From British and Irish Drama 1890 to 1950: A Critical History
by Richard Farr Dietrich
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End of Chapter 2
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Table of Contents


A.   The Death of Boucicault

B.   The Birth of Ibsenism


A.   Arthur Wing Pinero: The Ideal New Dramatist

B.   Henry Arthur Jones: The Earnest Victorian


A.   The Serio-Comedies

B.    Salomé

C.   The Importance of Being Earnest


A.   The Devil’s Disciple

B.   Plays Unpleasant

C.   Plays Pleasant

D.   Plays for Puritans








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This volume could have started with the London production of Ibsen’s A Doll House1 in 1889, for that was a seminal event in the development of the New Drama, but 1890 has been chosen for the beginning of the modern period because in that year two events occurred, involving British playwrights of Irish origin, that loom even larger as symbols of history—the death of Dion Boucicault, one of the nineteenth century’s most popular, prolific, and innovative playwrights, and the birth of “Ibsenism” at the hands of George Bernard Shaw, two years away from writing his first play.  The two events symbolize the death of the old order in the British theater and the rebirth of that theater in a new form.


Shedding light on these two events, a third significant event of 1890 was the publication of the first two volumes of Frazer’s The Golden Bough, which suggested that ancient myth and ritual survived in the hidden structures of literature and its processes.  For example, the death of Boucicault and the birth of Ibsenism could be understood as manifestations of the spirit of Dionysius (also called Bacchus), a Greek god of vegetation (especially the grape), whose periodic death and resurrection was generally associated with the process of communal decay and regeneration.  Dionysius was also the Greek patron saint of the theater because Dionysian rituals of lament for the god’s death and of celebration for his revival seem to have transmuted into the theater’s patterns of tragedy and comedy.  The drama above all other genres seems to be the most appropriate for the communal contempla­tion and ritual experiencing of the rhythms of life.


It almost seems that it was as much the late Victorians and Edwardians who made Dionysius the patron saint of the theater as it was the Greeks.  As archaeologists dug up the past, the British naturally looked through the remains of history for kindred societies.  They were particularly intrigued by the rare combination of democracy and imperialism they found in classical Athens, site of the production of most of the extant Greek plays. There the British found Dionysius connected with drama at its root, though the connection was taken for granted by the Greeks and not much explained.  To explain the god’s connection with drama to the modern world, Frazer’s new science of cultural anthropology joined with Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy (1871) and myth criticism to produce such works as Jane Harrison’s Themis (1912), Cornford’s Origins of Attic Comedy (1914), and Gilbert Murray’s many treatises on the ritual basis of Greek drama, leading to Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism (1957).


Gilbert Murray’s focus on drama makes his work especially relevant.  Murray argued so convincingly for the hidden presence of Dionysian ritual in Greek drama that many took his enthusiasm for evidence.  Though the detailed ritual pattern Murray wanted to see in Greek drama appears not to be there as universally as he theorized, the general idea that most literature, especially drama, either celebrates the Dionysian life principle or bears witness to or prophesies its absence still may serve as a unifying concept.  At any rate, what matters here is the historical effect of a developing idea as it met with other ideas of the late Victorian age, such as the idea of a renaissance of the drama and the establishment of a national theater based on an original model.   And an account of Murray’s theory would have value if only because Murray was friend and counselor on Greek matters to Shaw, whose ideas about the Life Force, seen in the light of Murray’s theories, seem less Description: Description: Description: Description: Description: Description: Description: Description: Description: Description: than archetypal (see Figure below).



Punch cartoon portraying Shaw as Pan

(like Dionysius, a goat-footed deity representing the primacy of Nature),

which could stand for Shaw's attempt to lure the drama back to

its Greek origins as life-worship.  Courtesy of Punch








The Nietzsche-Frazer-Cornford-Murray-Frye account of drama’s origin goes something like this (although they would not have agreed on some details):  Dionysius was a god who, like Christ, died annually in the rituals of religion and in the spring was miraculously reborn. The tragedy of this vegetation god’s “fall” in harvest time and the comedy of his springing back to life in seed time made natural material for drama, and apparently the priests themselves were the first to dramatize the tragicomic story, even as the priests of the Middle Ages were the first to dramatize the Bible.2   Through a complicated series of substitutions—priests and scapegoats substituting for Dionysius, eventually actors substituting for both, and the stories of Greek monarchs and heroes substituting for the story of Dionysius—the ancient drama passed into forms less recognizable, or not recognizable at all, as religious in origin, until tragedy and comedy lost their seasonal connection and the playing of the “fall” and “rise” was telescoped into a single week in spring, similar to the playing of Christ’s death and resurrection in Easter Week, and had more to do with communal well-being than with seasonal renewal, though the two could be related.  By the 5th century B.C., the huge Theater of Dionysius had been built in amphitheater style on the southeastern slope of Athen’s acropolis, becoming the model, however modified, for all the Greek, Hellenistic, Description: Olivier Theatreand Greco-Roman theaters built thereafter. That it was also the model for the main theater of London’s present National Theatre (see Figure to the right)  is the point here, suggesting that what modern British drama was driving at was a return to the origin of theater, to its cultural centrality and ritual significance.  It was during the modern age that this return became a consuming idea, though not everybody understood that to return to the origin of drama was to revive the spirit of Dionysius and that to invoke Dionysius was to set loose a spirit inimical to certain Victorian ideals.





          The resurrecting of Dionysius may also partly account for the modern era’s being more an age of comedy and tragicomedy than of pure tragedy.  Dramatic festivals in honor of the god were staged annually at the Theater of Dionysius, in keeping with his dual nature, tragic and comic.  During the festivals’ richest development, in midclassical times, a balance was struck between tragedy and comedy, except that the comedies were generally performed last, with even the great tragedies in their trilogies being followed by comic satyr plays.  The religious justification for comedy’s climactic position must have been to emphasize the triumph of life and joy over death and suffering.  To the extent that this drama still embodied religious ideas, Dionysius, in the guise of however many Greek kings and heroes, never died in the tragedies or suffered a fall but he rose again in the comedies, for he was the personification of ever-renewing primal energy.  Though the apparent ritual means of regeneration—sexual passion under the influence of strong drink and intoxicated destruction of the old for the sake of providing seed for the new—did not endear Dionysius to many Victorians, his life-affirming spirit and regenerative powers, Shaw and Murray thought, were the theater’s guiding principle, a principle Shaw thought was particularly needed in its comic mode to offset the age’s death-worshipping conventions.  Certainly an age attempting a renaissance of the theater would do well to put the emphasis on Dionysian resurrection.  The dominance of comedy in our modern period, especially when mixed with tragedy (tragicomedy simply being a further telescoping and thus intensification of the Dionysian dual nature), suggests that the playwrights of the age responded appropriately. 


The problem with liberating the Dionysian spirit of comic revelry in the nineties, however much needed to redress an imbalance, was its anarchic tendency, which, bringing new freedoms, frightened as many as it exhilarated.  Sexual freedom was especially frightening, for it threatened a society founded on the virginity of unmarried females and the monogamous family.  It is no wonder that playwrights of the nineties were preoccupied with the “woman question,” for the invoking of Dionysius involved questions of sexual freedom that led to further questions about the equality of the sexes.  The notorious Victorian double standard, tacitly allowing sexual license to males but not to females, was a contradiction of such intensity that it was certain to find dramatic embodiment.  Traditionally, for male playwrights the problem of “woman” is the problem of life. To be Victorian was to avoid the problem by cliché thinking, compartmentalizing women into “good” and “bad” to serve the ambivalence of men.  To serve their aspirations men invented “good” women, who were pure, angelic, and, well, “womanly,” an ideal at which most advertising aimed and whose illusion a surprising number of women took earnestly and contrived to achieve.  But the presence of “beastly” impulses in men made it necessary that there also be “bad” women, whom poetic men liked to sentimentalize as “fallen angels.”  To be modern was to be aware of the contradictions between ideal and real, and to realize that to enforce angelic behavior on women through a stringent code of respectability was to outlaw those women who refused stereotyping and to condemn the obedient, smothered in conformity, to a sort of death-in-life, which ended in killing the souls of men as well.  The test of modernity for a playwright of the nineties was whether he had truly liberated himself and his art from the sexual stereotypes of the Victorian double standard.  There were







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It is appropriate that the story of modern British drama begin with a death, then, for death must precede rebirth. The death of the old order in Victorian drama is symbolized by the death of a playwright happily named Dionysius Boucicault (1820?-1890).


Allardyce Nicoll reports that something like thirty thousand plays were produced in nineteenth-century England, not counting foreign plays.  Only hack writers, cranking out formula plots or plagiarizing from the French, could turn them out at that rate.  And only a few of the hack writers would be able to achieve enough popularity or give enough distinctive style to their works to be remembered.  In some cases they would be remembered as “house dramatists,” more or less indentured servants of a particular star actor in a particular theater.  Among those remembered was Dionysius Boucicault, perhaps not the best from a literary standpoint but supremely representative of the type, memorable too because he was one of the few hacks to make it on his own, in his heyday barnstorming the Western world with his own troupe of actors.


He is said to have written as many as four hundred plays, though many were translations, adaptations, and doctored scripts. Typical was a melodrama he adapted in 1857 from a French play entitled Les Pauvres de Paris—produced in New York, it was called The Poor of New York; in Liverpool in 1864, after revising place names, he changed it to The Poor of Liverpool; later, revising it again for London audiences, he changed it to The Streets of London. And so it went.  He expressed his contempt for the whole proceeding by declaring playwriting “a degrading occupation, but more money has been made out of guano than out of poetry.”3   Boucicault simply followed the formula for melodramas, with nick-of-time rescues of fair maidens from cursing villains and happy endings with virtue triumphant.  But he also put his stamp on these plays with bold, thrilling theatrical effects, a flamboyant style, and broad humor for relief.  Unlike most hack writers, he made several fortunes in the theater, even initiating for British playwrights the custom of being paid royalties (instead of flat rates); but his life-style was so expensive that he died broke, bewildered by the waning interest in the Old Drama and the gathering enthusiasm for the New Drama.  Ironically, his dedication to making his spectacular stage effects up-to-date realistic (as in using the newly invented camera to solve a mystery in The Octoroon, an 1859 play dealing with slavery) encouraged a growing taste for the realism that would supplant him.


Though melodrama was his specialty, Boucicault wrote many kinds of plays, actually gaining his first fame, in 1841, with an imitation Restoration comedy of manners (London Assurance, revived in 1890 against the rising tide of the New Drama).  And he was largely responsible for creating the comic stage Irishman—happy-go-lucky and irresponsible but witty, loyal, and lovable (as in The Shaugraun, revived in 1988 by the National Theatre).  Whatever he wrote, however many little touches of real talent one may find in an unusually vivid characterization here or a bit of striking dialogue there, however much he might seem to challenge the day’s mores (as The Octoroon seemed to question slavery), or however much he experimented with the formulas (as he did in suggesting environmental reasons for the villainy of some of his villains), his plays, typical of all the hack writers, were always faithful at the last to conventions—their endings, strong in sentiment and simplistically moralizing, were always predictable, inartistically imposed from without rather than following from character and event.  That is, Boucicault’s plays are full of life, of the Dionysian spirit, as recent London and New York revivals proved to delighted audiences, but they are also full of a form of death called conventionality.  And in that they are symptomatic of the age.  The paradox of the age was that a society so outwardly vital, so bustling in trade, so vigorous in empire building, so energetic in pursuit of science, so passionate in so many endeavors, should be so hidebound, so constrained, so convention-ridden, so morbidly preoccupied with the squelching of instinct and passion, so ruled from the grave in manners and morals. As though they feared their own freedom.


Civilization needs conventions—we need to know which side of the street to drive on, what clothes to wear for what occasions, what sort of small talk is appropriate when meeting strangers, what language formations are to be ended with a period and what with a question mark, etc.  Such conventions keep civilization going.  But some conventions are stoppers.  By killing spontaneity, by replacing the spontaneous response with a programmed response, they cause human beings to act like zombies or robots. The French philosopher Henri Bergson based an entire theory of comedy on the idea that comedy arises from our reaction to seeing mechanical behavior enforced upon the living; obviously convention would be a major source of that enforcement.4  When Shaw said that “England is an island populated exclusively by comic characters,” he was referring to the Englishman’s tendency to mechanize manners and morals to the point of self-caricature. The value of Dionysius was that through the intoxication of wine he inspired passion, the means by which inhibition and mechanical behavior were overcome and the individual’s life force reestablished in a field of spontaneity. The passion of spontaneous laughter, Bergson theorized, was the means by which comedy sought to correct the over-mechanization of life.  No wonder the period of modern British drama is one of the great ages of comedy and tragicomedy—no age ever needed laughter more.


          Conventions are invented by the living, but their tendency to last beyond their time, like the institutions they support, promoting routine response at the expense of real thinking and feeling, means that often they rule from the grave.  One of the principal themes of modern literature is that of the living being ruled by the dead in the form of a duty to one’s parents and grandparents to keep alive the conventions that earlier ruled them from the grave, the conventions being part of the matrix of their beings, thus preserving in the conventions a form of immortality, however ghoulish. This theme was perhaps most beautifully expressed in James Joyce’s “The Dead” (1914) and most harrowingly in Ibsen’s Ghosts (1881).  Joyce acknowledged Ibsen as his mentor in this.  Shaw too knew well the theme of Ghosts and knew that the nineteenth-century theater was not only haunted by ghosts but by a play called Ghosts as well.







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        Reacting to all the furor over the 1889 production of A Doll House (mistakenly interpreted as a call for women to abandon their chauvinist husbands), Shaw in 1890 delivered a lecture to his own Fabian Society, a group of socialist reformers, on the seemingly kindred spirit Ibsen, whose plays he knew mostly from the translations of his friend and fellow critic, William Archer.  Shaw’s lecture, revised and expanded, came to be called The Quintessence of Ibsenism when published in 1891.  The impetus for Shaw’s revision came partly from the public uproar over the extra-marital scandal of the leader of the Irish in Parliament, Charles Stewart Parnell, and partly from the reaction to the London production of Ibsen’s Ghosts early in 1891 as reported in an Archer essay. (Pause here to contemplate how a single work of genius can eclipse more diligent but less inspired work.  Archer was Ibsen’s personally anointed champion in England, as Ibsen’s principal translator, as secret director and advisor for the many Elizabeth Robins’s productions of Ibsen in the nineties, and as critic.  Indefatigable in his advocacy, Archer wrote almost two hundred essays and reviews on Ibsen, scattering gems of insights over many journals, books, and newspapers. But what history remembers is Shaw’s The Quintessence of Ibsenismits controversial quality, its rhetorical brilliance, its astute summary of a new way of looking at human society and human psychology, and its fascinating, wide-ranging argument sending Archer’s efforts into the shade.  Unfair, no doubt, but such is literary history.)


          Ghosts* was a play that proved its point—that convention haunts the living from the grave—by eliciting the very response from some of its critics that it exposed as ghost-ridden in the play.  Certain critics, more ghost-ridden than others, became hysterically and uncustomarily vituperative in their denunciation of play and author, Shaw picking out Clement Scott as the most horrible example of a critic gone haywire, as though the “Do Not Touch!” button had been pushed on a nuclear reactor.6  It was in his analysis of Scott’s berserk reaction that Shaw found the best proof of his clue to Ibsen, to society at large, and to the universe, drawing conclusions thereby that were to have a profound effect on his own dramatic career, on the critical reception other dramatists were to have, and on the general understanding of the age held by the avant-garde.


*Shaw’s summary of Ghosts is as follows: “A clergyman and a married woman fall in love. . . The woman proposes to abandon her husband and live with the clergyman. He recalls her to her duty, and makes her behave as a virtuous woman.   She afterwards tells him that this was a crime on his part.  Ibsen agrees with her, and has written the play to bring you around to his opinion.”



          Shaw saw Ibsen as a prophet of human evolution, presenting in dramatic parables the social and individual conflicts that arise out of evolution’s uneven progression.  Individual human destiny is partly a matter of what stage of evolution one is born to.  According to Shaw, Ibsen’s characters represent three stages of evolution—in ascending order, the Philistine, the Idealist, and the potential Realist (here capitalized to distinguish it from the literary realist). Each is imbued with a will to power (the aggressive phase of the Dionysian life impulse or the Darwinian survival instinct) and thus is in conflict with the other as each seeks to control his or her environment or self.  Such conflict is healthy if it is a spur to growth or creativity, as Shaw emphasized, but Ibsen more often showed its destructive, frustrated side. Shaw saw the prime motor of Ibsenist evolution as will, which Shaw defined as “our old friend the soul or spirit of man.”7   “Life consists in the fulfillment of the will,” said Shaw, “which is constantly growing.”8  Because the will seeks fulfillment in ways appropriate to its stage of growth, it experiences frustration when it encounters conventions that represent the wills of the dead, wills arrested at an earlier stage of development, wills that would imprison the living within a sarcophagus of moral response.  How one reacts to this frustration determines one’s identity as Philistine, Idealist, or Realist (although in practice both Shaw and Ibsen presented these identities as psychological principles in conflict within the minds of characters as well, implying that we all have a bit of Philistine, Idealist, and Realist in us, though one principle often dominates in moments of crisis).9


          Shaw listed a number of ideals that Victorian society mandated as absolute truth: that men spontaneously love their kindred better than their chance acquaintances (“blood is thicker than water”), that the woman once desired is always desired (“passion is eternal”), that the family is woman’s proper sphere (“a woman’s place is in the home”), that “no really womanly woman ever forms an attachment, or even knows what it means, until she is requested to do so by a man.” But in his principal example, Shaw presented his three types or principles as reacting differently to conventional marriage and family arrangements. The Idealists, when failures at marriage, continue to idealize marriage as “made in heaven” and the family “as a beautiful and holy natural institution,” insisting guiltily on suppressing any attack on the institutions; the easygoing, comfort-loving, silent-majority Philistines, though cynical of the Idealists’ fancy picture of things, and always trying to get away with as much as they can, when pressed go along with the Idealists for the sake of convenience and safety (the Idealists, though fewer, are usually more powerful, as leaders of institutions); and the rare Realist, seeing that because institutions are man-made, temporary, and relative to culture they must be changed periodically to keep pace with human evolution and the individual growth of will, proposes reform and advises the Idealists not to be ashamed of their failure to live up to their own ideals, for the impossible ideals are at fault, not human nature.  Drama arises from the fact that when the Realist proposes a reform, such as abolishing the compulsory character of marriage, “the Philistines will simply think him mad.  But the Idealists will be terrified beyond measure at the proclamation of their hidden thought—at the presence of the traitor among the conspirators of silence. . . . At his worst they will call him cynic and paradoxer: at his best they do their utmost to ruin him if not to take his 1ife.11  This at least was the reaction to Ibsen, who in his dramatizing of the evolution of the species portrayed “a conflict of unsettled ideaIs  in the clash among Philistine, Idealist, and Realist principles.


Shaw believed that Clement Scott went berserk in reviewing Ghosts because it championed Dionysian freedom, the seemingly anarchic primacy of the individual’s desire for self-renewal, over convention’s dictate that because marriages are made in heaven, the individual should sacrifice personal desires to that ideal.  Scott’s ideal or “fancy picture” of marriage, inherited from the ghosts of the past, is contradicted by experience everyday; yet Scott, desperate to have the ideal vindicated, as though it were his very life, screeched the vilest imprecations of denial at the Ibsenist reformer who would change the marriage laws to accommodate individuals’ different rates of growth.13 Shaw’s examples of Realists are those who like Ibsen and Shelley pierce the illusion— insisted upon as real by the Idealist—in order to see the ever-evolving truth behind the “eternal verities” and, so seeing, attempt to bring society and individuals more in line with the way things are.


Shaw’s Quintessence was, among other things, a clever semantic ploy to regain the initiative for art in a world increasingly dominated by scientific materialism.  Artists could be greater Realists, Shaw implied, than scientists and businessmen, for reality is more what the poet “envisions” and less what the materialist “observes.” His complaint against literary realism was that it too often was a sellout to literal-minded, surface-obsessed scientific materialism.  Ibsen felt the same way but was forced by circumstances to shift from the poetic, heroic drama he favored to mimetic realism, which he then subverted with a secret symbolic-expressionistic method that used surface reality to evoke a greater reality.  Quintessentially, Shaw thought, Ibsen’s priorities were correct, the poet’s vision mattering more to him than mere scientific observation.


Shaw had been an art and music critic since 1885, and a novelist before that, and now The Quintessence of Ibsenism launched him on a career as a drama critic.  Largely unable to get his plays staged in the nineties, he worked as drama critic for the Saturday Review from 1895 to 1898, at the height of the sensation caused by the Ibsenite New Drama; his reviews were collected under the title Our Theatres in the Nineties.  His criticism expectedly jibed with the views of Archer and others about the shallowness, conventionality, and inartistic nature of the long-popular Boucicaultian theater (though Shaw had some kind words for its crude vitality).   But unexpectedly Shaw found that the drama that was becoming popular, the New Drama, was a sham, the realism merely a veneer—this drama had some “observation” but not much “vision.” Further, overpowering even what observation it had, the ghosts of convention still ruled it from the grave, the same sentimental stereotyping and the same inartistic bailing out at the end prevailed, and thus its patrons still came for escapist pleasure, precisely because this New Drama ultimately had little more to do with “real life” than did the old melodramas and farces.  The point of Shaw’s criticism was that drama and theater should abandon their trivial pursuit of escapist pleasure and take up once again the seriousness and fundamentally religious purpose of the ancient Greek theater, thereby becoming worthy of playing a central role in the cultural development of a world civilization.


Boucicault’s death in 1890 conveniently symbolizes that his kind of theater had reached a decadent phase, symptomatic of the decadence of those Victorian conventions that ruled its dramaturgy from without.  True to the spirit of Dionysius, the dying out of one kind of theater was the occasion for the birth of a new kind of theater, supposedly Ibsenist.  But did the New Drama of Pinero and Jones embody Ibsenism?  The tip-off, Shaw thought, was that neither of them thought all that highly of Ibsen, however much they traded on his stylistic revolution; their Ibsenism was superficial at best.  Thus in Shaw’s view the decadence merely continued in a disguised form.  Well, did Shaw’s Drama of Ideas any better embody Ibsenism?  Not as far as surface appearances are concerned, but perhaps quintessentially it did.  Both Ibsen and Shaw emphasized vision over observation.  Both visions were of the rottenness of the old order and the need to start over.  Both partly embodied their visions in parodied versions of the old forms, the familiarity with the old forms making their works more accessible to many, but, at the same time, the satiric charge given the content exploding the conventions, necessary to the regenerating of both drama and society.14   And though Ibsen’s perspective was more tragic than comic and Shaw’s more comic than tragic, both employed a tragicomic blend to express unusually comprehensive and dynamic visions.


Regardless of whether the Shavian or the Pinero-Jones New Drama is taken as the model, the British New Drama of the nineties was seen as a “deliverance,” and the playwrights were “prophets” of a new dispensation.  But we can see now that most of the prophets of the nineties were more like precursors of an even greater drama to come.




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The theater in the nineties was a mixture of Old Drama and New, though matters were further confused by a New Drama that wasn’t realistic. In addition to Shaw, an interesting counterpoint to the rising tide of realism was the staging of plays by Maeterlinck, the Belgian Symbolist who was sowing the seeds of a wholesale revolt against realism; the first production of a play by Yeats, who would follow Maeterlinck into Symbolism and thereby temper the realism of Irish drama to come; and the start of the career of James Barrie, who would become a master of fantasy.  And the staging of Tennyson’s Becket proved that the seemingly vain effort to make a success of verse drama was continuing despite realism’s vogue.  To be sure, plays roughly in the realistic, “well-made” camp increasingly gained on the Old Drama, but the "realism" often disguised melodrama, and the "problem plays" were often unproblematical.  And not all the Ibsen productions together could match the commercial success of Wilson Barrett’s melodramatic Sign of the Cross or Brandon Thomas’s farcical Charley’s Aunt.   A distinction must always be made between the drama that appealed to the intelligentsia, mostly short runs in smaller theaters, and the popular plays that ran longer in larger theaters.  To be a New Dramatist at the larger theaters, one had to tone down one’s Ibsenism and let convention have the last say; one could be “unpleasant” in one’s realism only if one were melodramatically “moral” in one’s denouement.  The masters of this compromise in the nineties were Pinero, Jones, and Wilde, though Wilde more fooled with compromise than actually did so.






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          Throughout the 188os William Archer watched for a savior of the theater, someone who would do for British drama what Ibsen was doing for European drama. As early as 1882, in his English Dramatists of To-Day, Archer had noted the promise of two young and barely produced playwrights named Jones and Pinero. As the eighties came to a close, both showed signs of moving toward a more realistic sort of theater. But the one who first made the great leap forward was Pinero, gaining in courage from the change in atmosphere brought about by the ground-breaking Ibsen productions of the day. At the sudden appearance of The Second Mrs. Tanqueray (1893), Archer declared it “the one play of what may be called European merit which the modern English stage can as yet boast” and immediately treated Pinero as his champion of the New Drama.15


Arthur Wing Pinero (1855-1934) was born in London, the grandson of a Portuguese Jew who, emigrating to England, changed his name from Pinheiro and became a wealthy and prominent solicitor, marrying into a fine old English family.  Pinero’s father inherited the law practice, married well himself, but, through carelessness, allowed the practice to decline, so that at the age of ten Pinero was taken out of school and set to work in his father’s office.  There, countering his father’s insouciance, the boy developed a meticulous, precise, industrious style that was to be characteristic of his later playwriting and directing.  On his father’s retirement he took jobs in a library and with another law firm.  Finding law boring, Pinero studied elocution at night school, capping off his education by playing Hamlet.  From his earliest years his parents had taken him to the theater, and every chance he got he attended the one nearest him, the old Sadler’s Wells, eventually branching out to others, especially the Prince of Wales under the Bancrofts, where T. W. Robertson’s realistic social comedies were “revolutionizing” the theater.


When Pinero was nineteen his father died, and the young man, hopelessly stage-struck by then, abandoned law for an acting career.  He began as general utility actor for Wyndham’s stock company, then in Edinburgh; moved to Liverpool for a short stint in a Wilkie Collins’s novel adaptation; was recommended by Collins (apparently mistaking Pinero for another actor) for a part in another such adaptation at the Globe Theatre in London; and eventually was recruited by Henry Irving for minor roles at the Atheneum, where he gained a reputation as a character actor, especially in the roles of old men. He may have been a mediocre actor, or perhaps the more realistic style he was attempting was not to the tastes of the day’s critics; but whatever the verdict, he gave up acting for playwriting in 1882. Three years earlier, in 1879, in a piece of his own, he had played opposite an actress named Myra Holme, a widow with a son and daughter, and they married in 1883.  She at first refused to leave the stage, as he wanted.


Pinero had been writing plays from at least 1874, but a one-act curtain raiser was the first, in 1877, to be produced. Walter Lazenby, the only critic who has attempted to categorize all fifty-seven of Pinero’s extant works, dismisses his first ten plays, written before he retired from acting in 1882, as fledgling work, “tentative efforts in which the emerging playwright had not exactly found his métier.”16  These plays are remarkable in their attempt, not entirely successful, to avoid melodrama, to break down character stereotypes, and, in the longer plays, to give more depth and variety to the plot than was usual in melodrama and farce.  From the start Pinero appears to have been interested in “the drama of reputation,” particularly as it concerned women with a past.   One wonders about Pinero's ex-actress wife.


The surprise comes when, looking at Lazenby’s categorizing of Pinero’s work from 1883 on, one discovers that this model of the New Drama actually wrote only seven plays that could be considered well-made, realistic problem plays. Discounting some overlap, a total of thirty-four plays are listed as either farces (twelve), sentimental comedies (twelve), or comedies of manners (ten), which leads to the conclusion that comedy was really Pinero’s forte.  Certainly Pinero’s first great success came with the writing of playful farces and sentimental, Robertsonian comedies.


The farces are excellent of their kind, and many of these witty, rollicking pieces would be playable today. After he became successful at writing “serious” problem plays, Pinero claimed that his farces and comedies were a necessary rest, relaxing him for the more serious efforts, but one suspects a camouflaging of a predilection that he knew would displease the likes of Archer.  A sort of English Feydeau, Pinero might be better known and appreciated today had he been more proud of and more open about his comic genius.


The farce that vaulted him into the front ranks of successful dramatists was The Magistrate (1885; revived in 1987 by the National Theatre).  With over three hundred performances, it set a record and was the first of a quick succession of similar farces that was staged at the old Court Theatre. Pinero sought “to raise farce a little” from its “low pantomime level” and make it a more artistic genre, “thinking ... that farce should have as substantial and reasonable a backbone as a serious play.”17   His more realistic drawing of characters led him to discard the old stock figures that were merely vehicles for star actors. As Lazenby says, “drawing upon the wealth of types in Victorian society, he grounded his plays in observable Victorian realities and created fresh emblems of the institutions and assumptions whose sanctity his audiences may have secretly wanted to violate.  The result was a new formula for farce based on showing possible people doing improbable things.”18 Pinero’s technique in the Court farces was to take pillars of the community—such as a judge in The Magistrate, a teacher in The Schoolmistress (i886), a church dean in Dandy Dick (1887), and a respected politician in The Cabinet Minister (1890)—and contrive to show them, by the pursuit of their own rectitude, caught in a downward spiral of events that finds them at last confronted with some ultimate indignity (for example, the magistrate is nearly tried in his own courtroom for a crime) before being rescued at the last minute.  That these plays take upright Victori­ans to the very depths of disreputableness suggests some subversive intention, but Pinero escaped any such suspicion by making their comic downfall purely circumstantial and accidental.  No satiric comment is necessarily directed at institutions; rather, all the fun is in seeing the foibles of individuals exposed to the test of trying circumstances, usually of an improbable nature.  Further evidence of Pinero’s conservatism can be seen in the way he simply domesticated the French bedroom farce to suit a more prudish audience.


Pinero was also having success with sentimental comedies, Sweet Lavender (1886) setting records and Lady Bountiful (1891) doing well enough, and, already quite wealthy, he might have rested on a career of farces and sentimental comedies.  But he knew that critics like Archer were calling for a native drama that would match the stature and seriousness of the European social drama, and he was aware that productions of Ibsen’s plays were causing both box-office controversy and a readiness for something new.  In a bid for posterity, then, Pinero attempted what he considered a higher drama—the realistic problem play.  His first, pre-Ibsen. Effort, The Profligate (written in 1887, produced in 1889), was timid, but his next, post-Ibsen, effort, The Second Mrs. Tanqueray (1893), was much bolder. One can look further back and see in The Rector (1883), Lords and Commons (1883), and The Ironmaster (1884) some experimentation with problem-play material, but they were more in the line of Dumas fils than of Ibsen, that is, more “well-made” than truly problematic or truly realistic. The question about The Second Mrs. Tanqueray and the other problem plays that followed is whether they were what they pretended to be.


Stage directions for The Second Mrs. Tanqueray, setting a fully realistic stage, are noticeably more detailed than in the standard play of the century.  The story is of Aubrey Tanqueray, a man of forty-three and long widowed, who marries a twenty-seven-year-old woman legally known as “Paula Ray,” but who has used other names in plying her unstated trade as courtesan.  She has convinced high-minded Tanqueray that she has been “ill-treated,” meaning that she was always promised marriage but never given it, and so they have fallen in love, determined to live down any scandal.  She has given Aubrey a list of her “adventures,” which he chivalrously burns without reading.  But Aubrey has “a problem” when his saintly, convent-raised daughter, Ellean, comes to live with them.  While he is willing to say “yes” to the question of whether a particular woman with a past can “get back,” he feels pressured by the problem of his “pure” daughter’s being thrown into the company of his “tainted” wife.  Complications occur when pleasure-loving Paula, bored with life in the country and increasingly angered by their ostracism, jealously quarrels with Aubrey over what seems to be his greater regard for his “angel” daughter than for his “fallen angel” wife.  When an opportunity arises for Ellean to go to Paris with a neighbor, Aubrey consents, partly, as he confesses later, to remove Ellean from the coarseness and wild impulsiveness he has noticed in Paula.  Ellean returns with a young man she has fallen in love with, but by the long arm of coincidence he turns out to have been on the list that Aubrey so nobly burned in act I.   In act 4, as Aubrey and Ellean gradually “discover all,” they arrive at the automatic truth that a pure young girl cannot be expected to marry a man who was the lover of the girl’s stepmother, and so the young man is sent packing.  Having ruined everybody’s life, finding no forgiveness from Ellean (until too late), seeing through Aubrey’s lame proposal to live abroad and live for the future (“I believe the future is only the past again, entered through another gate,” says Paula), and seeing her best intentions go awry, Paula kills herself offstage (means unspecified), leaving father speechless and daughter penitent and faint­ing.  With the gratifying death of this challenger to social convention, the Victorian audience must have breathed a sigh of relief as the double standard was, if not entirely vindicated, at least not put to the further stress of a continuing attempt to make the Tanqueray’s marriage work. The heroine at least had the sense to know there was a fate worse than death.


William Archer said that “technically, the work is as nearly as possible perfect,”19 but on its publication in 1895 Shaw attacked it on those very grounds, noting the crude, wasteful, and naive machinery of much of the exposition and plotting. “It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that what most of our critics mean by mastery of stagecraft is recklessness in the substitution of dead machinery and lay figures for vital action and real characters.”20  Archer plausibly defended Pinero, but the further point Shaw made, that in crucial spots Paula speaks not in her own character but “from the Tanqueray-Ellean-Pinero point of view,” is very damaging.  Paula ceases to be a believable character when she capitulates totally to a set of values that the character Pinero has given us would have rejected or at least challenged. Too often the hand that wrote this play, Shaw thought, was the dead hand of convention. Paula is made to behave, not as she would behave, but as convention would have her.  Underneath this play’s realism works the old machinery of melodrama, which served convention by allowing villains and rakes to reform themselves at the last and redeem themselves by suffering the consequences of their “sins.”


Archer replied that, regardless, the play worked and that is all that matters in the theater. It seems to have been both Pinero’s virtue and his vice as a dramatist to be so single-mindedly a man of the theater.  As a director of his own plays from The Magistrate (1885) on, he was concerned with making his plays work for their audiences, with emphasis on theatrical effect, as he had learned from the Scribe-Sardou-Dumas fils school.  With a reputation as a masterful stage craftsman, Pinero was bowed to by even the great actor-managers of the day (such as George Alexander, who lent the St. James Theatre for Mrs. Tanqueray and played the role of Aubrey as Pinero wanted).  But character and theme were too often sacrificed to this passion for effect.  Pinero was bold enough to put something resembling the New Woman on the stage and raise questions about the double standard, but his concern for effect forced him to abandon both Paula’s character and her affront to the double standard for the sake of a sensational development and ending.  He tried to rescue the play by having Aubrey, just prior to discovering Paula’s suicide, curse all the womanizing men who in pursuit of “a man’s life” create the social misery that Aubrey has just experienced, a telling point but a mere afterthought; had Pinero made this the mainspring of his action, his play would have exploded with the force of dynamite rather than merely titillate with theatrical fireworks.


Pinero had a reputation for having “no philosophy of life, no message that he was burning to deliver to the public, no deep-rooted personal obsessions which had willy-nilly to find expression. He was a professional writer who took his position seriously, and his plays, where they triumph, are above all a triumph of craftsmanship. . . . He had ideas too: not so much ideas about life, but ideas for subjects which would make interesting plays. He was . . . a writer who could tell interesting stories to maximum effect on the stage.”21 While granting the general truth of this, one should note the presence of at least one deep-rooted personal obsession—with the “tainted” woman and her conflict with the double standard.  But there is little evidence that he knew, except from afar, the sort of woman he was obsessed with, another of Shaw’s objections—a realist is supposed to draw from life, but Pinero’s woman with a past seems to be largely a figment of the conventional and secretly erotic literary imagination.


An even more curious version of his obsession turned up in his next “serious” play, The Notorious Mrs. Ebbsmith (1895).  The central role of Agnes Ebbsmith was played by the young Mrs. Patrick Campbell, who had just made her London debut as Paula Tanqueray.  Unlike Paula, Agnes is not a retired courtesan but a young, idealistic woman, unconventionally raised and bitterly experienced, who “lives in sin” with a man out of contempt for mere respectability and the day’s demeaning and unfair marriage laws, and who dresses and speaks plainly out of disdain for standard feminine ways. Pinero seems to be playing with fire when he at first gives all the strongest speeches to this highly principled but “sinning” woman, but in the course of the play, after countless vacillations and theatrical turns of the plot, she reveals herself to be the usual Pineroesque woman after all—impulsive, luxury loving, possessively jealous, sensitive to reputation, and a bit catty—what Pinero apparently suspected all women were whatever their pose. As with Paula, Pinero makes Agnes do and say things dictated solely by melodramatic convention, things totally out of keeping with her character (such as making agnostic Agnes theatrically snatch out a Bible she had thrown into the fire).  It’s convention, not her character, that makes her decide at the last to give her lover back to his wife and go into religious retreat.  Now vacillation and ambivalence are well-established principles of human psychology, and August Strindberg even wrote a preface to his Miss Julie (i888) explaining their validity in character portrayal, but Pinero’s use of these traits seems less psychological than theatrical.  They simply do not follow from what he gives us.   It is possible for a woman to be two different people, but a dramatist, especially a realistic dramatist, is obligated to relate the two.


          Though the problem plays were his major successes of the nineties, Pinero never lost sight of the fact that he had two audiences, the one led by Archer waiting for his next “serious” play, the other hoping that he would write another Court farce or another Sweet Lavender.  The Amazons (1893), a satire on the idea that the New Woman could be “manly,” was his only pure farce in the nineties, but he wrote his best sentimental comedy, Trelawney of the “Wells,” in 1898 and a series of comedies of manners, The Benefit of the Doubt in 1895, The Princess and the Butterfly in 1897, and The Gay Lord Quex in 1899.  Through the remainder of his career he kept all the genres going, with comedy in the majority, but ended with surprisingly experimental, nonrealistic plays.  His major plays of the Edwardian era, after which he was considered so old-fashioned he could no longer command a West End box office, were His House in Order (1906), The Thunderbolt (1908), and Mid-Channel (1909).


          The nineties, though, saw the gradual triumph of Pinero’s brand of realism, and one has only to look at the increasingly detailed stage directions of Pinero’s comedies to realize the comedy was growing more realistic too.  In fact, Trelawney of the “Wells” (1898) was a salute to the man Pinero believed had planted the seed of realism in English soil.  The character of Tom Wrench, utility actor turned playwright, is based on Tom Robertson and his “wrenching” of the theater from old ways to new.  Though Robertson’s 1860s “revolution” at the Prince of Wales looks very slight to us now, Pinero remembered it as a significant turning point, a courageous, visionary effort that renewed interest in native-born drama.22


                    Despite the plays’ glow of nostalgia, the realism of Trelawney is perhaps the most convincing of Pinero’s plays because he was here writing about something he really knew—the theater.  Further, Pinero himself had experienced the clash between stuffy middle-class values and the bohemian values of theater people, as he had the conflict between stuffy theatrical conventions and a new artistic impulse.  The play gains strength too from its bittersweet treatment of the theme of change, which counters its nostalgia. Styles in the theater, as in life, must change, it says, and stoic acceptance by the outdated is the most dignified course of action.  Pinero must have had a prevision of his own future, as well as a flash from the past.  Another strengthening element is the play’s fond parodying of Robertsonian dialogue and, in act 2, its placing on the back wall “a large mirror with a painted reflection of the fireplace, and the mirror above it, which would naturally occupy the fourth wall of the room.”  This, as Lazenby says, “mocks the ideal of the utterly Realistic box set which observes the ‘fourth wall’ convention.”23

Shaw was disarmed by this play because it made no pretense at being up-to-date:


Its charm .  . . lies in a certain delicacy which makes me loath to lay my critical fingers on it. . . . Mr. Pinero, as a critic of the advanced guard in modern life, is unendurable to me. . . . When he plays me the tunes of 1860, I appreciate and sympathize. Every stroke touches me: I dwell on the dainty workmanship shewn in the third and fourth acts: I rejoice in being old enough to know the world of his dreams. But when he comes to 1890, then I thank my stars that he does not read the Saturday Review.24


 Pinero would be surprised to know that Trelawney has become the most enduring of his works, and the most beloved.


The Gay Lord Quex (1899) shows Pinero at his best in the comedy of manners, of which The Weaker Sex (1884), Mayfair (1885), The Hobbey Horse (1886), and The Times (1891) were early examples in his career (The Times, by the way, is noteworthy as the first British play to be published under newly revised international copyright laws.  Unheard of before, copies were sold on opening night).  Pinero wrote Quex contemplating the recent successes of Wilde and Jones in this line.  As with Jones, Pinero fell far short of the standard of wittiness set by either Wilde or the original Restoration models.  According to Clayton Hamilton, Quex is a comedy of manners “because it skillfully contrasts the manners of the aristocracy with the manners of the lower classes and sets forth a tense and thrilling struggle between the different ideals of conduct.25  The plot concerns the determination of Sophy, a slightly vulgar manicurist, to keep her foster sister, Muriel, from marrying Lord Quex, an old rake claiming to be reformed, and to have her marry instead the romantic young Captain Bastling. After four acts of incredible machinations, first to get her way and then to undo what she has wrought, Sophy comes to realize that Lord Quex really is reformed, whereas Captain Bastling is just getting started as a rake.  In the process, Lord Quex develops respect and admiration for Sophy’s courage and loyalty to a code of honor. Lazenby believes that the notorious “amoral” quality of Restoration comedy of manners is present here, although more as a foreshadowing of the Edwardian age, in that the play shows that “sensible women simply adopt the way of the world and accept men for what they all are.”26 But Lazenby also notes that “Quex’s reformation seems to be curiously genuine,” a sentimental note, and that the play lacks the despairing satiric denunciation of an entire society that seems characteristic of Restoration comedy of manners.  Whether Pinero has managed a traditional comedy of manners or not, there is no gainsaying that this play is one of many plays that show Pinero’s mastery of comic effect in the theater, something that should have been more highly valued.


      The Victorians were not the only people who habitually confused earnestness of manner with seriousness of purpose, but they were the most notorious for it.  And thus their inclination to confuse the comic with the frivolous. When Archer, Pinero, or Jones referred to “serious” drama, they meant drama that was not comic. The serious drama of the social-problem-play sort was not tragic either, in Aristotelian terms, but it mimicked tragedy in its general solemnity of tone and disastrous outcome.  With only serious plays considered worthy, a playwright with a comic bent might be intimidated enough to denigrate his comedy and strain after “tragedy” for the sake of his reputation.  Pinero was a wonderful example of a man who understood perfectly the importance of being earnest and somehow contrived to get himself recognized as the leader of the earnest New Drama, despite two-thirds of his plays being comedies.  The trick was to deprecate the comedies, referring to them as “relaxation,” preparatory to writing “serious” drama.  The trick worked splendidly but to the cost of Pinero’s ultimate reputation. Had he recognized that much of the situation and characterization of The Second Mrs. Tanqueray, The Notorious Mrs. Ebbsmith, and other problem plays was fundamentally ridiculous, he might have turned those plays into great comedies or tragi-comedies that would not now be questioned for their authenticity.





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There is much good to be said about Henry Arthur Jones (1851-1929).  No one sought more earnestly the welfare of the theater as a cultural institution. As a pamphleteer and speaker he fought for a literary drama, challenging dramatists to publish their plays and thus submit them to literary criticism.  He argued for the abolition of an addlepated censorship, for almost two centuries a great blight on the stage.  He was for whatever would reinstate the theater as an edifying and ennobling force in the national culture.  As early as 1883, following the suggestions of William Archer and Matthew Arnold, Jones began a long campaign for the endowment of a national theater.27  As a dramatist he tried to show the way by attempting a high drama concerned with serious matters; in this he made the best of what talents he had, achieving a considerable popularity that lasted for over thirty years.


In old age Jones might have looked back with satisfaction on a worthwhile career, but instead his old age was filled with gall and wormwood.  The circumstances of his life, and the limitations of his talent and vision, conspired ultimately to make his career one of the sad tales in the annals of British theater.  His is the very familiar story of the late Victorian who was unable to free himself sufficiently from the ghosts of the past. Though he intellectually rebelled against his provincial, fundamentalist Christian upbringing, it overwhelmed him emotionally at crucial times and distorted his responses to life.


Jones was born in the West Country village of Gandborough, Buckinghamshire, in 1851, his hardworking father a tenant farmer of Welsh ancestry and his neurotically pious, self-sacrificing mother the daughter of a farmer; the ruralist-religionist outlook inculcated there haunted him however far he roamed.  That included his roaming in books. Limited to six years of formal schooling, Jones later educated himself by reading the classics, but self-educated meant self-limited.  Never entirely at home in the modern industrialized city either, Jones later would think fondly back to that childhood farmhouse where, as though Ruskin or Morris had approved it, “every utensil, every piece of crockery, every piece of furniture was a thing of beauty.”28  It was a wholesome and tidy environment to grow up in, but strictly puritanical.  “Dancing, card-playing and theatre-going were vices.  Lying was a sin to be promptly punished by a severe thrashing.”29  This was compounded by his quitting school at the age of twelve and being sent to his uncle at Ramsgate to earn his living. His hated uncle was a deacon of a Baptist chapel, stern and joylessly fundamentalist, exacting fourteen-hour workdays from Jones for the next six or seven years.  Escaping his uncle’s dominion in 1869, he worked in trade in Gravesend and London and then as a traveling salesman in the west of England until 1879, when he committed himself entirely to writing. As early as 1869 he had entered that stronghold of the devil, the theater, and immediately converted to its brazen rites by writing his first play, The Golden Calf (which, like about half of his hundred plays, went unstaged). The theatergoing and his voracious reading in the classics and modern science (particularly Herbert Spencer) seemingly liberated Jones from his puritanical upbringing, for he said many harsh things about the prudery and hypocrisy of his times and usually took the side of science against religion, but many of his plays suggest otherwise in their defeat, frustration, or ridicule of characters who stand for modern, liberated values.


          His first play staged, in Exeter in 1878, was a one-acter, and his first London production, a comedietta, occurred at the Court in 1879. The greatest financial success of his life came in 1882 with Wilson Barrett’s production of The Silver King, a frequently revived play generally regarded as the classic melodrama of the century. Though sometimes extravagant (such as spending summers in Nice) and, with a family of seven children, worried about money, Jones was well off from that time on, which occasionally gave him the opportunity to indulge in less popular styles of playwriting and even manage his own productions (usually disasters).  A constant complaint of his was the sorry need of dramatists to lower themselves to popular taste, but at times that seemed to be a rationalization for an inability to write much above those tastes.30  There was little in his first decade of writing to indicate that he would become a leading figure of the New Drama.  His melodramas and rather Robertsonian comedies may have disdained the tableaux (a picture-poster style of act conclusions) and avoided the spectacular scenery and sensational effects of Boucicaultian drama, but they unsparingly used the old devices of asides and soliloquies, eavesdropping, stereotyping, deus ex machina, and inexplicably sudden reformation of character.  To accommodate Wilson Barrett, Jones provided an ultra-theatrical “strong drama,” in which typically a sympathetic character triumphs over impossible odds.  What Barrett did not want, for commercial reasons, was irony and satire, acute observation of life, moral ambiguity, and honest portraiture—that is, anything unpleasantly thought-provoking.  Jones’s most notable play in the eighties, because it sought a slightly higher level, was Saints and Sinners (1884), indirectly satirizing religious hypocrisy.


Jones made a questionable contribution to Ibsen’s public fame in 1884 by writing, in collaboration, a very free adaptation of A Doll House called Breaking a Butterfly, which, by tacking on a miraculously happy ending, revealed either Jones’s incomplete absorption of Ibsenist principles or his willingness to forego those principles for commercial reasons. Actually, Jones seems more astute in his reading of Ibsen than most, had more in common with the dour Norwegian than he knew, and might have led Ibsenism on a different path if he had not so often taken Ibsen’s reputation—what he was supposed to have meant—for what he actually meant.31  Throughout his life Jones indignantly denied that Ibsen had any influence on him, justifiably citing English sources and experiences as his models and inspiration.  At times confusing Ibsen with Zola, a common mistake, he protested against the Ibsenist school of modern realism that “founded dramas on disease, ugliness, and vice.32  Jones made many disparaging remarks about realism as mere photography, disdaining its concern to reproduce the merely pedestrian and commonplace (an argument Ibsen would have sympathized with) and once wrote a play in verse to demonstrate his defiance of it, but still most of the plays that made his reputation were roughly of the Ibsenite well-made, realistic problem-play school.


The Middleman (1889), containing some satiric commentary on the exploitation of worker-inventors by capitalist middlemen, is often cited as the play that saw Jones turn toward the New Drama, in that it contains a slight shift away from the drama of pure action toward the drama of character and social criticism; but it is still obviously a melodrama. ]udah (1890), a seduction drama of the sort Jones became obsessed with, featuring a spiritual man whose passion for a worldly woman would lead him into a crisis, is somewhat more realistic, not so much in its topical interest in faith healing as in the fact that it replaces the melodramatic improbabilities of his earlier plays with some psychological subtlety in characterization and allows the usual confession scene climax to develop more naturally from the moral struggles of the characters.  It includes as well some satire directed at the aristocratic patronage of fads, especially aiming at the mannish New Woman, a favorite target of his.  The Dancing Girl (1891), his biggest success since The Silver King, shows Jones suffering a relapse.  Supportive of the Victorian double standard, the play depicts a wastrel aristocrat (winningly played by Herbert Beerbohm Tree) eventually rewarded with what we would consider undeserved happiness (partly in the form of marriage to a pure heroine) after his last-minute repentance, and a rebellious, seductive, “pagan” woman, who had escaped a boring existence in a small country town to find meaning as a dancer in London and as the aristocrat’s mistress, reaping death at the hand of a Victorian poetic justice that would strike us as injustice.  Jones was incorrigibly unfair in depicting rebelliousness in the young, as though making up for his own transgressions to appease a puritan conscience.


Jones tended to follow box-office successes with more experimental plays of the sort he really wanted to write, and when those failed he went back to writing for the public. And so the success of The Dancing Girl was followed by the failure of The Crusaders (1891), which he managed himself, to his financial embarrassment.  Then followed The Bauble Shop (1893), a romantic melodrama that Charles Wyndham turned into a big hit at the Criterion. This success emboldened him to try his hand at a four-act blank verse tragedy, The Tempter (1893), which looked all the odder appearing in the year of Pinero’s epitome of the New Drama, The Second Mrs. Tanqueray. Pinero’s great triumph pushed Jones to write now popular New Drama of his own, starting with The Masqueraders (1894), and to abandon poetic drama forever. Nevertheless the “unsuccessful” plays were of greater literary worth and even broke new ground.


From The Masqueraders to the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, Jones was at his zenith, producing hits often at the rate of two per year. Critics are divided about the sort of play that best represents his achievement, some backing the type of realistic social drama represented by Mrs. Dane’s Defence (1900), others claiming that he was best at realistic social comedy with a light satiric touch, of which The Case of Rebellious Susan (1894) and The Liars (1897) are representative. As usual, disdainful of popular taste, Jones chose a box-office flop, Michael and His Lost Angel (1896), another seduction drama (of spiritual man by worldly woman), as his best play. But perhaps the play that holds the best clue to the potentially greater drama he might have written is Grace Mary (1895), an unproduced one-act tragedy in the Cornish dialect that reminds one of those miracles of Irish dialect that would soon be written by John Millington Synge. Shaw thought highly of it.  If Jones had been psychologically adjusted to being the poet of his people, doing in the drama for Buckinghamshire what Housman had done in poetry for Shropshire and what Hardy had done in the novel for Wessex, he might have managed a more authentic drama.  But Jones notoriously came to despise the lower middle class from which he had escaped. The plays that made his reputation depict, with more regard for its conventions than satire for its follies, the upper-middle-class and aristocratic society his success in the theater allowed him to know from the inside.


Mrs. Dane’s Defense (1900) is perhaps Jones’s most earnest attempt to write the sort of play Archer idolized and Pinero epitomized—the well-made, realistic problem play. The “problem” is whether Mrs. Dane—supposedly a widow but actually a woman named Felicia Hindemarsh who had been involved in a scandal in Vienna a few years before—can disguise her “fallen” state and “get back” into respectable society.  She has settled in a country community in England and fallen in love with Lionel Carteret. They are headed for marriage when accidentally she is discovered by someone who knew the scandal.  At first she successfully proves her innocence, but in the play’s most compelling scene, under pitiless cross-examination by Lionel’s guardian, a judge named Sir Daniel, she is forced to admit her guilt.  Forced to leave the community as well, Mrs. Dane suffers a “tragic” but supposedly deserved exile.  Unfortunately Jones tacked on a romantic fourth act in which we are to be consoled by Lionel’s return to a former, more worthy love and by Sir Daniel’s decision to marry Lady Eastney after a long engagement.  Despite the commercial happy ending, the play through three acts expertly counterpoints characters, building through an emotional crescendo to a very theatrical climax, displaying Jones’s deserved reputation for tight construction and story­telling ability.


Yet Jones once dismissed the play as “drawing room melodrama,” perhaps because he knew in his heart of hearts that, once again, he had allowed convention to overrule characterization.  Convention alone, not the logic of character, made Mrs. Dane a villainess.  And convention also cancelled the “problem,” for the conclusion was foregone. Another typical feature is that the play’s raisonneur (spokesman for the author), Sir Daniel, who represents the idea that women can be kept straight only through a diligent and unforgiving rectitude, confesses offhandedly that he himself has had affairs, once with a married woman, but he expects no blame, knowing full well that the double standard excuses in men what it finds inexcusable in women.  Sir Daniel is typical of the raisonneurs Jones would use in other plays, presenting the worldly-wise point of view of an avuncular, conservative old bachelor, counseling caution and discretion to the rebellious (usually younger women) and, however sympathetic he finds their case, arguing that society is justified in meting out unhappiness to those who defy its conventions. This simply mirrored Jones’s own absolute abhorrence of divorce and general fear of anarchy.


The play in which Jones first used the cynical and rather unlikable raisonneur is also one of his best high comedies, The Case of Rebellious Susan (1894). His comedies were not of the witty sort Wilde delighted in but were comedies of humor derived from incongruity of situation. The play is the story of a charming lady who, instead of forgiving a philandering but abjectly apologetic husband, as the worldly-wise raisonneur would counsel, decides to retaliate with a little romantic adventure of her own. Back from Cairo ten months later, she is taken back by a grumbling and fundamentally unenlightened husband, both swearing fidelity evermore, for what it’s worth. The play is amazingly forward in its suggestion that Susan actually committed adultery and could be forgiven for it, but Jones got away with it by making the suggestion ambiguous, by having the presumed adulteress so charming and vivacious over and against her husband’s dullness, by having the raisonneur present convention’s case so powerfully, and by ending in a way that makes the husband seem triumphant and Susan’s rebellion a trifling fiasco. The strongest lines go to the raisonneur: “What is sauce for the goose will never be sauce for the gander”;33  “Men are brutes. Once recognize that simple fact in all its bearings, and we start on a basis of sound philosophy” (112); “There is an immense future for women as wives and mothers, and a very limited future for them in any other capacity. Go home! . . . Nature’s darling woman is the stay-at-home woman who wants to be a good wife and a good mother and cares very little about anything else” (153-54). (While both Jones’s wife and his four daughters were raised in this doctrine of domestic self-sacrifice, his success with it seems to have been limited to his wife, and that in itself was probably limited in ways we’ll never know.) In the final scene Susan admits that the affair had made her very uncomfortable at the time; that because of the inconstancy of her lover, her romantic affair has soured; and that women don’t really have the means to retaliate.


In a variation on this theme in The Liars (1897), a wife is tempted to desert her older husband for a younger, more heroic adventurer, but when she stumbles into an inadvertent dalliance with him she begs her friends to lie for her. At the last she is persuaded by the usual male raisonneur to stick to her husband, who is willing to overlook her indiscretions. As in The School for Scandal, model for all Jones’s comedies of manners, an entire society is satirized for its double-faced predilection for the scandalous and its desperate willingness to lie to avoid scandal personally.


Whitewashing Julia (1903), Dolly Reforming Herself (1908), and Mary Goes First (1913) are other fine examples of Jones’s talent in this genre. A critic who thinks the social comedies are Jones’s best work and finds them praiseworthy, Richard A. Cordell, nevertheless suggests why they fall short of the best work of the age:

The sparkling comedies skim delightfully over the surface of a society (bitterly analyzed by Shaw in the Preface to Heartbreak House) almost as unlike the society of post-war Europe as that of the seventeenth century. In these. . .plays Jones holds the mirror up to his own age as faithfully as do Farquhar and Sheridan to their own times. If the comedies seem old fashioned, it is partly because of the vast social and ethical changes that have come about since the war. In those halcyon days the flirtations of a married woman assumed a horrendous significance; reputation seemed vastly more important than character; a woman with a past could not aspire to a future as well; family took precedence over wealth; only income from rents assured respectability; people in trade were bounders. As England, like the rest of the world, rode pleasantly and blunderingly towards disaster, this large leisure class, wealthy and cultured, provided the foundation for the sprightliest group of high comedies since the Restoration. To be sure, skeptics of contemporary perfectibility like Shaw, Galsworthy, Houghton, and Barker wrote irritating and denunciatory tract plays; but for the most part, threats of war, socialist legislation, industrial collapse, and empire dissolution hovered untroublingly in the background, leaving for serious public attention—and consequently for that of the serious dramatist—the problems of sexual impropriety, marriages between people of different social levels, and furtive attempts of the young to rebel against an older generation of unfaltering omniscience. With his conservative and aristocratic leanings, together with a paradoxically keen sense of humor, Jones was splendidly qualified to record the manners and shimmer and foibles of late Victorian and Edwardian society.34


Despite the mistaken notion that Shaw wrote “tract plays,” Cordell’s reference to Shaw points to the difference between genius and talent. The genius sees further and more comprehensively, and works more freely.   Jones’s dramas were full of dimly perceived truths that in the works of Shaw would burst forth in a much clearer light, partly because Shaw would be freer of those ghosts of convention that in Jones’s case too often turned a promising playwright into an automaton writing as convention dictated.  Yet in his public remarks Shaw was generally very kind to and supportive of Jones, backing him against Archer’s Pinero, for example, because, unlike Pinero, Jones was not at ease in Zion, was more courageous in taking chances, possessed a genuinely religious sensibility beneath the agnosticism (though he would have denied Dionysius as his god), and had aspirations for the drama in keeping with Shaw’s own high goals.  In private correspondence, however, Shaw let Jones know that he was falling short of his own aspirations, too often confusing the trivial with the significant, and the ideal with the real, and failing the future by judging modern events with medieval standards.  Jones sometimes sadly admitted to falling short, even by his own lights, but the realization must have rankled and festered, for it burst forth during the Great War in one of the most incredible displays of hostility and betrayal of friendship on record, as Jones ended by playing Salieri to Shaw’s Mozart.  But that was in the distant future. Just ahead lay the Edwardian years and a continuing career of general success, though he produced nothing remarkably different from what had gone before, and the expected knighthood, given to Pinero in 1909, did not materialize. Only toward the end of that period did it begin to dawn on Jones that he was only a precursor, not the savior, of modern drama, and that he was being passed by and overlooked.


Henry Arthur Jones was an example of what is termed an “earnest Victorian,” and he remained so long after the Queen died.  Earnest Victorians were not always the sourpusses they are portrayed to be, Jones being representative in enjoying a joke on some of the foibles of the day.  But Jones’s deep earnestness comes out in the selectivity of his satire.  Some of his most ridiculous characters, such as his raisonneurs, are hardly satirized, if at all. That is because the raisonneurs are busy defending the status quo that Jones increasingly saw as the only bulwark against anarchic modern ideas. What was not funny to an earnest Victorian was any joke that seriously undermined (recall Ibsen’s “torpedo the ark”) the established principles of society.  In theory, Jones’s conservatism allowed for change, the slow change of slight modification to social law, broadening out from precedent to precedent over decades and centuries, but the theory was increasingly overcome by an emotional reaction against all change.


Besides a split in his consciousness between ideas of progressiveness and reactionary feelings, Jones developed a curious counterpoint in his plays between the high idealism of the conventions that gripped him and a profound cynicism about those ideals based on their constant failure.  As Shaw pointed out, cynicism is simply disappointed idealism. When, after holding humanity to impossible standards, Jones naturally found humanity falling short, he took refuge in the old Tory dodge that society is incorrigible and can’t be changed.  Such refuge may have provided him comfort, but it made for a sour and bitter old age as well.





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Oscar Wilde, a less than ideal New Dramatist.  

Photo: Eliis and Walery, LondonCourtesy of H. Montgomery Hyde.


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          What everybody seems to know about Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) is that he came to a bad end.  Wilde died in Paris, far from home, because Europe was his chosen place of exile after a two-year prison term, and the place where in the denouement of his life he underwent a fantastically accelerated aging, as in his own Picture of Dorian Gray.  His prison term was the result of a conviction on several counts of pederasty involving young boys of the lower class. That conviction would never have come about had not the maddest love of Wilde’s life, young Lord Alfred Douglas, persuaded him to take Douglas’s hated father, the Marquess of Queensberry, to court on libel charges, the Marquess having made it known that he thought Wilde a corrupter of youth. The first trial not only failed to establish Wilde’s innocence but also suggested a greater guilt, leading to a second and third trial and to Wilde’s being sent to jail. The story of how Wilde got to be a criminal is long and complicated, and some understanding of the day’s artistic climate might best set the stage.


Modern artists tended to define themselves against the middle class, particularly the wealthier, more pretentious middle class, whose values they found wanting. Riding a tide of prosperity made possible by England’s industrial revolution and empire-building, this class nevertheless felt a sense of its inferiority to the aristocracy in pedigree, taste, and manners.  It attempted to make up for the perception of inferiority not only by accumulating wealth but by claiming a moral superiority to the “corrupt” aristocracy.  With “respectability” as its slogan, the middle class enforced ideals of purity in its domestic and private relations that were purchased at the price of a very strict conformity to the social code.  But all too often this socio-moral respectability covered up a policy of “rugged individualism” in economic and political matters, a policy highly selfish and exploitative of others.  In reducing human relations to a cash nexus, and in cloaking that with a code of social conformity that stifled any impulse not directed toward money-making or generating greater respectability, this middle class lived a double life of moral appearances and immoral actions.


Finding in the middle class a perverse contradiction between its vigorous but ignoble commercial practice and the deadening conformity of its social and moral code, the modernist artists of the nineties fought a valiant but largely losing effort to break the hold of the day’s ruling ideals. Wishing to remake a world they perceived as devoted to the suppression of creativity, true individualism, and true society, these artists saw their first step as estrangement from the routine and the mundane, a process of defamiliarization that would free them to create the world afresh. This struggle to alienate themselves from the usual and the familiar often exacted a great toll—the incidence of madness, disease, and drug and alcohol addiction among them inspired Yeats to lament over them as a “tragic generation” and caused many to be dismissed with the label “decadent,” as, ironically, they took onto themselves a label they believed belonged to society.


Because Pinero and Jones sought not estrangement but social acceptance, their works lacked precisely the freshness and individuality of vision one expects of great art, instead partaking of the age’s real decadence in manners and morals.  More expressing society than themselves, they produced largely standard, machine-made art, the machine being the social, literary, and dramatic conventions that secretly ruled them.  With some instinctive feeling for the need of an artist to be an individual first, though not without an ambivalent longing for social acceptance as well, Oscar Wilde followed a fatal attraction to the very alienation Jones and Pinero eschewed, though he tried hard to make his alienation enjoyable. His style was to complement outrageous dress with outrageous opinions, making of “the term ‘middle class’ a satiric epithet for the dull, unimaginative, hypocritical, stale, mid-century Philistine, a term of disparagement for a class supremely deficient in appreciation of the art of living and the living arts.”35  Wilde’s art suggested that as society was suffocating in conformity, the artist must be a bit of a criminal in society’s eyes in order to awaken perceptions, force out one’s individuality, and thus lead the way to a healthier humanity.  When Wilde said, “I live in dread of not being misunderstood,” he was referring to his role of iconoclast.35   But somewhere along the line Wilde’s ironic criminal turned into a criminal in earnest, the estrangement becoming derangement.


His Irishness and a certain family eccentricity started Wilde out with a different view of things. Descended from a Dutch Colonel de Wilde, who had been given land in Ireland for services to King William in the seventeenth century, the Wildes became Irish by degrees. Oscar’s father, a learned man, writer of twenty books on various subjects, and successful eye and ear surgeon in Dublin, was much honored in his day and was even knighted in 1864. Such respectability was compromised by a rather goatish passion for women, however. Though ignored by Lady Wilde, this passion resulted in several illegitimate children before his marriage, and, after his marriage, a court trial in which he was charged with assaulting a female patient under ether, the scandal of which was to sour his life. Though Oscar’s father was more learned in Irish matters than his mother, the intensest feelings for things Irish lay with Lady Wilde, a somewhat eccentrically clothed and mannered woman known to her countrymen as “Speranza” and celebrated for her passionate nationalistic writing. An energetic collector of Irish intelligentsia, she sought to establish the foremost literary-artistic salon of the day. Seeking artistic forebearers, she claimed descent from both Dante and great-uncle Charles Maturin, whose early nineteenth-century Gothic novel, Melmoth the Wanderer, provided Oscar with the pseudonym “Sebastian Melmoth” that he used in his exile years.


   Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde, the second of three children, was born with both an heroic, Ossianic name and his mother’s heroic aspirations for him. His heroism did not manifest itself in the usual life of action but in the life of the mind, particularly as it could gracefully display itself in art and social wit. From the beginning he was a brilliant scholar, winning prizes and special recognition wherever he went. His specialty in his studies, both at Trinity College in Dublin (1871-74) and then at Oxford (1874-79), was ancient Greece. Wilde was well acquainted with Dionysius, and at times, as one who sought the renewal of society, he was seemingly a worthy representative of the god. Much of his aesthetic philosophy came from his appreciation of beautiful “Greek things.” Of course the Greek worship of beauty had its pederastic side, which may ultimately have swayed Wilde, but when very young it seemed to repulse him, as he courted and mooned over girls and saw a few prostitutes.


   At Oxford, as a disciple of Ruskin and Pater, Wilde practiced the role of Apostle of Beauty that would make his initial fame, or notoriety.  His father’s untimely death in 1876 left a load of debts for his mother (who in 1878 moved permanently to London to be at the center of culture) and forced Oscar to start thinking about how to make Beauty “pay.”  Both mother and son hoped Oscar would be elected a fellow at Oxford, as his accomplishments warranted, but the offer never came, and so in 1879 Wilde found himself east of the Eden Oxford had been and unable to live off his poetry.  Settled in London, and sought for his epigrammatic conversation, he hobnobbed with “beautiful people,” his favorite being the Prince of Wales’s mistress, Lily Langtry, serving his “New Helen” as unpaid secretary, Latin instructor, and courtly lover.  Much in social demand and fully appreciative of the importance of being frivolous if that would pay, Wilde flaunted his unconventional aesthetic garb of “velvet coat edged with braid, knee breeches, buckle shoes, a soft silk shirt with a wide turned-down collar, and a large flowing green tie, . . . jokingly declaring that reformation of dress was more important than reformation of religion.”37  Actually, saving the middle class from its habit of wearing almost nothing but black might have been considered a religious office.


Wilde did not invent the aesthetic movement, but he became a convenient vehicle for its advertisement, no doubt distorting it in the process.  Ruskin and Pater had been preaching the Gospel of Beauty at Oxford before Wilde arrived, seeking to overcome the ugliness and crassness of the new industrial society England’s influence was spreading over the world.  Pater hoped to counter a tradition of soul-warping self-denial among the middle classes by urging the intense, sensuous experiencing of a beautiful life as necessary to a fully realized humanity.  But Pater’s reclusive, scholarly, ivory-tower version of “pleasuring” was quite different from the applications of many of his young followers, including Wilde, who took hedonism’s low road of overindulging the appetites rather than Pater’s high road of burning “like a hard, gem-like flame.” And some of its adherents did the aesthetic cause harm by preaching “the gospel of morbid languour and sickly sensuousness,” by tending to “an unhealthy admiration for exhaustion, corruption and decay,” and by perpetrating other “unmanly oddities” in their zeal to affront all the values of the earnest, vigorous, hardworking, abstemious middle class.38  The movement had been lampooned by Punch as early as 1880, and its excesses, some of which Wilde epitomized for purposes of self-advertisement, were caricatured in, among other works of the day, Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience.


In those days Wilde enjoyed the joke on himself and was thus not offended when Richard D’Oyly Carte, theater impresario, asked him to follow the 1882 American tour of Patience with lecture performances in aesthetic costume.  Said Wilde, “Caricature is the tribute which mediocrity pays to genius.”39   In going along on the tour, Wilde simply seized an opportunity to get himself known, make a little money, have adventures, and promote aestheticism, with lectures on “The House Beautiful” and “The English Renaissance in Art.”  To au American customs agent wanting to know if he had anything to declare, Wilde replied, “Nothing but my genius.”40   He traveled from coast to coast, north to south and back again, even into Canada, sometimes meeting with stormy receptions and adverse publicity but in most places winning his case with a charm and wit that were gaining a high polish.


He was an accomplished public speaker by his return to England in 1883. But he had had enough of the clowning around—he discarded the aesthetic dress in favor of fashionable man-about-town clothes, cut the long hair into a Nero style, and kept only such things as an ivory walking stick and a green carnation in his lapel as emblems of his dandyism. After a stay in Paris, during which he established himself among leading French artists and intellectuals, a return to New York to see his first play produced (a melodrama called Vera: Or, The Nihilists, written in 1882), and a lecture tour to civilize the provinces, he married Constance Lloyd in 1884 and “settled down” to a bohemian literary and café life in London, thoroughly enjoying the patronage of the aristocracy.  Residing in a beautifully decorated house in London's Chelsea, the couple experienced two years of relatively wedded bliss, and the birth of two sons, until Oscar’s rapid development left Constance more and more outpaced and his interests elsewhere left her increasingly alone.  Ironically, after struggling with reviewing and lecturing for a few years, Wilde in 1887 found himself employed as the editor of the Woman’s World, a fashionable magazine he steered toward more high­brow concerns, at precisely the time he was beginning to lose interest in the sex that was its major concern.  On leaving that post in 1889 he wrote his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), immediately notorious for its decadent air and ambiguous morality. It was to receive even more notoriety in the days of his court trials when, with hindsight, people detected hidden signs of pederasty in it.  In fact, though more seduced than seducing, Wilde seems to have experienced “the love that dare not speak its name” (as Lord Alfred Douglas had termed it in the poem “Two Loves”) as early as 1886 (if not before), and so the double life of the novel’s hero was indeed an expression of “secret sin.”  But the novel was oddly more expressive of what was to come than descriptive of what had happened, a premonition of Wilde’s dilemma when he fell in love with Lord Alfred Douglas in 1891, as though obligated to illustrate his own dictum that “life imitates art.”


Despite the growing scandal, many people believed that Wilde was as usual just posing for attention, and so he was allowed to thrive publicly, even as privately he was emotionally and financially wasting away from the draining, mostly one-sided relationship with the vain, expensive, bratty Douglas.  The year 1890 opened a five-year period of incredible productivity and great public success.  Not only did stories, fairy tales, poems, and essays come from his pen, but he at last was persuaded to embark on the writing of the plays that embodied his own social presence and to which he owes most of his lasting literary fame.  He was encouraged by a short run in New York in 1891 of The Duchess of Padua, a blank verse “tragedy” (melodrama, really) that he had written in 1883 and nearly forgotten. At George Alexander’s insistence, he then wrote three serio-comic plays or comedy-dramas, Lady Windermere’s Fan (written in 1891, produced in 1892), A Woman of No Importance (1893), and An Ideal Husband (1894 written, produced in 1895).






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          Quotes from the dialogue of these three serio-comedies (“serious” comedies, that is) would reveal Wilde’s developing ability to express dramatically his epigrammatic style, but plot summaries best expose the plays’ weaknesses in their use of melodramatic and sentimental formulas.  Lady Windermere’s Fan opens twenty years after Mrs. Erlynne had left her husband and baby to go off with another man, who in turn soon abandoned her.  She has since lived the life of a “fallen woman,” but now seeks to “get back.”  Learning that her daughter, Lady Windermere, has married a rich man, Mrs. Erlynne blackmails him, succeeding because he wishes his wife to be innocent of her “tainted” roots.  But when Mrs. Erlynne discovers that her daughter is about to make the same mistake she did (by running off with Lord Darlington), her maternal instincts force her to sacrifice her profitable venture for her daughter’s well-being. And so as the woman with a past redeems herself the Windermere’s marriage is saved.  There is nothing in this plot summary to indicate that the play might not have been written by Pinero, and the same is true of A Woman of No Importance and An Ideal Husband.


In all three plays, however, Wilde introduced an element of moral ambiguity and relativity into “well-made” plots, whose “well-made-ness” depended partly on moral conventions that previously had brooked no ambiguity or relativity, his most convincing device being the giving of the cleverest lines to the more villainous characters. That there is progression in the degree to which each play allows the “villainous” characters to shine conversationally and to escape any absolute moral condemnation suggests that in these plays Oscar was nerving himself to “come out of the closet.”  He even told Tree, the actor who played Lord Illingworth in A Woman of No Importance, that that villain was himself, but of course he meant as seen through the warped perspective of conventional art.


The wit of the “bad” people in these plays is what redeems them, not whatever reformations the strange twists and turns of plot puts them through. The temptation is to just go on quoting the aphorisms, paradoxes, and epigrams that give the plays their life—such as Lord Darlington’s assertion that “I can resist everything but temptation”— and ignore the fact that the plots require them to say things that contradict their wit.  Lord Darlington says to Lady Windermere, with whom he is flirting: “Now-a-days so many conceited people go about society pretending to be good, that I think it shows rather a sweet and modest disposition to pretend to be bad.  Besides, there is this to be said. If you pretend to be good, the world takes you very seriously. If you pretend to be bad, it doesn’t. Such is the astounding stupidity of optimism.”41 And later he says that “life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about it” (9).  And yet he does talk seriously, once the plot captures him and he becomes an agent of the conventions rather than a spokesman for himself.  In A Woman of No Importance Lord Illington suffers similar relapses, saying that “taking sides is the beginning of sincerity, and earnestness follows shortly afterwards, and the human being becomes a bore” (68), but precisely following that very pattern.  Fortunately, he occasionally revives to delight us with something like “Nothing succeeds like excess” (101) or with that immortal comment on “the popular idea of health. The English country gentleman galloping after a fox—the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable” (68).  Lord Goring of An Ideal Husband, described as “the first well-dressed philosopher in the history of thought” (173), speaks as he’s dressing to his perfect and perfectly agreeable butler: “Fashion is what one wears oneself. What is unfashionable is what other people wear . . . just as vulgarity is simply the conduct of other people and falsehoods the truths of other people.          . . . Other people are quite dreadful. The only possible society is oneself. . . . To love oneself is the beginning of a life-long romance” (174).  And yet how earnestly and selflessly he persuades Lady Chiltern not to force her husband to leave Parliament, which according to the stage directions shows “the philosophy that underlies the dandy” (204).  But what it really shows is how much Wilde was still in the grip of conventions, as embodied in ready-made plotting, and how he was not yet able to make the plots express himself and his characters rather than the societal expectations that ruled the world of plot.


Critics who valued the conventions and not the wit tried to denigrate the dangerous parts of Wilde’s plays by claiming anyone could write such silly stuff.  But they were well answered in 1895 by a new drama critic who signed his articles “G.B.S”:  

Mr. Oscar Wilde’s new play .    . . is a dangerous subject, because he has the property of making his critics dull. They laugh angrily at his epigrams, like a child who is coaxed into being amused in the very act of setting up a yell of rage and agony. They protest that the trick is obvious, and that such epigrams can be turned out by the score by anyone light-minded enough to condescend to such frivolity. As far as I can ascertain, I am the only person in London who cannot sit down and write an Oscar Wilde play at will. The fact that his plays, though apparently lucrative, remain unique under these circumstances, says much for the self-denial of our scribes. In a certain sense Mr. Wilde is to me our only thorough playwright. He plays with everything: with wit, with philosophy, with drama, with actors and audience, with the whole theatre.42









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              A very unlikely play to have been written in the midst of these serio-comedies is Salomé, written in French in 1891, mostly during a stay in Paris, and published in France in 1893. It was the English edition of 1894 (which Wilde apparently rescued from Douglas’s inept attempts at translation) that contained the famous illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley. Banned by the Lord Chamberlain on the grounds that it depicted biblical subjects, a carryover from the seventeenth century’s Puritan distrust of Catholic mystery plays, Salomé was not produced until 1896, in a Paris production by Lugné-Poe.  But it was an underground success from the first.


An oft-treated subject in French literature, though never quite as Wilde treated it, is the story of Salomé’s perverse love for Jokanaan (John the Baptist), who has been imprisoned by Herod for denouncing Herod’s “incestuous” marriage to Salomé’s mother and his former sister-in-law, Herodias, and of Salomé’s dance of the seven veils to satisfy the “incestuous” desires of Herod, in return for which Herod provides her with the promised severed head of Jokanaan, kissed by Salomé in the play’s most sensational scene (see Figure below).  The story seems to have been inspired by another underground classic, Huysmans’s A Rebours (1884); there one finds the suggestion that Salomé was a monstrous beast of the Apocalypse, capable of being understood only by “brains shakened and sharpened, made visionary as it were by hysteria.”43   Only a very alienated artist, seeking deeper alienation, would be capable of it.  And of course the expression of such a vision could only be poetic.

Aubrey Beardsley's drawing

of a climactic scene from Wilde's Salomé



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In Walter Pater’s Appreciations (1889), Wilde had read that “all the arts aspire to the condition of music,” and that a play “attains artistic perfection just in proportion as it approaches that unity of lyrical effect, as if a song or a ballad were still lying at the root of it.”43   Summing up his career as a dramatist, Wilde wrote in a letter that his unique contribution “was that I had taken the Drama, the most objective form known to art, and made it as personal a mode of expression as the Lyric or the Sonnet, while enriching the characterization of the stage, and enlarging—at any rate in the case of Salomé—its artistic horizon. . . . The recurring phrases of Salomé, that bind it together like a piece of music with recurring motifs, are . . . the artistic equivalent of the old ballads.”45


The lyrical repetitiousness of Salomé expresses themes Wilde appears to have derived from Pater’s Studies in the History of the Renais­sance (1873), the conclusion to which argued that the individual is imprisoned in a subjective world, the external world being ultimately unknowable, except as sensation valuable as stimulus.  Sylvan Barnet has shown how the dialogue of Salomé, biblical and incantatory in its repetitious rhythms and imagery, expresses not social exchange but individual feeling, perception, and dreaming, that of one character parallel to that of other characters but never intersecting, until the dreamers, each an object in the others’ dream worlds, stumble into conflict. The most heroic character is Salomé, for, feeling most intensely, she follows out the line of her feeling and dreaming most uncompromisingly. Her love for Jokanaan is based both on admiration for his equally uncompromising personal vision and on her need to possess him and his purity as part of her own dream, proof of the power of her vision. Except that Herod has the last word by having her killed. This killing of Salomé may further illustrate the heroic attempt to discover what love is and why we always kill the thing we love, or it may illustrate how the world always crushes such attempts, or perhaps both.


But what does Salomé have to do with Wilde’s comedies?  The standard line on the three serio-comedies is that they are brilliant failures, compromised by their well-made, conventional plots, which were calculated for box-office appeal. Had The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) not shown how much better the thing could be done, however, they might not be so denigrated. Perhaps when one sees what Earnest actually does, how vastly ahead of the times it is, one can excuse Wilde for taking three plays to get the hang of it. What he tried to accomplish in the three serio-comedies was the probably impossible blending together of the lyrical ideal of the Symbolists with the traditional comedy of manners and the new well-made, realistic problem play, a mix to be expressive of the modern sensibility.  He succeeded in his synthesizing efforts, in Earnest, only when he abandoned the attempt to take the well-made, realistic play seriously, adding it to the mix only in its parodied form.


       Anton Chekhov’s lyrical comedies may seem very unlike Wilde’s in their lack of witty dialogue, but thematically their plays are much alike in their expression of the aloneness of the individual, separated by, in Pater’s words, “that thick wall of personality through which no real voice has ever pierced on its way to us.”46   Like Chekhov’s characters, Wilde himself was said to be a monologist rather than a conversationalist, looking to others only for inspiration and appreciation. And Wilde’s comic dialogue illustrates as well as that of Salomé’s the insistent estrangement of the individual, however zany the circumstances and however unbothered most characters seem, as social contact serves only as occasion for personal displays of wit. That the characters choose to express the suffering that arises from the disjunction between society and self, not with satirized Chekhovian angst, but with Wildean epigrams, is their unique feature.  Lord Illingworth of A Woman of No Importance partly explains Wilde’s penchant for the comic. “The world has always laughed at its own tragedies, that being the only way in which it has been able to bear them. . . . Consequently, whatever the world has treated seriously belongs to the comedy side of things” (98). The kind of comedy Wilde found most self-expressive was that in which the witty characters take pride in being unruffled by their own despair, using it, in fact, entertainingly and creatively to display the positive value of personality.  When Wilde permeated an entire plot with that sense of comedy, he produced the masterpiece of Earnest.


The conventions of the day denied this disjunction between society and self, and Wilde’s struggle to overcome those conventions and come out of the closet artistically, so to speak, was what delayed his masterpiece. The day’s moral idealism, as found in melodrama and sentimental comedy, would have none of the moral relativity implied in Pater’s theories of personality. The absolutist conventions said that villains may threaten but objective standards of right and wrong ultimately prevail, as society always defeats the selfish, individualistic villain. So overwhelming was the convention that self-assertion was tantamount to selfishness, so relentless the propaganda in behalf of convention, so steady the inculcation of self-denial in the young, that only a powerful, revolutionary personality could overcome it, after hard struggle.


Salomé is sometimes considered a remarkable freak but no master­piece because its revolutionary quality was too easily achieved, too obviously expressed, and too pseudo-French. More difficult would be to use England’s own traditions and conventions, seemingly inimical to any revolutionary message, to carry the shock of attack. The way to do this was by standing things on their heads. Though W. S. Gilbert had employed the technique of “topsyturvydom” in his extravaganzas, Wilde was the first to see how to do this in the medium of the New Drama, though Shaw was working independently on similar lines. If comic inversion was the general technique, paradoxical epigram was Wilde’s specific style.“  In matters of grave importance,” says Earnest’s Gwendolyn, “style, not sincerity, is the vital thing” (174).






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 The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) is the epitome of standing things on their head.  Subtitled A Trivial Comedy for Serious People, Earnest follows the wooing by Algernon and Jack of Cicely and Gwendolen, who insist straight-facedly that neither of them could marry a man who did not possess the name Ernest, though they are just as likely to say things, as above, that suggest an opposite concern for style over sincerity.  Because a man’s merely having the name of Ernest “inspires absolute confidence” (128), what their wordplay means of course is that such good form is all that society requires, never mind earnestness itself.  And yet these clever young people are earnest enough about their playing. In a world that habitually confused the serious with the trivial, Wilde felt this confusion could only be done justice by the paradoxical philosophy that “we should treat all the trivial things of life seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality.”47


Because the fundamental absurdity of conventional “well-made” plots, with their sacrifice of sense to suspense, frequently went unnoticed, Wilde emphasized it in Earnest to draw attention to it.  So exaggerated, the plot becomes a parody of plots. The play centers on a device called “Bunburying”48 that allows our playboy dandies, Jack and Algernon, to lead double lives, in town and country. This deceit naturally leads to elaborate masking, the confusion over identities intensifying until relieved by a denouement that unties the silliest knot ever tied, as the long arm of coincidence reaches so deep into the well-made play’s bag of tricks that it finds a hole in the bottom. No less parodistic is the paroxysm of romantic feeling that ends the play, with every available couple thrown into embrace.


Earnest is foremost a dramatization of Wilde’s own conversational cleverness and the social manner by which he established dominion, a combination of cool self-possession, bland detachment, and nonchalant brightness. There are satiric thrusts in all directions, but the satire is merely the channel for the lyrical expression of personal wit. Its revolutionary quality comes less from its satiric hits than from its audacity to be itself, to care for nothing beyond its own self-expression, art indeed for art’s sake. It ridicules Victorian earnestness, which was thought the outward aspect of such inward virtues as nobility, purity, and manliness, but that ridicule is subordinated to the lyrical celebration of the opposite of earnestness—namely, flippancy of tone and frivolity of attitude, life-affirming qualities in a society wretched with mechanical earnestness.


And, of course, in lyricism it is authentic feeling that matters, not logical consistency.  It is not logical that such irreverent young ladies as Cicely and Gwendolen, so little earnest about anything, would really insist on the name Ernest, nor is it logical that our cynical bachelor dandies, after deploring the doldrums of marriage and domesticity (“divorces are made in Heaven,” say they) and hinting at irregular lives of regular Bunburying, should so cheerfully become engaged, but appropriately Wilde had abandoned realistic logic for the sake of poetic expressiveness.  Recalling Chekhov again, we may cite a similar disjunction between his characters’ speeches and actions as symptomatic of that greater disjunction between subject and object that everywhere plagues modern life.


Whereas in the three serio-comedies this disjunction reveals either Wilde’s indifference to plot or his inability to fuse plot with dialogue, in Earnest the disjunction is artistically managed; an irrelevant plot is made relevant.  That plot and dialogue go in different directions, or operate according to different laws, expresses the fundamental “absurdity” of a universe in which people imprisoned in the self are expected to live socially, and in which such egotists are in fact so agreeably and sanguinely sociable. The further absurdity of the traditional marriage ending is that marriage, as with any other social contract, will not prevent our young romancers from continuing to lead double lives. The result of all this institutionalized Jekyll-and-Hyding could only be a comedy of mistaken identities, but in having his characters keep on quipping, no matter what, Wilde added a comedy of cleverness to the traditional comic pattern.


The increasingly alienated Wilde, ironically seeking social “connection” in the sexual pursuit of young boys even as he was writing a farcical tribute to heterosexual romance, found in Earnest the perfect vehicle for expressing a dangerous ambivalence, in which feelings of despair clashed with a classical hubris. The despair lay in his sense of the insanity and uncontrollability of the strictly heterosexual social machine, which was driving him deeper into alienation; the hubris lay partly in his belief that he could control the social machine by using it for amusement.  Marry if you like, but then do what you like. Surely everyone will see the joke.  But the queen’s law court was not amused.


It would seem that Earnest, beneath its slick exterior of innocent fun, is expressive of a deadly combination of states of mind. The rupture of feeling it expresses in the disjunction between plot and dialogue, its downplaying of “sin,” and its hubristic, unconcerned attitude (assumed by Oscar as he sauntered into his first trial, intoxicated with success, arrogantly certain of his power to charm a jury as he charmed dinner parties) joined with its absurdist vision that said what Wilde really wanted to say about society and thus was indicative of a readiness to come out of the closet.  Had his friends known how much Wilde sought total revelation of being, they might not have wasted their time trying to save him.


The ultimate cleverness of Earnest, from Wilde’s point of view, was that it allowed him to say what he really wanted to say without artistic compromise and still sell a lot of tickets. And only he, and perhaps a few other exquisites, realized how serious this farce was. But the consummate irony of Oscar Wilde is that this mocker of earnestness at last took himself too seriously, succumbing to the temptation of the scapegrace to be the scapegoat, losing his sense of humor because he secretly aspired to vindicate his superiority by being a scapegoat, forgetting that his superiority consisted in his amusing way of making people believe he wasn’t serious. But if he was secretly driven by a passion for some ultimate alienation, how could such a superior person commit the vulgar, middle-class error of suing for the respectability of his name?  Unless in playing with a double life he had in earnest become two people?  It is of course awful beyond words that the prophet who sought society’s renewal by calling on it to sympathize with “Greek things”—youth, freedom, beauty, joy, and color—should end up fat, ugly, suffering, imprisoned, and exiled: not Dionysius but his caricature Silenus.  Lord lllingworth had said to his son, “To win back my youth, Gerald, there is nothing I wouldn’t do—except take exercise, get up early, or be a useful member of the community”(94).  Noticeably he left out last-minute conversions to Catholicism, which Wilde apparently attempted, in the last of a series of desperate improvisations, aimed at being born again.


And he was born again, in an amazing number of ways.  For Oscar Wilde, in the history of drama at least, was the great precursor. Even more than Christopher Marlowe, whose promising but disastrously brief career invites an inevitable comparison, Wilde opened doors to the future for the greater drama to come. First as a contribution to the Pineroesque New Drama, his three serio-comedies questioned the double standard and idealistic notions of good and evil in a way that strengthened that genre, making it possible fur Galsworthy and Maugham to take bolder steps, and also showed that wit was no liability to the genre—in fact, the plays of both Jones and Pinero may have been wittier because Wilde was a box-office rival. Second, Wilde joined Maeterlinck and Yeats in opening up the possibility of a new kind of poetic-Symbolist drama.  Third, the vision and technique of Earnest is only slightly askew from that of The Theater of the Absurd, and one can imagine a Beckett, lonesco, Orton, or Stoppard meditatively perusing Wilde. Fourth, his revival and transformation of the comedy of manners made that a viable genre again for the further development of Hankin, Sutro, Maugham, Lonsdale, and Coward, not to mention a host of postmoderns. And fifth, his particular way with parody, making content out of the parodied use of dramatic and literary conventions, would become Shaw’s stock-in-trade. In contributing to the development of so many different kinds of “new drama,” Oscar Wilds achieved the kind of “youth” that might be compensation enough for his shade. Although it was Shaw’s opinion, on hearing of Wilde’s death, that Oscar must have gone straight to heaven, for “he is too good company to be excluded.”49






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If Oscar Wilde was the Marlowe of the New Drama, did a Shakespeare follow?  Well, not exactly, but in George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) something great of itself and equally as unique occurred.  As Robert Corrigan puts it, “those writing while G.B.S. was at his dramatic best seem like midgets when placed beside him.”50   Shakespeare had a similar dwarfing effect on his contemporaries, though it took longer to recognize it.  That The Oxford History of English Literature, in 1963, devoted to Shaw its only chapter on modern playwrights in its volume Eight Modern Writers is a fairly good indication, from a conservative source, that criticism is being quicker with Shaw than it was with Shakespeare in acknowledging preeminence.   Shaw made a great show of attacking “Shakespeare,” but it was actually the contemporary treatment of Shakespeare, which he called “bardolatry,” that he attacked as misrepresenting “the bard,” and he acknowledged that he stood on the shoulders of Shakespeare in the development of a highly rhetorical style of drama.  







           If Shaw thought Oscar Wilde would be welcomed in heaven, it was because he had an unusual view of that place, as he had an unusual view of most everything. In his preface to Plays Pleasant and Unpleasant (1898), Shaw catalogs his unusualness:  


I had no taste for what is called popular art, no respect for popular morality, no belief in popular religion, no admiration for popular heroics. As an Irishman I could pretend to patriotism neither for the country I had abandoned nor the country that had ruined it. As a humane person I detested violence and slaughter, whether in war, sport, or the butcher’s yard. I was a Socialist, detesting our anarchical scramble for money, and believing in equality as the only possible permanent basis of social organization, discipline, subordination, good manners, and selection of fit persons for high functions. Fashionable life, open on indulgent terms to unencumbered “brilliant” persons, I could not endure. . . . I was neither skeptic nor cynic in these matters: I simply understood life differently from the average respectable man.51


           Shaw said he found the clue to his peculiarity when, on having his eyesight tested, he discovered that although his eyesight was physically “normal” it was socially “abnormal” because 90 percent of the people did not possess such vision. This, according to Shaw, explained his inability, initially, to be popular as a writer—his “vision” of existence did not square with other people’s. “My mind’s eye, like my body’s, was ‘normal’: it saw things differently from other people’s eyes, and saw them better.”52  Playing with the metaphor of “normalcy” led to playing with the metaphor of “sanity.”  “If I am sane,” said Shaw, “the rest of the world ought not to be at large. We cannot both see things as they really are.”53   But he was just as likely to play “mad” to the world’s assumed “sanity.”  Like Lear’s fool, his strategy at times was to deal with madness on its own ground by playing the fool to berserk authorities.  The problem, then, was how to reconcile an “abnormal” public, devoted to its delusions, to the work of a writer who possessed “the power of seeing things accurately.”54   The solution was in making the public aware of the valuable role such a writer might play.  Said Shaw:


Every despot must have one disloyal subject to keep him sane. Even Louis the Eleventh had to tolerate his confessor, standing for the eternal against the temporal throne. Democracy has now handed the sceptre of the despot to the sovereign people; but they, too, must have their confessor, whom they call Critic.  Criticism . . . may say things which many would like to say, but dare not, and indeed for want of skill could not even if they durst.  Its iconoclasms, seditions, and blasphemies, if well turned, tickles those whom they shock; so that the critic adds the privileges of the court jester to those of the confessor. . . .  It was as Punch, then, that I emerged from obscurity. All I had to do was to open my normal eyes, and with my utmost literary skill put the case exactly as it struck me, or describe the thing exactly as I saw it, to be applauded as the most humorously extravagant paradoxer in London.55  



The central paradox that this Punch-critic-court jester wished to convey is that somehow the world had habituated itself to seeing “good” where normal vision would see “evil” and “evil” where normal vision would see “good.”  The world was seeing things upside down.  Of course anyone who tried to point this out or right things would appear to conventional minds as “the devil’s disciple,” a dangerous person everyone had been taught to resist, if not attack. Yet Shaw invited attack by drawing attention to his devilish self—for example, by banking up his red hair on the sides to look like horns, to complement his devilish opinions (see Figure below).

                                   The diabolical Shaw

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But such inversions of the “normal” were of course overstatements aimed at waking people up to what was real.  The Shavian clowning meant to convey that human reality was being ludicrously distorted as melodrama, consisting of clearly distinguishable good and evil, whereas the truth for those who have eyes to see is that good and evil are mixed in people and that “hell is paved with good intentions” and "the Devil can quote scripture."   The twinkling eye and the jesting style in which his devilish opinions were uttered gave him away to those who could read irony and paradox; but for all too many, the joking betrayed his cause. The court jester kept the devil’s disciple from being hanged by diverting the angry with laughter, but for those who did not understand that joking is a form of figurative language, the jester persona created the impression that he wasn’t serious.  Shaw tried to counter this by sometimes playing the gadfly in tones of the prophet, which added the leaven of seriousness so important to an age of earnestness, but some people could never understand if he was “just trying to be funny, or what?”


How does such a complicated, paradoxical personality construct itself? At first, as with everyone, it is at the mercy of family environment operating upon family genes.  Shaw’s father, George Carr Shaw, married Shaw’s mother, Elizabeth Gurley, a woman much younger than he, on the pretext that he was a solvent and sober member of the Irish Protestant governing class. She was soon disillusioned, for he was poor at handling money and even worse at handling his liquor.  Genteel poverty was their lot (though they had rich and noble relations), and Shaw was born the son of what he called a “downstart,” one of those who were sliding down the social scale. The principal cause of descent, and even family ostracism, was his father’s tipsiness. Alcoholism was rampant in the family, at least three uncles and one aunt suffering from it as well, and thus Shaw wisely became a teetotaler. (This made Shaw a peculiar Dionysian, by the way, but he was so intoxicated with life, words, music, etc., that he did not need the grape.  He was born drunk.)


Mrs. Shaw’s disappointment with her husband led to rather cool relations between them, and their three children were coolly received as well.  The virtue of this coolness was that it left young Shaw more free to grow up as his nature was inclined, in an age in which the misshaping of children was determinedly pursued by the respectable.  Had other children of his day fulfilled their sense of protest by painting a picture of Mephistopheles on their bedroom wall, as Shaw did, they would probably have been severely punished, as he was not.  He could explore his imagination to his heart’s content.  Except that the more he explored that romantic region, the more discontented he became with its genres.


The Shaws’ relatively anarchic bringing up of children was compounded by the mother’s interest in singing, which frequently took her away from the family and sometimes brought into the house a variety of musical artists who lent a touch of bohemianism.  Chief among them was George Vandaleur Lee, locally famous for his conducting and his “method” of voice training, who eventually moved in with the Shaws.  The resulting ménage a trois may have been Platonic, as Shaw thought, but it was a shaping influence, for Lee’s mesmeric energy, said Shaw, reduced his father to nullity in the house, causing young Shaw to look more to Lee than to his father for a model.  From Lee he learned to be skeptical of academic authorities, especially doctors, how to enjoy his passion for music, and, most important, how to dramatize himself and become an effective personality.  Shaw must have remembered Lee when he later converted his own shy and introverted self into the bold and brash G.B.S.  From his father, however, he did inherit the famous Shavian sense of anticlimax, the technique of undercutting a crescendo of piety or solemnity with a joke.


      Shaw was also instructed by the fact that some of the best singing voices around his mother belonged to Catholics.  The usual notion that all Catholics were doomed to perdition, heaven being reserved exclusively for Protestant ladies and gentlemen, was rather thrown into question by the heavenly voices of the Catholics his mother knew. Shaw soon discovered that Protestantism and Catholicism in Ireland were less religious sects than political factions, having to do with the struggle for power between a minority Protestant governing class that had emigrated mainly from England, from the seventeenth century on, and a majority of largely poorer Celtic and mixed-blood people who were forced off their land by the invaders. That the Protestant governors had become “more Irish than the Irish,” that some were from Celtic stock themselves (as Shaw’s family claimed descent from Scottish people), and that they were in the forefront of Ireland’s struggle for independence from England, did not lessen the political tensions of this society.  Further, the delusions of superiority shared by the Protestant minority led to monstrous pretensions, involving continual lying about incomes and social standing, and thus, Shaw writes, “were sacrificed all the realities of life.”56  Shaw himself was badly scarred by certain schoolboy experiences when, because his father was financially unable to send him to Protestant schools, he found himself at the school of lower-middle-class Catholics, which caused him to lose caste and become “a boy with whom no Protestant young gentleman would speak or play.”57  This may account for one of the prime motives of Shaw’s life, the drive of the Outsider to become the Insider.  Long after Shaw had outgrown the “shame and wounded snobbery” he had experienced from not being able to live up to class pretensions as a child, he was engaged in enticing society to accept him as something other than a pariah.  One effect of his playing a comic Satan while behaving like a gentleman was that society, when it got the joke, was friendlier toward him and more heeding of his attempts to “socialize” it.  His socialism can be understood as a political-economic transmutation of his wish to correct a warped social vision and to teach people better manners.  Especially toward children.


            The life of art his mother and her friends had led him into was the only thing that made Dublin tolerable for Shaw, and in learning to appreciate painting and literature and to sing scraps of opera, Shaw in his imagination left Dublin far behind long before his body did.  Contributing to his reasons for wanting to leave was a rather sterile job he held, from ages fifteen to nineteen, as, first, office-boy and, eventually, head cashier for a prominent firm of Dublin realtors. The office training taught him the importance of steady work habits and of acquiring technical skill, which later came in handy, but the snobbishness of the business and the cruelty of the laissez-faire capitalism behind its polite facade repulsed him.  Horrified at the rapidity with which he was climbing the corporate ladder, Shaw in 1876 fled to London, where his mother had followed Lee in 1872 to be partners in teaching voice. She allowed her son to sponge off her, albeit meagerly, for the next twenty years, the first ten of which he earned next to nothing. As Shaw put it, “I did not throw myself into the struggle for life: I threw my mother.”58  He continued to live with his mother until his marriage in 1898 to the wealthy Irish suffragette, Charlotte Payne Townshend, after which they maintained apartments in London on the Thames and a country estate in Ayot St. Lawrence, a picturesque village just north of London.


          But that all came later, after years of seedy, hand-to-mouth existence.  During the early years, when suitable jobs were hard to come by, Shaw read heavily, joined debating societies to develop a speaking style, and in five years (1879-83) industriously wrote five novels in which he experimented with various personae and constructed "G. B. S."   Unable to get the novels published at first, largely because they were too far ahead of the times, Shaw took to journalism, his friend William Archer getting him started in 1885 as an art and music critic and book reviewer for a number of reviews, magazines, and newspapers, his career capped off by his 1895-98 stint as drama critic for the Saturday Review.  Seldom has journalism been graced by so much cheerful and informative wit as Shaw poured into his weekly articles.  He told his readers, “I do my best to be partial,” taking humorously mortal offense at bad performances.59  Of his drama criticism he later admitted that it was “not a series of judgments aiming at impartiality, but a siege laid to the theatre of the XIXth Century by an author who had to cut his own way into it at the point of the pen, and throw some of its defenders into the moat. . . . I was accusing my opponents of failure because they were not doing what I wanted, whereas they were often succeeding very brilliantly in doing what they themselves wanted.”60


Shaw also became one of the most popular mob orators and platform debaters in London.  At first shy and timid, Shaw forced himself to speak at every opportunity, becoming by sheer obnoxious perseverance a speaker of such aplomb that he could master almost any situation.  He was especially effective when, after his discovery of Henry George and Karl Marx around 1884, he found a social philosophy that he could modify into his own unique brand of socialism and, as “a speaker with a gospel,”61 contribute to that long, arduous conversion of England from its extreme laissez-faire capitalism, with its brutal exploitation of workers and despoliation of the land, to the welfare socialism of today.  Shaw would probably disown much of today’s welfarism as improper socialism (the Fabians preferred "Workfare"), but his joining with Sidney and Beatrice Webb and other socialist luminaries in their founding of the Fabian Society in 1885 contributed to the gradual development of the Labour party, however far behind that party has left Fabian principles.


Shaw not only excelled as a political pamphleteer and stump speaker but also as a committeeman, his effectiveness apparent in his work on the Fabian executive committee and in his six years as vestryman on a London borough council (St. Pancras).  What with serving on councils and committees, orating and debating, writing novels, pamphlets, reviews, articles, and finally plays, not to mention keeping up a voluminous correspondence, Shaw lived an extremely busy and engaged life, committed to revolutionary purpose.


          As the nineties opened, Shaw had little inkling that he was going to alter careers as journalist and Fabian proponent in order to become the age’s foremost playwright, though his 1890 address to the Fabian Society on “Henrik Ibsen,” revised for publication as The Quintessence of Ibsenism in 1891, was indicative of the pull toward drama Ibsen’s magnetism was asserting. Ibsen showed him that the drama could answer better than any other medium his need for both private expression and participation in the public forum.  At first Shaw overemphasized the public nature of his work, to counter the tendency of the day’s aesthetes to overindulge in seemingly amoral private fantasizing and “art for art’s sake.”  But, as Eric Bentley has explained, while “Shavian drama is didactic and public . . . it is personal and expressive as well. . . . Shaw’s drama expresses his nature much more than it champions particular doctrines.  It even mirrors Shaw’s life rather closely in a series of self-portraits.”62


The Quintessence of Ibsenism is typical of Shaw’s multidimensional writing in its sociopolitical, psychological, metaphysical, and autobio­graphical levels of import. Sometimes mistakenly read as purely socio­political and thus as misrepresentative of Ibsen as an ideologue, The Quintessence is today generally understood as providing an enlightening, if limited, commentary on Ibsen’s dramatic vision, as well as a prospectus for Shaw’s efforts as a New Dramatist and an expression of Shaw’s private search for identity.  (Eventually he learned that “life is not about finding yourself, it’s about creating yourself.”)


Written by a young man who had failed in the private world of art as a novelist but who was beginning to succeed in the public world as a critic, pamphleteer, and gadfly, The Quintessence takes on the character of a Shaw struggling to become an extrovert.  Having come to an understanding of his social alienation as more an evolutionary phenomenon than a family condition—that is, he was separated from others not so much because his father’s drunkenness had brought ostracism on the family as because he was more highly evolved—he proceeds to classify people according to how evolved they are.  Already thinking in terms of character types (actually derived more from his own novels than from Ibsen’s plays), he divides the world into Realists (1%), Idealists (29%), and Philistines (70%), in descending order of evolution, based on people’s attitudes toward evolutionary social change. Shaw finds Ibsen’s character types involved in “a conflict of unsettled ideals,” the secretly ambivalent Idealists hypocritically defending and enforcing ideals to the death, the Philistines complacently or fearfully going along with the Idealists, and the lonely Realist struggling to get the rest to change ideals to accord with human growth.  Seeing that “the real slavery of today is slavery to ideals of goodness,”63


the Realist at last loses patience with ideals altogether and sees in them only something to blind us, something to numb us, something to murder self in us, something whereby, instead of resisting death, we can disarm it by committing suicide.  The Idealist, who has taken refuge with the ideals because he hates himself and is ashamed of himself, thinks that all this is so much for the better.  The Realist, who has come to have a deep respect for himself and faith in the validity of his own will, thinks it so much the worse. To the [Idealist], human nature, naturally corrupt, is held back from ruinous excesses only by self-denying conformity to the ideals.  To [the Realist], these ideals are only swaddling clothes which man has outgrown, and which insufferably impede his progress.  No wonder the two cannot agree.  The Idealist says, “Realism means egotism; and egotism means depravity.”  The Realist declares that when a man abnegates the will to live and be free in a world of the living and the free, seeking only to conform to ideals for the sake of being, not himself, but “a good man,” then he is morally dead and rotten, and must be left unheeded to abide his resurrection, if that by good luck arrive before his bodily death.64  


               It was obviously the Christian policy of self-abnegation that was Shaw’s target, for he saw its suppression of human selfhood as a major source of his society’s corruption and decadence.  This constant banking of the fires of human creativity keeps things at a standstill, preventing evolutionary growth, and causes unnecessary hypocrisy.  Nature’s command to the individual is “be thyself,” not “be good.”  Being good means straining to live up to impossible ideals rather than relaxing and being oneself.   One has to “murder self” in order to "be good," and thus the metaphor of the walking dead.   Of course Nature always wins in any battle with idealism, but the Shavian lesson is that the defeat of idealism is no cause for despair and cynicism, as the Idealists think, for the natural self is an aspiring self, imbued by evolution with a need to seek higher levels of being.  The astral body will be reached, not by denying the natural self, but by allowing it to fulfill its will in the evolutionary process.   In short, The Quintessence implies, follow the example of the man with the abnormally normal sight, to whom evolution has given the power to see things correctly, realistically, who in his self-assertive construction of the “immodest” G. B. S., “the devil’s disciple,” and other personas of inverted goodness, is demonstrating how to fulfill the evolutionary will in good health.


Shaw’s theory of character types in The Quintessence was at bottom a struggle to understand himself as an artist-prophet, an exercise in self-analysis disguised as sociological analysis.  As he moved into playwriting, the exercise became habitual. Shaw dramatized and fictionalized the special problems of genius in its attempt to adapt to a hostile environment, his craving for public participation in his private story an expression of his need for human communion, to make his environment less hostile. This is emphasized at the outset as a corrective to Shaw’s strenuous attempts, at first, to make everyone believe that his concerns were purely sociopolitical, objective, and didactic.


Oscar Wilde had shown how to draw contumely by playing the idler and the aesthete; Shaw, though also playing an Irish ironist, wanted enough respect from the citizenry so that he could lead them to a better life, and that could be achieved only by convincing them of his probity as a realistic, journalistic sort of artist concerned, not with exotic private fantasies, but with the everyday world. The further contrast was between a Wildean selfishness that seemed to act entirely for its own sake and a Shavian self-assertiveness that, abstemious and vegetarian, had as its by-product the good of the whole.  Wilde too saw that individual will, the source of human energy, needed to be liberated from the suffocating policies of self-abnegation, but Wilde’s gadflying went astray when it mistook self-indulgence for self-assertion and when it neglected to replace discarded moral conventions with what Shaw called “moral passion.”  Based on his own experience as an adolescent, Shaw believed that beings sufficiently evolved to be truly human develop an inner passion for the moral that is far more demanding than conventional standards, and that because they insist on following that passion rather than heeding conventions, they as the highest are confused with the lowest who also ignore external law but who lack moral passion.


Shaw’s plays in the nineties use dramatic art to embody the dilemma of the more highly evolved, who, possessed of moral passion but contemptuous of moral conventions for their perversity and low standards, discover that the freedom they assert from convention is problematic, particularly in the context of others’ lack of freedom.






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 Making the same false start as a dramatist as did Ibsen, Shaw in 1878 began a blank-verse heroic tragedy he called Household of Joseph, which has since been given the title Passion Play. As the prose drama was in such a low state, and Shakespeare’s reputation was soaring, anyone in the nineteenth century who had intentions of writing serious literary drama automatically wrote blank verse heroic tragedy.  But that genre was already an anachronism by the eighteenth century, owing to the rise of the bourgeoisie and parliamentary democracy.   Perhaps sensing this, Shaw abandoned his play in the second act. Yet, despite the antiquated verse, this fragment is full of astonishing modernisms, especially in its irreverent, humanizing characterizations.  Further, Jesus and Judas seem to represent compelling forces contending in the young Shaw’s psyche, Jesus illustrating the fervent Idealist and poetic dreamer whose vision of a better world is so radical that it can be reached only by escaping this world, and Judas representing the analytic skeptic whose outraged moral sense can only find vent in personal probity, iconoclastic criticism, and, inevitably, compromising political activism, all religions having been exploded for him.  This dialectic would become recurrent in Shaw’s plays.  The figure of the scapegoat would also recur, usually associated with that visionary realism The Quintessence talks about. As in Passion Play, Shaw’s strongest plays would have a Realist or potential Realist at their center, involved in an action that threatens martyrdom.  But it took a few plays for this pattern to emerge.


  After trying novel writing and journalism, Shaw returned to playwriting in order, he said, to save the nation’s honor.  In his 1898 preface to Plays Pleasant and Unpleasant, Shaw wrote: “I turned my hand to playwriting when a great deal of talk about ‘the New Drama,’ followed by the actual establishment of a ‘New Theatre’ (the Independent), threatened to end in the humiliating discovery that the New Drama, in England at least, was a figment of the revolutionary imagination.  This was not to be endured.  I had rashly taken up the case; and rather than let it collapse I manufactured the evidence.”65


        His first three plays—Widowers’ Houses (1892), The Philanderer (1893), and Mrs. Warren’s Profession (1893)—were designated as “unpleasant” when published in 1898 because they ostensibly dealt with social crimes that were considered by many to be unmentionable in polite society.  The surface subjects of Shaw’s three plays—slum land­lordism, the degradations marriage laws force upon “advanced” people, and prostitution—though fit for the blue books of governmental investigative committees, had not been thought proper for the stage.  But taste was changing. Pinero, Jones, and Wilde would soon draw crowds to their “woman with a past” problem plays, and so Shaw, somewhat tentative in beginning his new career, tried to carpenter something that would fit the day’s developing taste for plays that exposed the seamy side of life.  In pretending to write hard-boiled, stick-their-noses-in-it realism, in what was thought Ibsen’s style, Shaw actually succeeded better than most of the pretenders in doing just that, however compromised these plays were by the farcical trivialities of some of the plotting and characterization.  Shaw’s plays were tougher-minded right from the beginning.  Pinero, Jones, and Wilde provided escape valves by making everything come out all right, allowing convention to triumph over realism and the problem to prove unproblematic.  Shaw’s plays, though ending happily enough from the Shavian point of view, ended unpleasantly from the conventional point of view.


          Shaw’s difference from other playwrights is immediately noticeable in his account of the origins of Widowers’ Houses.  It seems that in 1884 or 1885 drama critic William Archer proposed to novelist Shaw that they collaborate on a play. Shaw agreeing, Archer supplied “the scheme of a twaddling cup-and-saucer comedy.”66  Shaw quickly used up Archer’s plot in one or two acts and asked for more.  Archer, priding himself on knowing a “well-made” plot when he saw one, indignantly declined to tamper with what he considered perfection, and so Shaw laid the fragment aside.  It was this he resurrected in 1892 when, in the humiliating national emergency of having no great modern English drama to produce, he changed Archer’s “sympathetically romantic ‘well-made play’ of the Parisian type then in vogue” into “a grotesquely realistic exposure of slum landlordism, municipal jobbery, and the pecuniary and matrimonial ties between them and the pleasant people with ‘independent’ incomes who imagine that such sordid matters do not touch their own lives.”67   In revising the play Shaw demonstrated the difference between Archer’s method of imposing a mechanical plot construction on a play and true storytelling that follows naturally from interesting, credible characters; Shaw allows Trench, the central character, to engage in an action that relentlessly exposes the complicity of all in tainted money. The play does not advocate socialism, however, though socialism is, of course, a possible remedy for the social ills portrayed.  Despite the fact that socialism, if mentioned at all in Shaw’s plays, is usually satirized, Shaw would spend the rest of his life living down a reputation as a purely political dramatist—a reputation based on a few early plays that lean slightly in that direction—though sometimes he perversely reveled in the misunderstanding.


Shaw was equally misunderstood on the subject of Ibsen and his individualism.  The Quintessence of Ibsenism had correctly portrayed Ibsen as an ironist who undercut all programs, liberal or conservative, the quintessence of his moral position being that there was no quintessence, that is, no easy formula for deciding moral questions, for the human will being constantly in growth cannot be judged today on standards set yesterday, nor can the individual be judged by group standards.  But many people still felt that there was a definite Ibsen doctrine, and so in Shaw’s next play, The Philanderer, set during the first vogue of Ibsen in London after 1889, he lightly mocked both sham Ibsenism and Ibsenite enthusiasms.  The plot has mainly to do with the efforts of Leonard Charteris, philanderer, to escape an old flame, the possessive, passionately jealous, and very womanly Julia Craven, by proposing marriage to a new flame and a New Woman, Grace Tranfield, with frustrating results. Charteris is supposedly a confessed self-portrait, based on Shaw’s difficulties in shedding the possessive Jenny Patterson, who stalked him about London as he became interested in Florence Farr, the actress and New Woman.  But the character of Charteris contains little of the visionary realism Shaw was promoting and seems a very narrow self-conception. The character’s philandering is the consequence of the “grotesque sexual compacts” that marriage laws force on people and that “advanced” individuals are therefore forced to evade. But such evasive behavior is merely that of a man in a quandary, not that of a man who is one of the makers of the future.68


      Mrs. Warren’s Profession was the best of the Unpleasant Plays, presenting two very powerful characters.  In their conflict, Mrs. Warren and her daughter, Vivie, have the sort of intellectual scope and emotional force that one came to expect from Shaw.  In the year of the great success of The Second Mrs. Tanqueray, Shaw one-upped Pinero by creating “a woman with a past” who was allowed to speak for herself rather than having words put into her mouth.  And yet the triumph went unnoticed because the censor kept the play out of the theater.


The story is that of Vivie Warren’s gradual realization of the source of her mother’s income and thus of her support through her many years of higher education.  It seems her mother, to escape a life of extreme poverty and hardship, took to prostitution as a young girl, becoming through perseverance, thrift, and the exercise of managerial skills the owner and operator of a successful and humanely run chain of European brothels, heavily invested in by respectable types, and she feels that she has no apologies to make and that there is no need to retire as a businesswoman, prostitution being the universal condition in a capitalist system.  Vivie goes through a bitter disillusionment at the discovery of universal complicity in “tainted” money, but she does not end believing in Trench’s complacent “letting be.” Without condemning her mother, she nevertheless chooses to live a separate, self-supporting life.


Mrs. Warren’s Profession attacks several different kinds of social idealism—marital, parental, religious, aesthetic, romantic, and so on—but the attack on them is not really the heart of the play.69  The principal action of this, as well as many other Shaw plays to come, is essentially psychological: one character, usually a younger person, a potential Realist in mind-set, is taught a lesson by another character, usually an older person, who may or may not be aware of what is being taught; and the result is, first, disillusionment, second, enlightenment, and, third, a growth in spirit that allows the evolving character to better realize his or her authentic self.  Here Mrs. Warren, rather unawares, is the principal catalyst in the development of Vivie, as Vivie experiences a death of the old Idealist self and is reborn as an incipient Realist.  Despite many relapses to Victorian womanhood, Vivie’s genuine Realist self emerges from a series of painful disillusionments, strengthened for the final break with her mother.  One test of the would-be Realist is in the ability to assert independence from parental authority and to escape the drug of romance.  Vivie passes the test, but one wonders if the work of actuarial accountant is really appropriate to one who sees that prostitution is a universal, inescapable condition of modern employment.  She seems curiously uncommitted, as cutting off parent and suitor only leaves her in a vacuum.  Leaving Vivie with nothing very worthwhile to do with her new soul may, however, express the problematic nature of becoming a Realist.


Shaw’s Unpleasant Plays were largely unproduceable at the time.  Widowers’ Houses received only two performances at first (at the Royalty Theatre in 1892) by J. T. Grein’s Independent Theatre Society.  This private, semiprofessional society labored from 1891 to 1898 to bring modern drama to the theater, specializing in Ibsen’s plays.  It operated in provincial towns as well, particularly Manchester, where Charles Charrington, with his wife Janet Achurch as leading lady, produced a number of Shaw’s plays.  It was succeeded by the Incorporated Stage Society and the New Stage Club, which later gave many first performances of Shaw’s plays.  The Philanderer and Mrs. Warren’s Profession were also written for the Independent Theatre, but neither was produced.  The Philanderer did not receive a public performance until 1907 (private performances were in 1898 and 1905), and Mrs. Warren’s Profession, banned by the censor, although privately performed in 1902, had to wait until 1905 for a public performance in America and until 1925 in England.  This scanty record of production led Shaw to attemptPleasant Plays” that would be more acceptable to Victorian audiences but would avoid the compromise with artistic integrity that had been the fate of Pinero, Jones, and Wilde.





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          Shaw’s effort from the beginning, following from the theory of The Quintessence of Ibsenism, was to convert the power of the theater to the service of the realistic imagination.  Shaw saw the idealistic or romantic imagination as doing great mischief, with its visions of women as domestic angels, marriages as made in heaven, and gloriously ennobling cavalry charges as proving grounds for manly men.  The romantic imagination, he said, “begins in silly and selfish expectations of the impossible, and ends in spiteful disappointment, sour grievance, cynicism, and misanthropic resistance to any attempt to better a hopeless world.”70  Appropriately, in Shaw’s cosmology hell is the paradise of the idealistic imagination and heaven is the home of “the masters of reality.”  As a drama critic Shaw found the nineteenth-century theater, exclusive of Ibsen, a hell on earth because it was steeped in the romantic imagination, and thus he strove to discredit that drama and replace it with one that looked realistically at life.


At first Shaw imagined that his task was to engage his audience in a relatively direct confrontation, to rub their noses in “unpleasantness,” to make people see the “social horrors” that “arise from the fact that the average homebred Englishman, however honorable and good-natured he may be in his private capacity, is, as a citizen, a wretched creature who, whilst clamoring for a gratuitous millennium, will shut his eyes to the most villainous abuses if the remedy threatens to add another penny in the pound to the rates and taxes which he has to be half-cheated, half-coerced into paying.”71  As Martin Meisel argues, Shaw’s strategy was to make audience-surrogates of the most self-righteous, honorable, and seemingly blameless characters, who might serve as raisonneurs in more conventional plays, and then to allow the action of the play to overwhelm these “good” people with taint and sin. “Shaw’s point is the inescapable complicity of all members in the social crime.”72  As Shaw said in The Quintessence, the Idealist is villainous only “by virtue of his determination to do nothing wrong,”72 and so Shaw would not allow his audience to treat the Idealist as a villain—that is, as a scapegoat who excuses the audience from complicity and responsibility—but rather forced them to see the Idealist as a person much like themselves. Shaw allowed his characters who represented popular social idealisms the forceful expression of their own points of view “so that by justifying and explaining themselves they will send their audience home radically discontented with a society in which such justification is not only possible but logically impeccable.”74


In the four plays of Plays Pleasant—Arms and the Man (1894), Candida (1895), The Man of Destiny (1895), and You Never Can Tell (1896)—Shaw changed his strategy and with it his conception of himself as a playwright and his notion of how best he could convert the powers of the theater to the service of the realistic imagination.  He began “to write plays which, dealing less with the crimes of society, and more with its romantic follies and with the struggles of individuals against those follies, may be called, by contrast, Pleasant.75 As Meisel sums it up, the shift from Unpleasant to Pleasant was a shift “from the social institution, overwhelming individual compunction, to the private imagination, accessible to grace. . . . The shift in attention from social crime to romantic folly, from the public institution to the private imagination, was for Shaw an easy shift from effect to cause.”76   But the shift was only one of emphasis, not a complete change of character.  Meisel points out, for instance, how the “social crimes” of the Unpleasant Plays are paralleled by the “human follies” of the Pleasant Plays.  Both Candida and Mrs. Warren are examples of the strong woman who manages a house, but they represent the mentionable and the unmentionable sides of “the woman question.”  Mrs. Warren was faced with the unpleasant choice of becoming a prostitute or dying in spirit and body, whereas Candida must choose between the much more pleasant alternatives of comfortable domesticity with her husband and Marchbank’s romantic idolatry.  And so, as an emphasis on crimes is replaced by an emphasis on follies, and as an emphasis on the ill effects of social problems is replaced by an emphasis on the search for causes within individuals, the audience of the Pleasant Plays is more entertained and made to feel less uneasy.  But the strategy simply sets a subtler trap. As Meisel puts it, “Shaw charms us with his heterodox individuals and amuses us with the orthodox so that we will feel sympathetic to the heterodox and superior to the orthodox.”77   But that works to the same end as in the Unpleasant Plays—that of converting the power of the theater to the service of the realistic imagination. The object now is not to dwell on the negatives of idealism’s crimes but to emphasize the positive by showing us the attractions of realism. We are to evolve more through aspiration than through repulsion.


Arms and the Man, first presented by Florence Farr (with secret backing from Miss Horniman) at the Avenue Theatre in 1894, along with Yeats’s The Land of Heart’s Desire, in its fifty performances gave Shaw his first commercial success, proving that it paid to be pleasant.  It was also the first Shaw play to be seen in America, Richard Mansfield doing well with it in 1894 at the Herald Square Theatre in New York. Probably the most frequently produced and anthologized of Shaw’s plays, Arms and the Man presents the well-known story of “the chocolate soldier” who carries chocolate rather than ammunition but who is no sweet softy nevertheless.  Spoofing military romance, the play contrasts the foolish idealisms of young Raina and her heroic fiancé, Major Sergius Saranoff, with down-to-earth assessments by the mercenary soldier Captain Bluntschli, who in flight from capture accidentally lands in Raina’s bedroom, to her ultimate edification and that of her family. The play unfortunately lends itself to farce, to Shaw’s great annoyance, for in his first attempt at a pleasant presentation of the attractions of realism, he did not want the Realist to be compromised by a ludicrous situation or to appear attractive only because he tickled ribs. But perhaps it was sufficient that the play got the pot boiling, as far as the commercial theater was concerned.


A greater play is Candida (I895), though it too was sometimes admired for the wrong reasons.  It received its first public performance in 1904, with private performances in I897 and I900.  Taking his cue from Morris, Burne-Jones, and other Pre-Raphaelites, whose “medievalism” suggested to Shaw that “religion was alive again, coming back upon men, even upon clergymen, with such power that not the Church of England itself could keep it out,”78   Shaw attempted in Candida a modern mystery play on the subject of the Madonna, his modern Madonna also representing the questionable Victorian ideal of the angel in the house.  Shaw’s Madonna is a very charming woman in her thirties named Candida, wife of Rev. Morell, confident and successful spokesman for Christian socialism.  When Candida brings home, as she would a waif or a stray dog, a young poet of rather puny aspect named Marchbanks, she falls prey to Marchbank’s romantic idealization of her (even as the Madonna is an idealization) and finds herself adored by him.  The ebb and flow of the play lies in the contest between Morell and Marchbanks for Candida’s love, and the surprise lies in the realization that her choice of Morell as “the weaker” implies that she knows her husband’s strength is only apparent, that he is really the sort who is dependent on the “woman as mother.”


“To distill the quintessential drama from pre-Raphaehtism, medieval or modern,” Shaw wrote, “it must be shewn at its best in conflict with the first broken, nervous, stumbling attempts to formulate its own revolt against itself as it develops into something higher.”  In Marchbanks “was the higher but vaguer and timider vision, the incoherent, mischievous, and even ridiculous unpracticalness, which offered me a dramatic antagonist for the clear, bold, sure, sensible, benevolent, salutarily shortsighted Christian Socialist idealism” of Morell.79


Candida appears to lend itself well to the character typing of The Quintessence, with Morell as Idealist, Candida as Philistine, and Marchbanks as incipient Realist (though they experience inner conflict as well, with the types as warring psychic principles).80  Rather bored by poetry herself, Candida is the sort of woman young men like Marchbanks write poetry about. Immaturely succumbing to idealism, the poet transmutes Candida (as the Virgin Mary had been transmuted) into something she is not.  The critics, equally charmed by her “maternal wisdom,” have done the same, so much so that Shaw ridiculed them as Candidamaniacs.  The clue to Candida’s basic philistinism is in her name—candida is Latin for “yeast,” that common element without which the bread of life is flat.  Shaw may even have had the maternal condition in mind (as in “Metaphors” Sylvia Plath speaks of the “yeasty rising” of her pregnant self).  The point of the play is that however essential to life bread is, poets like Marchbanks cannot live by bread alone, his idealization of Candida indicative of his aspiring spirit, however misguided.  The hot baked bread of domestic bliss—which is the husband’s ideal of marriage and the illusion the Philistine wife works hard to maintain—is not sufficient food for the artist-Realist, whose real craving is for spiritual sustenance.


The play questions the artist’s relation to domestic reality, answering by its action that the artist is not so unlike others that he isn’t tempted to live within “the castle of comfort, indulgence, and love.”  Later, in the person of John Tanner, he will succumb to it (as Shaw himself did in his 1898 marriage); but while young and vigorous he imagines himself compelled to leave the castle to live a harder life in the service of the Life Force.  He is thought “mad” for doing so, as many other Shaw characters are thought mad for trying to live beyond bourgeois notions of happiness. But Shaw thought the sanity of art consisted in just such madness, for divine creativity is the product not of the satisfied but the dissatisfied.


The title of Shaw’s next play, The Man of Destiny (1895), suggests that the destiny Marchbanks seeks in the dark of the night will have some light shed on it, but curiously this relative trifle of a play fails to deliver.  Shaw’s search for an embodiment of the new heroism of the Realist led him to think of Napoleon Bonaparte; but the plot concerning the interception by a strange lady of letters incriminating young Napoleon’s wife in illicit affairs with a high government official, while conveying something of a realistic handling of the situation (Napoleon contrives to ignore the letters for the sake of his advancement), displays more a pragmatic ambition than a visionary realism.  Shaw subtitled the play A TrifIe, and dismissed it as “hardly more than a bravura piece to display the virtuosity of the two principal performers” (Shaw had hopes that Henry Irving and Ellen Terry would play the roles).81   It was privately performed in 1897 and 1901, and its first public performance was in 1907.


You Never Can Tell (1896), Shaw said, was "an attempt to comply with the many requests for a play in which the much paragraphed 'brilliancy' of Arms and the Man should be tempered by some consideration for the requirements of managers in search of fashionable comedies for West End theatres.  I had no difficulty in complying, as I have always cast my plays in the ordinary practical comedy form in use at all the theatres; and far from taking an unsympathetic view of the popular preference for fun, fashionable dress, a little music, and even an exhibition of eating and drinking by people with an expensive air, attended by an if-possible-comic waiter, I was more than willing to shew that the drama can humanize these things as easily as they, in the wrong hands, can dehumanize the drama."82


Shaw here temporarily abandons the attempt to invent a new heroic type in favor of presenting an ensemble of “advanced” types in conflict with each other and with conventional thinking, a foreshadowing of his later discussion plays.  The story finds Mrs. Clandon, an authoress of “advanced” views, returning to England after a long exile, bringing along her three, grown, highly educated children, the boisterous twins, Phil and Dolly, and the elder Gloria, groomed as the rational New Woman to carry on her mother’s cause.  Gloria, however, finds her mother’s precepts unavailing against the love inspired by young Valentine, a local dentist, and all the mother’s propaganda against her “cruel” ex-husband, Fergus Crampton, from whom she separated eighteen years ago, keeping his identity from her children, does not prevent her “advanced” children and their crusty, conventional old father from achieving reconciliation, after the children humanize the vengeful old man.


You Never Can Tell was aimed directly at commercial success, which it achieved many times in its career (most recently in Broadway and Shaw Festival productions in 1986 and 1988), but it began disastrously.  Written for and accepted in 1897 by Cyril Maude at the Haymarket Theatre, the play was withdrawn by Shaw because of rehearsal troubles and had to wait until 1900 for its first public performance.  But Shaw’s frustration was to the greater glory of both himself and dramatic literature, for the play’s aborted production caused him to resolve henceforth to avail himself fully of his literary powers to put his plays before the public in his own way and, through publication, to guard against stage misrepresentation. The 1898 publication of Plays Pleasant and Unpleasant saw not only the beginnings of the most delightfully readable stage directions of any playwright but also the institution of the new art of the Shavian preface, which soon became a growth industry.  Declaring that the preface gave him the advantage over Shakespeare of being able to provide an “intellectually coherent drama” and “to pursue a genuinely scientific method in ... studies of character and society,”83 Shaw matched his plays with commentaries that informed as we would give our eye teeth to be informed about Shakespeare’s plays.  But the prefaces were deceiving as well, for they were less explanations of plays than tangential afterthoughts and occasional polemics that really stood independently from the plays.  More than one unsuspecting critic has gone awry by taking Shaw’s commentary at face value, it being just as artful and figurative in its own way as are the plays.






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  In 1901 Shaw published his second volume of plays, Three Plays for Puritans, containing The Devil’s Disciple (1897), Caesar and Cleopatra (1898), and Captain Brassbound’s Conversion (1899).  Its preface finds Shaw tacking a bit, clarifying what he meant by “pleasantness.”  Pleasantness does not mean “pleasure-mongering,” that is, sacrificing the theater’s powers of edification to an all-consuming sensuality, the result of theater managers trying to please everybody with a false idea of what was pleasing.  They assumed that what was pleasing was nice to look at—sumptuous sets, voluptuous leading ladies, handsome leading men, with everyone exceedingly well dressed and involved in a “gorgeous stage ritual”—and, most pleasing of all, untroubling to the mind.  “Even Shakespeare was played with his brains out,” said Shaw.  In all sorts of plays Shaw found “the same intentional brainlessness, founded on the same theory that the public did not want brains, did not want to think, did not want anything but pleasure at the theatre.”84   Shaw agreed that this was true of a certain segment of the public, who preferred the music hall anyway, but it was also true that this mindless pleasure-mongering had driven out of the theater a large segment of the population, who, being English and “Puritanical,” would only go to the theater if the theater were edifying and earnest about saving its soul.  Ibsen succeeded with this segment because for the old Scribean art of intrigue he “substituted a terrible art of sharpshooting at the audience, trapping them, fencing with them, aiming always at the sorest spot in their consciences.” Following Ibsen, “the dramatist knows that as long as he is teaching and saving his audience, he is as sure of their strained attention as a dentist is, or the Angel of the Annunciation.”85   As these were the community-minded people Shaw most wanted to reach, he called, only half-facetiously, for the Puritans to rescue the theater again “as they rescued it before when its foolish pursuit of pleasure sunk it in profaneness and immorality.”86   Shaw argued in a way that has misled critics ever since (especially G. K. Chesterton, who described Shaw’s tolerant and rather bohemian upbringing as “Puritanical”).  Shaw wrote:


I have, I think, always been a Puritan in my attitude towards Art.  I am as fond of fine music and handsome building as Milton was, or Cromwell, or Bunyan; but if I found that they were becoming the instruments of a systematic idolatry of sensuousness, I would hold it good statesmanship to blow every cathedral in the world to pieces with dynamite, organ and all, without the least heed to the screams of the art critics and cultured voluptuaries. And when I see that the nineteenth century has crowned the idolatry of Art with the deification of Love, so that every poet is supposed to have pierced to the holy of holies when he has announced that Love is the Supreme, or the Enough, or the All, I feel that Art was safer in the hands of the most fanatical of Cromwell’s major generals than it will be if it ever gets into mine.87



Shaw is having fun here playing the Puritan scourge of immorality, but he follows by saying, “The pleasures of the senses I can sympathize with and share,” and earlier in the preface he had made it clear that his disgust with the theater of sensuousness “was not mere thin-skinned prudery. When my moral sense revolted, as it often did to its very fibres, it was invariably at the nauseous compliances of the theatre with conventional virtue.  If I despised the musical farces, it was because they never had the courage of their vices.”88


Shaw’s “Puritanism” was severely restricted to the area of art, and all he meant by it was that the highest art must serve, indirectly, a moral purpose. There is no lack of sensuality in, say, Caesar and Cleopatra, from the gorgeous stage setting to the pretty actresses and handsome actors who dress very becomingly; but this sensuality is put in its place: the leading character plays off against it for the moral purpose of showing how the Realist transcends sensuality, not by denying it for himself, but by affirming that it is not necessary to him, it is not the proof of his legitimacy as a hero, true heroism being internal.  Shaw did not repress the sensuous and pleasurable, as Puritans are thought to do; rather, he merely placed in the background what other playwrights and theater managers had placed in the foreground.  Shaw humanized the sensuous and pleasurable by subordinating them to the presentation of character and idea.  In short, this preface explains how Shaw steered between the Scylla of delight and the Charybdis of instruction.  He simply wanted it known that his “pleasant” plays were to be edifying as well as pleasing, and indeed that the highest pleasure his plays offered was the pleasure of creative moral thought.


The Devil’s Disciple (1897) illustrates well both Shaw’s play on “Puritan” and the pleasures of creative moral thought.  Set in the New England of 1777, the play dramatizes the British attempt to squelch the American Revolution by hanging scapegoats in each town to discourage would-be rebels.  They have picked out Rev. Anthony Anderson for hanging in the village of Westerbridge, but they take Dick Dudgeon instead when Dick allows himself to be mistaken for Anderson so that Anderson can escape.  Anderson is really a man of action underneath the clerical garb, and he gallops off to join the American resistance.  Dick meanwhile undergoes a trial for sedition and prepares himself for hanging, but at the last minute Anderson rides up with a safe-conduct pass and rescues Dick from the gallows.  The plot is standard melodrama, as Shaw acknowledged, but the novelty lies in the fact that the man who is prepared to sacrifice his life for another is understood by the community, and especially by his own Calvinist mother, to be a “diabolonian,” one who worships the devil as a redeemer.  How could such a self-sacrificing man be a Satanist?  Shaw explains it in his preface to Three Plays for Puritans:  


Dick Dudgeon, the devil’s disciple, is a Puritan of the Puritans.  He is brought up in a household where the Puritan religion has died, and become, in its corruption, an excuse for his mother’s master passion of hatred in all its phases of cruelty and envy. . . . In such a home the young Puritan finds himself starved of religion, which is the most clamorous need of his nature.  With all his mother’s indomitable selffulness, but with Pity instead of Hatred as his master passion, he pities the devil; takes his side; and champions him, like a true Covenanter, against the world.  He . . . becomes, like all religious men, a reprobate and an outcast.89


           The critics were wrong to take “Mrs. Dudgeon at her own valuation as a religious woman because she was detestably disagreeable,” and they were wrong to take “Dick as a blackguard on her authority because he was neither detestable nor disagreeable.“90  Shaw means us to see that where “virtue” (Dick’s mother) is mean-spirited, uncharitable, and sanctimonious, and “vice” (Dick) is not only witty and joyful but kind and generous, cruel only to dishonesty and hypocrisy, then obviously goodness and badness have gotten mixed up.  In such a backward world, the only moral thing to do is to become a “devil’s disciple.”


Returning to the pattern of Passion Play, Shaw again overtly associates his visionary realism with scapegoating, becoming bolder in asserting both the dangerousness of and the endangerment to the Realist in a self-deluded, morally  inverted society.  But there seems to be something aesthetically awry both in the play’s miraculous ending, for it seemingly betrays Shaw’s general undercutting of melodramatic conventions, and in the way Dick accidentally turns up in the martyr’s role.  Perhaps Shaw was implying that the British had not only mistaken Dudgeon for Anderson but also had mistaken who the really dangerous man was, Dick ironically being the right man to hang after all.  Even so, that accidental quality, compounded with the melodramatic ending, suggests that Shaw was avoiding the realization, in art, of his own kind of dangerousness and endangerment.  In the next play, however, the truly dangerous man is openly presented, he does not come by his dangerousness accidentally, and his endangerment is entirely for himself, no identity mistaken.


The background of Caesar and Cleopatra (1898) is to be found in the daily London newspapers of the time, in which the problem of possessing an empire on which the sun never sets was a persistent topic. The British empire had nearly reached its zenith, and the beginning of the Boer War in South Africa in 1899 was speculated about in 1898 as capping off the effort to make Africa largely a British concern.  The dream of Cecil Rhodes, the imperialists’ imperialist, to signify Britain’s span of dominion by building a British railroad from Egypt to the Cape of Good Hope, might soon have become a reality if the British had won the Boer War in more convincing fashion.


Following the style of King Leopold II of Belgium, the British concealed, even from themselves at times, their imperialist and largely commercial interest in Africa behind a smokescreen of stated noble intentions—their main business, they told themselves and the world, was to suppress the slave trade and bring enlightenment and Christian salvation to the heathen.  In 1898 Joseph Conrad wrote Heart of Dark­ness, which, though sparing his adopted country of England from most of the criticism by being set in the Belgian Congo, exposed the brutal exploitation of Africa that underlay the philanthropic intentions of the European colonial powers.  Heart of Darkness was also taken as an indictment of liberal European naïveté about the nature of man, for Conrad’s probing of the Western psyche revealed capacities for perversion and reversion undreamt of by the day’s reformist ideologues.  Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra, also written in 1898, thus provided an interesting counterpoint, for while it agreed that humanity possessed a heart of darkness, it implied that one did not have to go to darkest Africa to find it, placing it rather in the high civilization of ancient Egypt.  And, most important, it showed that the truly evolved human being is repulsed by such darkness rather than attracted to it, as Conrad’s Marlow was to Kurtz.  The attraction Cleopatra has for Caesar is principally in her Realist potential, not in her Kurtz-like inclinations to revert.


      In 1912 Shaw wrote a prologue for his “history play” that made it clear that the Roman attempt to annex Egypt served him as an analogue for current British imperialism.  The god Ra’s address to the British public compares Rome and England as imperial powers who had undergone such an expansion that their geopolitical size dwarfed the minds of those who attempted to run them, making it necessary for persons of great mind and spirit to come forth and provide leadership.  As the land that Rome would conquer in Caesar’s day is ruled partly by a kitten of sixteen and partly by a boy of ten and, plunged in intrigue and treachery, is headed for a round of conspiracies and assassinations, ending in civil war, so the colonial world of the nineteenth century, also in turmoil, is also childishly ruled and in need of a steadying hand.  Is there therefore any justification in the Roman or British takeover of other countries?  Shaw thought colonial policy reprehensible in general; but, convinced that a world government was necessary to avoid world catastrophe and presented with the inevitability of the strongest nations’ attempting to realize that world government through the pursuit of the likes of the Pax Romana or the Pax Britannica, Shaw dramatized an alternative to that effort, suggestive of what thirty years later would be instituted as the British Commonwealth of Nations.  That is, the effort of Shaw’s Caesar, never mind history’s Caesar, is to educate Egypt’s own rulers to the benefits of common­wealth membership in what could be considered a proto-League of Nations. Though such terms as “commonwealth” or “League of Nations” had not been invented yet, that is what Caesar is driving at in his struggle to raise Cleopatra to her Realist potential.  But, alas, Cleopatra is not up to the task, the Nile is too crooked for straightening, and the heart of this particular Idealist is too dark for enlightening, so Rufio, Caesar’s general, is left in charge.  At least Rufio has the sense to follow Caesar’s way, “the way of life.”  Of course Shaw’s detractors always translated his impatience with democracy into love of dictatorship, but that seems to be well off the mark here, given the surprisingly democratic, Christ-like, and pedagogic nature of his Caesar.


Caesar is principally characterized by contrast with Cleopatra.  They contain the same mix of principles in their psyches, but whereas Caesar gave up brutality and no longer justifies it (the pre-play murders of Vercingetorix and Pompey were done for him, not by him), Cleopatra is still dominated by it, even sending a symbolically brutish woman, Ftatateeta, to murder Pothinus; whereas Caesar saves his craving for Philistine relaxation for brief moments when he can afford a holiday, Cleopatra is rather more devoted to her creature comforts, which she maintains in luxurious style, no doubt in anticipation of the arrival of her desired playmate, Mark Antony; whereas Caesar’s idealistic posturing is confined mostly to making fine speeches and romantically proposing at dinner to build a holy city at the source of the Nile, Cleopatra’s imagination is largely possessed by the idealism of queenliness and heroic honor—it is her dedication to this idealism that causes her vengefulness against the offending Pothinus and thus her failure to absorb Caesar’s lessons in realism.  Caesar, in fact, stands alone in seeing the futility of vengeance, and it is his independence from the moral system of his day that chiefly characterizes him as the Hero-Realist.


Because of the considerable debunking of the hero that goes on in Caesar and Cleopatra, not to mention other Shaw plays, Shaw was once thought one of the fathers of anti-heroic literature.  Caesar’s baldness, stringy physique, and rheumatism, his tendency to speechify, to be greater off the battlefield than on, and out of bed than in, are certainly not traits of the romantic hero, but to humanize the hero as Shaw has done is not to kill the hero.  Shaw in fact was one of the last defenders of heroism in literature, seeking to rescue the hero by separating his essence from all the romantic claptrap that had grown up around him. “We want credible heroes,” said Shaw:


The demand now is for heroes in whom we can recognize our own humanity, and who, instead of walking, talking, eating, drinking, making love, and fighting combats in a monotonous ecstasy of continuous heroism, are heroic in the true human fashion; that is, touching the summits only at rare moments, and finding the proper level on all occasions, condescending with humor and good sense to the prosaic ones as well as rising to the noble ones, instead of ridiculously persisting in rising to them all on the principle that a hero must always soar, in season or out of season.91  



The play amusingly displays Caesar as a man of very definite human limitations, quite aware of his fundamental equality with his subordinates, but nevertheless possessed of a visionary realism that distinguishes him from the crowd. This delicate balance between human and hero was not realized on the stage for Shaw until Forbes-Robertson, the man for whom he had designed the part, took the role in 1907.  {The Canadian Stratford Festival production of 2009 seems to have found the perfect stage embodiment of Shaw’s Caesar in Christopher Plummer, and if one wanted to view a single Shaw play in a production that came closest to Shaw’s intentions, the DVD of the Plummer production might best serve the purpose.}    


But Caesar’s unusualness derives even more from the anomalous portrayal of a Roman emperor as Christ-like: magnanimous, compassionate, peaceable, full of loving-kindness and democratic feeling, with a strange combination of a child’s heart and a godlike wisdom, “dangerous” qualities in a world that only pays them lip service.92  And in his great speech denouncing Cleopatra’s doctrine of revenge, which is what the world really believes in, Caesar is most Christ-like, and most endangered.  Yet just as Caesar seems most Christ-like in his vision of the futility of vengeance, Shaw undermines the comparison by reminding us that Caesar, no pacifist, strives for the Pax Romana by conquering the world rather than by letting it crucify him.  Shaw further subverts the comparision with Christ in the final scene when Caesar accepts Rufio’s justification of his execution of Rufio's assassin, Ftatateeta.  “This was natural slaying,” says Caesar, in a very un-Christlike speech; “I feel no horror at it.”  And so, leaving Egypt to Rufio to govern, Caesar goes about his heroic business of trying to establish peace in the Mediterranean world, even to “settling the Jewish question” on his way back to Rome.  Just as, beyond that joke, Shaw in his characterization of Caesar has tried to settle the Jewish question of all time—can one imitate Christ and still live in this world?,  Shaw’s answer was—up to a point.  Up to the point where one is required to turn one’s cheek to an attacking beast like Ftatateeta.  Shaw implied that to allow the beast from the heart of darkness to triumph by turning one’s cheek to it is mere escapism and death worship.  Shaw seems to be implying, in drawing his Caesar so near to the character of Christ and then withdrawing from that identification, that Caesar represents a heroism a step evolved from Christ, the difference being that between a full-fledged Realist (Caesar) and a partial Realist (Christ), half in love with martyrdom, who relapsed to idealizing death.


Shaw closed out the Victorian era with The Admirable Bashville (1901), a joking, blank-verse adaptation of his novel Cashel Byron’s Profession, done to secure copyright in England (after a pirating experience in America), and Captain Brassbound’s Conversion (1899). The latter is superior to most of his early work, but it gets lost between Caesar and Cleopatra and Man and Superman.  Subtitled An Adventure and set in Morocco, it focuses on the theme of the futility of vengeance. The most remarkable character is the lady who teaches this futility, Lady Cicely Waynfleet, illustrative of the feminine style in Shavian realism. The play had been written for Ellen Terry, whom Shaw had been trying to woo away from Henry Irving’s company to the cause of the New Drama, but Janet Achurch gave the first performance in 1900 with the Stage Society.


And so ended a decade of many more frustrations than successes for Shaw. But a new age was dawning, and it was to give him an international stage for both his plays and the clown act he called “G.B.S.,” as he tried to entice the nations from the path of war they were so humorlessly treading.


Table of Contents

Link to Chapter 3--"1900-1930: The Triumph of the New Drama"

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