Topic 51A – Oscar Wilde and Bernard Shaw

Topic 51A – Oscar Wilde and Bernard Shaw

English dramatic development since 1900 has been marked by 2 great influences:

The shock inflicted by 2 world wars, and the development of science. Most productions have been realistic in content and setting, with the result that more emphasis is placed on subject matter related to life, and less in plot and structure. This modern period has been initiated by three dramatists: Shaw, with its realistic, Ibsen inspired satires, Barrie, who attempted to mantain the romantic trend, and Galsworthy, concerned with social problems. Shaw lived his first years in a very humble home, which couldn´t afford a suitable education. When he was 20 he moved to London, following his mother, who had left George´s father, alcoholic. At first, he depended upon his mother´s pound a week from her husband, and her earnings as a music teacher. He spent his afternoons in the British Museum library, trying to complete the education he had been deprived of during his childhood, writing novels and reading, and his evenings in the lectures and debates characteristic of the middle-class London intellectual activities. His mother rounded off his education, concentrating in the social sciences, and transmitting him the influence of Marxist economics. He would become a most important member of the socialist Fabian Society, and a member of the Labour Party. From all this background, he took the view of man as an economic and political animal, and of society as an organism that requires modification and improvement. Soon he became a known character in the literary London scene. His his wiry figure, bristling beard, and dandyish cane, were as known as his plays. He was radical, irreverent, and always a showman, who managed to keep himself in the public eye until the end of his days.

When Shaw begins writing for the English stage, its most prominent dramatists were sir A.W: Pinero and H. A. Jones. Both men were trying to develop a modern realistic drama but they couldn´t away from the artificial plots and conventional character types of the time. The poverty of this sort of drama had become apparent with the introduction of Ibsen´s A doll´s house in London stages. With this play, it came the posibility of a new freedom and seriousness on the English stage. Shaw knew Ibsen´s work, and was about to publish The quintaessence of Ibsenism. His response to this new air in English stage, was the comedy Widower´s Houses, a play which shared Ibsen´s tone, and which flouted the romantic conventions still used in that times. The play presents a young man who discovers that his future father-in-law´s fortune derives from the explotation of the poor. In this comedy we find a constant which will be present in the rest of Shaw´s career: the situation is potentially tragic, but Shaw will always prefer the ironic commedy, however serious the theme and subject is. The emphasis is placed onto the social evil, and not in the romantic love of the couple of the play. It is in this point where Shaw leaves the romantic conventions and follows the Ibsenite trend. Shaw, although utopic and visionary, shy, introverted, was at the same time the antithesis of the romantic, because of his closeness to society and social action, his art was a means to approach and change reality, and not a way to escape from it. From the first time, Shaw was more concerned with ideas than with form and style. It is significant that his books of plays were preceeded by a preface in which Shaw discussed both the plays and the ideas contained in them. However, he had a natural gift for transmitting these ideas through high commedy. Some of his following comedies (C & C, J of ARC, M Barb, donJuan inHell) are examples of excelling prose beauty.

Shaw´s aim of denouncing the evils of society, was not always welcomed among the authorities. His following comedy, Mrs Warren Proffession, a comedy which dealed with the social evil of prostitution, couldn´t be performed until 1902, because of being refused by censorship. Following the Marxist principles in economy, the economic determinants of the situation are emphasized. The subject of prostitution is treated remorselessly, without the hipocrisy and titillation of fashionable comedies about “fallen woman”. For all this, we find in Shaw a clarity, a sincerity which was necessary to refresh English stages, removing the puritan Victorian inheritance of those times. Again we can talk about a “drama of ideas”, the important thing is the content here (contrarily to Wilde), but wittily encoded in a vehicle of high comedy.

The plays mentioned belong to the group that Shaw called the “unpleasant comedies”, since “their dramatic power is used to force the spectator to face unpleasant facts”.


He followed them with a group of “pleasant” plays. In Arms and the man, the intention is precisely to make fun of romantic falsifications of both love and warfare.

In Candida, the heroine is forced to choose between her clerical husband, a Christian Socialist, and a young poet who has falled in love with her. The theme is significant in Shaw. It leads to the conflict between man as spiritual creator and woman as guardian of the biological continuity of the race. This conflict is basic to Man and Superman. In this play, the author shows his philosophy that humanity is the latest stage in the eternal evolutionary movement of the “life force” towards ever higher life forms. The play´s hero pursues his own spiritual development in accordance with this philosophy, and he refuses to get married with the heroine. In the end, the hero allows himsel to be captured in marriage , recognizing that she herself is a powerful instrument of the “life force”.

This year Shaw gets married, and paradoxically, he doesn´t apply these same ideas to his own life. It is an apparent celibate marriage, and it is said that Shaw satisfied his emotional needs with passional letters to several London ladies.


His next collection of plays is called 3 plays for Puritans. One of these plays, Caesar and Cleopatra, presents a Cleopatra who is 16 years old, spoiled and vicious, very different to the Shakespeare´s heroin. Caesar is presented as a lonely and austere man, more a philosopher than a soldier. On this character, Shaw makes a credible study in magnanimity and original morality, rather than the heroic soldier we are accustomed to.

By this time, Shaw had already become established as a major playwright on the Continent, but he hadn´t achieved success. This success came with the performance in London of John Bull´s Other Island.

Shaw continued to explore religious consciousness and to point out society´s complicity in his own evils.

In Major Barbara, we find one of the finest examples of the paradoxes Shaw used to make debate arise into the audience. The heroine, a major in the Salvation Army, discovers that her father, a munitions manufacturer, has principles and practice, though heterodox, are religious in the highest sense, while those of the salvation army require the hypocrisies of society to survive.

In Shaw´s masterpiece comedy, Pygmalion, is a didactic play about phonetics, but also a reflexión about breed and education, and a human comedy about love and the Enlish class system.


A year after the performance in London of Pigmalion, the first World War starts. At first, Shaw ceased writing plays, publishing a controversial pamphlet “Common sense about the war”, in which he said that Britain and the Allies were as guilty as the Germans. In this pamphlet he also argued for negotiations and peace. His anti-war speeches brought him many attacks and criticism. His anti-war feelings are also present in the play “Heartbreak house”, where he denounces the spiritual faults of the generation that lead the country to war.

Always concerned with philosophy and science, he wrote five plays under the title Back to methuselah. They show his philosophy of creative evolution in an extended parable that progresses through time from the garden of Eden to A.D. 31920 !!!!, in an astonishing game of speculative fantasy, close to Science Fiction.

In the year of the canonization of Joan of Arc (1920), he wrote a play, Saint Joan, that turned out to be another masterpiece. The saint is treated not only as a Catholic saint and martyr, but also a combination of practical mystic, heretical saint, and inspired genius. Shaw presents Joan of Arc as a superior being who is killed by society, which is not prepared for that stage in evolution. Here Shaw comes back to the idea of a society which is only a step in evolution, an animal which can and must be performed. The success achieved by this play made Shaw win the Nobel Prize in Literature, which he refused.

Bernard Shaw has been considered the most significant playwright since William Shakespeare. We can find several reasons for this:

His genius to mix moral, social, scientific ideas with high comedy, and therefore his power to convey these ideas to the people. It is very important. He transformed, by means of humour, vivid dialogues and acute epigrams, what for other authors would have been simple studies on social themes. His plays were both performable and readable. For example, Pygmalion has reached to an enormous amount of people, wether in form of book, play, or film (“Myfair Lady” George Cukor, 1964).

His remodelation and refreshing of the commedy of manners, which suffer from stiffness and sentimentalism in the time Shaw began to write.

His putting forward social debates, philosophic dilemmas, so that the public reflects about them, prefigures the modern theatre of Bertolt Brecht.

His plays Caesar and Cleopatra, Major Barbara, Heartbreak House, Don Juan in Hell, (episode of Man and Superman), have a seriousness and prose beauty which make him stand out among his contemporaries.

Apart from his career as playwright, he was the most acute social critic since Swift, and the best theatral and musical critic of his generation. His letters to Ellen Terry and Mrs. Patrick Campbell., the brilliant theatre woman, make him one of the most excelling letters writer of the universal literature.