Plays Unpleasant is the best place to start reading George Bernard Shaw – at least, if you’re intending to read his works in chronological order.
I remember name-checking Shaw as someone I’d never read in this meme (along with all playwrights – something I’ve done much since to amend; – and as increasingly play-reading is taking over from fiction in my reading, next year I will be setting up a Plays Read page – because I think I should at least do mini-reviews of them; – I was enormously impressed, for instance, recently by Gottfried Lessing’s Emilia Galotti, yet couldn’t get round to writing a whole post about it, nor could I include it in Books Read since it’s part of a five-plays compendium of German tragedy; – I feel a separate categorisation will encourage me to read more plays). (I tried reading Agatha Christie too from that meme, but it was rubbish – just rubbish).
So, Shaw. No one reads him nowadays, and yet his books are easy to come by in secondhand shops; – a mystery. Plays Unpleasant contains his first three plays: Widows’ Houses, The Philanderer and Mrs Warren’s Profession.
Widows’ Houses is a play about private landlords, the abuse of tenants, and rental prices in London – and as such seems remarkably topical. It is also, unsurprisingly, about class (as an Englishman, I find class the most tedious subject imaginable for art). The wholly original plot revolves around an impoverished aristocrat desiring to marry a rich girl from the rising merchant class; but it’s not class prejudice which finally gets in the way, rather it’s his discovery that the wealth of the girl’s father, a landlord, is entirely derived from the exploitation of the poor; but it gets worse for him too, when the girl’s father points out that this is exactly where his own income comes from as well, so he can’t exactly cast aspersions.
The play is in essence exactly what I expected a play of George Bernard Shaw’s would be like. I always had in mind the idea that he was something of a socialist, and that this political inclination came to overly colour his plays. What I didn’t quite realise was how much, at this stage in his career at least, he derived from Ibsen. Basically all three of these plays are just Ibsen plays with a less subtle political subtext (not that I personally think that Ibsen’s political subtext is the least bit subtle).
Of the three, The Philanderer is the most obsessed with Ibsen, though not this time so much with copying from him as discussing him. Perhaps you could see it as an alternative reality play, positing what a world would be like if a portion of it actually embraced Ibsen’s ideas. Ibsenism in the play is largely concerned with emancipation from convention of women. There is an Ibsen Club, to which you can only gain membership if you hold advanced views. A woman gains membership by pretending such views, but really she wants to tie a man (The Philanderer) down to a relationship, so she isn’t an Ibsenist at all. Really, I feel I make it sound more interesting than it is. Perhaps, as GBS himself feels, it is a play of its time, having now a mere historic interest – yet, had I been told it had been written in the 1960s, I don’t think I’d have been surprised; it seems to be discussing free love and its associated complications.
Mrs Warren’s Profession was banned for a long time from the English stage for its treatment of the subject of prostitution; and I couldn’t help considering, as I was reading it, all the plays from the Restoration I’ve been reading recently which are far, far more explicit in their usage of prostitutes. It was a different age of course; England had slipped into a long period of prudery (which had started at least by Sheridan, though even later Restoration Comedies tended to be toned down; and I don’t think ever finally relaxed until the 1960s; – and of course still persists culturally even today). There is no actual prostitution in Mrs Warren’s Profession, nor is the play set within the society in which prostitution occurs – it is hidden from us the theatre-goer, just as it is hidden from good society in real life; – it is going on somewhere outside the play; and I’m sure this is part of Shaw’s strategy: we like to deny the existence of this world, even while we live off it; this is the essence of Victorian hypocrisy. This is the same trick he used in Widows’ Houses: the question of marriage becomes tainted by the whereabouts of the proceeds of wealth.
The plots of these three plays are all comedic plots, of the Shakespearean (Menandrian) variety: two people fall in love, something comes in the way of their love, but eventually they get together. The something in GBS’ plays is always some social construct. But the plays differ from comedies in not being particular funny, or entering into scenes from which hilarity might arise. GBS doesn’t want to make us laugh; he wants to be shocked. And I think this is failing of all three GBS plays I’ve read so far: the plot is conventional, uninterested, uninspired dramatically; the inspiration lies entirely in the social critique it is propounding.
You can’t discuss Shaw either without noting his opposition to the use of apostrophes. It’s more extreme than say Cormac McCarthy, but not total – the word “I’m” always comes with an apostrophe, but not, for instance, “youd”, which gives it a sort of arbitrary feel. I’m not certain of the reasons for Shaw’s objection to apostrophes; perhaps he felt it was a deliberate attempt to keep down the working classes; – I have an idea he was also in favour of phonetic spelling in English.
So on to his next set, Plays Pleasant.