Studium anglistiky na KAA UPOL

(14) Variety of Themes and Literary Means in Plays of G. B. Shaw.

T h e  T w e n t i e t h  C e n t u r y

[see "Background for Topics 12-27..."]

G ( e o r g e )  B ( e r n a r d )  S h a w  ( 1 8 5 6 – 1 9 5 0 )

L i f e :

- b. in Dublin x but: went to London to become a novelist, wrote 5 unsuccessful novels

- studied Karl Marx’s (1818 – 83 [= a Ger. philos., political economist, social revolutionary, and co-founder of Marxism with Friedrich Engels]) Das Kapital (1867) and Richard Wagner’s (1813 – 83) opera Tristan and Isolde (1865):

(a) socialism = the answer to society’s problems: joined the Fabian Society = a socialist organisation

(b) => a public speaker, author of public pronouncements and tracts: advocated gradual reform rather then rev., with wit absent from most oth. political writing of the time

(c) met and befriended William Archer (1856 – 1924 [= a Scott. journalist and critic])

(d) => an art critic: pioneered a new standard of wit and judgement of reviewing

- a music critic: championed the operas of R. Wagner

- a drama critic: championed the plays of the Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen (1828 – 1906) [see his The Quintessence of Ibsenism (1891)]

- a public character: experienced historical changes of the last ½ of the 19th c. / the 1st ½ of the 20th c. and pronounced on them in a witty epigrammatic style

- a literary celebrity: used his publicity to advocate his social ideas x O. Wilde used his to define his aesthetic POV

- a radical in many aspects: vegetarian, non-smoker, non-drinker, advocate of women’s rights, the abolition of private property, and the simplification of E spelling and punctuation

W o r k :

- author of more than 50 plays

(a) content:

< H. Ibsen > men-mastering, no-nonsense, and strong-willed women characters

< C. Dickens > tends to comedy, aspires to a dramatic reflection of D.’s comic energy, social diversity, and political observation

- set predominantly in the En. of the turn of the 20th c.

- fuses elements of socialism, science, and philos. x but: not as much didactic as instructive

- ‘a drama of ideas’ = the characters argue their POVs to justify their social positions: the prostitute of Mrs Warren’s Profession (1893), the munitions manufacturer in Major Barbara (1905), etc.

- his history illuminating, present reforming, and future exciting: his intellectual confidence lacks in the cautious, agnostic, and depressive writing of most of his contemporaries

(a) form:

- emphasises the discussion: makes play and discussion practically identical, makes the spectators themselves the persons of the drama, and the incidents of their own lives its incidents

- produces dialogues of rhetorical brilliance

- reverses plot conventions, attacks conventional moralism of the audience, and moves the audience to an uncomfortable sympathy with the POVs and characters violating traditional assumptions

- orig.: difficulty getting his plays performed => publ. in a book form with a didactic preface as Plays Pleasant and Unpleasant (1898)

- then: performed in the Royal Court Theatre = the centre for avant-garde drama in London

=> received the Nobel Prize for Lit. (1925)

The Quintessence of Ibsenism (1891):

- explains his reasons for admiring H. Ibsen

- defines the kind of drama he wanted to write

Widower’s Houses (1892):

= his 1st play

- criticises the slum landlordism

The Philanderer (1893):

> forbidden by the Lord Chamberlain’s censorship

Mrs Warren’s Profession (1893):

- conc.: the contemp. women’s question of the lack of employment occasions

- contrasts the future professional career of an educated, would-be-independent woman x the oldest profession of F prostitution: argues for the propriety of both vocations

- preface: prostitution caused not by F depravity x but: by underpaying, undervaluing, and overworking women

- women forced to resort to prostitution => infamous of society to offer such alternatives

- internal tensions: juxtaposes the liberated daughter Vivie x her brothel-keeping mother

- concl.: no reconciliation, compromise, or empty gestures of feminine solidarity x but: a slammed door with an isolated Vivie happily engrossed in her work

> the 1st legal public performances in E allowed only in the y. after his receiving the Nobel Prize

Arms and the Man: An Anti-Romantic Comedy (1894):

= a ‘pleasant’ play for the commercial theatre

- challenges ideas of soldierly and masculine heroism

Candida: A Mystery (1894):

= a ‘pleasant’ play

- turns H. Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1879 [= criticises the traditional roles of men and women in Victorian marriage]) upside down in the context of a Christian Socialist family

The Devil’s Disciple (1896)

Caesar and Cleopatra (1898)

The Perfect Wagnerite (1898):

< R. Wagner’s innovatory music-dramas of ‘The Ring Cycle’ (1848 – 74 [= The Ring of the Nibelung, a series of 4 epic music dramas based on elements of Germanic paganism])

- transforms W.’s mythology into an analyses of modern realities

- ‘the dwarfs, giants and gods’ = ‘dramatisations of the three main orders of men’

(a) dwarfs = ‘the instinctive, predatory, lustful, greedy people’

(b) giants = ‘the patient, toiling, stupid,…money-worshipping people’

(c) gods = ‘the intellectual, moral, talented people’

< further develops the idea in his Heartbreak House (1919)

You Never Can Tell (1899):

= a ‘pleasant’ play

- allows for the victory of a new generation over the old

Man and Superman (1903):

< Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s (1756 – 91 [= an Austrian composer]) Don Giovanni (1787)

- set in an infernal afterlife

- transforms the play’s characters into those of Don Giovanni in a vast post-Nietzschean argument

John Bull’s Other Island (1904):

= one of his rare direct treatments of Ir.

Major Barbara (1905):

- conc.: the idea of the future reconstruction of society by a power-manipulating minority

- contrasts a strong-willed father x his equally strong-minded daughter

Androcles and the Lion (1912)

Pygmalion (1912):

- conc.: the developing relationship btw a ‘creator’ x his ‘creation’

< possibly shares this ‘grotesque’ idea with C. Dickens’s Great Expectations

> the basis of the musical My Fair Lady (1956)

Heartbreak House (1919):

- the title: from its subtle series of encounters btw characters each of which has to come to terms with disillusion and some kind of ‘heartbreak’

< develops the theme of 3 contending orders of men of his The Perfect Wagnerite

- concl.: the god-like survivors destroy the oth. 2 orders

Back to Methuselah (1920)

Saint Joan (1923):

- celebrates the recent canonisation of the Fr. military heroine Joan of Arc (1412 – 31) x but: scarcely in a churchy way

- Joan = a self-aware, self-asserting woman => ‘saintly’ not in the sentimental sense x but: by merit of the effects she has on oth. and in her willingness to give her life for the freedom opened up to her by her convictions


Abrams, Meyer Howard, ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. New York: W. W. Norton, 1993.

Barnard, Robert. Stručné dějiny anglické literatury. Praha: Brána, 1997.

Sanders, Andrew. The Short Oxford History of English Literature. New York: Clarendon Press, 1994.

Other Sources

Práger, Libor. Semináře: Britská literatura 2. ZS 2004/05.


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