourth act Vivie and Frank both protest that in the first place they do not believe Crofts' revelation and in the second they are indifferent to it. But in rejecting the incest theme Shaw also rejects the ostensible basis for Vivie's refusal of Frank and leaves her sexual repugnance without objective justification.

“After all, what is troubling Vivie,” as Eric Bentley notes, “does go beyond the rationally established causes.”5 Moreover, precisely the same is true of Vivie's relation to her mother. After the scene in which Mrs. Warren exposes the truth about her life to Vivie the strongest scene in the play is the last one, in which Vivie finally and absolutely rejects her mother. It is distinguished by its extraordinary emotional power and its equally extraordinary lack of intellectual coherence. Earlier in the act Vivie has been so revolted by the knowledge that her mother is continuing to manage the brothels that she cannot bear to speak of the matter to Praed and Frank but must write instead. She begins by rejecting her mother on this basis. However, as soon as Mrs. Warren defends herself (“I must have work and excitement, or I should go melancholy mad. And what else is there for me to do?”) nothing more is heard of the matter, but Vivie is as adamant as ever. “You ask me to give you the peace and quietness of my whole life,” Vivie says to her mother. Unfortunately, no such thing has been asked; Mrs. Warren does not wish to live with Vivie, but only to see her from time to time, and live vicariously through the elegant life she proposes for her. Ultimately, Vivie is reduced to offering her mother's failures of perception as a reason for their separation. “If I had been you, mother,” she says, “I might have done as you did; but I should not have lived one life and believed in another. You are a conventional woman at heart. That is why I am bidding you good-bye now.” In the first place, Vivie's claim is exceedingly dubious. If Mrs. Warren has believed in conventional “respectability,” she has always known that it was founded on money and power, and has devoted herself to getting those things. Moreover the notion that Vivie cannot have any relations whatever with a conventional person is a bizarre one indeed.

It is less bizarre than it might seem, however, for by the end of the play Vivie is removing herself to a world in which she will have very few relations of any sort. (At this point Vivie's impulse to separate herself from life is rather different from the enthusiastic desire for a business career which she displays in Act I.) Among the devious rationalizations for breaking with her mother, there appears at least one statement that is more direct: “Now once for all, mother, you want a daughter and Frank wants a wife. I don't want a mother and I don't want a husband.” This absolute denial, made without specious justification, is the most significant thing Vivie says here, for in its brutal directness it carries some of the true emotional force of the scene which, despite its intellectual evasiveness, is a powerful and moving one. It is so in part because Shaw identifies both with Mrs. Warren in her demands for affection and her rage and grief at being denied it and with Vivie in the icy strength with which, sensing them as dangerous, she protects herself from those demands. (Shaw's accounts of his Dublin childhood with its social and emotional strains are valuable here.) But though his feelings are divided, Shaw ultimately focuses on Vivie and her reaction to the education she receives during the play, her rejection of art, of society, of love as equally tainted and her withdrawal to that curious “heaven,” the isolated chambers of Fraser and Warren, a world of pure numerical calculations which anticipates as precisely as anything in Shaw's earlier work the vortex of pure intellect to which the Ancients of Back to Methuselah came at the end of mankind's education.

But before Shaw arrived at that version of his central pattern, he worked and reworked it many times, playing ingenious variations on it but never straying far from that basic theme. In fact, the farthest deviation from it among Shaw's major plays comes, curiously enough, in the work that followed Mrs. Warren's Profession, Arms and the Man. In this play the optimistic Shaw is more nearly triumphant. As in Mrs. Warren's Profession, a limited social theme, here the exposure of the delusions of military heroism, modulates to a more pervasive one, the exposure of the delusions of Romantic idealism in general. A number of factors keep this play within the realm of genial good humor. First of all, nobody actually learns anything; that is, there is very little disconcerting discovery about the world or the self. Raina knows from the first that she is pretending; it is only a question of her coming to admit it. Sergius is in a state of permanent disillusion throughout the play. Louka's world is too crude for her to have many illusions. Even Bluntschli, supposedly the Shavian wise man in a world of fools, is not fully educated by reality. He is himself, as he admits, an incurable Romantic who has come back because he is attracted to Raina. In fact, the only character in the play without Romantic delusions is the strangely frigid Nicola, but he only hovers on the outskirts of the action. And finally Bluntschli and Raina are not called upon to cope with comic-opera Bulgaria, the world of foolishly amiable vulgarity. Unscarred by any darker reality, they will withdraw to their own heaven, the Switzerland of efficient hotels, a kind of miniature anticipation of Perivale St. Andrews in Major Barbara.

In Candida, however, where Shaw tries to deal more directly with questions that are skirted in Arms and the Man, that tone of amiable humor is lost. Behind Candida's charm we sense the presence of the destructive, emasculating, “Strindbergian” woman whose candid truth must inevitably destroy her husband's self-respect, though in the play Shaw avoids confronting that fact. “Outside the play,” as Eric Bentley shrewdly observes, “Shaw is against Candida. Inside it, he is both for her and against her, but he is for her effectually and against her ineffectually.” Though Bentley suggests that while “Shaw's intellect is against Candida, his emotions are for her,”6 there is in fact a strong emotional pull in both directions. On the one hand there is the optimistic vision in which Candida is the protecting and loving helpmeet and Morell is happily committed to the world of action and reform. (His political opinions are Shaw's; like Shaw he is a great speechmaker.) But as the play progresses this vision becomes blurred. The possibility is raised that the dream of reform and progress is an illusion, that the great and serious speechmaker is a mere entertainer whose message no one will take seriously, that domestic happiness means childish dependence on a dominant—perhaps even cruel—woman.

It is this negative vision, especially in regard to the emotive life, that Marchbanks comes to see more and more clearly as the play progresses. From the first he considers Morell's ideas mere verbiage, and he dreams of withdrawing to a world of love:

…—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 don't need to be filled with paraffin oil every day.
(harshly) And where there is nothing to do but to be idle, selfish and useless.


(firing up) Yes, to be idle, selfish and useless: that is to be beautiful and free and happy. …

The divided nature of Shaw's own feeling (he is both the activist Morell and the poet Marchbanks) is shown in the evenness of the debate and in the fact that, though he allows Marchbanks to triumph here, he cannot find for the poet a convincing diction and must lapse into Swinburnian clichés. When at the end of the play Marchbanks sees what love—exemplified by Candida and Morell—is, he exclaims, “[rising with a fierce gesture of disgust]. Ah, never. Out, then, into the night with me!” No longer desiring happiness—“life is nobler than that”—he goes out into the night that is awaiting him. Shaw wrote in a letter to James Huneker that this night was “Tristan's holy night” and that Marchbanks was “a god going back to his heaven, proud, unspeakably contemptuous of the ‘happiness’ he envied in the days of his blindness, clearly seeing that he has higher business on hand than Candida.”7 If he is, like so many other Shavian heroes, ascending to heaven, the “higher business” can have little to do with human life. Tristan's holy night, as we have observed, enfolds a love that leads only to death.

A man who quite literally chooses death is the hero of The Devil's Disciple, Shaw's next play of special interest. Moreover, like Marchbanks, Dick Dudgeon finds himself engaged in a kind of combat with a clergyman and romantically involved with the clergyman's wife. But The Devil's Disciple, though lively and attractive, and sustained theatrically by the very melodramatic elements which it parodies, is a far less coherent work than Candida. At first it appears to be contrasting the natural, as Shaw would say “vital,” morality of Dick with the joyless, systematic, artificial morality of his Puritan family. Such indeed is the subject of the first act, but most of the characters of that act, and its subject with them, disappear after it is over. Its place, however, is taken by a second subject: vital morality vs. Romantic love. After Dick has allowed himself to be arrested in place of Anderson, Judith, distressed at her husband's failure to return the sacrifice, comes to suppose that Dick is sacrificing himself for love of her. But though Judith is willing to play Lucy Manette, Dick refuses to become Sidney Carton. Unlike Marchbanks he knows from the first the illusions of love and explains to Judith that he was following the law of his own nature. When she can only reply, “you mean that you do not love me,” he answers “[revolted—with fierce contempt]. Is that all it means to you?”

But this subject too is dropped shortly, and near the end of the play another appears: the reversal of roles, Anderson's discovery that he is not a clergyman but a soldier and Dick's that he is not the devil's disciple but a saint. Shaw seems to have supposed that it was the ultimate subject, for he gives Anderson a very explicit speech defining it:

Sir, it is in the hour of trial that a man finds his true profession. This foolish young man boasted himself the Devil's Disciple; but when the hour of trial came to him, he found that it was his destiny to suffer and be faithful to the death. I thought myself a decent minister of the gospel of peace; but when the hour of trial came to me, I found that it was my destiny to be a man of action, and that my place was amid the thunder of the captains and the shouting.

But this speech is curiously misleading and the subject essentially false. In actuality Anderson changes comparatively little. The step from the vigorous, sensible, successful parson to the active soldier is not such a large one. As Anderson in both his roles is essentially involved in and committed to the world, so Dick both as saint and devil's disciple lives apart from the world, committed to the higher law of his own nature. If he is to be a clergyman, as the play whimsically asks us to suppose, he is hardly likely to be the kind Anderson was.

What then is the real subject? There is another significant figure in the play, usually taken to be a kind of wonderful excrescence, but it is no accident that Burgoyne has all the best lines. Shaw himself seems not to have been aware of what he was doing with Burgoyne, for he wrote to Ellen Terry, “Burgoyne is a gentleman; and that is the whole meaning of that part of the play. It is not enough, for the instruction of this generation, that Richard should be superior to religion & morality as typified by Judith. We must also be superior to gentility—that is, to the whole idea of modern society.”8 But this explanation notably fails to account for the sense of grace, of perception, of decisiveness and power that radiates through Burgoyne's wit. And especially it does not account for the obvious sympathy between him and Dick. Burgoyne is a first sketch for a character who will embody some of Dick's moral perception but will combine it with a sense of power. If Anderson is committed to the world and its illusions and if Dick can do no more than suffer and withdraw into martyrdom, Burgoyne can both act and know. He is both in the world, and, by the power of his wit and perception, beyond it. He prefigures Caesar, the first Shavian superman.

If one is to understand this figure, one must know his origins. It is important to see Burgoyne not as a whimsical comic addition to The Devil's Disciple, but as a significant synthesis of Dick and Anderson. By doing so one recognizes that in creating the Shavian superman, the figure of the hero-saint to which he so often reverts, Shaw is attempting to symbolize in art a resolution for the dilemmas inherent in his vision. He is creating in his work an image that will embody both an optimistic commitment to the world of action, but without its stupidities and vulgarities, and the impulse to withdraw to the world of inner contemplation, but without its morbidness and passivity.9

In Caesar these contraries coalesce. He seems at first preeminently the man of action raised to the highest power. Forceful, competent, without illusions, he controls the world about him with quiet grace. When he demands money and Pothinus asks bitterly “Is it possible that Caesar, the conqueror of the world, has time to occupy himself with such a trifle as our taxes?” he replies, “My friend: taxes are the chief business of a conqueror of the world.” In fact, Caesar's economic practicality seems, momentarily, to extend to latent socialism. Theodotus, in grief at the burning of the library of Alexandria, cries wildly, “Will you destroy the past?” Caesar answers, suggestively, “Ay, and build the future with its ruins.”

But the active, committed, optimistic Caesar is balanced by another one, a remote and contemplative Caesar, who finds his image in the sphinx—whom he addresses at the beginning of Act I:

Hail, Sphinx! salutation from Julius Caesar! I have wandered in many lands, seeking the lost region from which my birth into this world exiled me, and the company of creatures such as I myself. I have found flocks and pastures, men and cities, but no other Caesar, no air native to me, no man kindred to me. … Sphinx, you and I, strangers to the race of men, are no strangers to one another. … My way hither was the way of destiny; for I am he of whose genius you are the symbol: part brute, part woman, and part god—nothing of man in me at all.

This remarkable confession of essential remoteness, one of Shaw's more nearly successful attempts at a “poetic” prose, with its revulsion from the world (“Rome is a madman's dream”) and its longing for solitary contemplation (“an image of the constant and immortal part of my life, silent, full of thoughts, alone in the silver desert”) suggests that Caesar's power derives as much from his separation from the world as from his involvement in it. Cleopatra explains further when, in the fourth act, Pothinus asks if Caesar loves her:

Love me! Pothinus: Caesar loves no one. Who are those we love? Only those whom we do not hate: all people are strangers and enemies to us except those we love. But it is not so with Caesar. He has no hatred in him: he makes friends with everyone as he does with dogs and children.

Cleopatra lives in the maelstrom of love and hate, the world of human emotions; Caesar stands apart and sees men as dogs and children.

Such are Apollodorus, the Romantic aesthete and lover; Brittanus, the conventional Englishman; Rufio, the simple, practical man; and most particularly, Cleopatra herself. It is commonly observed that in the course of the play Caesar educates Cleopatra, but it is less obvious that in doing so he is attempting, symbolically, to educate mankind. For Cleopatra—passionate, willful, loving and hating without restraint—embodies just those emotions she describes as characteristically human. Moreover, after she has had Pothinus killed in “just” revenge, the others identify with her and agree that she was right. Only Caesar rejects her:

If one man in all the world can be found, now or forever, to know that you did wrong, that man will have either to conquer the world as I have, or be crucified by it. … And so to the end of history, murder shall breed murder, always in the name of right and honor and peace, until the gods are tired of blood and create a race that can understand.

Although Caesar relents and places Cleopatra on the throne (Shaw must fit his play to elementary history), he knows that his experiment in education is a failure, that mankind can manipulate power but not itself, that the gods have not yet created a race that can understand. He willingly withdraws from Cleopatra's human world of Egypt to Rome, that is, to his death.

Shaw's elaborate speculation about the creating of “a race that can understand” in his next important play, Man and Superman, marks the beginning of the second phase of his career and lies beyond the scope of this study. Though even here, glancing briefly ahead, we see the pattern continuing with John Tanner—speechmaker, committed reformer, and clown—remaining on earth to perpetuate life while his alter ego Don Juan Tenorio rejects the hell of love and beauty to ascend to that heaven of intellectual contemplation toward which so many Shavian heroes turn. Robert Brustein, who understands the dichotomy in Shaw's work, maintains that his “socio-political-philosophical” aspirations impose “crucial restrictions on his art” by blocking the expression of its negative aspect.10 I suggest, on the contrary, that Shaw's art is made up precisely of the conflict between these elements and that it draws its strength, as well as its weakness, from the tension which they generate.


  1. Edmund Wilson, “Bernard Shaw at Eighty,” The Triple Thinkers (New York, 1948), p. 189.

  2. Ludwig Lewisohn, “Shaw Among the Mystics,” in George Bernard Shaw: A Critical Survey, ed. Louis Kronenberger (New York, 1953), p. 146.

  3. As he points out to Vivie that scholarships the established out of such money, he is—in the jargon of the current moment—saying that the military-industrial complex has taken over the universities.

  4. “Fool that I was not to make him a playwright instead of an architect!” Shaw exclaims in whimsical rage at the corruption of taste and judgment by the popular theater (“The Author's Apology” to Mrs. Warren's Profession).

  5. “The Making of a Dramatist (1892-1903),” Foreword to Plays by George Bernard Shaw (New York, 1960), xxvii.

  6. “The Making of a Dramatist,” p. xxii.

  7. James Huneker, Iconoclasts: A Book of Dramatists (New York, 1905), p. 255.

  8. “Letter of 13 March 1897,” Bernard Shaw: Collected Letters, ed. Dan H. Laurence (London, 1965), p. 734.

  9. Shaw's difficulty in achieving such a resolution is suggested by his very choice of historical personages in which to embody the qualities of the superman. In his major plays these figures of supreme vigor and competence meet tragic ends: Burgoyne is defeated; Caesar is murdered; Joan is burned at the stake.

  10. The Theatre of Revolt (New York, 1962), p. 209.

Barbara J. Small (essay date May 1979)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4756

SOURCE: Small, Barbara J. “Rhetorical Style in Shaw's Plays.” Shaw Review 22, no. 2 (May 1979): 79-88.

[In the following essay, Small contends that Shaw's plays were conceived and written more in the rhetorical tradition than in a realistic style.]

What Raina wants is the extremity of style—style—Comedie Francaise, Queen of Spain style. Do you hear, worthless wretch that you are?


—G. B. S. to Lillah McCarthy, 6 February 1908

Although Shaw, for the most part, used realistic subject matter and language that on the surface appears realistic, his plays and characters transcend realism. It is clear that he never intended to write strictly naturalistic plays:

Life as we see it is so haphazard that it is only by picking out its key situations and arranging them in their significant order (which is never how they actually occur) that it can be made intelligible.1

It was the playwright's duty to arrange the random events of life in “such a way as to make you think much more deeply about it than you ever dreamed of thinking about actual incidents that come to your knowledge.” This was the “very important public service” that the didactic theatre renders to its audiences.2 A playwright must not busy himself with “holding a mirror up to nature,” but must instead “interpret the passing show by parables.”3 But Shaw's plays go even further than this selective realism; they contain larger-than-life characters who speak inspired passages that move closer to symbolism. In directing Dame Sybil Thorndike in the last scene of Major Barbara, Shaw stressed that Barbara must be “dynamic” without “any of this modern conversation.” Dame Sybil herself explained that Shaw “always took you up from the realistic into symbolism.”4

In disassociating himself with the “representationalists” and “realists,” Shaw claimed to be a part of the “classic tradition,” like Shakespeare, “recognizing that stage characters must be endowed by the author with a conscious self-knowledge and power of expression, and … a freedom from inhibitions, which in real life would make them monsters of genius” (W 185). While writing that “the energy shown by any of his characters is so wildly in excess of what their situation practically requires that if it were devoted to anything ‘worthwhile,’ they would wreck the world in five minutes,” W. H. Auden claimed to enjoy Shaw's “wonderful displays of conspicuous waste” (M 435). Indeed, Shaw's larger-than-life characters seem to possess overwhelming energy and power of expression. Shaw wanted his actors to play his parts “with a relish”5 and “without the least fear of overacting or extravagance.”6 “You cant possibly be too sickly & saintly & pious & soft & moodly,” Shaw wrote an actor performing the part of Mellish in Cashel Byron's Profession, “… nobody but you can suddenly turn into the green old man who looks as if he had been boiled in bread & milk, and who sings sentimental ballads in a throaty voice. … The public will take anything from you as long as you are your inimitable self & not bothering yourself to do justice to my confounded foolishnesses, which dont matter at all.”7 Shaw continually admonished Harley Granville Barker for suppressing and restraining the actors “when they pulled out all their stops.” “The perfect producer lets his actors act,” Shaw argued, and quoted William Reed, conductor and violinist: “The first duty of a conductor is to let the band play” (W 267). After interrupting Barker's last dress rehearsal of Androcles, Shaw proceeded to completely alter the production, changing it “from a comedy into an extravaganza” while Barker watched “the destruction of his month's work with a face that registered amusement and annoyance in about equal degree” (M 108). Desmond MacCarthy wrote that all of Shaw's characters possessed a “temperamental quality” of being “always on the verge of lyrical excitement” which brought with it “sudden fluency and emphasis of speech.”8 Shaw wanted his actors to match the vitality and passionate expression of his characters. He wrote, “I was continually struggling with the conscientious effort of our players to underdo their parts lest they should be considered stagey” (W 221).

If the characters in Shaw's didactic plays, which relied heavily on vocal expression, were to merely state ideas, the audience would soon be bored. According to Shaw, modern man's aversion to reality caused “the great dramatic poets … to produce plays of extraordinary interest in order to induce our audiences of shirkers and dreamers to swallow the pill” (M 91). To get his ideas across successfully, Shaw combined intellect with emotion to create “passions of the mind” (M 435). Because the “finer” kind of emotion would not “run through the wellworn channels of speech,” he evolved what he called “intellectual speech patterns” which carried his characters above the levels of realistic dialogue.9 Intellectual passion was, he believed, the finest possible emotion; all of his stage heroes possessed it to some degree: “… not for a moment will you find in my plays any assumption that reason is more than an instrument. What you will find, however, is the belief that intellect is essentially a passion” (M 435). In later plays, like Back to Methuselah and Far Fetched Fables, he went even further with his theme of intellectual passion. He wrote, “Intellect has ecstasies which will finally supersede the orgasms of physical passion as the climaxes of human happiness” (M 443). Meisel writes that in Shaw's “drama of ideas … the union of passion and intellect culminates in something one has to call vision” (M 446).

Dame Sybil Thorndike feels that the key to acting in a Shaw play is to become emotional about the ideas that the character is expressing; the ideas are the passion:

This passion of Shaw which is communicated to us is the height of passion. Falling in love is tame to it; in fact, it is the love passion transmuted, and that, I believe, is the secret of the extraordinary hold he has on my generation knowingly and on the younger generation unknowingly; something bigger than oneself to work for.10

In a magazine interview, the American actress Hilda Spong expressed the same view, but with seemingly less understanding, “My own experience in acting Shaw parts is that the author insists that women are mental in spite of their emotions, and that their emotions are more or less a part of their mental campaign against man.”11 If actresses or audiences had difficulty with the “new intellectual speech channels,” they would, in time, become accustomed to their melody. Shaw expected that his new patterns of speech would at first seem “strange and artificial”12 and equated himself with Wagner in this respect:

I can compare the effect to nothing but that made by our Italian opera people twenty years ago when they first tried Wagner, and had a theory that his music was very wonderful and strange and important and original, but could not for the life of them catch the melody or follow the harmony of it.13

It seemed logical to Shaw that his plays, like good musical compositions, would become more popular on their fifth or sixth hearing.

All of these factors—symbolism, superhuman characters, and intellectual speech patterns—point to a style of delivery which is rhetorical rather than realistic. Shaw states:

To me the play is only the means, the end being the expression of feeling by the arts of the actor, the poet, the musician. Anything that makes this expression more vivid, whether it be versification, or an orchestra, or a deliberately artificial delivery of the lines, is so much to the good for me, even though it may destroy all the verisimilitude of the scene.14

Special vocal skills were needed to keep the audiences attentive during the long speeches. Shaw explained to William Poel that the long speech about liquidations in the last scene of John Bull's Other Island was the most technically difficult and must be “forced on them a little by adroit intensifications here and there.”15 When directing actors not skilled in these techniques, Shaw was at first baffled; to Annie Russell who was playing Major Barbara, he wrote, “I am afraid to suggest anything as to your best way of handling it, because I do not know exactly how you get your effects, except that it is not in my rather rhetorical, public-speaker kind of way.”16 Although Shaw clearly understood the differences in speaking for film as opposed to the stage, Gabriel Pascal's widow claimed that Shaw criticized Rex Harrison, during the filming of Major Barbara, for “delivering verse passages in a colloquial, cup-and-saucer manner, rather than declaiming them deliberately” as he intended.17

Originating with the scripts of T. W. Robertson, the “cup-and-saucer” drama, a contrast to the “tea pot school” of Mrs. Siddons and John Kemble, was an attempt to find comedy in contemporary life and realistic characters. It was, for Shaw, a natural and probably justified reaction to the abuses of the old rhetorical and poetical drama in which “playwrights wrote declamatory parts for actors as composers did for singers or violinists, to display their technical virtuosity” (W 224). The actors, who cared little about their material, were concerned primarily with exhibiting their grand acting effects. Shaw, however, had no use for Robertson's drawing room realism “which effectually broke the tradition of stagey acting, and has left us at the present moment with a rising generation of actors who do not know their business.”18 By making “a virtue of reserved force” (W 224), the cup-and-saucer school finally produced young actors who, having no acquaintance or training in the old rhetorical style, had no force to reserve:

… now the Kendals are replaced by couples equal to them in dress, manners, good looks, and domestic morality, but subject to the disadvantages of not possessing in their two united persons as much power of acting as there was in the tip of Mrs Kendal's little finger-nail.19

Their lack of skill in execution made Shakespeare “physically impossible” (W 135). Touching only the surface of life, the cup-and-saucer realism dealt with the common emotions that would be expressed in a drawing room and produced, according to Shaw, “a detestable atmosphere of candidature for social promotion.”20 Shaw explained that with the dramas of Ibsen, which required once more “the atmosphere of poetry, imagination, tragedy, irony, pity, terror, and all the rest of it,” came a need for the skill of the old rhetorical school: “and now the people want a change from the gentleman to the actor.”21

Equating his own plays with Ibsen's in this respect, Shaw aligned himself with the techniques of the old rhetorical school, despite its association with staginess. The new actor of the cup-and-saucer school, skilled only in proper drawing room speech, was of no use to Shaw; he wrote to Granville Barker regarding casting: “Keep your worms for your own plays; and leave me the drunken, stagey, brassbowelled barnstormers my plays are written for” (M 94). The old school rhetorical actors that Shaw most admired were Barry Sullivan, Adelaide Ristori, and Tommaso Salvini: “I never saw great acting until I saw him [Sullivan]; and from him and from Salvini and Adelaide Ristori I learned my stage technique and what great acting can do” (W 277). The effect achieved was one in which the actors convinced the audience that they were “sustaining bodily and vocal exertions which are, as a matter of fact, physically impossible.”22 William Archer describes the effect as “thrilling, startling, electrifying, beyond anything dreamt of on our humdrum realistic stage. It was not imitation—it was passion incarnate” (M 433).

Shaw claimed that so little was remembered of this great acting in London that when he began writing plays, he was “at once set down as ignorant of stage technique” and his plays were “denounced as no plays.” Instead, Shaw had “gone back to Shakespear and the sixteenth century,” starting from there “as a confirmed classic” (W 277). Shaw claimed to have gone back not only to Shakespeare, but also to the Bible, Bunyan, Walter Scott, Dickens, Dumas père, Mozart, and Verdi (W 268). One must recall the Biblical cadences of Joan's passionate speeches in Saint Joan which require a sophistication of technique unknown to a simple country girl. The methods that his plays required, which to the Kembles or Mrs. Siddons “would have seemed the merest routine,” were “unleadinglady-like barnstorming” to late-Victorian leading ladies (W 221).

The rhetorical style of execution desired by Shaw places primary emphasis on the language of the play and requires grand effects in speech. Sir Lewis Casson describes this “tradition of style” as including

… a much wider range of pitch, much more use of melody in conveying significance and meaning, and definite unwritten rules on phrasing (rhetorical punctuation, one might call it), on elision and on the carrying on of the final consonant, and so on.23

Meisel finds the old rhetorical mode emerging in Shaw's work in three ways: “ceaseless pointmaking,” “shifts into more formal and overtly poetic styles,” and “set-piece declamations” (M 436). Shaw wrote to his German translator Siegfried Trebitsch that Shavian stage effects were based on continual pointmaking: “I remember every word they [the characters] say, and keep alluding to these sayings pages after you have forgotten them” (M 436). The shift into formal and poetic style, a device of the Elizabethans, is used “to achieve heightened intensity,” an example being the epilogue to Saint Joan in which “Cauchon, Dunois, the Archbishop, Warwick, De Stogumber, the Inquisitor, the soldier who gave Joan a cross, the Executioner, and King Charles kneel successively and chant Joan's praises” (M 438). Resembling the operatic aria, the set speech is intellect made passionate and occurs at the climax of an argument or event; examples are Lina Sczcepanowska's rejection of bourgeois domesticity in Misalliance, and Mrs. George's trance in Getting Married.

The plays of the eighteenth and nineteenth century written in the old rhetorical mode were strictly dramas of the passions. “The actor's part was conceived as a succession of states of feeling, and he acted Joy, Grief, Fear, Anger, Pity, Scorn, Hatred, Jealousy, Wonder, and Love …” (M 431). Because his plays required this technique, Shaw claimed to be part of the classic tradition:

For no uncommissioned author can write for an idiosyncratic style and technique: he knows only the classical one. He must, like Shakespear, assume an executant who can perform and sustain certain physical feats of deportment, and build up vocal climaxes with his voice through a long crescendo of rhetoric.24

While adopting the rhetorical tradition for the execution of his plays, Shaw added the concept of passion as an idea, intellectual passion, to make the style suit his needs. The rhetoric of ideas added “wit, irony, argument, and farcical anticlimax to the passionate declamation” (M 8). Using the poetic and rhetorical effects of the passionate verse drama within the structure of his modern, didactic comedies, Shaw made good vocal technique a necessity for his actors.

In addition to the concept of intellectual passion, Shaw added a new concept of the classic hero. Differing from the realistic, drawing-room hero, Shaw's hero was capable of rising to the poetic heights of the higher passions; Shaw wrote that his classical hero was one “whose passions are those which have produced the philosophy, the poetry, the art, and the statecraft of the world,” not those who “have produced its weddings, coroners' inquests, and executions” (M 115). Because he rose to the heights of passion only at rare moments, for effect, Shaw's hero also differed from the incredible hero of the old rhetorical drama who was always “soaring.” Shaw demanded a new, credible hero, one “in whom we can recognize our own humanity,” instead of the rhetorical hero who was “walking, talking, eating, drinking, sleeping, making love and fighting single combat in a monotonous ecstasy of continuous heroism.”25 Since Shaw's hero touched “the summits” only at rare moments, the Shavian actor needed to find levels of delivery suitable to the prosaic as well as the poetic moments; he needed the delivery skills of both schools.26

Laurence Irving's failure to find the prosaic levels in the role of Brassbound in Captain Brassbound's Conversion destroyed, for Shaw, the realism of Brassbound's normal moments in addition to discrediting the poetic ones. In a letter to Irving,27 Shaw explained the difference in the normal conditions of Brassbound and Irving:

Brassbound Irving
Prosaic energy 100 0
Poetic energy 0 100

Brassbound's condition was “much more favorable to a good performance than Irving's,” for his “prosaic energy may be intensified by passion at the crises of the play until it becomes poetic.”28 Irving, not possessing any prosaic energy in his normal state, had relied on poetic energy throughout, and thus the truly poetic moments had been lost.

Because acting, for Shaw, depended on “the pretence that the character is you, not on the pretence that you are the character,”29 he suggested that Irving extend his own personality so that characters like Brassbound would be more accessible to him. For when Irving, in his present condition, had worked on the pretence that Brassbound was himself, he had created a character with great powers of poetic expression and no prosaic power:

… I think the difficulty can be got over with your present resources if you can induce yourself to take sufficient interest in life as a whole to seek the powers of artistic expression for all its phases as you have already sought it for its romantic & poetic phases.30

This advice applies also to Shavian actors skilled only in prosaic expression. Shaw did not intend that the actor play himself on the stage, but that he rearrange his own qualities to closely resemble those of the character; he was not to substitute himself for the character, but to enter into it.31 For Irving, this meant finding the everyday prosaic levels of life. For many actors, it means expanding their own personalities to heroic stature. Dame Sybil Thorndike stressed the importance of this expansion:

It is easier to say of the Great People: “Oh, they're human, just like us, nothing to be afraid of. Lear, Hamlet, Medea, bring them all down to the level of perfect ladies and gentlemen.” How wrong—how wrong! Actors must themselves be stretched—made into giants. None of us can really do it, except maybe a few geniuses, but we have all got to try.32

Shaw's plays require actors with considerable training in delivery and the ability to play at all emotional levels from the realistic to the heroic: “… my plays require … great virtuosity in sudden transitions of mood that seem to the ordinary actor to be transitions from one ‘line’ of character to another” (W 32). As a playwright who claimed that a primary function of a good play was “to provide an exhibition of the art of acting,”33 he worked to provide good material for the actor:

If you want to flatter me you must not tell me that I have saved your soul by my philosophy. Tell me that, like Shakespear, Molière, Scott, Dumas, and Dickens, I have provided a gallery of characters which are realer to you than your own relations and which successive generations of actors and actresses will keep alive for centuries. …

(W 242)

Shaw's love for the art of acting, especially that of the heroic kind, was one of the reasons for the rhetorical style in his plays. Caesar and Cleopatra, he said, was his attempt “to pay an installment of the debt that all dramatists owe to the art of heroic acting.”34 “My plays,” he stated, “must be acted, and acted hard.”35 Capable “of seizing on every emotional impulse” and amplifying it as a microphone amplifies sound, the greatest actors could also, Shaw claimed, deliver it “with a muscular articulation which gives it an impressive driving power: The story of Mrs Siddons terrifying the shop assistant by the intensity with which she asked ‘Will it wash?’ is quite probable.”36 It was great actors with these qualities that Shaw wanted for his plays.

In Lillah McCarthy Shaw found a contemporary actress with the histrionic skills he saw as vital to his theatre. With her love of “verbal music in its loftiest ranges,” she was attracted to both the subject matter and style of Shaw's plays, and “created the first generation of Shavian heroines with dazzling success” (W 223-24). In addition to creating the roles of Ann Whitefield and Doña Ana in Man and Superman, Jennifer Dubedat in The Doctor's Dilemma, Margaret Knox in Fanny's First Play, Lavinia in Androcles, and Annajanska in the play of the same name, she played Julia Craven in The Philanderer, Nora in John Bull's Other Island, and Gloria Clandon in You Never Can Tell (M 113). Always the passionate, commanding woman, she played these parts “exactly as she would have played Belvidera in Venice Preserved if anyone had thought of reviving that or any other of Mrs Siddons' great parts for her” (W 223).

For Forbes Robertson, “the classic actor of our day,” Shaw wrote Caesar and Cleopatra.37 He alone possessed the “simplicity, dignity, grace, and musical speech” of the “Olympian region where the classic actor is at home.”38 It was his power of poetic expression that Shaw wanted for his plays: “Forbes Robertson is the only actor I know who can find out the feeling of speech from its cadence.”39

Sir Lewis Casson claimed that Granville Barker, who had studied elocution as a child, also possessed the technical skill necessary for Shaw's plays:

In speech especially he had an inspired knowledge of the exact melody and stress that would convey the precise meaning and emotion he wanted, and a power of so analyzing it in technical form that he could pass it on to others. And with this he had at his command all the devices of rhetoric with which the actor or speaker can rouse the curiosity, the attention, the tears or the laughter of an audience.40

In a talk given for the British Broadcasting Company in July 1951, Casson deplored the vocal skills of the younger generation of actors who lacked the techniques of rhetorical delivery. With no tradition of good stage speech to fall back on, the modern actor was becoming inaudible: “What is the value of fine writing in the theatre if the actors by their speech reduce it to the commonplace?” Very likely Casson did not know of the remark of an actor-playwright of the next generation, Noel Coward, who in the coronation year of 1953 had played King Magnus in a successful revival of The Apple Cart in London. Coward had arrived for rehearsal word-perfect, but still did not find Shaw easy to play. “I knew the words,” he said, “but it took me a while to discover how to say them; playing Shaw is a question of remembering your scales, because you can't do a long Shavian speech in a monotone.”41 But Coward had learned what to do intuitively. Without actors and actresses like Lillah McCarthy, Granville Barker, Louis Calvert, Robert Loraine, and others, all trained in rhetorical stage speech, Casson thought, Shaw could not have achieved such effective productions of his plays at the Royal Court Theatre.

If Shaw required actors trained in this “tradition of style,” “a tradition that there is an art of stage speech as definite and distinct from the speech of the street and drawing-room as the part of opera-singing or ballet is from everyday life,”42 he also clearly desired believable characters within the style: “The function of the actor is to make the audience imagine for the moment that real things are happening to real people.”43 It was not enough for the actor to get across the meaning of the lines in an interesting way; Shaw criticized Marvin Harvey, who was playing Erhart in John Gabriel Borkman, as “not experienced enough to know that the actor's business is not to supply an idea with a sounding board, but with a credible, simple, and natural human being to utter it when its time comes and not before.”44 Shaw wanted his characters to be “played naturally,” and not as stage types.45 He warned Charles Charrington of his “impulse to describe the character rhetorically—quite a different thing from identifying it with yourself.”46 Possessing an excellent style of delivery was not sufficient; Shaw criticized Kate Rorke for falling back on her style, which was “all very intelligent, and very musical, and very plastic,” but not nearly as interesting as her natural smile during the curtain call.47

At the Court Theatre, Shaw and Barker seem to have achieved both rhetorical execution and believability. Desmond MacCarthy wrote that the acting at the Court “pleased from the first.” Yet the same actors, appearing in productions at other theatres, returned to “normal insignificance.”48 MacCarthy attributed the success of the Court Theatre acting to the “general theory of dramatic production”:

The aim of the management throughout was truth as opposed to effect. The ideas which regulated every detail, decided the importance of each scene and the prominence of each character was a recognition of the truth that in order to make others feel you must feel yourself, and to feel yourself you must be natural. … Now that is not the usual process of production where the method is one of disguising sham sentiment and incongruous utterences by teaching actors to carry them off. … The players [at the Court] have been trained not to “act” in this sense. The suprisingly good quality of the acting has been mainly due to the fact that the producers have taken pains to see that the actors should have nothing inane or affected set them to say and do; and that the parts should be capable of being acted well, that is to say, naturally and sincerely, from beginning to end.49

This encomium to Court Theatre acting is, as Sir Lewis Casson claimed, more wonderful than MacCarthy intended,

… for in saying that the acting was entirely natural and not calculated for effect, he testified that what was perhaps the most calculated and stylized acting I have ever known had succeeded in its effect, since it gave so discerning a critic the illusion of pure naturalism and perfect sincerity.50

At the Court Theatre, more than at any other place and time, Shaw succeeded in producing his plays with characters who appeared realistic to the audiences and who possessed, at the same time, emotional ranges from the prosaic to the heroic. That impact would not have been possible without actors who were skilled in the rhetorical style of delivery. One can play Shaw otherwise, but the effect is not Shavian.


  1. Bernard Shaw, Preface to The Six of Calais, The Bodley Head Shaw, VI (London 1973), 974.

  2. E. J. West, ed., Shaw on Theatre (New York, 1958), p. 198. Further references will be incorporated into the text as W.

  3. Martin Meisel, Shaw and the Nineteenth Century Theatre (Princeton, 1963), pp. 92-93. Further references will be incorporated into the text as M.

  4. Sidney Albert, “More Shaw Advice to the Players of Major Barbara,” Theatre Survey: the American Journal of Theatre History, XI, (May 1970), 75.

  5. Dan H. Laurence, ed., Collected Letters, 1898-1910 (New York, 1972), p. 690.

  6. Albert, 72.

  7. Letter from Shaw to William Wyes, 5 June 1903. Sotheby Auction Catalogue, for sale dated Tuesday, 25th July, 1978.

  8. Desmond MacCarthy, The Court Theatre, 1904-1907 (London, 1907), p. 51.

  9. Dan H. Laurence, ed., Collected Letters, 1874-1897 (New York, 1965), p. 493.

  10. Raymond Mander and Joe Mitchenson, eds., Theatrical Companion to Shaw (New York, 1955), p. 13.

  11. Hilda Spong, “Working with Pinero, Barrie, and Shaw,” Theatre Magazine (July-August, 1920), n.p.

  12. Laurence, Collected Letters, 1874-1897, p. 493.

  13. Ibid., p. 779

  14. Bernard Shaw, Our Theatre in the Nineties, I (London, 1932), 96.

  15. Laurence, Collected Letters, 1898-1910, p. 642.

  16. Ibid., p. 583.

  17. Albert, 79.

  18. Shaw, Our Theatre in the Nineties, II, 237.

  19. Shaw, Our Theatre in the Nineties, I, 279.

  20. Shaw, Our Theatre in the Nineties, III, 6.

  21. Shaw, Our Theatre in the Nineties, I, 279.

  22. Bernard Shaw, Complete Prefaces (London, 1965), p. 791.

  23. Mander and Mitchenson, p. 291.

  24. Toby Cole and Helen K. Chinoy, eds., Actors on Acting (New York, 1949), p. 350.

  25. Bernard Shaw, “The Heroic Actors,” Play Pictorial (October 1907), p. 110. Reprinted in Mander and Mitchenson's The Theatrical Companion to Shaw.

  26. Ibid., p. 110.

  27. Laurence, Collected Letters, 1898-1910, p. 210.

  28. Ibid., p. 210.

  29. Ibid., p. 209.

  30. Ibid., p. 210.

  31. Shaw, Our Theatre in the Nineties, I, 158.

  32. Mander and Mitchenson, p. 13.

  33. Shaw, Complete Prefaces, p. 776.

  34. Shaw, “The Heroic Actors,” Play Pictorial, p. 110.

  35. Alan Dent, Bernard Shaw and Mrs. Patrick Campbell (London, 1952), p. 18.

  36. Shaw, Complete Prefaces, p. 782.

  37. Shaw, “The Heroic Actors,” Play Pictorial, p. 110.

  38. Ibid., p. 110.

  39. Ibid., p. 110.

  40. Mander and Mitchenson, pp. 290-91.

  41. Sheridan Morley, A Talent to Amuse (New York, 1969), p. 360.

  42. Mander and Mitchenson, p. 291.

  43. Cole, p. 348.

  44. Shaw, Our Theatre in the Nineties, III, 128.

  45. Albert, 72.

  46. Laurence, Collected Letters, 1898-1910, p. 152.

  47. Shaw, Our Theatre in the Nineties, II, 101.

  48. MacCarthy, p. 2.

  49. Ibid., pp. 3-4.

  50. Mander and Mitchenson, p. 292.

Barbara J. Small is currently teaching acting at Bergen Community College.

Rodelle Weintraub (essay date May 1980)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6285

SOURCE: Weintraub, Rodelle. “The Irish Lady in Shaw's Plays.” Shaw Review 23, no. 2 (May 1980): 77-89.

[In the following essay, Weintraub identifies Shaw's wife, Charlotte Payne Townsend, as a model for the strong, independent female characters in his plays.]

Unlike most playwrights since Shakespeare, “St. Bernard,” patron saint of the women's movement, as Bernard Shaw jestingly referred to himself, wrote plays for strong, vital women. Often the play's central figure, his woman does not easily fall into the bitch goddess, virgin mother, whore, ingenue, nor castrating neurotic formula. His female characters generate energy and motivate action rather than merely react to forces buffeting them. When asked how he came to write roles for real women, he responded that he had never imagined women as different from himself. He frequently based his characterizations, however, not merely on himself but on persons he knew and episodes from their lives. Until now critics have, for the most part, overlooked a very significant model for his female character development, one who contributed much of the inspiration for the strong, independent women portrayed in his later plays as well as for his royal wives—his wife.1

In a paradox equal to any he put on the stage, Shaw, in 1898, entered into a celibate marriage with a woman for whom he felt intense physical desire and whom, two years earlier, he had warned, “Don't fall in love: be your own, not mine or anyone else's. From the moment that you can't do without me, you're lost, …”2 For those who believe that “any sexual relationship [which] could not provide an alternative world, made largely of words, tended to disgust him,”3 the paradox lies not in the celibacy of the marriage but in Shaw's having married a capitalist, the Irish millionairess Charlotte Payne Townshend. To those who have no doubt as to Shaw's interest in physical sex, basing their confidence in Shaw's sexual agility on the extent and variety of his activities prior to his marriage, and his own comments on his normal sexual interests, the paradox lies not in his marrying wealth but in his adding celibacy to his other asceticisms. Shaw himself had written Frank Harris,

… I associated [sexual intercourse] always with delight, and had no scruples nor remorses nor misgivings of conscience. … Sexual experience seemed a necessary completion of human growth; and I was not attracted by virgins as such. I preferred women who knew what they were doing.

… I tried all the experiments and learned what there was to be learnt from them. They were “all for love”; for I had no spare money.4

But for his wife, the master of paradox chose a virgin who had plenty of money but who would allow no experimentation except with celibacy.

Prior to their marriage,5 the Shaws had agreed that each would pay a proportion of their joint expenses, each would pay for his or her individual expenses,6 and each would maintain separate residences. In addition they agreed—at his insistence—that Charlotte settle an annuity on Shaw's mother and—at Charlotte's insistence—that they would not consummate the marriage. (This was not the first instance in which Shaw and a woman attempted to draw up an agreement for living together. Earlier Annie Besant had drawn up a contract for them which he found so objectionable that he rejected it and Besant.) Although drawing up a business contract prior to a marriage occurred as infrequently then as it does now, neither part of the Shaw's agreement then seemed unreasonable.

Not yet a wealthy, established playwright, he had produced his first play only six years earlier and could not know how long his new financial success would continue. Until age 29, he had, except for a brief period before he had left Ireland, remained unemployed. Housed as a dependent child long past the time when a young man should earn his own income, he felt an obligation to make sure his mother would not end her days in want. Even though Lucinda Shaw, as trustee of a small inheritance he had received, had actually expended his own funds on him, he felt as if she had supported him. Two years earlier, he had protested to Charlotte, “It irritates me, this way of regarding you as an excellent settlement for me, as if you were a house or a sinecure.”7 He did not want it to appear that he would, through marriage, substitute the support of one woman for that of another.

The dangers of a late pregnancy combined with inadequate means of birth control made Charlotte's insistence on celibacy, at least at first, appear not unreasonable. Celibate marriage was not, then, an unusual demand. Repressed Victorian women and men, carefully taught that sex was not a suitable activity for a proper person, had little difficulty in going one step beyond sex-for-procreation-only to no-sex-at-all. Moreover, as a child, Charlotte had witnessed her parents' bitter marriage in which her mother, whom Charlotte detested, had used sex as a weapon to tyrannize Charlotte's beloved father. Still a virgin at 41, Charlotte had not experienced any reversal of her repugnance for sex until visiting Italy three years before the marriage. There she became infatuated with Axel Munthe, an attractive Swedish physician who practiced medicine and occasional seduction in Naples. He treated her for her psychosomatic illnesses, encouraged her to contribute to his clinic for the poor and to other needy causes in Naples, flattered and wooed her and made her forget her loathing of and fear of sex as well as her headaches. She assumed his interest was sincere, and she was willing, even eager, to have an affair with him. But when he realized the intensity of her interest, he rejected her gift of her portrait—which was later to hang above the mantel at Ayot St. Lawrence—and bolted, leaving her not only rejected and frustrated, but more convinced than ever that sex was a weapon used cruelly to injure.

One would expect that such an unusual marriage and Charlotte herself would have had some effect upon Shaw the playwright who, sooner or later, used almost everyone he knew as models for characters in his plays.8 Not only does she provide motivation for one character type, Shaw actually uses two Charlottes: the pre-marriage Charlotte and Charlotte-the-wife.

Charlotte first appears in Captain Brassbound's Conversion (1899). Shaw began the play eleven months after the marriage and finished it three months later. He had intended it for Ellen Terry who, after the birth of her first grandchild had complained that no one would ever write a play for her now that she had become a grandmother, and whose Lyceum Theatre had fallen on hard times following the injury and enforced absence from the stage of actor-manager Henry Irving. Shaw, during his own protracted convalescence from surgery following an infected foot, had read travel books including Mary Kingsley's best-selling book about her African adventures, Travels in West Africa. Charlotte, an indefatigable traveller too, would drag Shaw, once his leg healed and for as long as her health allowed, with her on her journeys. Combining elements of Shelley's The Witch of Atlas (the title Shaw had originally intended for the play), Ellen Terry, Mary Kingsley and Charlotte, and her sister, Mary Cholmondeley, Shaw created Lady Cicely Wayneflete, the only female character in Captain Brassbound. This asexual heroine travels alone, never has difficulties with the natives who always want to marry her, and manages the ruffians hired to escort her as if they were a group of troublesome, mischievous schoolboys who need a mother's firm hand, sewing needle and hot compresses. Lady Cicely expects to get her own way and, like Ellen Terry, the actress for whom he intended the role, and the imperious Irish millionairess he married, always does. Lady Cicely, like the pre-marriage Charlotte, cherishes her independence and the power it affords her. In the last act of the play, however, Brassbound tempts her to relinquish that independence and marry him, not because he wants a wife but because he needs a commander. Marrying Cicely provides the only way he can take service under her. When she exclaims she is not in love with him, he responds that commanders are not supposed to love their subordinates. Lady Cicely “learning for the first time in her life what terror is … finds that he is unconsciously mesmerizing her,” and says “Oh, you are dangerous.”9 While he offers her the possibility of increasing her power as his commander, she cannot be sure that what he offers will increase what power she already has or cause her to lose it. Unlike Charlotte, however, Lady Cicely does not succumb to marriage. Brassbound, having learned the secret of command—never to love another person—rushes off when he hears his ship's cannon fire, calling after himself, “You were made to be something better than the wife of Black Paquito.” The not-at-all-heartbroken Cicely's last words are, “How glorious! How glorious! And what an escape” (2:416-17). Ronald Bryden sees in this play Shaw's “conversion [from] a neglected, emotionally wounded son to romance.”10 But in what romance does the unmarried middle-aged heroine breathe a sigh of relief when the attractive, younger man rejects her? Rather one might see in it Shaw's struggle to adjust to a marriage in which he doubts his worth as Charlotte's husband and worries as to whether he has gained not a wife but a commander.

To late-twentieth century audiences, this turn-of-the-century heroine may appear too soft, too manipulative and too stereotypically feminine. If one looks past the veneer that made Lady Cicely a character her contemporary audience might accept, one finds a woman “utterly devoid” in Shaw's words, “of sexual interest,”11 who controls, not by feminine wiles, but by the power of her mind. Like St. Joan and Shaw's other born bosses, Lady Cicely could see clearer and farther than those around her.

In contrast to Lady Cicely, Nora, the so-called “heiress” in John Bull's Other Island (1904), is weak, passive and parochial, as insular as her island. Rather than seeing clearly, she does not “see” at all, but lives on false hopes and lost dreams. No hero, Nora is a victim. Although more typical of the unmarried, unwealthy Irish spinster than the assertive, confident millionairess Shaw had married, Nora is a Charlotte reduced to absurdity.

When Broadbent tries to propose to her, she cries, echoing feelings Charlotte had held before her marriage, “I won't get married at all. What is it but heartbreak and disappointment?” (2:1002). Broadbent assures her that his love affairs ended long before and they are going to have “a four-square home; man and wife; comfort and common sense. And plenty of affection” (2:1004). A description of Shaw and Charlotte? He also tells her that he has never asked another woman to marry him because, although he had loved many times before, all of the women were married already—as had been Jenny Patterson, Florence Farr, Janet Achurch, May Morris and Annie Besant. When Broadbent hugs Nora, she protests, “I dont like it.” He tells her she will acquire the taste for hugging by degrees for “… It's an absolute necessity of my nature to have somebody to hug occasionally …”(2:1005)—a statement reminiscent of Shaw's writing to Charlotte when she was on a vacation shortly before their marriage “… the vindictive Irish woman has written at last. Ha! Ha! If only I had her here in these arms: all her ribs would crack,”12 and, anticipating her return “… I shall present myself at the Terrace and crush in all your ribs into an embrace that has been accumulating for two months.”13 Perhaps Charlotte, like Nora, didn't like even those embraces. She returned a day later than Shaw had expected her, and then sent him a note. Since she had rushed back from the Continent, cutting her vacation short in order to care for him, her behavior seems extraordinarily cool. “Well, here I am anyway now! Yes: I might have telegraphed: it was horrid of me. I am a wreck, mental & physical. Such a journey it was! … My dear—and your foot? Shall I go up to you, or will you come here, & when? Of course I am quite free—Charlotte.”14

Had she recognized herself, Charlotte, who in later life demonstrated no sense of humor, would hardly have appreciated Shaw's parody of her. Neither have critics examining the models for Shaw's characters identified Charlotte in Nora or Bernard Shaw's frustration in Broadbent's wooing.

In Getting Married (1908), Shaw examines several conventional and unconventional marital arrangements—although none of these marriages are celibate. In the first marriage described, the young couple, whose wedding gives the excuse for the gathering, decide they cannot possibly marry under the laws regulating marriage in England at that time. Instead they run off to draw up a contract spelling out each other's rights, responsibilities and liabilities. In the end, however, they find it far simpler to marry than to draw up such a document. The second marriage, that of the Bishop and his wife, the bride's parents, reflects the apparently conventional, long-standing, stable and by middle-class standards, acceptable, marriage. The Bishop recognizes his attractiveness to other women without guilt, and without betraying his wife. She, a stereotypic middle-aged wife and mother, has absolute confidence in her husband and in monogamy. Leo, the wife in the third marriage, is in the process of divorcing Rejjy, her husband, whom she doesn't want to divorce. He feels he must give her her freedom to marry her lover, Sinjon, whom she does not want to marry. What Leo wants, as she tells them, is not only both of them but a few more. “I should like to have Rejjy for everyday, and Sinjon for concerts and theatres and going out in the evenings, and some austere saint for about once a year, and some perfectly blithering idiot of a boy to be quite wicked with. I so seldom feel wicked; and when I do, it's such a pity to waste it merely because it's too silly to confess to a real grown-up man” (3:572). Mrs. George has worked out a way to have all of these. And finally there is the refusal to marry by Lesbia Grantham, the character so much like the pre-marriage Charlotte.

Wealthy, well-educated, and fiercely independent, Lesbia has been courted insistently by Boxer, the General whom she refuses as frequently as he proposes. Charlotte, prior to her marriage, had been courted by two military men: Major Hutton and General Clery. When Hutton proposed, although she was burdened by the care of her detested mother and might have viewed what society would have considered a desirable marriage as a welcome escape, Charlotte refused. Undaunted, Hutton wrote to her still trying to convince her to accept him. But she answered him, “I have reluctantly arrived at the conclusion that we are not sufficiently suited to one another to make it unwise that we should be more than friends.”15 He retreated. After her mother's death, General Clery, an acquaintance Charlotte had met at Aldershot, invited her to visit Camberley, the Staff College. Clery had a house and a household staff, and felt she would enjoy the rest and care. He assured her he would be very busy. She accepted and found she enjoyed his company and his home. When he seemed interested in her as more than a friend, she bolted, leaving England to visit India. A year later Clery reminded her of her promise to visit him and she agreed to drive out to his estate at Aldershot. He proposed. She seemed, according to her biographer, to want to love him. She did like him, but, in the end, she refused. Like Hutton, Clery did not at first accept her refusal and wrote asking her to reconsider. But she still said no. She had to be free. When General Boxer proposes to Lesbia for the tenth time, she tells him, “I'm very particular in my belongings. I like to have my own house, and to have it to myself. I have a very keen sense of beauty and fitness and cleanliness and order. I am proud of my independence and jealous for it …” (3:559). Lesbia, unlike Charlotte, wants children but not at the price of having to have a husband too. To the General's “But, great Heavens, the natural appetites—” Lesbia coolly answers, “As I have said before, an English lady is not the slave of her appetites …” (3:561). One need merely substitute Irish lady for English lady to hear Charlotte.

Immediately after Getting Married, Shaw wrote Misalliance (1909), the play in which he developed the character most like what we might now consider a “liberated” woman. In Lina Szczepanowska, independent in thought and action, blunt in speech, unsentimental, and unconventional in her attitude about sex, Shaw again used the fiercely independent, non-English Charlotte as model. Lina, however, does not confine herself to a backwater, cherishing her independence within a framework of conventional respectability. She seeks adventure and danger, for “… not a single day has passed without some member of my family risking his life—or her life. It's a point of honor with us to keep up the tradition …” (4:195). Whereas Charlotte inherited the means for her independence from her family, Lina inherited only the family tradition, and training as an acrobat and juggler. Although—or because—Lina does not conform to conventional standards, preferring trousers to dresses because “gowns … hamper me and make me feel ridiculous …” (4:195), all of the men fall in love with her, or at least feel physically attracted to her. They pursue her with offers honorable and not. Rather than fleeing her suitors as Charlotte had done, Lina considers what each has to offer as if she were contemplating a business deal. When Tarleton offers to have an affair with her, begging, “You know the kind of man I am, … I want to make a fool of myself?” she calmly asks, “How much will you pay?” and, after his response, whips out a notebook in which to record his name, age and offer. She tells him, “I keep a list of all my offers. I like to know what I'm considered worth” (4:202). Although he has made the highest offer yet, she rejects it and offers him, instead, friendship. Yet Tarleton's offer of an affair does not offend her, nor does Lord Summerhays's pleading with her not to reveal his having made love to her two years earlier, nor Bentley's trying to make love to her even though he is engaged. (He was upset and needed her comforting.) What does offend her is young Johnny Tarleton's offer of marriage. She explodes to his father:

… You seem to think of nothing but making love. … It is disgusting. It is not healthy. Your women are kept idle and dressed up for no other purpose than to be made love to. I have not been here an hour; and already everybody makes love to me as if because I am a woman it were my profession to be made love to. First you, old pal. I forgave you because you were nice about your wife. … Then you, Lord Summerhays, … ask me not to mention that you made love to me in Vienna two years ago. I forgave you because I thought you were an ambassador; and all ambassadors make love. … Then this young gentleman. He is engaged to this young lady; but no matter for that: he makes love to me because I carry him off in my arms when he cries. All these I bore in silence. But now comes your Johnny and tells me I'm a ripping fine woman and asks me to marry him. I, Lina Szczepanowska, MARRY him!!!!! I do not mind this boy: he is a child: he loves me: I should have to give him money and take care of him: that would be foolish, but honorable. I do not mind you, old pal: you are what you call an old—ouf! but you do not offer to buy me. … That is foolish too … but it is an adventure: it is not dishonorable. I do not mind Lord Summerhays: it was in Vienna: they had been toasting him at a great banquet: he was not sober. That is bad for the health; but it is not dishonorable. But your Johnny! Oh, your Johnny! with his marriage. He will do the straight thing by me. He will give me a home, a position. He tells me I must know that my present position is not one for a nice woman. This to me, Lina Szczepanowska! I am an honest woman: I earn my living. I am a free woman: I live in my own house. I am a woman of the world … I am strong: I am skilful: I am brave: I am independent: I am unbought: I am all that a woman ought to be. … And this Englishman! this linendraper! he dares to ask me to come and live with him in this rrrrrrrabbit hutch, and take my bread from his hand, and ask him for pocket money, and wear soft clothes, and be his woman! his wife! Sooner than that, I would stoop to the lowest depths of my profession. … I would … [imperil] my soul by the wicked lie of pretending to be somebody else. … This I would do sooner than take my bread from the hand of a man and make him the master of my body and soul. And so you may tell your Johnny to buy an Englishwoman: he shall not buy Lina Szczepanowska; and I will not stay in the house where such dishonor is offered me.


As Charlotte had done, Lina selects the suitor who needs her nurturing and, if necessary, her financial support. In the Polish aviatrix we can clearly see the Irish millionairess who ran from marriage until it gave her the opportunity to take care of someone who loved and needed her care even—or especially—if she might have to support him.

Shaw not only used the pre-marriage Charlotte as prototype for his independent women who shunned marriage or married only when they retained power over a man who needed care rather than sex, he also used Charlotte-the-wife. But he waited thirty years before he put her on the boards. After the marriage Shaw's affairs ended, although his flirtations continued for another 15 years. The only serious entanglement he got into during this time was with Stella Campbell, the actress known as Mrs. Pat. He became so enamored of her that he arranged to go off with her. But she stood him up, eloping instead with George Cornwallis-West. Shaw was mortified and furious. He returned to Charlotte and his flirtations ended. His affair—or desired affair—with Stella and his marriage to Charlotte both went on the stage when he wrote The Apple Cart in 1928 and inserted a scene about Mrs. Pat in which King Magnus visits his official mistress, Orinthia, with whom he enjoys sparkling conversation. Mrs. Pat, like Orinthia, had been married twice before she eloped with George Cornwallis-West rather than risk destroying her career by eloping with George Bernard Shaw. When the king tries to leave to have tea with Queen Jemima, Orinthia prevents him from doing so by wrestling with him. It makes for wonderful stage business and reflects an actual episode with Stella. One afternoon when he had been visiting her and decided to go home to have tea with his wife, Stella tried to prevent him by wrestling with him. As they rolled about on the floor, her maid walked in. In the play, Magnus, in explaining to Orinthia why he will not leave the queen for her—a reversal of the actual situation when Shaw tried to leave Charlotte for his Orinthia—justifies Shaw's remaining with Charlotte, the wife whom Orinthia has called an old cabbage. To her accusation that “Heaven is offering you a rose; and you cling to a cabbage” he replies, “What wise man, if you force him to choose between doing without roses and doing without cabbages, would not secure the cabbages? Besides all these old married cabbages were once roses; and though young things like you dont remember than, their husbands do …” (6:338-9).

By now married 30 years, Shaw through Magnus tells Charlotte, in response to Orinthia's asking why he will not leave Jemima for her, “The smallest derogation to Jemima's dignity would hit me like the lash of a whip across the face … she is a part of my real workaday self” and if she died “I shall have to carry on the best I can without her, though the prospect terrifies me” (6:343-4). Fifteen years after his attempt to exchange his cabbage for a rose, he had accepted and adjusted to his marriage and recognized the values of factors other than sexual satisfaction.

In 1934, Shaw wrote a play in which he used both Charlottes as prototypes for a leading character. There are too many similarities between Charlotte and Epifania Ognisanti di Parerga to be mere coincidence, yet it has not been noted before.16 Like Charlotte, Epifania, the title character in The Millionairess, has inherited her fortune from a father for whom she had a father fixation. Epifania falls in love with the foreign doctor who prefers treating charity patients to rich ladies, just as Charlotte had fallen in love with the Swedish Axel Munthe whose charity clinic was his main interest. Both women were born bosses. Epifania expects others to follow her commands. Charlotte, too, ran her household, brooking no interference, like the maitresse femme Shaw describes in his “Preface on Bosses” who “rules in a household by a sort of divine right” (6:849). The play is really about power, not Epifania's trading in her old model husband for a new one, but one especially revealing scene reflects on Shaw's relationship with his wife. Twenty-four years earlier, when the Shaws had been married a dozen years. Charlotte became very ill. She ran a high temperature that seemed to resist treatment and Shaw described her condition in a letter to Granville-Barker as “so moribund that I had to take serious measures. … So I fell on Charlotte with my fists in the most violent Swedish manner, and in spite of her protests that she could not bear to be touched, pummeled her and thumped her and banged her and kneaded her and wobbled her and rolled her about from head to foot with such miraculous effect that her temperature fell half a degree in ten minutes. … Next morning she was quite normal. …”17 This unusual treatment, reworked and parodied, becomes part of The Millionairess when Epifania complains about her husband's ineffectualness as a lover. “Well, he was handsome. He stripped well, unlike many handsome men. … I made a very common mistake. I thought this irresistible athlete would be an ardent lover. He was nothing of the kind. All his ardor was in his fists …” (6:892).18 Shaw, too, stripped well, as evidenced by the photographs he had enjoyed having taken of himself while in the nude.

In “The Good King Charles's Golden Days” (1938), the 82 year-old Shaw again declared his love for his now aged and ailing wife. Between Apple Cart and Charles, Charlotte's, as well as Shaw's, health had seriously deteriorated. While he had become anemic and had to have liver extract injections, and neither octogenarian was up to nor cared much for a vigorous social schedule, the toll was greater on Charlotte. In 1930, at age 74, she had suffered two falls within a few days. The first one merely bruised her ribs so that she yelped when embraced. (Shaw still couldn't do without someone to hug occasionally.) In the second fall, she cracked both her shoulder and hip bones although she did not break the joint itself. A year later, on a trip to Africa, the Shaws had an automobile accident in which the only one seriously hurt was Charlotte. She suffered multiple bruises to her back and legs and was invalided for so long that Shaw wrote his novella The Black Girl in Search of God while waiting for her to recover. By 1934 she suffered from bronchial trouble as well as the painful osteitis deformans which the injuries had aggravated and for which there was neither cure nor relief.

The second act of Good King Charles opens with Charles asleep, napping in his Queen's boudoir. Catherine of Braganza, Portuguese—not English—and aged 42, approximately the age of Charlotte when they married, enters, straightens the room, putting his clothes in order, and then awakens him by banging the door shut. When she asks him why he chooses her boudoir for his nap, he answers, “It is the only place where women cannot come after me.” To which she responds, “A wife is some use then, after all” (7:288). Early in the marriage, Charlotte had had to protect Shaw by turning away ardent young women who pursued him even to her doorstep. To the Queen's jealous questions about his mistresses, he answers “I am done with all bodies. They are all alike: … It is the soul and the brains that are different” (7:289). She then asks him why he spends so much time with her, more than he used to, while his brother and others used his absence to further their designs. He answers he is tired of the attentions of the courtiers. To his “Beloved: can anything I ever do make up to you for my unfaithfulness?” she replies, “What care I about your women? your concubines? your handmaidens? the servants of your common pleasure? They have set me free to be something more to you than they are or can ever be. You have never really been unfaithful to me” (7:291-2).

But Charles confesses, recalling Shaw and Mrs. Pat, “Yes, once. And on my honor nothing came of that: I never touched her. But she had some magic that scattered my wits: she made me listen for a moment to those who were always pressing me to divorce my patient wife and take a Protestant queen. But I could never have done it, though I was furious when she ran away from me and married Richmond” (8:292). For the rest of the scene, they discuss politics, the inability of anyone to rule the English, the need for her, should she outlive him, to return to Portugal where she can be a real ruler and not merely his wife, and his willingness at death to accept her religion which, as Charlotte's was unlike Shaw's, differed from Charles's. Throughout the scene, his concern for her wellbeing is not political but is personal and affectionate. And the scene ends with Charles's wish as he exits, “May the Queen live for ever!” (7:301).

Both Shaws knew the frail and pain-racked Charlotte could not live much longer. She died five years later (in 1943). Shaw lived seven years more. Even in his last plays, however, he continued to remember her.

In Buoyant Billions (1947), the young Charlotte lives again in the character of Clementina Buoyant, the holy woman who, when we first meet her in Act 2, has no husband and lives alone, having fled England, the father she adores and his wealth, and the suitors she does not desire. She explains to Junius Smith,19 the young man who has also fled England and has stumbled upon her abode, “I spent years waiting for someone to break my heart before I discovered that I haven't got one. I broke several men's hearts in the process. I came here to get rid of that sort of thing. I can stand almost anything except an English gentleman.” To which he responds, “And I can stand almost anything except an English gentlewoman” (7:327). When she finds herself falling in love with him, she flees her retreat in Panama, returning to England, much as Charlotte had fled England for India to escape General Clery. Junius follows her to London where they argue about marriage. She claims the possibility of her marrying him is complicated because she loves him and “I dare not marry a man I love. I should be his slave” (7:354). Although she repeats lines given to Grace Tranfield in The Philanderer, Shaw's second play, written before Shaw had met Charlotte, and also lines he had written to Charlotte a half-century earlier, warning her not to love him, nothing in Grace Tranfield's characterization suggests that her words were more than a Shavian crotchet or an escape. They allow a sexually active, philandering woman to get rid of a man with whom she had become bored. Buoyant Billions's Clementina goes on, telling Junius that, if she does marry, “There are rights I will give to no man over me.” Lest the audience not understand what rights, Shaw had the lawyer respond, “Conjugal rights. They cannot now be enforced …” (7:357). In the end she agrees to marry the man she can afford even if she does love him.

Finally, in 1950, the year he died, Shaw again used the pre-marriage Charlotte as the prototype for Serafina in Why She Would Not. Serafina is a wealthy, independent woman, strongly attached to her father, as represented by the family manse she inhabits and which she does not wish to move from nor have torn down. The born boss in this play is not Serafina, however, but Henry Bossborn, the suitor whose will Serafina cannot resist but whom she will not marry. Bossborn convinces her to leave the old house, level it, timber the woods, retire the old craftsmen, and do other things she at first refuses to do yet finds herself forced into agreeing to do because of his will. Only in her refusal to marry him does Bossborn fail to get his way. She refuses because, echoing Lesbia, she must be “mistress in my own home …” (7:676). In a final sequence, preserved in typescript only, and apparently deleted or omitted from the play before Shaw sent it to the printer, Bossborn and Serafina discuss sex and children. Serafina rejects both. In response to Bossborn's “… The world must be peopled,” Serafina's last words are, “Let it be peopled. But not by us” (7:679).

Through a half-century of playwriting, the Shaws had peopled a world, one in which he celebrated the apparent triumph of a marriage whose asexuality seemed to assure its failure. Through this world he revealed his affection for and dependence upon his independent Irish millionairess. Charlotte, and his declarations of love for her, will live, if not forever, for so long as Shaw's later plays are acted and read. Moreover, while using the stage as his only means of making love to his wife, Shaw developed some of the most vital and most independent women of the 20th century theatre.


  1. Arthur Nethercot in Men and Supermen (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1954, p. 266) does mention Shaw's “mirroring” of Charlotte in The Apple Cart and In Good King Charles's Golden Days, stating that “in his respect and admiration for his wife Shaw was always consistent so far as his public portrayal of her in his plays was concerned.” He also sees Charlotte in Lady Chavender in On The Rocks, or at least in the conversation between her and her husband, the Prime Minister, which, says Nethercot, “represents the gist of many conversations between” the Shaws. Nothing in Lady Chavender's personality, however, suggests Shaw modelled her after Charlotte. Nethercot does not mention the debt owed to the pre-marriage Charlotte.

  2. GBS to CPT, 7 November 1896, Dan H. Laurence, ed., Collected Letters, N.Y.: Dodd, Mead, 1965, I, 697.

  3. Michael Holroyd, Observer Review, London, 2 Nov. 1975, 24:1.

  4. Bernard Shaw to Frank Harris, London, 24th of June, 1930, quoted in The Portable Shaw, S. Weintraub, ed., Penguin Books, 1977, pp. 28-30.

  5. Bernard Shaw, Collected Letters, 1898-1910, Dan H. Laurence, ed., London, Max Reinhardt, 1972, II, 53.

  6. In 1910 Shaw had a lengthy dispute with the Inland Revenue which insisted that he pay taxes on Charlotte's income. He refused, claiming he had no way of knowing what her income was. Eventually the government accepted their filing separate tax forms but billed him for any shortages.

  7. GBS to CPT, 2 November 1896, Collected Letters, I, 693.

  8. See Weintraub, Rodelle, “Shaw's Celibate Marriage: Its Impact on His Plays,” Cahiers Victoriens et Edouardiens, October 1979 for a discussion of the evidence of celibacy in Shaw's plays and its effect upon them and his philosophy.

  9. Bodley Head Collected Plays with Their Prefaces, London, Max Reinhardt, 1970, vol. 2, pp. 416. All subsequent references to plays and prefaces are to this edition.

  10. “Exotic Lesson in Good Sense,” The Summer Season, Shaw Festival, 1979.

  11. GBS to Ellen Terry, 8 August 1899, Collected Letters, II, 98-99.

  12. Collected Letters, 1898-1910, p. 32.

  13. Collected Letters, 1898-1910, p. 37.

  14. Collected Letters, 1898-1910, p. 38.

  15. Janet Dunbar, Mrs. G.B.S.: A Portrait, N.Y.: Harper and Row, 1963, p. 58.

  16. Most critics recognize Beatrice Webb as the primary model for Epifania, as did I prior to this study.

  17. Mrs. G.B.S., p. 207.

  18. In another “coincidence,” Shaw made Alastair a boxer. Shaw, himself, as a young man had taken boxing lessons and several times in his novels and plays made use of that boxing experience and his own boxing interest. (See Shaw's Champions: G.B.S. and Prizefighting from Cashel Byron to Gene Tunney, Benny Green, London and New York, 1978.)

  19. Junius is one of the few characters the pre-Charlotte characters consider for marriage whose name does not begin with a B. His last name, however, Smith, is one Shaw had earlier used for Robert Smith, the hero in his autobiographical novel, Immaturity. The diminutives for Robert (Bob, Bobby and Bert) begin with a B as does Bernard, the name Shaw preferred and used rather than George.

Rodelle Weintraub, Assistant Professor of English at The Pennsylvania State University, adapted this paper from talks delivered at the 1979 IASAIL Triennial Conference, Maynooth, Ireland, July, 1979, and at the 1979 Modern Language Association Convention, San Francisco, December, 1979.

Elsie B. Adams (essay date 1982)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2982

SOURCE: Adams, Elsie B. “Heartless, Heartbroken, and Heartfelt: A Recurrent Theme in the Plays of Bernard Shaw.” English Literature in Translation 25, no. 1 (1982): 4-9.

[In the following essay, Adams considers the significance of Shaw's repeated use of “heart” in compound words and phrases throughout his plays, and the association of these terms with particular characters.]

It has been a critical cliché of long standing that Shaw is a writer of intellect, not passion—appealing to the brain and not to the heart. Shaw was of course aware of this critical opinion, and objected to it as an oversimplification of his matter and method. For example, in his satire on drama critics in the Epilogue to Fanny's First Play (1911), he has the appropriately named Bannal offer the opinion that Shaw is “Intellect without emotion.” In trying to guess the anonymous author of Fanny's First Play, the critics reject the notion that it might be Shaw:

… Poor as this play is, theres the note of passion in it. … Now Ive repeatedly proved that Shaw is physiologically incapable of the note of passion.
Yes, I know. Intellect without emotion. Thats right. I always say that myself. A giant brain, if you ask me; but no heart.(1)

Shaw then has the critic Gunn (a satire on the Star's Gilbert Cannan) object to the “crude medieval psychology” that makes a distinction between heart and brain, echoing Shaw's earlier statement of the same point in his Preface to Three Plays for Puritans (1900). In this Preface, Shaw brags, “As to philosophy, I taught my critics the little they know in my Quintessence of Ibsenism; and now they turn their guns—the guns I loaded for them—on me, and proclaim that I write as if mankind had intellect without will, or heart, as they call it. Ingrates: who was it that directed your attention to the distinction between Will and Intellect? Not Schopenhauer, I think, but Shaw” (p. xxi).

Though Shaw objected to the dichotomy between heart and brain, he in fact encouraged it in his numerous dramatic portraits of the heartless hero and the hero with a heart. He frequently juxtaposes the two character types, giving the edge to the heartless person, whom Shaw portrays as businesslike, self-sufficient, and sensible. Examples are Vivie Warren, Grace Tranfield, Captain Bluntschli, Don Juan, Henry Higgins, the Maiden in As Far As Thought Can Reach, the Ancients, “She” (Clementina Alexandra) and the Secondborn (Dick) in Buoyant Billions. His parade of heartless heroes from his earliest to his latest works suggests to us why critics might conclude that Shaw himself was all brain and no heart. As one reads the entire Shaw canon, one observes the recurrence of character types and situations along with the recurrence of words or phrases to identify them. In particular, “heartless,” “heartbroken,” and “have a heart” appear throughout Shaw's work, usually in association with similar characters or situations or ideas.2

When a character in Shaw is called “heartless,” one can be sure that he or she will be one of Shaw's incipient Superheroes—the pragmatic, unscrupulous iconoclast opposing conventional morality. In the early play Mrs. Warren's Profession (1894), Shaw presents Vivie Warren as heartless. In the central scene, in which Vivie learns that her mother earns her living by prostitution, Mrs. Warren behaves conventionally, melodramatically hiding her face in shame. In contrast, Vivie accepts the news thoughtfully and calmly; she admonishes her mother not to hide her face since “you know you dont feel it a bit,” matter of factly inquires about breakfast time tomorrow, and tells her mother to pull herself together. At his point Mrs. Warren accuses Vivie, “You! youve no heart” (p. 208). This scene is a familiar one in Shaw: a crisis occurs in which the hero is expected to respond conventionally; the hero proceeds instead in a common sense way about his or her business and is therefore accused of want of heart. For example, when Bluntschli (Arms and the Man, 1894) receives the news of his father's death, he sheds no tears and immediately begins making arrangements for the disposal of his father's estate. Louka observes, “He has not much heart, that Swiss. He has not a word of grief for his poor father” (p. 53).

Henry Higgins (Pygmalion, 1913) is perhaps Shaw's most famous heartless hero. He refuses to worry about what will become of Eliza when she leaves the gutter; for this Eliza accurately observes, “Oh, youve no feeling heart in you” (p. 223). At the end of the play, refusing to play Prince Charming to Eliza's Cinderella, Higgins lectures on the life of the mind as over against the life of feeling; for him, it is the difference between the rarefied atmosphere of art and science and the brutal violence of gutter life:

If you cant stand the coldness of my sort of life, and the strain of it, go back to the gutter. Work til youre more a brute than a human being; and then cuddle and squabble and drink til you fall asleep. Oh, it's a fine life, the life of the gutter. It's real: it's warm: it's violent: you can feel it through the thickest skin: you can taste it and smell it without any training or any work. Not like Science and Literature and Classical Music and Philosophy and Art. You find me cold, unfeeling, selfish, dont you? Very well: be off with you to the sort of people you like. Marry some sentimental hog or other with lots of money, and a thick pair of lips to kiss you with and a thick pair of boots to kick you with. If you cant appreciate what youve got, youd better get what you can appreciate.

(p. 292)

The same coldness of feeling and disgust for the life of the senses replaces the love of the Maiden (Chloe) for Strephon in As Far As Thought Can Reach (1920). The Maiden finds talk with the Ancients and contemplation of the properties of numbers more interesting than making love with Strephon. He feels that “Something horrible is happening to you. You are losing all heart, all feeling” (p. 203).

She admits that earlier “I lost my heart to you at once. But now I seem to have lost it altogether: bigger things are taking possession of me” (p. 204). The scene in which she rejects Strephon's love echoes Higgins' earlier rejection of Eliza's bid for personal affection:

… you dont care a bit for me.
I care for life, for humanity; and you are a part of it. …

(p. 289)


You no longer care for me at all, then?
THE Maiden:
Nonsense! I care for you much more seriously than before; though perhaps not so much for you in particular. I mean I care more for everybody.

(p. 205)

The Maiden leaves Strephon in despair at the idea of decaying “into unnatural, heartless, loveless, joyless monsters” (p. 207) like the Ancients.

In the late play Buoyant Billions (1948) the self-sufficient heroine, who has retreated to the tropics to escape suitors, gentility, and her father's billions, says to the intruder who is sexually drawn to her, “Young man: I spent years waiting for somebody to break my heart before I discovered that I havent got one” (p. 21). Just as she echoes the Maiden, so too Bill Buoyant's Secondborn ends the play “talking heartless nonsense” in a speech echoing other heartless heroes, especially Higgins and the Ancients:

And who dares say that mathematics and reasoning are not passions? Mathematic perception is the noblest of all the faculties! … Who has done more for enlightenment and civilization than Giordano Bruno, Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Descartes, Rutherford, Einstein, all of them far seeing guessers carried away by the passion for measuring truth and knowledge that possessed and drove them? Will you set above this great passion the vulgar concupiscences of Don Juan and Casanova, and the romance of Beatrice and Francesca, of Irish Deirdre, the greatest bores in literature, mere names incidentally immortalized by a few lines in a great poem? … God is not Love: Love is not Enough: the appetite for more truth, more knowledge, for measurement and precision, is far more universal: even the dullest fools have some glimmer of it.

(pp. 59-60)

This passion for knowledge as over against “vulgar concupiscences” receives its fullest defense in the dialog in hell in Man and Superman (1903). With characteristic irony, Shaw gives the defense of mind over sense to the reputed libertine, Don Juan, and uses the defenders of conventional morality as his foils. Don Juan is uncomfortable as the Devil extols the joys of love and beauty; he shrinks from the Devil's assertion that he (Don Juan) has a warm heart beneath his “affected cynicism” (p. 96). Insisting on the value of contemplation over the pursuit of pleasure, Don Juan is accused of “want of heart” (p. 112). He describes hell to Donna Ana as a place where “old age is not tolerated. It is too real. Here we worship Love and Beauty. Our souls being entirely damned, we cultivate our hearts” (p. 88). Thus we see in the plays an association of heart not with will, as in the Preface to Three Plays for Puritans, but with convention, sensualism, and sentimental idealization of love and beauty. The heartless hero stands in contrast to the persons of “heart,” those hypocrites, romantic fools, and worshippers of love who are often also specialists in heartbreak.

More often than not talk of “heart” masks foolish or inhumane behavior; those with “heart” usually believe it acceptable to be self-serving, even dangerously so, as long as the reality is covered by the illusion of fellow-feeling and an admission of human fallibility. For example, Sartorius, defending his slum landlordism to Harry Trench, hypocritically admits that “Every man who has a heart must wish that a better state of things was practicable” (Widowers' Houses, 1892, p. 43). The tempestuous and possessive Julia Craven accuses Grace Tranfield of “a cold heart” and says, “Thank heaven, I have a heart” (The Philanderer, 1893, p. 124). Saranoff makes “sincere” love to his fiancée one moment, then to the servant girl the next: “he has plenty of heart left,” says Louka (Arms and the Man, p. 53). The Statue in Man and Superman professes shock at Don Juan's realistic appraisal of the sex game but admits that he himself lied to women; his sincerity is his defense: “I had a heart: not like you” (p. 122). Another character who talks of heart is Tom Broadbent, who appeals to “every Irish heart” in his campaign for Parliament and who thanks his constituents “from the bottom of my heart” (John Bull's Other Island, 1904, pp. 140, 147). He promises to be successful in his stand for office, just as he has been successful in love, by catering, “to the heart, not to the head” (p. 121).

Most characters of heart are not so fortunate in love: they usually suffer heartache, often revelling in the luxurious emotion of a broken heart. The largest collection of broken-hearted lovers is in Getting Married (1908) and Heartbreak House (1919). In Getting Married, Mrs. George rules the broken hearted: she is introduced as an expert in love, with wide experience and “a wonderful temperament and instinct in affairs of the heart” (p. 305). Her latest conquest is young Hotchkiss, devastated by love for her and challenged to try to touch her “wasted exhausted heart,” her “poor dying heart” (pp. 324, 326). As goddess of the heartbroken, she offers sympathy to General Boxer, who has nursed a broken heart for twenty years and is still capable of breaking down in sorrow; she offers companionship and the possibility of love to the heartsmitten Hotchkiss; she warns the clergyman Soames against “an empty heart,” tempting him with a song of heartbreak (p. 337).3

Heartbreak has also become a way of life in Heartbreak House: Ellie Dunn's heart breaks for Hector Hushabye; Randall the Rotter's heart breaks for Lady Utterword; Boss Mangan's heart breaks for Hesione Hushabye. Ellie names “this silly house, this strangely happy house, this agonizing house, this house without foundations” Heartbreak House (p. 134). In the climatic scene, Hector says that the inhabitants are “all heartbroken imbeciles,” and Mazzini Dunn promptly disagrees: “Oh no. Surely, if I may say so, rather a favorable specimen of what is best in our English culture” (p. 135). Both statements are of course accurate. Shaw's pessimistic message is clear as the bombs explode at the end of the play and the inhabitants wait expectantly for the next destructive raid: the cultivation of the heart at the expense of the brain has led to the threat of total destruction. There is no “heartless” hero to save Heartbreak House.

In surveying Shaw's treatment of the “heartless” versus the “heartfelt” and “heartbroken” theme in the plays cited, it is not difficult to see how critics would be tempted to speak of a split between intellect and sensibility in Shaw. But, as we know, Shaw objected to this critical opinion. The easiest way to reconcile Shaw's protest and the evidence of the plays is to note that Shaw often uses words equivocally, and that “heart” is such a word. When it is applied to Sartorius, Saranoff, the Statue, Tom Broadbent, or Shaw's collection of heartbroken lovers, to “have a heart” means to be self-indulgent and sometimes self-deluded. But, in contrast to these socially destructive persons of heart are some of Shaw's strongest characters—Eugene Marchbanks, Richard Dudgeon, Major Barbara, Father Keegan, Doctor Ridgeon, Saint Joan—who are also people of heart.

The sensitive adolescent poet of Candida (1895), Marchbanks, is able to appeal to “the cry of [Prossy's] heart,” drawing out her confession of a secret love and intuiting that it is Morell (pp. 104-5). Marchbanks can also understand, when Candida cannot, Morell's pain as she taunts him about his conventional views of women and wifehood: “Eugene looks [at Morell], and instantly presses his hand to his heart, as if some pain had shot through it.” He explains to Candida, who continues not to see her husband's distress, “I feel his pain in my own heart” (p. 118). Just as the poet responds with heartfelt emotion to others' pain, so too does the sinner/saint Richard Dudgeon “Putting his hand to his breast as if to a wound” (a gesture like Marchbanks'), Dudgeon says to the weeping Judith Anderson: “He [Anthony Anderson] wrung my heart by being a man. Need you tear it by being a woman?” (The Devil's Disciple, 1897, p. 35). Major Barbara appeals to Bill Walker's heart when she attempts to convert him (Major Barbara, 1905, p. 281), and reveals that she too has one when it breaks after she learns that the Salvation Army is in Undershaft's power (p. 299). Even Doctor Ridgeon suspects that he may have a heart, diagnosing his “curious aching” after he meets the beautiful Jennifer Dubedat thusly: “Sometimes I think it's my heart: sometimes I suspect my spine” (The Doctor's Dilemma, 1906, p. 91).

The most remarkable of Shaw's heroes of heart is Father Keegan, in John Bull's Other Island. Just as earlier Shaw identified heart with will, in this play he identifies it with imagination: “an Irishman's heart is nothing but his imagination,” says Doyle (p. 83). Whereas the Englishman Tom Broadbent uses an appeal to the heart to woo a woman or a constituency, Keegan's Irish heart is wrung by a vision of heaven which makes him unable to accept earth as it is; and he breaks his heart brooding over “the dead heart and blinded soul” of Ireland (p. 168). Finally, as he watches plans for the commercial development of Ireland by Broadbent and Doyle, he is in despair, but he nevertheless opens his heart to them: “Standing here between you the Englishman, so clever in your foolishness, and this Irishman, so foolish in his cleverness, I cannot in my ignorance be sure which of you is the more deeply damned; but I should be unfaithful to my calling if I opened the gates of my heart less widely to one than to the other” (pp. 175-76).

These and other examples show that Shaw can strike the note of passion when he wants to, and that he values on occasion heartfelt emotion. In his use of the recurrent theme of “heart,” he makes a distinction between the heart of sentimental romance and the heart of imaginative humane feeling. Saranoff's or Broadbent's or Julia Craven's deluded, hypocritical, and manipulative heart is very different from that of the sensitive Marchbanks or the self-sacrificing Richard Dudgeon—or of Saint Joan, whose “heart would not burn” (Saint Joan, 1923, p. 148). Admittedly, most of the time “heart” in Shaw refers to an insincere, potentially destructive emotion. But it can also offer hope for humanity: a poet can come to understand others; a devil's disciple can give his life for another; a disillusioned Salvation Army lass or Irish Priest can continue to dream and hope. Shaw's last word on heartbreak occurs in the puppet play, Shakes versus Shav (1949); here Shav says to Shakes, “You were not the first / To sing of broken hearts. I was the first / that taught your faithless Timons how to mend them” (p. 142). Characteristically, in Shaw the emphasis is on heart mending, on recovering—on having the heart (will, imagination) to survive.


  1. Misalliance, The Dark Lady of the Sonnets, & Fanny's First Play (Lond: Constable, 1932), p. 323. All of my quotations from Shaw are from the Standard Edition of the Works of Bernard Shaw (Lond: Constable, 1931-52); page references in parentheses in my text are to this edition. The date of a play given in my text is the date of completion of the play, as recorded in Raymond Mander and Joe Mitchenson, Theatrical Companion to Shaw (Lond: Rockliff, 1954).

  2. A Concordance to the Plays and Prefaces of Bernard Shaw, ed by E. Dean Bevan, 10 vols. (Detroit: Gale, 1971). Lists hundreds of uses of “heart,” “heartbreak,” “heartless.”

  3. Other notable heartbroken lovers in Shaw are Mendoza, pining for Louisa in Man and Superman, and Strephon, pining for the Maiden in As Far As Thought Can Reach.

Karen Howell McFadden (essay date 1988)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7061

SOURCE: McFadden, Karen Howell. “G. Bernard Shaw's Political Plays of the Nineteen Thirties.” Nature, Society, and Thought 1, no. 3 (1988): 418-34.

[In the following essay, McFadden asserts that Shaw's political plays from the 1930s are “worthy of re-examination, not only for their artistic merit, but also because they provide engrossing images of the kinds of philosophical debates Shaw was constantly waging with himself and others throughout his lifetime.”]

The acute social crisis of capitalism in the nineteen thirties produced a literature fraught with ideological implications which retains its relevance for those seeking solutions to the problems of today. In that period G. Bernard Shaw wrote five major political plays, Too True to Be Good (1931), On the Rocks (1933), The Simpleton of the Unexpected Isles (1934), The Millionairess (1935), and Geneva (1938).1 These plays are worthy of re-examination, not only for their intrinsic artistic merit, but also because they provide engrossing images of the kinds of philosophical debates Shaw was constantly waging with himself and others throughout his lifetime. The depression, the rise of fascism, and the outbreak of war all had a catalytic effect on these debates, which were carried out in his drama with a new sharpness, clarity, and sense of urgency. Paradoxically, the far-reaching political implications of the heightened debates in On the Rocks and The Simpleton may have contributed to their relative neglect in the commercial theater since the thirties. The other three plays have enjoyed greater popularity on the stage, but as a group these plays are not as well known to the general reading and theater-going public as they should be. A close reading of them reveals, however, that they represent a particularly important stage in Shaw's evolution as an “artist-philosopher.” His trip to the Soviet Union in 1931, where he observed at first hand the struggle to move forward from “the frightful mass of poverty, ignorance, and dirt left by the Tsardom” (Shaw 1962, 234), resulted in a qualitative development in his political thinking, a development which is reflected most clearly in On the Rocks. Some of his most effective and trenchant satire on capitalist politics can be found in On the Rocks, while in The Millionairess, his critique of bourgeois feminism reaches new levels of acuity. In both the The Simpleton and Geneva he launches a spirited, witty assault on some of the deadly “isms”: racism, anti-Semitism, anti-Communism, and national chauvinism. On the whole, these plays eloquently attest to Shaw's role in clearing a way to the future; at the same time, they also reveal the ways in which the elitism of his Fabian socialism sometimes lead him into philosophical confusion, impasse, and near capitulation to despair.

There are striking similarities in symbol, tone, and theme between Shaw's first play of the thirties, Too True to Be Good, and Heartbreak House (1919), the play which he regarded as his master work. In both plays there is the motif of a fall into a void or a bottomless pit, a symbol for the ever-deepening moral, social, and political crisis of capitalism. In both the metaphor of clothing, a symbol for the stripping away of false ideas, is prominent. Miss Mopply, a “poor little rich girl” in Too True to Be Good, strips her soul naked and discovers that the life of the idle rich can be miserable. After a brief fling of unlimited pleasure seeking, she discovers that what she really craves is something socially useful to do.

It is not only several of the leading characters in this play who strip their souls naked, but the author as well. Shaw faces squarely the social malaise of the early thirties and the certainty of another more destructive war in the near future. In every facet of society it is business as usual; the “shining lights” of business and parliament cannot light the way to salvation. The bombs that rained down at the conclusion of Heartbreak House have not had the hoped-for purgatorial effect. Instead, as Sergeant Fielding prophesies, “London and Paris and Berlin and Rome and the rest of them will be burned with fire from heaven all right in the next war: that's for certain” (VI, iii, 496). Through the lifestyle of Aubrey Bagot, a gentleman-burglar-clergyman, and his girlfriend, Sweetie, Shaw reveals that there is no cause for hope in the postwar phenomenon of anarchism in manners and morals, a trend which attempted to disguise itself as progressive and even revolutionary. Nor does Miss Mopply's crusade to found a new kind of sisterhood afford any valid alternative, for it is merely an exclusive club for rich women like herself who wish to fend off the “parasites,” the host of commercial people who prey on the wealthy.

Despite their many light-hearted moments, the final acts of Too True to Be Good and Heartbreak House are often despairing in tone. Both plays reflect a mood which is always transitory in Shaw, a momentary confusion and lack of confidence, a wavering of his underlying faith in the ability of humanity to avert its own destruction and build upon the ashes of its defeats. Although he uses humor effectively as a weapon against despair throughout his work, he wages an intermittent battle against the cynicism and philosophical nihilism of his clever Devil in Man and Superman (1903). The Devil argues persuasively but not decisively that the Death Force is triumphant over the Life Force in human affairs, that humanity's destructive powers outweigh its constructive and creative acts. This pivotal philosophical debate is noticeably heightened in Too True to Be Good. More than any other period in his lifetime, the nineteen thirties sorely taxed, but did not undermine, Shaw's fundamental philosophy of Creative Evolution, his belief in the ascendancy of the Life Force, which he defined as “a mysterious drive towards greater power over our circumstances and deeper understanding of nature” (Shaw 1949, 78).

Whereas the source of despair in Heartbreak House was the failure of the upper middle class, the acknowledged leaders of society, to avert the catastrophe of World War I, in Too True to Be Good it is Shaw's realistic appraisal of the politics of that war, and the perverted direction of English politics and social behavior after it. The grim reality of the War to End Wars is sounded unmistakably in the words of Sergeant Fielding who says, “we were not killing the right people in 1915. We weren't even killing the wrong people. It was innocent men killing each other … for the devilment of the godless rulers of the world” (VI, iii, 512).

Shaw quite justifiably rebuked the critics who interpreted the despair of Aubrey Bagot as meaning that the author had given up all hope for humanity. But Aubrey's futile search for solutions is a reflection of the author's own soul stripping in response to the developing world crisis. Near the end of the play Aubrey cries out as the fog swirls around his feet, “I am ignorant: I have lost my nerve and am intimidated: all I know is that I must find the way of life for myself and all of us, or we shall surely perish” (VI, iii, 527). This note of faltering and fearfulness, a cry of “what is to be done?” with no answers forthcoming, is only partially dissipated by the afterword, in which a glimmering of hope lies in the “woman of action,” the transformed Miss Mopply. In the exodus to Beotia,2 the Union of Federated Sensible Societies [the Soviet Union], which Private Meek reports on near the end of the play, there is, however, a recognition that there is a new source of political sanity on the world scene. At the same time, Shaw, the inveterate realist, introduces into the speculation about the possibilities of political advance in England the reality of a working people which is still “a nation of shopkeepers.” To the critical question raised by Aubrey Bagot's father, “can our own society return to its senses?” the shrewd Private Meek replies, “no use, sir: all the English privates want to be colonels: there's no salvation for snobs” (VI, iii, 524). A recurrent pattern in Shaw's plays is discernible here, for whenever he introduces into his intellectual dialectic the recognition that his own society is mainly “one huge bourgeoisie” (II, 501), he barely wins the battle against despair.

On the Rocks is perhaps Shaw's most interesting play of the period because in it he temporarily transcends the limitations of his Fabian politics. In this play he no longer looks to the upper middle class as the potential saviors of society; rather, he extends his sympathy to the politically educated, class-conscious members of the working class. When Aloysia Brollikins, one of the leaders of the delegation of the unemployed, tells the Duke of Domesday, “we are going to save ourselves and not be saved by you and your class” (VI, ii, 702), a new note is struck in the complex orchestration of voices and views. Shaw once remarked that whenever a worker strayed into the Fabian Society he or she could not keep pace intellectually in that rarefied atmosphere and became an impediment to the work. But Aloysia's newly acquired political knowledge and self-confidence reflect a change in Shaw's estimation of the role of the working class in effecting social change. For the first time in his drama there is evidence of potential change and growth in the English working class.

Written shortly after his ten-day visit to the USSR in July of 1931, On the Rocks reflects a significant development in his political thinking. Among the highlights of that trip were an enthusiastic reception in Moscow where he was greeted by Lunacharsky, a seventy-fifth birthday party, a two-and-a-half-hour interview with Stalin, meetings with Gorky, Stanislavsky, and Krupskaya, as well as trips to factories and a collective farm. Although the trip was a short one, and altogether too packed with events, Shaw was nevertheless able to exercise his uncanny ability to grasp the relative importance of things.3 David Astor, one of his traveling companions, later commented on his lack of interest in scenery and historic monuments (Evans 1985, 134), but as Shaw remarked, he had come for “serious business.” He did not fail to notice a new look of hopefulness on the faces of factory workers which was quite unlike anything he had seen before.

It has often been implied by critics that Shaw erroneously viewed the Soviet Union as a Utopia, that upon his visit he put on rose-colored glasses and resolutely refused to take them off. In reality, he was incapable of adopting such an uncritical attitude to any society, particularly one that faced such seemingly overwhelming odds in moving from backwardness, poverty, and superstition to any kind of “civilization.” His attitude towards the fledgling socialist state was based solely on his understanding of the significance of the historical advance that had taken place there and his support for that advance. For him it was the most interesting political experiment in the world, and “if the experiment that Lenin made, of which he was the head, which he represents to us—if that experiment fails, then civilization falls, as so many civilizations have fallen before” (Shaw 1962, 217). The revolution had not followed the Fabian projection of a slow, gradual evolution to socialism through piecemeal reform, but for the man who saw humanity as residing forever in the Unexpected Isles, this turn of events did not pose insurmountable problems. Indeed, he jokingly claimed that the New Economic Policy was evidence of Lenin's adoption of Fabian principles (Shaw 1976, 219).

It is certain that Shaw's experiences in the Soviet Union enabled him to see more clearly the bankruptcy and obsolescence of capitalism, and in On the Rocks he is much like the Angel of Judgment in The Simpleton coming to pass sentence on a moribund society. Paul Hummert (1973) has described the play aptly as “his last trumpet warning to the capitalist West.”

As in The Apple Cart (1929), Shaw repeatedly singles out the low ideological level of the English politicians for satirical attack. The prime minister, Sir Arthur Chavender, has received “the finest intellectual training in the world” at Harrow and Oxford, but he is no match for the leaders of the delegation of the unemployed who have applied the creative method of Marxism to their analysis of society and inadvertently place their “betters” in a poor light.

The role of the unemployed in the play provides further evidence of a shift in emphasis in Shaw's political thinking. It is noteworthy that he makes the unemployed movement a dominant factor in the play, and the stimulant of virtually all of the discussion and debate. In act 1 Sir Arthur has had to call in the chief of police, Sir Broadfoot Basham, to see what can be done about the constant demonstrations. Ever present in the background and always on the periphery of the lively debate, the masses of the unemployed are a powerful offstage presence. As the play develops they become a portent of hope for change, and at the conclusion, Sir Arthur's secretary, Hilda, who had previously been a mere commentator on passing events, rushes out to join a massive demonstration which has just invaded Downing Street and is singing “England arise!”

On the Rocks is a radical and far-ranging attempt to explore and elucidate the political landscape of England in 1933. Infusing fresh vitality into Thomas Carlyle's metaphor of the political leader who must keep the ship of state off the rocks, Shaw shows capitalism foundering on the bedrock of a harsh reality—its breakdown and failure to meet the needs of the vast majority of people. In the face of the continual demands of the unemployed for work, the politicians are shown to be ineffectual procrastinators. When Sir Arthur is confronted by the delegation in act 1, he is full of protestations and excuses. “Do you suppose that I care less about the suffering of the poor than you?” he asks them. Then he conveniently absolves himself of any responsibility for taking action. “But I am like yourself,” he pleads. “I am in the grips of economic forces that are beyond human control” (VI, i, 653).

Katherine Haynes Gatch (1970, 469) has observed that “the real meaning of On the Rocks inheres in the character of Sir Arthur Chavender, the prime minister whose week-end conversion to a radical philosophy satirizes political amateurs in the depression.” Shaw portrays his prime minister as a Liberal, but Sir Arthur bears striking similarities to the Labour prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald, who, like Sir Arthur, was head of a Coalition Government in 1933 in which the real power was exercised by the Conservatives. Critics have frequently assumed that Sir Arthur becomes a “Marxist” after his extended weekend retreat in which he exchanges his usual detective stories and a copy of Wordsworth for the writings of Marx and Lenin. But the portrayal of Sir Arthur and his ill-fated reforms more likely reflects Shaw's disillusionment with Fabianism as it found expression in the Labour Party. Accordingly, he reveals that the potpourri of reforms advocated by Sir Arthur, a genial “born again” socialist, is a sham. It is soon apparent that the prime minister's “socialism” is in the interests of the financiers, the landed gentry, and the military. It is enthusiastically endorsed by Mr. Glenmorrison, the president of the Board of Trade, Sir Joshua Pandranath, an elderly Singhalese who has become a British millionaire, and the representatives of the aristocracy, the military, and the police. They all praise the measures with which they can agree, and opportunistically count on the failure of the other planks in the platform. The leaders of the unemployed delegation will give no quarter to the proposal to outlaw the right to strike, and so Sir Arthur's proposals are also driven “on the rocks.”

The leaders of the unemployed delegation, especially Aloysia Brollikins, are portrayed in a humorous but decidedly sympathetic light in the play. They represent a development in working-class consciousness in response to the exigencies of the times which Shaw welcomes and supports. But at the same time he harbors no romantic illusions about the politically undeveloped working class, a sobering reality which is registered in the comments of Old Hipney, one of the leaders of the delegation.

Well, sir, if you come to helplessness there isn't on God's earth a creature more helpless than what our factories and machines have made of an English working man when nobody will give him a job and pay him to do it. … He don't know nothing of the business that his life depends on.

(VI, i, 656-57)

The problems of how to move forward towards socialism in such conditions of backwardness and lack of intellectual development in the English working class constantly preoccupied Shaw.

In On the Rocks there is a recognition of the inherent validity of Aloysia's view that in the twentieth century “Labour is coming to its own” (VI, ii, 697). But when Sir Arthur concludes near the end of the play that “there is no class war: the working class is hopelessly divided against itself” (VI, ii, 712), the drama of ideas becomes bogged down in the difficulties of the contemporary political situation and proceeds to meander into some blind alleys. Shaw's thorough disillusionment with capitalist politics, his frustration with the ineptitude and irresponsibility of parliament in the face of the depression, lead him to toy with the idea of a strong man or enlightened dictator who will miraculously succeed where all others have failed. Hipney becomes the vehicle for these futile speculations, yet On the Rocks, like all of the plays which Shaw wrote between the wars, is predominantly democratic and anti-fascistic in content. There are unmistakable warnings of the dangers posed by Sir Dexter Rightside, the Conservative foreign secretary, and his threat to organize British youths into a brown-shirt brigade to prevent the implementation of Sir Arthur's limited reforms.

Although The Simpleton of the Unexpected Isles takes place in a never-never land in which an English clergyman becomes part of a eugenic experiment, and an angel suddenly descends to announce the Judgment Day, it is also a highly political play which makes increasing use of symbol and satire to confront reality in a more innovative way. Like Back to Methuselah (1920), the satire in The Simpleton is teasingly kaleidoscopic, functioning on many different levels, and constantly shifting its focus and emphasis. The children of the experimental marriage, Maya, Vashti, Kanchin, and Janga, at first represent a wisdom superior to that of the weak-minded English clergyman, Iddy Hammingtap; but in act 2 they become the objects of satire themselves as the representatives of what Shaw describes as “all the artistic, romantic and military ideals of our cultured suburbs” (VI, 763). Similarly, the clergyman is alternately a satirical study of middle-class narrow-mindedness, petty pride, and conformist thinking, and the “wise fool” whose comments explore the limitations of Maya and Vashti's hedonistic Kingdom of Love.

The play was such an avant-garde extravaganza that it was almost incomprehensible to its first critics, one of whom, Joseph Wood Krutch, described Shaw as “a dignified old monkey throwing coco-nuts at the public in pure senile devilment” (VI, 841). But in this far-fetched fable Shaw forges the mental armor which he found necessary to survive the crisis of the thirties. When the Angel comes to deliver judgment and the lives of the socially useless vanish into thin air, the effects on England are shown to be catastrophic. The House of Commons is decimated; only two members are left on the Stock Exchange. But as the angel declares, “the Day of Judgment is not the end of the world, but the end of its childhood and the beginning of its responsible maturity” (VI, ii, 825). The concluding words of the philosopher-priestess, Prola, suggest that although it is the fate of humanity to reside forever in the Unexpected Isles, we can survive if we have courage and think creatively.

In contrast to Too True to Be Good, love and marriage in The Simpleton are positive, liberating forces, contributors to social advance, and love even acts as an antidote to racial prejudice. In act 2 the characters enter a mysterious, magical cave where love brings about a new spirit of internationalism and racial harmony. Only the unidentified young woman remains aloof from these developments and becomes the object of satire herself when she expresses scandalized dismay at the interracial love affairs. However, both she and the sloppy, depressed emigration officer soon become part of a domestic experiment which aims “to try out the result of a biological blend of the flesh and spirit of the west with the flesh and spirit of the east” (VI, ii, 794).

In accord with the dominant mood of the play, marriage and the family acquire a new and unexpected symbolic significance. The eugenic experiment is much more than an extrapolation on Ernest Belfort Bax's idea that evolutionary progress might be achieved by the kind of group marriage described in Plato's Republic. The unorthodox marriage arrangements do not represent a sanctioning of sexual anarchy; rather, they are the means whereby Shaw raises the goal of international and interracial harmony, and the idea of shared responsibilities for parents. In much of his work he subjects the stultifying middle-class marriage and family to satirical attack, but in The Simpleton he appears to be using the concept of the “Superfamily” as a symbol for the ideal Family of Man. In Maya and Vashti's vaguely conceived “Superfamily,” in which the goal of the members s a new and higher level of empathy, the Christian concept of brotherhood acquires a deeper meaning. Shaw's presentation of love as a unifying force which can bring together people of different races and cultures, and the symbol of the “Superfamily” stand as a civilized bulwark against the theories of racial supremacy and national chauvinism which were rampant in Germany in 1934.

It is well known that Shaw supported many frankly feminist issues, both in his plays and in the political sphere. He was always an ardent supporter of the suffragettes whose cause he regarded as one of the most important democratic movements of his time. But as a Fabian socialist his perspective for women went considerably beyond that of bourgeois feminism, the belief that women's emancipation can be achieved within the framework of capitalism. And in The Millionairess, his implied criticism of this current within feminism, which is revealed in so many of his “New Women,” becomes open and explicit in the portrayal of the mercurial Epifania. In the alternate ending of the play he reveals that the aim of imitating or replacing men in an exploitative society is an illusive, self-defeating, and diversionary goal for women.

In the The Apple Cart (1929) he presents two women cabinet ministers who are somewhat more politically developed than their male colleagues, but he subjects them to much the same rigorous satire because they are imbued with the values and tactics of capitalist politics. Now in Epifania, the millionairess, he presents a female equivalent of Andrew Undershaft of Major Barbara (1905), and as his only portrait of woman as capitalist, uses her to criticize the theoretical underpinnings of bourgeois feminism. While he evokes admiration for the efficiency and expertise with which Epifania transforms a dilapidated inn owned by an elderly couple into a profitable modern luxury hotel, he also raises some misgivings about the nature of the accomplishment through the comments of the Egyptian doctor.

The hotel looks well in photographs, and the wages you pay would be a fortune to a labourer on the Nile. But what of the old people whose natural home this place had become? the old man and his paralytic stroke? the old woman gone mad? the cast out creatures in the workhouse? Was not this preying on the poverty of the poor?

(VI, iv, 962)

Epifania is both Superwoman, the genius who can “rise to her destiny and wield the power her money gives her” (VI, iv, 959), and Woman the Enemy, the potential destroyer and enslaver of man because her social values chain her to the past. As Margot Peters (1987) has described her, she is none other than a “raw force symbolic of money in the twentieth century over all cultural values.” Epifania takes great pride in her ability to earn enough money in one week to support herself for a hundred years by “rationalizing” a clothing sweatshop and transforming it into a profitable business venture. But again the Egyptian doctor intrudes a note of criticism.

It was not the way of Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate. Had you added a farthing an hour to the wages of those sweated women, that wicked business would have crashed on your head. You sold it to the man Superflew for the last penny of his savings; and the women still slave for him at one piastre an hour.

(VI, iv, 961-62)

In the alternate ending, which Shaw explains is intended for use in socialist countries, but is assuredly more useful within capitalism, he reverses the main thrust of the ideas in the play and transforms it into something more than a light-hearted, farcical romp. Epifania reveals that although she has become in every way the image and equal of the successful male capitalist, her achievement is a hollow one. The anarchy and instability of capitalist politics mean that even for a millionairess there is no real freedom, social usefulness, or security. “My brains are wasted here,” she laments. “The wealth they create is thrown away on idlers and their parasites, whilst poverty, dirt, disease, misery and slavery surround me like a black sea in which I may be engulfed at any moment by a turn of the money market” (VI, iv, 968). She goes on to speculate about how her managerial talents could just as easily be used for the benefit of people as a whole, how her genius for creating private wealth could be directed towards a more worthwhile social goal.

For those who value Shaw's contribution to the progressive movement, Geneva is probably the most difficult of all of his plays to come to terms with. Much of its “unpleasantness” undoubtedly derives from the sharpness with which he dramatizes what Edmund Wilson (1976) describes as conflicting moralities used as motifs. The play so obviously demonstrates some of the weaknesses of his political thinking, yet he quite rightly believed that it was an important work, one which “goes to the very depths of politics” (West 1965, 242). In order to keep pace with changing world events he revised it extensively from its inception in the spring of 1936 until 1945 when he added the preface and a new third act. The final version, in spite of its political aberrations, reveals a continuing desperate search for a means of securing peace among nations, and a way of ending the human folly which has led to World War II. When the judge at the International Court at the Hague concludes in act 4 that “man is a failure as a political animal” (VII, iv, 155), and announces that “Mr. Battler's [Hitler's] troops have invaded Ruritania [Poland]” (VII, iv, 155), the only hope seems to reside in the words of the secretary of the League of Nations in act 3, “but Geneva will beat you yet. Not in my time, perhaps. But the Geneva spirit is a fact, and a spirit is a fact that cannot be killed” (VII, iii, 101).

Few writers have satirized anti-Communism as effectively and hilariously as Shaw does in the first act of Geneva. The English Bishop suffers the first of a series of ultimately fatal moral shocks when he discovers that Commissar Posky, the man who appeared to be a “cultivated and humane gentleman interested in the Church of England” (VII, i, 62) is actually an infamous Bolshevik. So thoroughly is the Bishop's ignorance of the real world revealed that Posky's query upon his demise, “was he ever alive? To me he was incredible” (VII, i, 67) evokes approval from reader or audience. At the same time, Shaw warns against the substitution of any form of political dogmatism for religious dogmatism when he has Posky tell the Bishop that “the Komintern is the State Church of Russia exactly as the Church of England is the State Church in Britain” (VII, i, 66).

In act 2 the focus of the satirical attack shifts from the now-defunct Bishop to Begonia Brown, the flamboyant secretary of the Committee for Intellectual Cooperation, an organ of the League of Nations. But the exuberant, healthful spirit which characterized the critique of anti-Communism is not sustained. Whereas Commissar Posky had acted as an example of intellectual advance, however imperfect, no such character performs this function in act 2. Instead, the focus is on the caricatured Begonia Brown who represents “real English public opinion” (VII, ii, 74), and who becomes a vehicle for Shaw's worst fears for humanity. Begonia is an almost incredible rag-bag of jingoism, anti-intellectualism, racism, monarchism, petty snobbery, and anti-Communism. Although the secretary of the League protests that “she hasn't a political idea in her head” (VII, ii, 86), she has a meteoric worldly success, and becomes a Dame of the British Empire, a member of Parliament, and an exceedingly wealthy woman.

Act 3, however, oscillates between despair and hopefulness, a hopefulness generated by Shaw's intuitive grasp of the direction of the historical process. At one point the secretary, overwhelmed by the limitations of Begonia Brown, Sir Orpheus Midlander, the British foreign secretary, the pistol-waving Creole widow, and the Newcomer, succumbs to a fit of hate mongering and sinks deep in the slough of misanthropy. Frustrated with their narrow nationalism, he complains to the judge, “you hear what we have to contend with here. Stupidity upon stupidity. Geneva is expected to make a league of nations out of political blockheads” (VII, iii, 102). But in the midst of this withering indictment the voice of the judge intrudes. Capturing the lead in the chorus of voices, he assumes the role of Commissar Posky in act 1 and challenges the secretary's static and despairing approach to human nature.

Although Posky has advanced beyond the level of capitalist politics, there is no evidence that he is a Superman. “Twenty years ago,” says the judge, “he would have been talking as great nonsense as any of you” (VII, iii, 102). Moreover, the kind of human nature often produced within capitalist society is neither fully human, natural, nor fixed for time immemorial. It is not unlikely that Shaw's experiences in the Soviet Union lie behind the judge's reasoned conviction that human nature has changed considerably throughout the centuries and is capable of continuous dramatic changes.

In the unexpected dining arrangements which conclude act 3 there is a temporary victory over anti-Semitism and anti-Communism. The widow who had previously voiced a desire to shoot every Jew in the country now goes off to have dinner with one, and Sir Orpheus retires to dine with Posky and discuss “this funny Russian business” (VII, iii, 110). It is a small triumph for internationalism, for the spirit of Geneva, a secular Holy Ghost which moves throughout the play in mysterious ways.

The healthfulness and sanity with which act 3 concludes leave the audience ill-prepared for what happens in the final act. The judge had promised to indict the dictators for their crimes against humanity, even if it meant developing a new code of international law; but as the discussion develops, the original accusation becomes peripheral and seemingly irrelevant. Although the judge does conclude that the “scoundrelism” of the dictators warrants their immediate execution, Shaw's fascination with the idea of the “great man,” his fanciful search for solution to grave social problems in “brilliant individuals,” fatally weakens his attack on incipient fascism. The three dictators, Battler [Hitler], Bombardone [Mussolini], and Flanco de Fortinbras [Franco], emerge as fascinating “great men,” the accent falling on their greatness rather than their crimes or the social roots of their actions.

Bombardone and Battler, in particular, are unexpectedly ingenious, witty, and urbane. Their arguments are superficially clever and sufficiently nebulous to constitute an entertaining conversation. And while they cannot exonerate themselves from the charges laid against them, they do score a succession of debater's points which give the whole discussion the air of a purely academic matter. The cleverness of the dictators makes them appear as an intellectual elite, a diabolic elite, but a select group all the same. Their portrayal exposes that occasional vein of political dilettantism and irresponsibility within Shaw's world outlook, tendencies which were criticized quite justifiably by Christopher Caudwell in his Studies in a Dying Culture (1938).

The attack on fascism in Geneva is further weakened when the dictators become the vehicles for Shaw's own critique of bourgeois democracy. When the judge accuses Bombardone of “the murder and destruction of liberty and democracy in Europe” (VII, iv, 133), Bombardone can command a certain amount of credence with his retort, “one cannot destroy what never existed” (VII, iv, 133). There is a facile divorcement of political efficiency from political morality when the dictators appear in a favorable light because they are capable of carrying out some practical tasks which English parliaments supposedly could not accomplish. At a time when bourgeois democracy was gravely threatened throughout Europe, Shaw's emphasis on its limitations was surely ill-timed in terms of the day-to-day needs of the struggle against fascism.

In his portraits of the dictators, Shaw deliberately undercuts the conception of them as “cardboard devils,” but by revealing their “human qualities” he inadvertently detracts attention from their deeds. When it appears that the end of the world is at hand because the orbit of the earth is jumping to its next quantum, Battler becomes the kind-hearted animal lover who weeps over his little “doggie.”

Throughout act 4 the arguments of the dictators, their clever excuses for their actions, are challenged weakly and ineffectively by the other characters. Only once does Commissar Posky launch a frontal attack on them.

These gentleman talk of their countries. But they do not own their own countries. Their people do not own the land they starve in. Their countries are owned by a handful of landlords and capitalists who allow them to live in it on condition that they work like bees and keep barely enough of the honey to keep themselves miserably alive.

(VII, iv, 152)

However, by the end of the act Posky has deteriorated into the caricatured, unthinking Communist who must await his “instructions” from Moscow.

In a sense, the portrayal of the dictators was a subject ill-suited to Shaw's talents, for it meant that his own basically democratic views were inevitably undermined by his rhetorical powers. Susan C. Stone (1973) has pointed out that the Shavian dictators could not do otherwise but speak effectively and convincingly. While it is possible to agree with her that the play is not a paean to dictators, it is also true that they are given an inordinate scope to create a favorable impression of themselves. In the contradictory and disturbing portrayal of the dictators we can discern the rhetorical posturing and playing with ideas which were a product of Fabian elitism and a turning away from the working class. But there is also a desperate search for solutions to the contemporary political crisis carried on in Shaw's characteristic mode of thinking, one which can best be described by the title of part 5 of Back to Methuselah, “As Far as Thought can Reach.” Perhaps as well, the portrayal of the dictators is further evidence of what Shaw regarded as a fatal flaw in himself. “I cannot deny that I have got the tragedian and I have got the clown in me,” he confessed, “and the clown trips me up in the most dreadful way” (West 1965, 194).

Within the total complex of ideas in Geneva there is yet another narrow victory in the battle against despair. The spirit of Geneva affords some genuine cause for hope, for it is another manifestation of the Life Force. And as the Life Force must always work through real people in a real world, it represents much more than some mystical force working towards an abstract Utopia. The national chauvinism of the characters may imply a collective guilt for humanity, but the words of the judge which conclude the play, “they came, these fellows. They blustered: they defied us. But they came” (VII, iv, 156), also suggest that there may be a collective conscience even under the worst of circumstances.

If in retrospect, some of Shaw's ideas in Geneva appear to be naive and wrongheaded, there is also considerable evidence that he was not wholly deluded or misled in his response to the times. While he was never able to sort out his views well enough to achieve consistency or credibility in his response to the Spanish Civil War, he at least had no illusions about the effects of the British foreign policy of “neutrality” towards the democratic forces in Spain. In act 2 Flanco declares, “I owe my victory equally to the aid of Signor Bombardone and the masterly nonintervention policy of Sir Orpheus Midlander. I cannot prove ungrateful to either of them” (VII, iv, 156).

What Shaw does accomplish in this play is a brilliant satire on all kinds of narrow “tribal loyalties” and national chauvinisms, attitudes which he believed needed to be replaced with wider sympathies and an international or “supernationalist” outlook if humanity were to survive. With the exception of the secretary and the judge, all of the characters are tainted with these outmoded ways of thinking in various degrees. In the case of Battler, Bombardone, and Flanco, national chauvinism leads to outright military expansionism; but the local patriotism of Begonia Brown, the pompousness of Commissar Posky, and the sense of divine favor expressed by the Jew are all held up to ridicule. For Shaw it is the Begonia Browns of the world who have made it possible for the dictators to assume power. In one of the most devastating comments in the play, the judge says that he believes Begonia's rallying cry of “Up, Camberwell!” is the South London equivalent of “Heil Battler!” The British foreign secretary, Sir Orpheus Midlander, who bears some resemblance to Lord Grey and Sir Austen Chamberlain, as well as the Conservative prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, is shown to be as full of foolish national pride as the three dictators. Earlier versions of the text had made the British appear even more chauvinistic (Pilecki 1965, 69), and although the tone was somewhat softened in the revisions, the emphasis is unmistakably there.

With the passage of time it is possible to take a more balanced view of the ideas expressed in Geneva, to recognize Shaw's contributions to intellectual advance, as well as to deplore those ideas and tendencies which appear to be lamentable obstructions. Warren Sylvester Smith (1982) presents a useful context within which we can assess the intellectual content of Shaw's work when he comments that “it ought to be possible to recognize his profound contribution to the twentieth century mind without having to accept him as an infallible guru on every subject on which he chose to pontificate.” We also need to take into account the full range of the ideas in Shaw's plays, whereupon it is evident that in spite of his philosophical vacillation, compromise, and near capitulation to despair, he was able to contribute to the future in some important ways. There is in his drama a recurrent, unresolved tension, the expression of the conflict between his socialist ideals and the reality of the difficulties, both practical and philosophical, in moving towards a society which is no longer exploitative. At his best, he is able to evoke a sense of humanity's creative potential in the struggles to realize that goal. There are intimations of that potential in the afterword of Too True to Be Good, in the characterization of Aloysia Brollikins, in Prola's conclusions in The Simpleton, as well as in the Egyptian doctor's criticisms of Epifania, and the wisdom of the judge in Geneva. Taken as a whole, then, Shaw's five political plays remain a significant artistic and philosophical response to the turbulent decade of the thirties. They can still be returned to profitably for fresh insights, therapeutic comedy, and a thorough probing of the human condition.


  1. The dates given are the dates of the completion of the plays rather than the dates of first publication. All quotations from Shaw's plays and prefaces are from The Bodley Head Bernard Shaw (Shaw 1970-1974).

  2. In classical Greece, Beotia was known for its supposed dull-witted inhabitants, but Shaw appears to be using the place-name ironically to satirize the intellectual arrogance of the capitalist politicians who assumed that they were innately superior to the pioneer builders of socialism.

  3. In a letter to the actor-manager, Augustin Hamon, dated 21 March 1910, Shaw wrote, “the truth is that what determines a writer's greatness is neither his accomplishments nor the number of things he knows by learning or observation, but solely his power of perceiving the relative importance of things” (Shaw 1972, 914).

Works Cited

Caudwell, Christopher. Studies in a Dying Culture. London: 1938.

Evans, T. F. “Myopia or Utopia? Shaw in Russia.” Shaw: The Annual of Bernard Shaw Studies 5 (1985): 125-45.

Gatch, Katherine Haynes. “The Last Plays of Bernard Shaw: Dialectic and Despair.” In Bernard Shaw's Last Plays, edited by Warren Sylvester Smith. New York: W. W. Norton, 1970.

Hummert, Paul A. Bernard Shaw's Marxian Romance. Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1973.

Peters, Margot. “The Millionairess: Capitalism Bankrupt?” Shaw: The Annual of Bernard Shaw Studies 7 (1987): 243-56.

Pilecki, Gerard Anthony. Shaw's Geneva. London: Mouton, 1965.

Shaw, G. Bernard. Bernard Shaw. Collected Letters 1898-1910. Edited by Dan H. Laurence. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1972.

———. The Bodley Head Bernard Shaw. Collected Plays with their Prefaces. Edited by Dan H. Laurence. 7 vols. London: The Bodley Head Ltd., 1970-1974.

———. “Lenin.” Extemporaneous speech for simultaneous radio broadcast and motion picture filming, delivered at Moscow, 27 July 1931. In Platform and Pulpit, edited by Dan H. Laurence. New York: Hill and Wang, 1962.

———. “Look, you Boob! A Little Talk on America.” Shortwave radio broadcast to the United States from London, 11 October 1931. In Platform and Pulpit. Sixteen Self Sketches. London: Constable, 1949.

———. “What Indeed?” An unpublished verbatim report of a lecture by Shaw, delivered before the Fabian Society at Kingsway Hall, London, 26 November 1931. In Practical Politics, edited by Lloyd J. Hubenka. Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1976.

Smith, Warren Sylvester. Bishop of Everywhere: Bernard Shaw and the Life Force. University Park: Pennsylvania State Univ. Press, 1982.

Stone, Susan C. “Geneva: Paean to Dictators?” The Shaw Review 16 (January 1973): 21-29.

West, E. J. Shaw on Theatre. New York: Hill and Wang, 1965.

Wilson, Edmund. “Edmund Wilson on Shaw as an artist.” In Shaw: The Critical Heritage, edited by T. F. Evans. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1976.

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