George Bernard Shaw is a noteworthy name in English history who has contributed to the history with his plays and other writings. Drama for Shaw was an activity that could be used as a moral agent as through his dramas, he helped people in terms of solving moral issues. Moreover, he discussed different moral problems in his plays to help the people of society to consider the issue seriously. The issues that he highlighted in his plays are marriage and equal rights for men and women, prostitution and its reasons, relationships and many other social issues. Most of his plays are instructional as they ponder over some social issue being prevalent in the society.
According to Shaw, comedy is the best way to deliver even the harsh realities of the society, so he developed comedy dramas mostly along with philosophical, romantic and other kinds of works, in which he revealed different aspects and truths concerning a problem of society with the help of characters of the dramas (Carpenter 1969). As far as the form of Shaw’s drama is concerned, Shaw develops his dramas against Aristotelian ideology in terms of form of drama. The dramas by George Bernard Shaw usually have a well-structured characterization and the plot is secondary (Berst 1973). Major importance is given to plot according to Aristotelian ideology concerning development of a drama. In this paper, George Bernard Shaw’s three dramas are taken into consideration, which are ‘Pygmalion’, ‘Mrs. Warren’s Profession’ and ‘Widowers’ Houses’. These dramas are considered in this article to depict G.B Shaw’s concept of drama.
The characteristic features that can be found in dramas by Shaw are sense of form and management of plot. As it is mentioned earlier that for Shaw, plot is of secondary importance as it is the one that has the material that the characters employ to depict a social issue (Carpenter 1969). The characters constructed by G.B. Shaw are entitled to depict reason with the help of speech (Berst 1973). He develops a plot and allows his characters to deliver the message by means of speech and discussion. Most of his plays are informed as having no end as the reader is left free to originate his own ending that he thinks suitable to attach to the drama. Nevertheless, some of his plays have endings, which are decisive (Bentley 1960). His dramas give messages related to social problems prevalent in Shaw’s society.
Shaw belongs to the late Victorian age but his era is named as Shavian era or age because he is one of those writers of English history who were able to drag the audience out of their homes on the basis of their strong management of characters and sense of morality (Weintraub 1982). Another prominent feature that can be found in Shaw’s dramas is the employment of paradox that is employed so wittily that like Shakespearean, Shaw’s employed techniques are associated with his name as Shavian (Berst 1966). Plot management and development of form of a drama are such traits that are considered to make a dramatist credible or weak but Shaw does contrary to that but is still successful and well liked (Bentley 1960). As far as Shaw is concerned, his concept of drama circulates around the management of characters with secondary importance to management of plot and sense of form (Turco 1976). He always gives a moral message in his plot development. He always divides his dramas into a specific format that is exposition, complication and discussion. Shaw’s plays work as intellectual stimulation and provocation for the audience (Carpenter 1969).
For Shaw, there is no villain other the common social people as they allow every wrong act to be done (Meisel 1963). They consider themselves thoughtless, insensible, complacent and sentimental and put the responsibility of evils on other persons but according to Shaw, common people create the distortion of vision, evil and suffering in a society by considering themselves unable to do anything and by seeing every criminal activity being done and considering themselves ignorant, ineligible and sentimental (Berst 1973).
According to Shaw, his dramas come under the category of problem plays, argumentative plays or plays of ideas (Shaw 1960). For him, society is the basic theme that should be employed in all the plays (Bentley 1960). Shaw depicts society in its true colour and discusses all the problems prevalent in society with the help of speeches and discussions in his plays. For him, drama is the most appropriate means to communicate with common people and to guide them in terms of moral issues (Carpenter 1969). For Shaw, moral issues are not only related to telling a lie, betrayal, theft and other criminal activities but also the social problems that need moral concerns such as equal rights for women, matrimonial relationships, parental relationships, social welfare and many other concerns of society that needed moral development (Berst 1973).
Pygmalion, a play by Shaw is a renewed version of Ovid’s Metamorphoses with transformations according to his own needs and social concerns (Bentley 1960). It is also said that the play, Pygmalion has traces of Cinderella in the surface. The prominent features of the play are the amalgamation of satire and romance, which can be viewed in terms of style plus plot (Weintraub 1982). The plot deals with the development of a character from an innocent flower girl to a lady. Like other plays of Shaw under Ibsen’s influence, this play also follows the specific structure of exposition, complication and discussion (Carpenter 1969). This plot can be seen on three stages of construction, exposition, complication or situation and lastly discussion.
Exposition commences with the introduction of Professor Higgins, who is a professor of phonetics and teaches a common flower girl to speak fluently and rightly like a lady. Eliza, the flower girl is shown as a poor girl who sells flowers (Weintraub 1982). Her life is also depicted as miserable and hard as she has to work very hard to collect her livelihood. The flower girl, Eliza is unable to speak clear words in the beginning, as she is not properly able to differentiate between different sounds related to vowels (Bentley 1960). She becomes happy when she is paid for her flowers even by coaxing money from the customers. She is extremely happy when she is given a lot of coins by Professor Higgins. Second act is also part of the exposition (Carpenter 1969). In second act, Eliza comes to Professor’s Higgins to ask him to teach her how to speak like a lady because she wishes to be converted into a lady who is able to work in a flower shop (Berst 1973). Unknowingly, she is moving towards self-quest, as she will be able to know herself after gaining monetary safety and societal uprightness. Professor Higgins considers Eliza only as an experimental model due to which, she is constructed only as a robotic creature copying a lady phonetically. Eliza is the protagonist of the play as the plot revolves around her development and self growth (Meisel 1963).
The second phase of the play, situation or complication, shows Eliza as a phony duchess. She is neither a lady not a flower girl. She has learnt the upper class accent but she cannot be seen more than a doll that has the eligibility to speak (Meisel 1963). She is able to speak following the upper class accent but her style has glimpses of coarseness. Being transformed into a lady only through speech is not quite enough for her as her manners and discretion are not ladylike (Weintraub 1982). She belongs to low class and even her upper class speech is unable to conceal her background. According to Shaw, speech and good clothing only are not enough for being a lady (Berst 1973). With the passage of time in the play, Eliza learns to eradicate the element of rudeness from her speech. She also attains the eloquence related to the emotions and thinking of Eliza. She is being taught by Professor Higgins to employ a situation to her advantage by manipulating the situation. She is capable to view her own thoughts and feelings (Carpenter 1969).
The third part of the play, Pygmalion, that is discussion, can be seen in the fourth act of the play. With the transformation of Eliza’s personality, she is able to realize her true state (Weintraub 1982). Due to obtainment of knowledge and education, she considers herself inappropriate for her previous life while she is also not happy about her present life and what future holds for her as a lady. She as a lady is unable to earn her livelihood herself and has become dependent on others for her bearing (Bentley 1960). Eliza gains the knowledge that her aspirations and the means with which, she can get those aspirations fulfilled are quite apart. In the fourth act, Eliza tosses her gentility mask and with the removal of that pretence, she unmasks a newly attained development in herself. She leaves Professor Higgins due to which, she is no more suppressed or reliant on anyone (Turco 1976).
The issue of association between Professor Higgins and Eliza is not resolved yet. After being transformed into an educated and autonomous woman, she is considered as the best counterpart for Professor Higgins but when Professor Higgins proposes her, she refuses his proposal and reports that she will marry Freddy and also reports that she will work for Nepommuck as an assistant (Weintraub 1982). For Professor Higgins, Nepommuck stands as despicable but he is not able to stop Eliza as she is no more in his control and is very strong as a woman (Berst 1973). For Eliza, professor Higgins is like her, her equivalent so she no more gets afraid of him. The play, Pygmalion has an open ending, which means that the audience and readers have to construct an ending according to their own understanding and comprehensiveness (Carpenter 1969). It is not fixed with Pygmalion that the play is not given a closed ending; Shaw is habitual at leaving the end to the audience and readers who are free to give the drama the suitable end that they wish for.
Although Shaw has given an epilogue considering the situation of the play. In the epilogue, he shows that Eliza has married Freddy Hill. Again, a common feature noted with Shaw’s plays, is giving an end that is purely without any romance (Bentley 1960). The play is divided into three parts; the language that is employed is quite simple and comprehensive. The play shows that Shaw gives primary importance to the management of plot and form of the play according to exposition, situation and discussion (Meisel 1963). The significance was given to the character development as the character of Eliza develops with the proceeding plot. Form and plot were dealt afterwards (Berst 1973).
Mrs. Warren’s Profession by Bernard Shaw has the opposite form as that of other plays being developed in second part of the 19th century (Carpenter 1969). The plays being constructed in 19th century took into consideration Aristotle’s format for the development of play. The plot of the plays attracted major consideration while the characters were given secondary importance (Berst 1966). Good comedies were those that needed some accident for the development of story in place of development of the characters (Weintraub 1982). Happy conclusions were there but they were not because of character development but because of some incident that happened in the development of plot and took the play towards a successful conclusion (Shaw 1960). Mrs. Warren’s Profession is a play that again shows the development of characters through actions performed by the characters, while plot is kept secondary. The plot is only informed by means of discussions among the characters. The audience can only get into the plot if they get into the characters of the play (Berst 1966).
The play Mrs. Warren’s Profession is given a conclusion that is again open ended as the audience are required to include the conclusion of their own choice (Bentley 1960). It was the culture in terms of development of comedies that with the conclusions, all the problems raised in the play were resolved but Mrs. Warren’s Profession did not resolve all the problems and left the choice to the audience and readers to conclude according to their choice (Berst 1966). Vivie is the protagonist of the play. With the conclusion of the play, she seems happy and her attitude towards others shows her joy and good spirits. In the play, it is shown that she has a disagreement with her mother, which prevailed throughout the play and this disagreement is not resolved until the end (Meisel1963).
Shaw gives major consideration to his characters. In the play, Mrs. Warren’s Profession, the characters of Mrs. Warren and her daughter are developed and with the help of characters, the plot is revealed to the audience and readers (Turco 1976). The characters are developed pragmatically. Both of the characters, Mrs Warren and Vivie qualify for sympathy of audience and readers (Bentley 1960). Initially, Mrs Warren was handled unsympathetically by her daughter. After sometime, Vivie realizes that her mother, Mrs Warren is doing an indecent job that is of prostitution. Mrs. Warren had led a hard life and was ineligible to stay away from her profession (Berst 1966). The play, Mrs. Warren’s Profession is also divided into three parts, exposition, situation and discussion. There is an open end. The form is similar to Shaw’s other plays.
The end of the play, Widowers’ Houses, is criticized to have an end that has caused dissatisfaction among the audience because of its open end (Turco 1976). It is also said that if the play followed Archer’s plot, it would be similar to the traditional plays of the time but with the introduction of plot by Shaw, the play again entered a category of Shaw’s own (Carpenter 1969). While viewing the play, the audience’s initial views were about the clash between the slum Landlord’s wealth and the forthcoming son-in-law’s sense of right and wrong and they thought that an instrumental plot could decide the clash (Berst 1973). It was also thought that both the characters, the Landlord and the forthcoming son-in-law were going to be proved without any guilt at the end but with the proceeding of the play towards third act, it changed completely into a Shavian play by following the structure and plot structuring as exposition, situation and discussion (Weintraub 1982).
It has been recommended that the arrangement of the plays, Mrs. Warren’s Profession and Widowers’ Houses is similar because until second act, it seems that the story of the play is over and with the third act, a new state of affairs start in both the plays (Berst 1973). Widowers’ Houses is divided in three acts. The first act introduces all the characters of the play and it also reports about the development of love and then commitment between Harry and Blanche. Both meet on a vacation trip (Bentley 1960). Harry was a poor doctor but was of aristocratic background while Blanche was the daughter of a businessperson. With act two, everyone is back to their residences in London. After reaching London, Harry gets the information that Blanche’s father is a slum property owner (Carpenter 1969). Due to Blanche’s father’s being a slum landlord, Harry did not give consent to Blanche to get money from her father after their marriage. He further emphasizes that will lead their live on the livelihood earned by himself.
Because of the argumentation on the acceptance of money from Blanche’s father, they get separated from one another. Blanche is unable to accept Harry because of her being immensely hurt (Bentley 1960). With the third act, the characters accept each other, reunite but the problem of good and evil is not resolved, and again the play is given an open end by Shaw.
According to Shaw, the concept of drama deals with morality (Shaw 1960). To him, the plot always comes secondary because it is the characterization that puts life in the plot or otherwise the plot is worthless. Shaw somewhat works against the principles set by Aristotle. For him, characterization is the most important aspect and the action should be there with the help of characters. Form and plot are there in a play by Shaw to add to the effectiveness of the characters in terms of their development. All the plays considered in the paper, ‘Pygmalion’, ‘Mrs. Warren’s Profession’ and ‘Widowers’ Houses’ depict that the characters in the play are given major consideration while plot is only employed to help the characters proceed in their actions.
Bentley, Eric. “Foreword,” in Plays, by George Bernard Shaw. Washington: New American Library 1960: vii – xxx.
Berst, Charles A. “Propaganda and Art in Mrs. Warren’s Profession”. English Literature History 33 (1966): 390 – 404.
Berst, Charles A. Bernard Shaw and the Art of Drama. Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1973: 42 – 69.
Carpenter, Charles A. Bernard Shaw and the Art of Destroying Ideals: The Early Plays. Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969: 67 – 84.
Meisel, Martin. Shaw and the Nineteenth-Century Theater. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963: 102 – 134.
Shaw, George Bernard. “The Author’s Apology,” in Plays, by George Bernard Shaw. England: Penguin, 1960: 65 – 81.
Turco, Alfred. Shaw’s Moral Vision: The Self and Salvation. New York: Cornell University Press, 1976: 34 – 57.
Weintraub, Stanley. “George Bernard Shaw,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 10, Modern British Dramatists, 1900 – 1945, ed. Stanley Weintraub, Gale: Gale Research, 1982: 129 – 48.