George Bernard Shaw as a Dramatist: “For art’s sake’ alone I would not face the toil of writing a single sentence”

Before George Bernard Shaw started his career as a dramatist, the English drama had already entered into a new phase of development under the influence of the Norweigian playwright Henrik Ibsen. The romantic tradition of the Elizabethan drama which held the English stage for more than three centuries began to lose its influence from the middle of the nineteenth century. “Is drama to be limited to the surface characteristics of a life that is no longer lived in surface, or will drama reflect in form and substances the deepest life of the time?” This was the question which vigorously agitated the mind of the mid-Victorian dramatists. They finally realized that the new drama had a serious purpose to server and it should be brought in line discarded the romantic tradition of the Old English drama and accepted the real and serious problem of the age as the themes of the new English drama. In the absence of any British playwright to supply them with motive and model they drew inspiration from the continental playwrights particularly from Ibsen who had already made social problems of his time the subjects of his plays.

By the time young  Bernard  appeared on the scene of the English drama, Ibsen had been sufficiently known to the English playwrights and his creative influence felt by them. “Ibsen had taught men that drama, if it was to live a true life of its own, must deal with human emotions, with things near and dear to ordinary men and women. Hence the melodramatic romanticism and the chill pseudo-classic remoteness alike disappeared in favor of a treatment of actual English life, first of aristocratic existence, then of middleclass lives, and finally of laboring conditions. With the treatment of actual life the drama became more and more a drama of ideas, sometimes veiled in the man action, sometimes didactically set forth. These ideas were for the most part revolutionary, so that drama came to form an advanced battleground for a rising school of young thinkers. Revolt took the form of reaction to past literacy models, to current social conventions and to the prevailing morality of Victorian England.” They were T. W. Robertson, A. W. Pibero and Arthur Henry Jones. They wrote plays both of social interest and literary merit for the first time in England in imitation of the continental playwrights and initiated the movement for a new type of play called “The Naturalistic Play”. The plays written by these three playwrights contained “the rudiments of an Ibsenist motive” but they could not attain the excellence of an Ibsenist play. These plays are characterized by an abundant display of “artificial sentiment, verbal polish, and cynical elegance.” Whatever be their defects, it is true that they rescued the English drama from a state of chaos and set it on the right course. Along with these plays of social interest appeared also the plays of Oscar Wilde who wrote on the principle of “art for art’s sake” and attained considerable popularity at the time.

George Bernard Shaw
When young  Bernard  came to London this movement for the new drama had already set in. He got the movement quite ready for him. He at once plunged vigorously into the movement and made himself known first as a dramatic critic and then as a dramatist. He was a staunch champion of Ibsen and his new drama. He was a formidable opponent of the pure aesthetic principle of art. He vigorously denounced the “art for art’s sake” attitude prevailing at the time when he started writing Plays. His watch word was “art for art’s sake”. “For art’s sake’ alone I would not face the toil of writing a single sentence” said he. He was “a natural literary artist fettered by reforming zeal,” and his plays were “a continuous record of the long struggle between artist and moralist”.

George Bernard Shaw was an artist by nature but a propagandist by profession. He subordinated his artistic ability to his moral purpose. Thinking that “the stage was the finest platform in the world,” he “climbed on to the stage. Taught himself the dramatists job, and in addition to being a great controversialist became am almost supremely great dramatist.” His drams are vehicles of propaganda and his characters are “mechanical mouth-pieces” to express his own views on social, political, religious and moral problems of the age. He sought for and achieved a significant and harmonious union of literacy and theatrical qualities.

H. Pearson has made the following estimate of Shaw’s achievement as a dramatist:
“From 1895 to 1898 Shaw, as a dramatic critic, ceaselessly attacked fashionable drama of the age, championed Ibsen, prepared the way for his own comedies and incidentally wrote the wittiest and most provocative essays in the history of journalism. His attack was successful. The so-called ‘well made play gave place to the drama of ideas, and the Shavian Theatre was finally established in the early years of the present century.’

At first the London managers would not look at George Bernard Shaw’s plays. Instead of the denouements and state situation and commonplace sentiments to which they were accustomed, he gave them social satire, unconventional philosophy and brainy dialogue. One of his early plays was booed and brainy dialogue. One of his early plays was booed, another was censored, a third failed. Still he pegged away, and when his chance came in 1904 at the Court Theatre, he produced his own comedies, trained his own actors and created his own audiences. After that the London managers clamored for his plays. But the critics, uninfluenced by box-office considerations, were not so easily persuaded, and for more than a generation many of them went on repeating that his plays were not plays; an attitude he derisively encouraged by calling them conversations, discussions, history lessons, and so on. What made his works so novel was that he revived the classical technique of play writing, applying it to modern problems; he adopted the method of the Greek dramatists in order to deal with the topics of the hour. While the essence of his plays is as original as Shaw himself, their novelty lay in the fact that he used the theatre as another man would use a newspaper, a pulpit, or a platform; many of his comedies are half-sermon, half-debate, and every conceivable subject is discussed, from love. Marriage and family life to religion, science and politics, his laboriously acquired knowledge of social conditions, and his creed as a socialist informing most of them. Being an inspired dramatist, not a manufacturer of entertainment, he did not plan or plot his plays in advance. While engaged on them he never saw a page ahead and never knew what was going to happen. The forms they took were inevitable, though he worked as carefully at the writing of them as the most industrious craftsman.”  

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