George Bernard Shaw : Contribution to Drama

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      The first decade of the twentieth century is a period of great promise and considerable achievement in the field of drama. With the plays of George Bernard Shaw, Galsworthy, Barrie, Granville Barker and Synge (in Ireland) the drama after a lapse of over a century had burst out into a new and vigorous life and resumed its place in literature, which it had forfeited in the interim. It was not a mere form of entertainment but had become a form of literature, rivalling poetry and novel, This spectacular advance, it may be noted, was the result of much pioneering work and had been slowly prepared for some time past.

      It is, therefore, necessary to look back and to take stock of the dramatic literature before this period. Sheridan was practically the last great English dramatist to attain somewhat of stage success. His plays The Rivals and The School for Scandal appeared in 1775 and 1777 respectively. From that date till 1865, which is the date of Robertson's delightful play of comedy, Society, no British play of social interest and literary and technical merit had appeared on the stage, in spite of the attempts ot the great poets of this period to write successful stage plays. The audience, too, were apathetic or hostile. They wanted only sentimental and romantic stuff in the theatre - a pleasure for the eye and ears, rather than food for mind.

Shaw was just the man specially fitted for the reconstruction of the English drama

      In this low state of dramatic activity came the new plays of Robertson which were concerned with the problems of contemporary life, thus marking the dawn of the new drama. He was followed by A. W. Pinero and H. A. Jones who had brought into the stage a further breath of naturalism; the latter especially made the drama an instrument of social criticism. He was the direct ancestor of Shaw and Galsworthy. In the last decade of the last century there was also the outstanding success of the plays of Oscar Wilde. His sense of comedy, brilliant wit, superb artistry, brilliant dialogues considerably improved the literary standing of the drama. Then came the influence of the famous Norwegian dramatist, Ibsen whose plays in English translations by William Archer, the famous dramatic critic and friend of Shaw appeared in succession for ten years ending 1899. The genius of the Norwegian had conquered the English stage and gave impetus to the realist movement, deeper study of character, a more subtle conception of plot and characterisation. Shaw wrote his tamous Quintessence of lbsenism and lbsen paved the path for Shaw in founding and forging the 'new drama'. The drama waited for a great genius to receive it and that genius was George Bernard Shaw.

      Shaw was just the man specially fitted for this task of the reconstruction of the English drama on lbsenite lines. He has conceived his function to be teacher of his age. His experience in novel-writing convinced him that his genius did not lie that way. At the time when he began to write plays, the doctrine of 'art for art's sake, as propounded by Pater and Wilde had held the field. This was the theory of the decadents' as we have already seen. Shaw saw in it a ready-made excuse on the artist's part to hide his poverty of thought and incapacity to deal with the fundamental problems of life and society and to probe deep into the human heart. And he said- "For art's sake alone, I would not face the toil of writing a single line". His slogan was not art but life. This is what Ibsenism meant to him and he forged the drama not as an instrument of recreation and relaxation for the idle moments but as a substantial food for thought and reflexion in serious moments. The stage became to him a 'school' or 'church' a place for education and enlightenment. As he had confessed- "I write plays with the deliberate object of converting the nation to my opinions in these matters".

      Thus the drama in his hands became 'problem play' which focusses light on the problems of the age, with the suggestion of his own opinion on them in such a vigorous and humorous manner that the audience are persuaded to his view. Shaw's plays are propaganda plays, but he has made propaganda an art-form. It is not a blatant direct expression of his point of view. His point of view is developed and established by the contrast and confrontation of ideas and through humour, wit and fun. But stimulating thought on them and yet making them not serious tracts but plays irradiated by humour, wit, imagination and sparkling dialogues. In this he was followed by Galsworthy, Granville-Barker and Barrie in some of his plays.

      Thus the drama came to its own after a long interval since the days of Shakespeare, with whom Shaw is often compared. Shaw was greatly influenced by the Norwegian dramatist, Ibsen. He perceived three innovations by Ibsen: Stimulating the audience into thinking about themselves, fusing ideas into the 'well made' play, and portraying both characters and events realistically. The most characteristic Shavian quality is the ability to make people think by compelling them to laugh. His plays are comedies of ideas. He deals with serious ideas in a light-hearted manner. From his first play in 1892 to Buoyant Billions in 1949, there flashes an unflagging wit and humour. No other playwright has ever matched Shaw in lengthy speeches and long stage conversation that somehow never drag or lose out as theatre.

      George Bernard Shaw came to the English stage in the ripeness of time, when the English drama was on the way to reconstruction and needed a great genius to remould it and give it a definite character. Shaw brought this genius to bear upon the task. In his earlier years he made a mark as a socialist speaker and debator. He was already a familiar figure to the London audience. He was perfectly conscious of the mission as "the teacher of age." He had tried the novel with little success and was convinced that his genius did not lie that way. At the time when he began to write plays, the aesthetic theory of Pater, namely art for art's sake' had held the field.

      Shaw saw through the hollowness or unsoundness of this doctrine. In his eyes it was a mere ready-made excuse to hide the artist's poverty of thought and his capacity to deal with the fundamental problems of life, which called for rethinking and freshness of outlook. And he said - "For art's sake alone, l would not face the toil of writing a single line." His slogan was Not art but life'. He looked upon the drama not as the instrument of the idle pleasures of the hour but as a church or school, which enlightens and edifies man. In his brilliant plays he focusses light on the vital problems of the hour, makes onslaughts on traditional and conventional ideas and manners, pointing to the necessity of revaluation of old values. But this should not make us think that his plays are 'thesis' plays or 'tracts', informed with the moral ardour of an iconoclast or reformer. He is a great "intellectual irritant" and he has done this task by irradiating his plays with sly humour, pungent wit, intellectual sharpness and sparkling dialogues. In a word, he is the pioneer of the new drama, which is rightly called after him, the "Shavian Play."

      The dominant characteristic of Shaw is thus his fearless intellectual criticism. He is out in his plays to tear aside the veils of fake idealism and romance that raditionalists in their complacency and mental sluggishness had cast upon social values and problems. And he found that to do the work best he had to choose comedy as the proper vehicle for his criticism. This may appear strange to many. Tragedy is generaly regarded as more serious and thoughtful than comedy. Indeed, all great writers of the world have given vent to their lofty views of life in their tragic works. Why, then, did Shaw prefer comedy to tragedy, for the expression of his philosophy? The answer is not far to seek. He was a born humorist. He knew that "laughter allows one to tolerate irreverence without condoning it; and while tolerating it, to be somewhat infected by it." Therefore, George Bernard Shaw was an entertainer, but with no loss to his dignity. He is, in the words of his best friend and discerning critic, "a Puritan in a fool's cap".

      As Shaw himself has explained his method - "My method is to take the utmost levity. And all the time the real joke is that I am in earnest." He has brought everything in life within the lime-light of his critical reason and denuded it of its veil of romance or illusion. Literature, art, medicine, politics, love, war - all has been subjected to criticism and rethinking. Some illustrations may be cited here. Mrs Warren's Profession has its theme that in the modern economic set-up a procuress is just a person in trade. Arms and the Man tears off the veil of military heroism and exposes this illusion as "the invention of the civilian." A philanthropist or idealist is after all a harmless and defenceless man of words - this is the theme of Candida. "Parental authority is an antiquated fiction (You Never Can Tell). In love-making woman is the hunter and man the hunted (Man and Superman). A doctor on the strength of his profession is guilty of actual crimes (Doctor's Dilema)."

      Shaw is not only a social critic but also a philosopher. In Man and Superman (1903-1905) he expounded his philosophy of his life force. Back to Mathusaleh (1921) centres round the theme that creative evolution will replace man if he stops where he is; man must will to live longer and better, Saint Joan (1923) is a tragedy which was inspired by the canonisation of the Maid of Orleans in 1920. The central problem of the play concerns the world's treatment of a superman ahead of his time. The Epilogue of the play shows the tragedy of Joan as a comedy because it states that Joan who was killed as a witch was canonised in 1920. Other plays of Shaw include Ceasar and Cleopatra (1898), Captain Brassbound's Conversation (1899), Major Barbara (1905), Getting Maried (1908), Androcles and the lion (1911-1912), Pygmalion (1912), Heartbreak House (1913), The Apple Cart (1929), Om the Rocks (1933), Geneva (1939).

      George Bernard Shaw dominated the English letters in the first half of the twentieth century. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1925. His astounding vitality and barbed wit continued unabated until his death. Shaw created a new type of comedy - comedy of ideas. He made people think by compelling them to laugh. He dealt with various ideas in a lighthearted manner. The buoyancy and wit of his plays fascinated the English speaking people. One of his key techniques is turning everything topsy-turvy and forcing an astounded audience to see "the other half of the truth." A stern realist, he exploded the myth of romantic love and all romantic ideas. An anti-materialist, he is a vitalist believing in creative evolution which man should further toward a perfect society, and in the Life force, really the divine will. He has shown that comic art can embrace philosophy, economics and social thought in its scope and can give the profoundest expressions for the enlightenment and enlargement of people's consciousness.

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