by Kirk Woodward
[This is the fourth in the five-part series of commentary on George Bernard Shaw’s works by Kirk Woodward, based on his reading of the Complete Plays with Prefaces (Dodd, Mead & Company, 1963). Parts 1, 2, and 3 of “Re-Reading Shaw,” covering plays written between 1885 and 1902, 1901 and 1909, and 1909 and 1920, were posted on 3 and 18 July and 3 August, respectively. Though you can easily read the segments in any order you wish, I do recommend going back and catching Kirk’s earlier remarks if you haven’t been following the series because his thoughts on the great Irish writer’s works and ideas are well worth hearing. Kirk’s been a fan of Shaw for a long time, I daresay since his high school days at least, and while he recognizes the playwright’s errors and misjudgments, he has a pretty clear view of the man’s indisputable strengths as well. (Kirk’s written before on GBS for ROT; see “Bernard Shaw, Pop Culture Critic,” posted on 5 September 2012, and “Eric Bentley on Bernard Shaw.” 3 December 2015.) ]
BACK TO METHUSELAH (1918-1920 / 1922) – I avoided this play – actually a linked series of five relatively short plays – for years, possibly because its subtitle, “A Metabiological Pentatuch,” scared me off. Shaw says he wanted to write a “world classic,” on the order of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt or Goethe’s Faust (1806 and 1831).
Frustrated by the slow pace of change in society, he envisioned a world in which one or two, then a few, then an increasing number, then all people would live not for perhaps seventy years but for three hundred years or longer. Given all this time, Shaw felt (or claimed to feel), people would become wiser and would handle life better.
This idea – one can hardly call it an argument, because it’s only stated and not argued – strikes me as riddled with flaws. Is there any reason to believe that longer lives would be wiser ones? This seems highly debatable to me, and Shaw certainly doesn’t “prove” it. It seems to me his thesis comes down to hoping that humans will eventually do better than they’ve done so far. I can’t imagine sustaining that thesis for some 400 pages, and I don’t think Shaw sustains it, either.
Isn’t it possible that people with shorter life spans would accomplish more because they were aware that they only had so many years left to them? I have known this to happen more than once. And do people in general live as though they know what their life spans will be? Don’t we live to a significant extent “in the moment” – and if we don’t, shouldn’t we?
Shaw promotes what he calls the “Life Force” (borrowing the term, and the idea of “creative evolution,” from Henri Bergson, 1859-1941), and in support of this idea he employs a remarkable amount of Christian imagery in Methuselah (and elsewhere), but he doesn’t extend that belief to the survival of personality beyond death; he finds the idea of immortality “terrifying.”
Well, then, would people find living three hundred years less terrifying than living seventy? For that matter, by Shaw’s logic shouldn’t people who believe in a “life after death” be more productive and wiser, rather than less? But Shaw dismisses that idea out of hand.
The evidence of wisdom in the “long livers” of the plays is scanty. They are unable to understand the simplest metaphor (Shaw mentions this, then drops the subject); they are completely self-absorbed; the ones who live the longest are downright scary. They kill without compunction. Exactly what is this presentation supposed to persuade us to believe?
Eric Bentley points out that, as a matter of fact, Shaw posits two means for improving humanity. One is living longer; the other is putting Asians in charge of the world. (Race is a frequent subject in the five plays, always to the disparagement of the English.)
One of the many garbled lines of thought in Methuselah is the issue that we might call talent versus experience. Shaw’s idea of extended lives assumes that experience will make people wiser. This is debatable; possibly wisdom is a given while experience is a variable? In any case, Shaw is aware of cases – Mozart, for example – in which a person seems to be born with remarkable ability that centuries of experience could not provide. But Shaw does not follow up on this hint; it does not lead where he wants to go.
And the other side of that coin is that Shaw recognizes that learned characteristics are not passed on from one individual to another. How then are the Life Force’s “experiments” productive? One can point to examples of people’s influence that continue, sometimes, for years; but nothing says they will withstand the fall of a civilization, and war often reverses years of human progress. And what about lives that have no influence, people that live in obscurity and die in silence? Are they total failures of the Life Force?
It seems to me that Shaw’s “Life Force” is really the Victorian idea of Progress, dressed up. That’s an idea that notoriously today is hard to accept for many people.
Wikipedia says that “Critics found the five plays strikingly uneven in quality and invention.” Truer words were seldom spoken.
In the Plays, Methuselah itself is preceded by a fragment called “A Glimpse of the Domesticity of the Brothers Barnabas,” a draft of an act that was discarded before the play was produced, interesting primarily because it contains a very funny spoof of Shaw’s friend the writer G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936), impersonated as Immenso Champeroon.
Following that, the first three plays of the five strike me as almost unreadable. The characters are routine, the gags (they are gags) frequently feel forced, and the logic of the situation, as I said, is all over the place.
Then, unexpectedly, comes a piece of pathos: in the fourth play, “The Tragedy of an Elderly Gentleman,” the gentleman in question is clearly Shaw, or close enough – a senior citizen too old to adapt to the new times, but by no means valueless, holding on for dear life to his ideas as best he can. But the long livers are both unpleasant and ruthless, and the Elderly Gentleman comes to a bad end. In the final play the envisioned future makes one happy to be a short liver.
Two observations seem to me useful in considering Methuselah. One is by Arthur and Barbara Gelb in their book O’Neill (1962), their excellent biography of the playwright Eugene O’Neill. They note that O’Neill, who had children, showed minimal interest in them and looked backwards in nearly all his plays, while Shaw, who was childless, invested his attention in the future.
Methuselah is not in my opinion a satisfactory vision of that future, or a desirable one, but the point is that Shaw did care about the future; he wanted it to be better than the present.
The other observation is by G. K. Chesterton, who described Shaw as a man who, when he notices that the baby’s bathwater is dirty, says, “Get a new baby.” Since humanity is living in unsatisfactory ways, Shaw says, get a new species.
Three oddities about Methuselah:
The saying that the late Senator Robert Kennedy frequently quoted, “Some see things as they are and ask why. I see things as they might be and ask why not” is from the first section of the play – spoken by the serpent in the Garden of Eden!
And Shaw envisions two elements of today’s life that did not exist in his time – cellular phones (represented in Methuselah as tuning forks) and Internet “sexting” – by a politician!
JITTA’S ATONEMENT (1922 / 1923) is a collaboration with Siegfried Trebitsch (1868-1956), Shaw’s translator into German and also a playwright. Shaw’s relationship with Trebitsch is worth a play in itself. Most commentators feel that he was an inept translator, but Shaw credited him with making him a success in Germany before there was much interest in his plays in England.
Shaw, wanting to help Trebitsch financially, took the German’s most recent play and created an English version of it. Shaw was hardly adept in German:
At first I was preoccupied with a quite minor matter. I can neither claim knowledge of the German language nor plead ignorance of it.
He had someone make a literal translation of the play, and working with it and the German text, fashioned an adaptation that made a play of complications and suspense about adultery – a “well-made play” (with a strong Ibsen influence) – into an absorbing and highly intelligent melodrama, an intense and exciting play. Shaw made the ending more positive than Trebitsch’s conclusion. He says:
Trebitsch, being a German poet, has a certain melancholic delicacy which escapes my comparatively barbarous and hilarious occidental touch. I could not help suggesting, by a few translator’s treacheries here and there, that the ill-assorted pair settle down on reasonable human terms, and find life bearable after all.
Once again, Shaw’s professionalism is impressive. The original of Jitta is the kind of play Shaw seldom endorsed as a reviewer, but he takes his assignment seriously and makes a version of it that is both entertaining and humane.
SAINT JOAN (1923) – According to Holroyd’sBernard Shaw, after Methusela Shaw thought he had written himself out. However, he had thought about Joan of Arc for some time, and her canonization by the Roman Catholic Church in 1920, along with urging from his wife, fired his imagination. His masterful play about Joan is widely assumed to have clinched his winning the Nobel Prize. (The prize was actually awarded for the year 1925, leading Shaw to say that he won the prize for a year he hadn’t written anything.)
After Methusela, Saint Joan is a relief. Joan was a real person, and although Shaw certainly makes her over in his image (and, according to Holroyd, also the image of T. E. Lawrence, 1888-1935, “Lawrence of Arabia”), he does not indulge in flights of fancy that don’t take off, but dramatizes the actual events of her life – again, of course, in his own way.
His preface to the play makes interesting reading, although it shares some dubious characteristics with other prefaces: he exaggerates, he presents opinions as known and confirmed facts, and when you think he’s said everything he could possibly say, he still has pages to go.
His perpetual argument with the idea of a personal God leads him to use the Christian vocabulary in sometimes inventive and sometimes unscrupulous ways. One wonders if the Roman Catholic Church was grateful for his advice on how it ought to reform.
Nevertheless, he is on the trail of facts, he is entitled to his own opinions, and his evaluation of the Joan literature is that of a writer perceptively writing about other writers.
In the play Saint Joan, the characters are so well drawn and the dialogue so interesting that one can believe Shaw is giving an exact picture of what actually happened. He is, as he acknowledges, giving his picture. The fact that the trial scene is based on the original transcripts lends the play a patina of authenticity; but the rest of the dialogue in the play is Shaw’s invention.
He writes candidly that in particular he makes Joan’s primary antagonist, Bishop Cauchon, more reasonable than the record supports. In making that point, Shaw reveals a major principle about the way he writes dialogue:
The things I represent these [characters] as saying are the things [that Shaw believes] they actually would have said if they had known what they were really doing.
The characters, in other words, see themselves more clearly than people ordinarily do – they reveal themselves as though they were as conscious as Shaw is of their natures. One sees this technique throughout Shaw’s plays. A particularly glorious example is Eliza Doolittle’s father Alfred in Pygmalion, whose lectures on middle class morality are both hilarious and extraordinarily self-aware.
A common objection to Shaw’s plays is that he writes them like a pamphleteer. This is not correct, for the most part. But it is true that Shaw’s characters tend to talk like pamphleteers. They state positions and support them with arguments that probably would not often be heard in everyday conversation.
Their awareness is Shaw’s, and he lends it to the characters; but using such a dramatic convention does not make Shaw a propagandist. As he puts it, the characters are (usually) saying what they could say “if they had known what they were really doing.”
In his preface Shaw mentions the people who feel the play is too long, and could be easily cut. He has great fun describing what the play would be like if certain theater managers got their hands on it. But he is certainly aware that Scene 4 of Saint Joan, for example, is a lengthy discussion between English and French church officials and soldiers, in which the plot is not advanced and Joan does not appear.
But the scene is central to the play, because the characters give voice to the mighty forces that will collide over Joan, burn her, experience her influence for centuries, and eventually declare her a saint. For Shaw, and I think for us, that’s where the real story of the play is.
In many ways Joan is the same woman we see in other plays by Shaw – the woman who sees through men’s pretentions, and easily shows them up. And in many ways the men in the play are familiar Shaw characters too – representatives of public positions that in private they know are foolish, but that they still defend, for reasons that are either selfish or expedient.
The irony, of course, is that Joan really does believe in God, really does believe in the church, really does believe in France – which is more than can always be said of the men who kill her, or connive at her killing.
THE APPLE CART (1929) – Shaw would never admit it, but he was not above seeming to agree with other people now and then. The Apple Cart led many to believe he approved of monarchy, because its protagonist is King Magnus, who thwarts political opposition by announcing that he intends to resign his throne, run for office, and win.
In his preface to the play, Shaw claims that his play teaches lessons about democracy, not monarchy, and that’s probably correct, but he also had a fondness for monarchs – don’t deny it, Mr. Shaw! – particularly Queen Victoria (1819-1901), as Sidney Weintraub documents in his book Shaw’s People (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996). A monarch, after all, though not a superman, does have a leg up.
The preface includes some trenchant observations on democracy (and a speech by Shaw on the subject as well), but little of that matters in the play itself, which is set in an unspecified future and has a dreamlike atmosphere despite its political setting.
The nation involved is not really England; the cabinet does not really act like a cabinet, or the King like a king. (Noel Coward played Magnus in a 1953 revival, one of the few roles not written by himself that he played; he must have been marvelous.) Crises turn into bits; arguments turn into quips; the big political event in the second act – I won’t give away the surprise, such as it is – is entirely imaginary.
The play is, basically, a fairy tale, an almost absurdist comedy about politics. He hardly even tries to keep the elements of the play in touch with each other. An interlude between acts shows the King and his mistress (modeled, Holroyd says, on the actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell, 1865-1940); and the Queen, who appears immediately afterward, apparently sounds a great deal like Mrs. Shaw herself. What are they doing there?
Oscar Wilde’s observation that “I can resist anything except temptation” becomes, in The Apple Cart: “I never resist temptation, because I have found that things that are bad for me do not tempt me.” I am afraid I do not believe that.
TOO TRUE TO BE GOOD (1931 / 1932) – a brilliant title. The preface begins with an assertion that almost makes it seem Shaw has run out of things to say and is scraping bottom:
Our capitalistic system, with its golden exceptions of idle richery and its leaden rule of anxious poverty, is as desperate a failure from the point of view of the rich as of the poor.
One recalls the song in the movie White Christmas (1954) about the sad plight of generals after they retire from the Army. . . . Shaw’s point, of course, is that capitalism is not good for anybody. But it is awfully difficult to make the case that making lots of money harms the rich – however true that may be – without causing some eye-rolling.
Shaw does not improve things when he asserts that the best system for administration is that of the Roman Catholic Church (with a nod to the recently converted G. K. Chesterton), which he sees as identical to that of Stalin’s Communist Party.
The play itself has nothing to do with any of that. It finds Shaw so discouraged by World War I and its effects that he can’t maintain his characteristic optimism:
They are all . . . falling, falling, falling endlessly and hopelessly through a void in which they can find no footing. . . . This dreadful new nakedness: the nakedness of the souls who until now have always disguised themselves from one another in beautiful impossible idealisms to enable them to bear one another’s company. The iron lightning of war has burnt great rents in those angelic veils. . . . Our souls go in rags now. . . . I have no Bible, no creed: the war has shot both out of my hands.
In such a world, there is no point writing a play that tries to convince people of ideas; what would it convince them of? So the play is fantastical, close to absurdist, barely connected from one end to the other. It does tell, more or less, the story of a pampered young lady who regains her health when she runs away with a pair of criminals.
However, this summary ignores most of the play, which begins with a giant microbe sitting by her bedside; introduces a British Army officer who is primarily interested in painting, and an enlisted man based again on T. E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”); and ends with the speech from which I just quoted, a message of despair.
There is energy to the play; but it is the energy of desperation. Audiences found it mystifying, and it had a short initial run. Perhaps it was in more than one sense too true to be good. [editor’s note: For more details on Too Good, see my ROT reports “Two Shaw Plays (Shaw Festival 2006),” 25 September 2012, and “The 2006 Shaw Festival (Part 2),” 11 December 2015. ~Rick]
“Village Wooing” (1933 / 1934) appears to have been inspired by a woman named Jisabella Lyth, the postmistress of Ayot St. Lawrence, the village where Shaw lived. She and her husband had hardly moved there when he died, leaving her not well off.
Shaw, ordering stamps from her, would send each request in a signed letter. He never acknowledged his purpose, but she was able to sell the autographs and supplement her income.
Shaw imagined himself – although he denied it – as a widower increasingly involved, over three scenes, with Mrs. Lyth as one of his unerringly deft and funny women, much like Gracie Allen (1906-1964; American vaudeville and TV comedian and wife of George Burns). The play is a delight, charming and fun. The woman, as nearly always in Shaw’s plays, is an instrument of the Life Force and gets her man.
ON THE ROCKS (1933) begins with a jaw-dropping preface on what Shaw calls “extermination” or “killing as a political function.” “Extermination,” he writes, “must be put on a scientific basis if it is ever to be carried out humanely and apologetically as well as thoroughly.”
The cheerful tone of the discussion is chilling. “Every Government is obliged to practice [extermination] on a scale varying from the execution of a single murderer to the slaughter of millions of quite innocent persons,” he writes – quite a sliding scale.
As an example, he uses Jesus. Then it occurs to him that the execution of Jesus was not a particularly good idea, Jesus being the kind of non-conformist Shaw prizes. So Shaw begins to talk about tolerance, leading up to an imagined dialogue between Jesus and Pilate that Jesus actually wins, due to his cleverly quoting both himself and Shaw:
By their fruits ye shall know them. Beware how you kill a thought that is new to you. For that thought may be the foundation of the Kingdom of God on earth.
This roller coaster ride of a preface has almost nothing to do with the play, in which a Prime Minister, faced with social upheaval, takes a pile of books by Marx with him on a rest cure and returns to propose a Socialist overhaul of the country. At first it looks like he may get away with it; but it’s too late, the country is on the rocks for real, and he resigns.
This bare-bones description of the play ought to suggest its nature as an exercise in wish fulfillment for Shaw that ends in deep disappointment even though it is his own fantasy. It’s also true that the dialogue is generally lively and entertaining. Holroyd says that at recent productions, people have been surprised at how timely the play is.
However, the storyline wanders; domestic issues wind through the play, tangentially related to its theme, and their resolution follows the climax of the political dilemma, a strange anticlimax.
Generally, instead of plot, Shaw is writing situations; instead of characterization, he is presenting personality traits. Instead of names, the characters could just have their functions written on signboards – “The Socialist,” “The Royalist,” and so on.
[I’ve been publishing Kirk’s Shaw series one section every couple of weeks, as you’ve seen. Part 5, the final installment covering plays from 1934 to 1950, will be coming up on 2 September. I hope ROTters will return to the blog to read Kirk’s final comments.]