George Bernard Shaw ’s Place Among the Writers of English Comedies

Regarding George Bernard Shaw ’s place among the writers of English comedies, A. Nicoll has written as follows, in his famous book, A History of late Nineteenth Century Drama:
“Looking at English drama as a whole, it seems that we may trace four main forms within the comic atmosphere. The first is William Shakespeare ’s comedy of romance, distinguished by its all-pervading humour – a humour which permits the dramatist to mingle together the most strangely varied elements, which allows him to put his fairies alongside his human lovers, to make his clown strut with his kings.
In addition to this quality of humour, there is always in William Shakespeare ’s comedy the overshadowing presence of a kindly and dominant nature. It is nature that leads the lover out of the mazy wilderness as of the fairy-haunted forest; It is Nature that makes Don Juan’s machinations, which have hoodwinked the clever, superior and self-conscious aristocrats, revealed through the agency of the dull-witted Dogberry. When Dogberry triumphs, Nature smiles. This, then, is one type of comedy: the second is that of Ben Jonson. Here the aim is directly satirical – satirical, not of social manners tricities or errors or vices peculiar to certain men, and by the creation of type characters such as Sir Epicure or his Volpone, throws lurid light on human duplicity. In the comedy of Congreve there is another and a distinct aim. Here the dramatist is no longer concerned with individual follies. He has deliberately restricted himself to one small section of society highly conscious of its own rules, conventions, and manners, anxious to preserve intact the refinement of social graces and to reveal its intellectually brilliant wit. If Shakespeare  is preoccupied with humour, and Jonson with satiric bitterness, Congreve is concerned, above all other things, with a wit that is airy, delicate and flimsily brittle. Finally we reach what, for want of a better term, we may style the sentimental comedy. In this once more the whole of social life is taken within the playwright’s sphere of observation, and his endeavor is to delineate and to discuss certain problems which confront man as a social animal. At first, perhaps, only the most immediately obvious problems will be dealt with – dueling, gambling, and the like; in the beginning, too, these problems will be discussed, not in a rationalistic and realistic manner, but in a spirit of vague emotional sympathy; but gradually a deeper note will enter in and the purely sentimental comedy will become the comedy of serious purpose.”

George Bernard Shaw
When we turn from these forms of comic endeavor to the plays of George Bernard Shaw , we recognize that many of their characteristics are to be found reflected in his work as well. Something of Shakespeare ’s humour is here. The atmosphere of Measure for Measure and, more particularly of All’s Well that Ends Well, seems very close to that of Man and Superman. Shaw’s Life Force is simply Shakespeare ’s Nature. Many of Shaw’s characters are conceived intellectually as a whole as types in Jonsonian manner; yet his comedy as a whole does not reflect the mood established in Volpone or Bartholomeo Fair. To other scenes we turn and find there a pure wit, as delicately expressed as the wit Congreve; viewing this we feel we are in the presence of comedies cast in the Restoration mould. Yet immediately other scenes attract our attention, scenes in which we discern something of that aim which, crudely, the sentimental dramatists were seeking to give expression to.

This does not imply, however, that George Bernard Shaw ’s plays are made up merely by a mingling of devices and moods exploited by earlier dramatists. From his first comedies to his last, Shaw has exhibited a characteristic quality which has made his work essentially and uniquely individual. Perhaps the clue to this quality is provided by himself. In a conversation sometimes ago, some one spoke of his wit and humour. ‘My plays contain’, he said, ‘not so much humour and wit, as fun.’ This self-judgment gives us our clue. His comedies, as distinct from all the others mentioned above, are comedies, of purposeful fun. Herein lies one of his great contributions to the modern theatre. His fun is something peculiar to himself; an effervescing, bubbling up, eternally youthful and joyous exuberance of spirit. He is continually inventing ideas and poking fun at us, at his audiences, at his characters, at ideas. He will take the popular conceptions of certain heroic figures – a Napoleon, a Caesar – and, turning them topsy-turvy; will smile good-naturedly at our set ideas.”