George Bernard Shaw as a Dramatic Artist: Mastery of Stagecraft, Elaborate stage-directions, Realistic

George Bernard Shaw has a definite message to deliver. He has a philosophy to propound. “I am no ordinary playwright. I am a specialist in immoral and heretical plays. My reputation was gained by my persistent struggle to force the public to reconsider its morals. I write plays with the deliberate object of converting the nation to my opinion on sexual and social matters. I have no other incentive to write plays, as I am not dependent on it for my livelihood.” On account of this he is generally regarded as a philosopher, a propagandist, a debater and a social reformer and not as a dramatist and a man of the theater. “Shaw is a literary satirist and iconoclast, but no playwright.” This is the view of many. But nothing is farther from the truth. Shaw “is essentially a man of the theater and his natural affinity for the stage is as strong in him as his evangelical tendency”. It is altogether wrong to think that he “is merely an advanced propagandist who has chosen the theater as a ready and insidious instrument for the furthering of his ideas.” “Shaw is essentially a man of the theater. He is a consummate dramatic artist. He has shown greater knowledge of the stage and its technique than any of his contemporaries. He has taken greater pains to make his plays really interesting and appealing to the audience. The dramaturgic skill of his plays is no less essential than their philosophic ideas. Essentially a playwright, him plays are instinct with the life of the theater.

George Bernard Shaw had a wonderful mastery of stagecraft. His skill in the art of construction of plays was consummate. He evolved a technique of his own to suit his purpose. But he was no innovator and did not invent any new technique. He adopted the traditional methods whenever he found them suitable for his purpose. He borrowed freely from Ibsen who introduced some new methods in his drama. Thus he made a harmonious synthesis of the old and the new methods to evolve one to suit the need of his plays. In imitation of Ibsen he discarded ‘asides’ and ‘soliloquies’. He directed his effort to an easy and natural concatenation of events as was not seen in the plays of his time. As a matter of fact he “used the technique of Euripides and Moliere, he revived the idiosyncratic differentiation of character seen in Shakespeare, he provided the actors and actresses with enormously effective parts, such as had not been created by a British writer for nearly three hundred years, and he restored the long rhetorical speeches which are in important feature of primitive dramaturgy”.

The special features of Shaw’s dramatic technique are: (i) his prefaces, (ii) his elaborate stage-directions, (iii) his rejection of the artificial limitations of the classical unities, and (iv) lack of action and conflict in his plays.
Shaw was hardly dependent on the stage for the publicity of his plays. He was fully conscious of the blindness of the commercial theaters of London. He, knew that the theatrical managers would be shy to produce his plays for commercial reasons since his plays would not readily attract a large audience. He therefore decided to make the appeal of his plays wider by first committing them to print. So, he wrote his plays, primarily more for reading than for acting. With this end in view he wrote a preface for each of his plays to introduce it to the reading public. With the same end in view he gave elaborate stage-directions in his plays. His prefaces were intended to explain the purpose of his plays and the messages they were meant to convey. They gave him an opportunity to argue at length certain matters which were of interest to him. By means of his elaborate stage-directions he aimed at creating the atmosphere of the stage in the study of his plays. They combine the function of the novel and the drama. They create the necessary atmosphere, comment upon stage-settings and interpret characters rightly.

The English playwrights immediately before Shaw were in favor of keeping up the three classical unities of time, place and action in their plays under the influence of the French dramatists whom they imitated. Shaw rejected those artificial restrictions outright and followed Shakespeare in violating the classical unities in the construction of his plays.

Shaw’s plays are marked by an absence of conflict which is an essential element in dramatic action. This is regarded as a serious drawback of Shaw’s dramatic art. It is a fact that conflict in the physical sense is really absent in Shaw’s plays. But his plays are not altogether without conflict. There is always a mental conflict present in his plays. There is clash of competing ideas and opposing standards of human values in them. “If conflict in drama necessarily implies a clash involving either violent physical action or intense emotional disturbance, then conflict in that sense is often lacking in the Shavian drama. It is however by design lacking, and its place is taken by mental action, which to Shaw is far more exciting. For the conflict of passion Shaw substitutes the conflict of thought and belief: or rather, he brings moral passions to the stage to brake the long monopoly of physical and sensual passions. He is the drama of the thinking man. The true revolution which must be ascribed to him is the transference of conflict of modern drama from the physical to the mental place.” This is how A. C. Ward has commented on the absence of conflict in Shaw’s plays.

George Bernard Shaw
Shaw’s plays are lacking in action. They are, in fact, no more than dramatic dialogues. The characters in his plays merely stand or sit and discuss and argue things. They talk together and hold debates. They do things little. This, of course, is true. But the lack of action in his plays has been amply compensated by the flow if ideas, by the dazzling bouts of intellectual swordsmanship, and also by amusing wit. There is a profusion of these elements in his plays to keep the attention of the audience sufficiently engrossed so that they never feel for the absence of action. The fact is that Shaw is not very much interested is action. He reduces action to make room for discussions. He does not devise action that develops naturally from the characters or is a logical outcome of the situation. Sometimes he introduces violent and arbitrary action to keep the play moving. Such action does not spring naturally from the development of the plot or the characters. It bears little relation to the general structure of the play. It is often ‘arbitrary and convulsive, and does not spring naturally or resolve itself into the organic structure of the play.

The plot of a Shavian drama is very simple. It is made up very meager elements and is altogether free from multiplicity of action. There is no complexity of events. It is usually divided into three Acts but occasionally into four Acts. There is no subdivision into scenes.

It is generally believed that Shaw’s characterization is defective. The characters of Shaw’s dramas are shadowy unrealities. They are not individuals but mere types. They are not characters by automatons bestriding the characters are merely “mouthpieces for his own ideas”, and they preach openly or by implication Shaw’s own gospel. The view regarding the characters of Shaw’s dramas is only partially true. It is true that “the larger numbers of his personages are instinct only with the life of intelligence and are but the mouthpieces of the author.” It is equally true that “everything that a character says comes out of his creators mind.” But it is not true that all his characters are not “individual people with authentic personalities but only gramophone records” to express his own ideas and air his own views. Shaw’s characters are not without variety and vividness. They have a peculiar quality which makes them stay in the memory and enables them to pass into conversation. Shaw’s principal characters are, with more or less deliberation, abstraction from humanity but his minor characters are human beings drawn in the spirit of Shakespeare or Dickens, though they too serve as black ground to his ideas. Shaw’s women “are distinctly unpleasant and practically unsexed women. Their bodies are as dry and had as their minds, and even where they run after men, as in the case of Anne in Man and Superman, the pursuit has as much sense appeal as a time table. Whether such women ever existed, or whether in creating them Ibsen convinced Shaw, they ought to exist as a counter-irritant to the romantic, swooning, novel reading females of our boyhood, is an open question.” Shaw’s characters are excellent talkers. They are never dull and monotonous. They are “various, versatile and vital”. They live in a world of their own ideas and are quite at home there. 
Shaw writes his plays in prose which is the language of reason and intellect and not in verse which is the language of emotion. He is one of the greatest masters of English prose with a masterly command over the English language he writes natural, racy, and vivid dialogues. His language smacks of cold intellectuality. It is free from emotional fervor. It is sparkling with fun, wit and humor. It serves a practical and utilitarian purpose and is used for reasoning, argument and discussion. He is a great stylist. His style is peculiarly his own. He wields it is an effective weapon to assert his point of view with conviction. Shaw himself has said that his style is an instrument of assertion. “A true style”, says he, “is never achieved for its own sake……Effectiveness of assertion is the Alpha and Omega of style. He who has nothing to assert has no style and can have none: he who has something to assert will go as far in power of style as its momentousness and his conviction will carry him. ”  
George Bernard Shaw is a realist. He writes with a serious purpose. The reality of life is the most serious and exciting thing to him. He finds that ‘life is real, life is earnest,’ But he has not imitated the appearances of life. He has explained to his audiences the reality that lies at the core of things beneath their deceptive appearances. His realism is absolutely free from any touch of romance and sentimentalism. He has based his dramas on what he regards, as ‘genuinely scientific natural history’. As scientific history is free from romance, his dramas too are entirely free from it.
Shaw  writes with a purpose. He has made his plays vehicles of his ideas. His plays are about something that matters. The following observation of Joad deserves attention in this connection. He says, “Shaw’s interests in his plays lie pre-eminently in morals, politics and philosophy. He is in fact, a philosopher. Moreover, he possesses, as did Plato, a strong dramatic gift. The gift he deliberately uses to bring his ideas on human life and how it should be lived and on human communities and how they should be run to the notice of the people who would not read strictly philosophical works, presenting them so entertainingly and startlingly that audiences who saw the plays would remember either through pleasure or from shock the ideas which had been brought so forcibly to their notice.” 

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