History of English Literature, Volume 7 - Print

English Modernism

by Franco Marucci (Author)
©2019 Monographs XVIII, 1280 Pages
Series: History of English Literature, Volume 7


For ordering the hardcover version of this book, please contact orders@peterlang.com (Retail Price: £100.00, $151.90).
‘Franco Marucci’s History of English Literature is unique in its field. There is no other book that combines such erudition and authority in such a compact format. An indispensable work of reference.’
— J. B. Bullen, Visiting Fellow, Kellogg College, Oxford
History of English Literature is a comprehensive, eight-volume survey of English literature from the Middle Ages to the early twenty-first century. This reference work provides insightful and often revisionary readings of core texts in the English literary canon. Richly informative analyses are framed by the biographical, historical and intellectual context for each author.
Volume 7 is dedicated to the four main figures of English Modernism. It opens by discussing ‘interstitial’ novelists, such as Galsworthy, Bennett, Wells and Forster; essayists like Chesterton; and the war poets. The study then turns to a close analysis of the key writers of the period: T. S. Eliot is looking for ‘roots’ and the anchors for a modern society facing dissolution; D. H. Lawrence is the exponent of a Modernism of contents rather than of forms, which undermines the aesthetics of the movement; Joyce is the builder of a ‘palace of art’, with an archetypal plot each time updated and stylistically more refined; and Virginia Woolf is, finally, the writer who pursues the utopia of the finished work, the metaphor of her life.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of abbreviations
  • Part I Interstitial Literature
  • § 1. Interstitial literature
  • § 2. Shaw after 1921 I: From the Nobel Prize to nonsense. Popularity and decline of an international playwright
  • § 3. Shaw after 1921 II: Saint Joan. The divine call, an unthinkable ‘maybe’
  • § 4. Shaw after 1921 III: Burlesques on the powers-that-be
  • § 5. Shaw after 1921 IV: Too True to Be Good
  • § 6. Shaw after 1921 V: Other extravaganzas and socio-political fables
  • § 7. Shaw after 1921 VI: Last plays
  • § 8. O’Casey I: The Irish powder keg explodes
  • § 9. O’Casey II: The Dublin trilogy
  • § 10. O’Casey III: Wrestling with Catholicism
  • § 11. O’Casey IV: The one-acters
  • § 12. Priestley, Rattigan
  • § 13. Wells I: The multifaceted intellectual, a modern, amateurish Leonardo da Vinci
  • § 14. Wells II: The unknowns of science
  • § 15. Wells III: Odysseys of a salesman
  • § 16. Wells IV: Three intellectuals, Wells’s alter egos facing history
  • § 17. Arnold Bennett I: A Victorian photograph album
  • § 18. Arnold Bennett II: A provincial in the city
  • § 19. Arnold Bennett III: The Five Towns novels I. Anna of the Five Towns
  • § 20. Arnold Bennett IV: The Five Towns novels II. The Old Wives’ Tale
  • § 21. Arnold Bennett V: The Five Towns novels III. Clayhanger
  • § 22. Arnold Bennett VI: Trying to keep up in the post-war era
  • § 23. Galsworthy I: The funerals of aristocracy
  • § 24. Galsworthy II: Skirmishes against self-righteousness
  • § 25. Galsworthy III: The Forsyte Saga I. The threat of entrepreneurial security
  • § 26. Galsworthy IV: The Forsyte Saga II. The melancholy calendar of the generational turnover
  • § 27. Galsworthy V: The Forsyte Saga III. Nostalgia for chivalrous times
  • § 28. Galsworthy VI: The dramas
  • § 29. Forster I: Against the falsity of the educational tradition. The bridge between the two cultures
  • § 30. Forster II: Where Angels Fear to Tread. The immature hearts
  • § 31. Forster III: The Longest Journey
  • § 32. Forster IV: A Room with a View I. The stubborn self-deception of a tourist in search of herself
  • § 33. Forster V: A Room with a View II. The rescue of the ‘buoni uomini’
  • § 34. Forster VI: Howards End I. The three nations
  • § 35. Forster VII: Howards End II. Who shall inherit England?
  • § 36. Forster VIII: Howards End III. The urbanized farmer welcomed back into his habitat
  • § 37. Forster IX: Maurice
  • § 38. Forster X: A Passage to India. The unreconciled diversities
  • § 39. Beerbohm I: Reanimating aestheticism
  • § 40. Beerbohm II: Exercises in style
  • § 41. Beerbohm III: Zuleika Dobson and other sketches
  • § 42. Chesterton I: The crusade against contemporary isms
  • § 43. Chesterton II: The myth of the tavern
  • § 44. Chesterton III: Heresy and orthodoxy
  • § 45. Chesterton IV: Two fantasies on the present and the future
  • § 46. Chesterton V: The Father Brown stories
  • § 47. Chesterton VI: Other works of fiction
  • § 48. Belloc, C. S. Lewis, Tolkien
  • § 49. The Powys brothers
  • § 50. Vernon Lee
  • § 51. Maugham I: A humble, self-taught craftsman
  • § 52. Maugham II: Naturalist fiction and drama up to 1914
  • § 53. Maugham III: Of Human Bondage. Bitter loves
  • § 54. Maugham IV: The Moon and Sixpence. The artist, integrated and disintegrated
  • § 55. Maugham V: Plays of the 1920s
  • § 56. Maugham VI: Cakes and Ale. The subtle, caustic, metabiographical suggestions of the life of Hardy
  • § 57. Maugham VII: The amnesty of adultery
  • § 58. Maugham VIII: The short stories
  • § 59. Chesney, Buchan, Saki and the ‘war of the future’
  • § 60. The Georgian poets
  • § 61. The poetry of the Great War
  • § 62. Owen
  • § 63. Sassoon
  • § 64. Brooke
  • § 65. Edward Thomas I: Diaries and prose from before the war
  • § 66. Edward Thomas II: The poetic songbook
  • § 67. Rosenberg
  • § 68. Other war poets
  • § 69. Graves
  • § 70. Masefield
  • § 71. De la Mare
  • § 72. Stevie Smith
  • § 73. Edwardian music
  • Part II Modernism
  • § 74. England from 1922 to 1945
  • § 75. Modernism
  • § 76. Imagism
  • § 77. Yeats after 1919 I: The book and the image
  • § 78. Yeats after 1919 II: The lunar pseudo-philosophy
  • § 79. Yeats after 1919 III: The tail end of The Wild Swans at Coole
  • § 80. Yeats after 1919 IV: Michael Robartes and the Dancer. The marriage of body and spirit
  • § 81. Yeats after 1919 V: The Tower. The second coming
  • § 82. Yeats after 1919 VI: The Winding Stair and Other Poems. The Platonic idea and the revenge of the human
  • § 83. Yeats after 1919 VII: From A Full Moon in March
  • § 84. Yeats after 1919 VIII: Testaments
  • § 85. Yeats after 1919 IX: The dramas
  • § 86. Edith Sitwell
  • § 87. Osbert and Sacheverell Sitwell
  • § 88. Firbank
  • § 89. Wyndham Lewis I: The roar of Vorticism
  • § 90. Wyndham Lewis II: That lonely old volcano of the Right
  • § 91. Wyndham Lewis III: The trilogy of the hereafter
  • § 92. T. S. Eliot I: The roots that clutch
  • § 93. T. S. Eliot II: The overwhelming question
  • § 94. T. S. Eliot III: Prufrock and Other Observations. The moment to its crisis
  • § 95. T. S. Eliot IV: Gerontion and the poems of 1920
  • § 96. T. S. Eliot V: The Waste Land I. The orchestration
  • § 97. T. S. Eliot VI: The Waste Land II. Witnesses of the pastiche
  • § 98. T. S. Eliot VII: The Hollow Men and Ash-Wednesday
  • § 99. T. S. Eliot VIII: Nonsense, minor and incidental poetry
  • § 100. T. S. Eliot IX: Four Quartets I. The music of time
  • § 101. T. S. Eliot X: Four Quartets II. The alpha and the omega, from the rose garden to the thorn bush
  • § 102. T. S. Eliot XI: Liturgical action and propedeutics for atonement in Eliot’s drama
  • § 103. T. S. Eliot XII: The literary system
  • § 104. T. S. Eliot XIII: Other works of criticism
  • § 105. T. S. Eliot XIV: The English patient
  • § 106. Bunting
  • § 107. Christopher Fry
  • § 108. Whiting
  • § 109. Lawrence I: The messiah of phallic reawakening
  • § 110. Lawrence II: The early novels
  • § 111. Lawrence III: Sons and Lovers. The mining scenario and the Oedipal dilemma
  • § 112. Lawrence IV: The short stories
  • § 113. Lawrence V: The Rainbow. Analysis and management of passions
  • § 114. Lawrence VI: Women in Love. The agon between life and death
  • § 115. Lawrence VII: The Lost Girl
  • § 116. Lawrence VIII: Aaron’s Rod. The biblical wanderer
  • § 117. Lawrence IX: Kangaroo. An Australian fable
  • § 118. Lawrence X: The Plumed Serpent. In an imaginary Mexico
  • § 119. Lawrence XI: Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Broken taboos
  • § 120. Lawrence XII: Later short novels and stories
  • § 121. Lawrence XIII: The poetry
  • § 122. Lawrence XIV: Prophecy and prejudice in Lawrence’s non-fiction
  • § 123. Dorothy Richardson I: Pilgrimage I. The English harbinger of monologue interieur
  • § 124. Dorothy Richardson II: Pilgrimage II. Towards self-knowledge
  • § 125. Ford Madox Ford I: The restorer of the old order from the trenches of formal Modernism
  • § 126. Ford Madox Ford II: The Good Soldier. The crisis of chivalric ideals
  • § 127. Ford Madox Ford III: Parade’s End. A consciousness in the Great War
  • § 128. Joyce I: The bygmester of the palace of art
  • § 129. Joyce II: Biography
  • § 130. Joyce III: Essays on criticism and aesthetics
  • § 131. Joyce IV: The epiphanies
  • § 132. Joyce V: The poetry
  • § 133. Joyce VI: Dubliners I. Devices of Joyce’s short story
  • § 134. Joyce VII: Dubliners II. Paralysis in the three human ages
  • § 135. Joyce VIII: Dubliners III. ‘The Dead’. The game of cardinal points
  • § 136. Joyce IX: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man I. The first two versions
  • § 137. Joyce X: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man II. The impossible perfection of faith
  • § 138. Joyce XI: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man III. The investiture of the artist
  • § 139. Joyce XII: The journalist and lecturer
  • § 140. Joyce XIII: Exiles I. The betrayed, betrayable and betraying husband
  • § 141. Joyce XIV: Exiles II. Towards a new alter ego
  • § 142. Joyce XV: Ulysses I. The endogenesis
  • § 143. Joyce XVI: Ulysses II. Threads in the maze
  • § 144. Joyce XVII: Ulysses III. From morning to noon
  • § 145. Joyce XVIII: Ulysses IV. Afternoon and evening
  • § 146. Joyce XIX: Ulysses V. The night
  • § 147. Joyce XX: Ulysses VI. Molly’s monologue
  • § 148. Joyce XXI: Finnegans Wake I. The connections
  • § 149. Joyce XXII: Finnegans Wake II. The sources
  • § 150. Joyce XXIII: Finnegans Wake III. Technique
  • § 151. Joyce XXIV: Finnegans Wake IV. The language
  • § 152. Stephens, O’Brien
  • § 153. Mansfield I: Out of Eden, but towards purgatory
  • § 154. Mansfield II: In a German Pension. Sketches at the spa
  • § 155. Mansfield III: Bliss and Other Stories. Existentialist motifs in Mansfield’s stories
  • § 156. Mansfield IV: The Garden Party. Rites of passage
  • § 157. Woolf I: Exorcisms of incompletion
  • § 158. Woolf II: Woolf’s hours in a library
  • § 159. Woolf III: Biography
  • § 160. Woolf IV: The Voyage Out
  • § 161. Woolf V: Night and Day
  • § 162. Woolf VI: Jacob’s Room. The novel as a splintered biography
  • § 163. Woolf VII: Mrs Dalloway. Life, death and resurrection
  • § 164. Woolf VIII: To the Lighthouse. The metaphysical parable of a landing: failed, delayed, successful, with human losses
  • § 165. Woolf IX: Orlando. The historical cavalcade of the hermaphrodite
  • § 166. Woolf X: The Waves. Six soliloquists, stereophonic voices of a single author
  • § 167. Woolf XI: The Years. The crowded kaleidoscope of modern times
  • § 168. Woolf XII: Between the Acts. A forecast of the future
  • § 169. Bloomsbury, Roger Fry, Strachey
  • § 170. Compton-Burnett I: The dirty laundry of Victorianism
  • § 171. Compton-Burnett II: The beginnings
  • § 172. Compton-Burnett III: The nemesis of parental tyranny
  • § 173. Compton-Burnett IV: Novels of servants and of three generations
  • § 174. Compton-Burnett V: Sour family comedies
  • § 175. Garnett
  • § 176. Poets of the Second World War
  • Index of names
  • Thematic index

| xiii/I →

List of abbreviations

AAA J. R. Taylor, Anger and After: A Guide to the New British Drama, Harmondsworth 1963.

BAUGH A Literary History of England, ed. A. C. Baugh, 4 vols, London 1967.

BRM Modernism: A Guide to European Literature 1890–1930, ed. M. Bradbury and J. McFarlane, Harmondsworth 1991 (1st edn 1976).

CAB I contemporanei - Letteratura inglese, ed. V. Amoruso and F. Binni, 2 vols, Roma 1982.

CLA M. Praz, Cronache letterarie anglosassoni, 4 vols, Roma 1951 and 1966.

CMM Modernismo / Modernismi. Dall’avanguardia storica agli anni Trenta e oltre, ed. G. Cianci, Milano 1991.

CRHE The Critical Heritage, anthologies of criticism on single authors, published in London, with editors and dates of publication as stated in the bibliographies.

CSI E. Cecchi, Scrittori inglesi e americani, 2 vols, Milano 1954 (1st edn 1935).

DES V. De Sola Pinto, Crisis in English Poetry 1880–1940, London 1963 (1st edn 1951).

EMW J. I. M. Stewart, Eight Modern Writers, Oxford 1963.

GSM H. J. C. Grierson and J. C. Smith, A Critical History of English Poetry, London 1956.

HAP Hopkins Among the Poets, ed. R. F. Giles, Hamilton 1985.

HWP B. Russell, History of Western Philosophy, London 1964 (1st edn 1946).

HYN S. Hynes, The Auden Generation: Literature and Politics in England in the 1930s, London 1976.

IDM F. Marucci, L’inchiostro del mago. Saggi di letteratura inglese dell’Ottocento, Pisa 2009.

KPE F. Kermode, Puzzles and Epiphanies: Essays and Reviews 1958–1961, London 1962.

KRG F. R. Karl, A Reader’s Guide to the Contemporary English Novel, London 1968. ← xiii/I | xiv/I →

KRI F. Kermode, Romantic Image, London 1971 (1st edn 1957).

LET Letture. Libro e spettacolo. Mensile di studi e rassegne.

LRB The London Review of Books.

MAR F. Marenco, Storia della civiltà letteraria inglese, 4 vols, Torino 1996.

MEF G. Melchiori, I funamboli. Il manierismo nella letteratura inglese da Joyce ai giovani arrabbiati, Torino 1974 (1st edn 1963).

MIT L. Mittner, Storia della letteratura tedesca, 3 vols in 4 tomes, Torino 1964–1977.

MPR J. H. Miller, Poets of Reality: Six Twentieth-Century Writers, Cambridge, MA 1965.

OCE G. Orwell, Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, ed. S. Orwell and I. Angus, 4 vols, Harmondsworth 1970.

PCS M. Praz, Il patto col serpente, Milano 1973 (1st edn 1972).

PGU The Pelican Guide to English Literature, ed. B. Ford, 7 vols, Harmondsworth 1968 and 1970.

PLE M. Pagnini, Letteratura e ermeneutica, Firenze 2002.

PSL M. Praz, Storia della letteratura inglese, Firenze 1968.

SSI M. Praz, Studi e svaghi inglesi, 2 vols, Milano 1983 (1st edn 1937).

TLS The Times Literary Supplement.

WAR A. C. Ward, 20th Century English Literature 1901–1960, London 1964 (1st edn 1928).

WAX E. Wilson, Axel’s Castle, London and Glasgow 1971 (1st edn New York 1931).

WEL R. Wellek, A History of Modern Criticism, 8 vols, New Haven, CT 1955–1992.

Note. Except for the above abbreviations, full publication information of cited works will be found in the bibliography for each author.

| 1/I →


Interstitial Literature

| 3/I →

§ 1. Interstitial literature

Any wide-ranging study of literary history compels the critic and historian to move the authors at stake backwards and forwards, like a strategist shifting his armies in front or behind a certain line on the map, or a chess-player with his pieces. The category of ‘interstitial’ or ‘in-between’ literature is not a recognized one in the periodization of twentieth-century English literature.1 I have coined the phrase in order to place and study some of the writers, texts or sets of texts that could not or would not be included in the previous volume of this History, and for the reasons I shall explain shortly. Their inclusion here is justified at times by the very specific way in which some of these writers balanced a number of multiple interests and themes, at others by their lateness compared to others and to the main current or currents in English literature after 1921. Rather than labelling them ‘interstitial,’ I could have easily identified these writers as belated, or unclassifiable. They were all born and grew up in the Victorian era; they made their mark well before the watershed of 1921, even if they continued to write after that date, in a kind of drift. Edwardian and Georgian by dates, they first published before those signposts, and continued to write afterwards. But they never caught up, did not innovate at all, or not enough to be numbered among the modernists. They would be ill served if seen as twentieth-century writers in full garb, but neither would it work to relegate them to Victorians tout court.

2. The main triad of these long-lived writers on the cusp of 1921 (and the most awkward one for the purposes of classification) is that of Wells, Bennett and Galsworthy. This close-knit triad seems to have been conceived by intelligent design: all its members are like twins or near-twins, their dates of birth within a few years or even months from each other. They were all three born in 1866 or 1867, were all indefatigable workers, authors of tens if not hundreds of books,2 with a near-perfect synchrony for their literary debuts a few months from the end of the nineteenth century, while at least two of them died within months of each other, covered in fame and glory. And yet the crème of the innovators bunched them all together and decried their novels as superficial and shoddy, partly on the ← 3/I | 4/I → objective judgement (applicable to all three) that their post-war production had degraded into nameless and consumerist fare. Despite their shared literary origins, they were all born in three different parts of England, and each followed a seemingly different course of apprenticeship. Wells was to all intents and purposes a Londoner, and nearly working class in origin; Bennett and Galsworthy, both sons of lawyers, came to London to become writers from the industrial Midlands and the hills of Surrey respectively. Wells and Bennett wrote to each other constantly, with the former issuing slightly patronizing letters whenever Bennett published a new novel, to which Bennett bowed, yet always with touches of biting irony. Galsworthy on his part had with Bennett a close epistolary exchange and friendship, less so with Wells. But what joined all three was Conrad. The first to note impressionistically their common matrix was Orwell, who studied and read voraciously at least two of them. He contrasted their shared Conradian origin with the typology of the younger writer, represented for him by Lawrence and Joyce. To Orwell, the new, modern writer of the 1920s chiselled his material like a sculptor, was less prolific, more painstaking, more devoted to narrative form, less optimistic. Above all, he was less well-read, with a lighter ideological baggage (expect than in the case of Wells). The difference between the interstitial triad and the modern writers was the same, in Orwell’s view, as that between Dickens and Flaubert.3

3. Orwell had then understood everything: that the reference point for this triad was Dickens, or at the very least that the wider area and tradition they were looking at was that of nineteenth-century realism. The three writers should not nevertheless be ignored, or be dismissed and mocked as they were by their contemporaries and those who followed shortly after, like Orwell all exponents of a radical intelligentsia with its unacknowledged Bloomsbury roots. The sheer volume of their work is impressive, as well as an anti-modern and anti-modernist feature. Wells was the least gifted as a writer, yet he reinvented the Victorian dystopian genre, leaving a void behind him, even if after 1900 he could not find a new vein, and his writing effectively petered out. Bennett is the finest nib of the three, unmatched in his rendering of the comic pathos of the suburban village undergoing a transition and in the mock-heroic burlesque. Mostly a great imitator, he ← 4/I | 5/I → wrote one single masterpiece surrounded by a number of mediocre blockbusters. Galsworthy did not write for money, and reached the peak of his fame in the early 1920s, when Bennett’s reputation was in decline, with a saga that seems aimed at flattering the wealthy middle class. Galsworthy is interstitial for his theme, the transition to modernity, which he sees from a nostalgic standpoint, but some other features of his writing – the sense of writing in a void, and the retreat from serialization – are already more modernist. Galsworthy had explicitly no affinity with formal Modernism, towards which he was openly dismissive and impatient after 1922.4 But his writing practice speaks of a desire to catch up with the new expressive instruments, particularly through his aural imitation of a strand of stream of consciousness that was watered-down and unspecific, yet still stream of consciousness it was. For Forster, Galsworthy was part of a generation of writers who ‘got their impressions and formed their attitudes in an earlier period, before the first of the two world-wars’.5

4. There are however many more writers whose temporal location and status should be reviewed: Chesterton, Beerbohm, de la Mare, Firbank. The first two are emblematic cases. Beerbohm is an aesthete born a little too late, and therefore not fully enlisted in the aesthetic movement. He watches it as a younger member would, bearing testimony, but from the side-lines, observing it under a veil of nostalgia, or more often casting it in the guise of reductive parody. Chesterton was Beerbohm’s age, and would perhaps have followed in his wake had he gone to Oxford, hotbed of aesthetes. His painterly education brought him close to the aesthetes; he regularly considered suicide, might have been briefly a homosexual, flirted with paganism. In the end, though, he effected his own revolution. His love and nostalgia for the Middle Ages, which were enlivened by Morris’s work, had none of Pre-Raphaelite delicacy, but rather a Dickens-like exuberance and rowdiness. While Beerbohm has some rare overlaps with Modernism, Chesterton has none, even if this is one label this crusader against –isms does not contest. At the fin-de-siècle, then, Catholicism emerges as a gathering station, a life-choice that rebuts various popular doctrines, like socialism. Chesterton, Belloc, Ford Madox Ford, but particularly the first two, ← 5/I | 6/I → gave birth to a warring, fighting, fundamentalist version of Catholicism, by which they lived. Other, later strands of Catholicism like those of Waugh and Greene will be only cold ideology, not exuberant life-scripts. Another small group impossible to categorize is that of the poets who died in the Great War, who are objectively and by contrast not belated but in many instances looking ahead. The same age as the others named above, they write naturally and before 1921, but will be published after that date, giving them posthumous impact and resonance. But interstitial too are those writers who only lived through the brief Edwardian era of nine years, or those who just lived through the Georgian period, dying in 1921 or shortly afterwards. The borders and temporal markers of the writers’ lives are in these cases out of sync with literary periodization. In this context, another phenomenon to be analysed is that of the possible metamorphic energy evident in the career of other writers. Some long-lived writers underwent a process of renewal; others stayed the same and ended up repeating themselves during their careers. Wells went through three phases, but in some ways these were regressions and involutions rather than innovations. While his first phase genuinely opened up new territories, the following two were one the re-hashing and resurrection of the typically Victorian social comedy, and the other a return to the conversation piece and the novel of ideas. Lastly, Yeats and Shaw after 1919 and 1921 are two writers who cannot be analysed under this heading as they do not belong to either of its currents. Yeats changes his skin much more often than Shaw, but he can never be called ‘belated’.

5. My discriminating criterion will then be that of the dates of birth, starting from the empirically determined point of 1860. Ultimately, though, the choice of whom to include in this category of interstitial literature is made instinctively, on the basis of an instant reaction, of a sweep of the landscape, of a glance. A more intrinsic demarcation is provided by the more unequivocally modern and Modernist writers who looked upon these survivors of an earlier age as at their acid test, as a kind of writing to be overtaken and rejected in order to start anew. The clearest and more unambiguous of these rejections is Woolf’s ‘Mr Bennet and Mrs Brown’, a far from memorable essay, partial and unfair, but which implicitly calls for this category of interstitial literature.6

1 English history up to 1921 is dealt with in Volume 6, § 250.

2 Bennett and Galsworthy both wrote sagas, working in the long form and not on short novels. That too is a significant difference from the production of modernist writers.

3 OCE, vol. II, 231.

4 See Gindin’s 1987 biography, 477–8, cited in § 23.1, bibliography.

5 E. M. Forster, Two Cheers for Democracy, Harmondsworth 1970, 288.

6 On Woolf see below, § 158.1.

| 7/I →

§ 2. Shaw after 1921* I: From the Nobel Prize to nonsense. Popularity and decline of an international playwright

Saint Joan brought Shaw the Nobel Prize in 1925 and consolidated his reputation as the Great Elder of literary Europe,1 the most widely known and accessible writer in English after Wilde in the whole world, from London to New York and up to the shores of the Middle East. His popularity was astonishing: his plays had runs of weeks on end, were almost simultaneously translated and produced in all the main European languages; even where they were not because of censorship, they still managed to scandalize. The première was often held abroad; at home a dedicated festival was established for Shaw in the spa town of Malvern in 1927. Soon Shaw took to adapting his plays for radio and film, thus increasing their popularity. He lived in a beautiful retreat surrounded by the green spaces of Hertfordshire, but was acclaimed everywhere, the subject of photographs, paintings and sculptures (a bust by Rodin) that depicted him both in public roles and in intimate settings. Like an old-fashioned Victorian diva, he regularly crossed the oceans to reach America, South Africa, India; in 1931 he travelled to Russia and was met by Stalin. He was the very definition of the genius playwright, an opinion-maker in great demand, the entertainer who still made people think with his quips, the voice of a certain kind of England (everyone took him for English): outspoken, pragmatic, agnostic yet respectful of religions seen in terms of a historical convergence, and the spoke-figure of a moderate rather than fundamentalist social-communism, duly diluted by a good dose of classical liberalism. Shaw also had a striking physicality: gaunt, the long face framed by a curly white beard always neatly trimmed, his head covered in a short, snowy main. Most distinctive was his eccentric jaeger-like attire: tassel boots, stripy woollen socks, knickerbockers with matching jacket and alpenstock. To many he looked like a merry boy scout, with ← 7/I | 8/I → the suppleness of an athlete. In 1924 he received a public accolade from Pirandello; the German playwright Siegfried Trebitsch was also a follower, and his translator;2 at Shaw’s death, Thomas Mann and many others wrote a deferential obituary. Popularity is not however necessarily true greatness. At home, T. S. Eliot remembered Shaw with his typically ambiguous caution; in one of his rare remarks on his fellow Irishman, Yeats identified in Shaw his polar opposite, the absence of creativity; the critic William Archer’s frank quip aptly noted that Shaw had made a lot of noise but left no trace.3 As a counterweight, we should note that after 1921 Shaw rested on his laurels, and that the few complete plays he wrote (just nine), apart from a few other slight works, have not survived the test of time, even though they were an immediate success. In terms of absolute and lasting value, only Saint Joan has enjoyed and continues to enjoy a nearly unanimous consensus, as well as being retained in the repertoire. This downward slope is mirrored by critics, who sometimes stop abruptly after Saint Joan, while at other times they offer simply a rapid overview, in the name of a lenient assessment that would see Shaw in decline but still capable of flashes of style and humour. The most frequent criticism against late Shaw is that his characters lack ← 8/I | 9/I → psychological depth and the plots real action; his characters are seen to be moving against increasingly sketchy backdrops, without ties to scenery. ‘Most of my plays are almost independent of scenery’, he conceded.4

2. Like Shaw, Orwell too was active during the same three decades and reflected on the foundations of the equally totalitarian fascist and communist regimes, incubating his novel and his ‘socialist’ political essays in the decade of 1920–1930. This is the time when he argued that English literature would have to choose between taking refuge ‘in the belly of the whale’ (and maybe the very whale of Bloomsbury’s post-aestheticism) and becoming politicized. The difference is that Shaw writes under a veil of allegory, of play and irreverence, and through layers and layers of character parody, burlesque, macaronic even. His genre is that of the bagatelle, of theatrical nonsense, at times taking off from a short-lived if deadly serious news item which is often demystified by Shaw, who resorted to the category of ‘tomfoolery.’ Some lighter pieces from 1910 and the following years had already ushered in a theatre of snapshots, of splinters, of sketches that petered out into jokes. The Glimpse of Reality becomes a Plautus-like farce in one frame with a disguised friar, a hoodwinked count and other stereotypes of classical Greek and Latin comedy. Even in the more complex dramas Shaw tends to lapse into incidental gags, such as the predictable and overused spat between an impertinent, witty and (involuntarily) provocative subaltern and his short-tempered superior, a skit that plays on the unexpected, misunderstandings, puns, and witticisms. In the 1930s, Shaw’s specializes in dream-like or quasi-dream-like drama, surreal, fantastic and therefore absurd. The Apple Cart takes place entirely in the realms of fantasy and fable, but others too while starting from a realistic base soon deviate. Shaw is a master of this game on the borderline, where both characters and the action move and develop here and there unexpectedly and surprisingly. In this way he invents a new form or formula for theatre in which the dramatic guarantee is disappointed in favour of the propensity towards a theatre that stages the unexpected. Here the playwright’s incursions, normally prohibited, are entrusted to the character whose turn it is to act as the playwright’s spokesman. We ← 9/I | 10/I → can therefore speak of Shaw’s own dramatic Modernism. He had already displayed a certain Brechtian alienation before 1921, an alienation which intensifies after 1921 through the repeated process of staging a character that breaks out of his role and through the anachronism of the staging.5 Even more experimental is Shaw the ‘minimalist,’ with plays in one act or even one scene and a stripped down dialogue, which may suggest a distant preview of Beckett and Pinter.

3. The lustre lost in the plays remains intact in at least some of the prefaces, which relate to the plays in a loose way, without providing new information. Shaw remains an elegant prose writer, too elegant perhaps. By the stylistic standards of his time he is an academic essayist, pompous, learned, adept at writing a Latinate prose – smug, embellished – that almost no one would be writing after the war6. This is particularly evident in his periods, unit of measure of this style, which become longer, curled around his main clauses, and with subordinate ones imbricated in other subordinates, all in Latinate polysyllabic lexemes. His prose uses barely any comma or other intermediate punctuation, so that reading is laborious in terms of sentence construction as well as for the density of his concepts. Shaw thought of himself as a ‘critic and moral chastiser through ridicule (otherwise known as a comedy writer).’ He was a concerned witness of the social and political situation, but studied it with detachment and levity, not with anguish. He confessed that he had lived ‘between two world wars without having missed a meal and always having slept the night in his own bed’; his typist reported that in twenty-eight years he had only lost his patience twice.7 In his essays and prefaces, his method is often to defend a humanitarian, enlightened,8 tolerant thesis, dictated by common sense, though not to the point of being blind to the reasons of the opposite position. Killing animals for sports is unacceptable, but never killing animals on principle untenable, since some animals will have to be killed, even just in self-defence. Making prisons more humane and less punitive, better ← 10/I | 11/I → still abolishing them would be a good thing; yet it is useless to pretend that prisoners are not at times violent, and that persuasion and meekness do not always work. In Shaw’s preface to the Webbs’ study of the English prison system, we hear the development of many of the arguments made by Dickens and Reade, and some of Butler’s. He admits that there are incurable criminals, but by and large he believes prisons to be populated by petty criminals who are often less guilty than many others who got away with it. He saw crime as the product of circumstances, but jail deprives prisoners of freedom and quality of life, making them relapse once they are out. Improve the circumstances and you will have fewer criminals. Thumbs down, similarly, on the system of separate incarceration, on which the Victorians had hotly debated for decades. In politics too Shaw was inclined towards tolerance and equidistance, shunning radicalism as a thinker not given to millenarian hopes nor confiding in divine and magic interventions from above to solve the situation. Shortly after the Great War, and after having supported the socialist MacDonald, Shaw moved to the right up to the point of supporting the pro-fascist Mosley and continental dictatorships. Behind his disquisitions he had the same fundamental, socialist objective as Orwell: to make life ‘decent,’ that is, liveable: ‘If people are fit to live, let them live under decent human conditions’.9 With Orwell, Shaw believes the English tend towards anarchism, and that the socialist dream of a perfectly organized society, without poverty and overwork, clashes with the aspiration to mould one’s life and with the loathing of state interference. The ideal system, the cornerstone of the Shavian utopia is that governments should be decision-making bodies, and therefore strong, but without undermining the notion that ‘the individual is a law unto itself,’ and thus leaving him practically all the fundamental freedoms.10 The idea of social organization as a prison was shared among many nineteenth-century reformers. Dickens coined McChoakumchild, Shaw rhymed ‘child training’ with ‘child taming’.11 Shaw’s brand of socialism is partly the detached, jargon-laden, ‘armchair’ variety that Orwell abhorred. Shaw never got into the trenches in defence of endangered freedom as Orwell did: he was ← 11/I | 12/I → too old to fight, and more importantly his ideology did not demand that kind of commitment. His disagreement with Orwell became an outright fight when Fabianism, and indeed Shaw’s brand of social-communism, came to idolize Stalin and the Great Dictator. The preface to the play The Millionairess analyses the individual charisma of the ‘born bosses’, the great leaders, the magnetic historical figures like William the Conqueror and Napoleon. In it, Shaw reviews recent history to demonstrate how the failure of the democratic system will facilitate the rise of the boss, that is of dictatorships. But Mussolini is far from satirized in this preface; he is seen as a Machiavellian hero who took note of the fact that the era of freedom was over and that it was necessary to return to a functioning state. And fascist Italy, Shaw believed, did work. He proclaimed himself an admirer of Einstein, but then came out with anti-Semitic blunders such as the following: ‘Now no doubt Jews are most obnoxious creatures’, and ‘it would have been better for the world if the Jews had never existed’,12 only to then correct himself as usual, and add that we all have mixed blood, not least Hitler himself. The preface to Saint Joan turns the Maid of Orleans into another representative of the category of the charismatic historical leaders, like Socrates and Napoleon; but Shaw also argues that the saintly ‘bosses’ are violently eliminated because of the fear they inspire, and as a consolation, that in 99 cases out of 100 the dictator goes crazy. With The Apple Cart, both the play and the preface, Shaw makes it manifest that he had converted to monarchism, having first been a democrat. Then he corrects himself: he had in fact intended to show the limitations of both systems, at least in so far as they are understood by idealists. The conflict is really between plutocracy on the one hand and the two other systems on the other; it is the rich who have swallowed democracy. The play was meant to draw attention to the delays and inconveniences of the democratic system of parliamentary representation. A public speech Shaw would have held on the disadvantages of democracy is reproduced verbatim. Of the latter Shaw does not accept the principle that it is a government by the people, which he considers a mirage. He revisits Mill’s notion that good governance is what ← 12/I | 13/I → does the minimum to allow the autonomy of the individual to have free range.13 On the other hand, he finds that society has evolved into a form of socialism, because the state manages and coordinates almost everywhere several public services. The point of the preface to The Apple Cart is that a false belief in democracy leads to an Orwellian oligarchy that ‘abuses power for its own gain’.

4. Shaw declared himself a secular man with three articles of faith: creative evolution, socialism, and vegetarianism; by 1942 he more simply identified as republican and communist. But by declaring Joan of Arc a saint he polluted this secularism with traces of religious belief. In the preface to the play, for instance, he credits the Saint’s telepathy, voices and visions, or at least gives them a psychological and psychic justification. His rather forced explanation is that they were the dramatization of the pressure exercised on her by the force behind evolution; they were in fact an ‘evolutionary appetite’.14 On the relationship between science and faith, the theme also of In Good King Charles’s Golden Days, Shaw confessed his repentance: he had believed in science as a religion, he was now going back to religious belief. He argued that science generates credulity, religion scepticism. At the time of the play (1935), he had come to look upon science with suspicion, but with respect and sympathy at the insights of poets and prophets.15 While explicit and uncompromising on the fallacies and incompleteness of the Bible, Shaw on the other hand recalls the old Arnold, since even though the Scriptures are a jumble of illusions, of blunders, of tales, they are indispensable, and have a very high historical and poetic value. Creative evolution is not a totalitarian creed, a theological system that cuts out other systems and finds them inconceivable (even an orthodox Catholic like Teilhard de Chardin was an evolutionist). It is also true that Shaw declared himself an agnostic and non-believer in the revealed religions, but as every ← 13/I | 14/I → honest English sceptic he continued to investigate the phenomenon of religion. In a beautiful page of the prefaces he summarizes who was Jesus, that is the usual historical, gifted and eclectic character, to be analysed as a human being. This troubled yet secular interest leads him to tackle problematic articles of faith in a sense paradoxically even more religious than a believer – as he does in his obsessive involvement with the visions and voices of Joan of Arc. After all the theory of creative evolution must declare who determines and operates it, who is its Aristotelian prime mover, unless it espouses the thesis of self-generation of the evolutionary movement. Creative Evolution is, to be frank, increasingly a ball and chain for Shaw’s ideology, often forcing the playwright into acrobatics in order to make it the deus ex machina of his plays. Of Shaw’s short stories ‘The Black Girl in Her Search for God’ (1931–1932), the most famous, is a theological parable illustrating through parody the changes in the divine imago throughout the various books of the Bible. ‘The Aerial Football’ is a ‘Catholic’ joke, featuring a bishop and a poor woman at the gates of paradise, where they receive a surprise. In ‘The Miraculous Revenge’ an Irishman digs up a grave to investigate a ‘Catholic’ miracle, an example of that genre of grotesque and macabre associated quintessentially with Stevenson. ‘The Emperor and the Little Girl’ (1916) is a fable suffused with unusual pathos, featuring a Kaiser overcome with remorse who haunts the battlefields while addressing as equal a little girl who ends up torn apart by bombs. ‘A Dressing Room Secret’ is yet another product of Shaw’s polemic with Shakespeare, whose Othello and Macbeth he considered overrated.

* The bibliography on Shaw in Volume 6, § 287, must be completed with Shaw: An Autobiography 1898–1950: The Playwright Years, ed. S. Weintraub, New York 1970, and The Unexpected Shaw: Biographical Approaches to G. B. S. and His Work, New York 1982. Prefaces to the plays will be cited as Prefaces from Prefaces by Bernard Shaw, London 1938.

1 CRHE, 300.

2 One of the plays Shaw generously admitted into his canon was the translation of one of the works of his own translator, Jitta’s Atonement. Trebitsch’s original play premièred in Vienna in 1920; it was translated by Shaw – who did not have much German – through a ‘telepathic method of absorption’, to the point where we could actually speak of a ‘co-invention’ with Trebitsch (Purdom 1964, 276). The play was sporadically shown in New York and in London in the early 1920s. It centres on a three-way relationship between two university professors and a woman, Jitta, married to one of them, and lover to the other. During a meeting, Jitta’s lover has a heart attack, and she promises him she will get her lover’s book, loosely inspired by psychoanalysis and in effect their co-creation, published under her husband’s name. After the funeral, her husband inquires as to the identity of the woman who was with his colleague while he lay dying, but is reluctant to put his name to the other’s work. Jitta confesses the truth, but forces her reluctant husband to publish his colleague’s work as his in order to avoid a scandal that would ruin the surviving man. In the end, the plot is uncovered, but precisely because everyone has something to confess, the happy ending is assured. The Shavian theme is common with much fin-de-siècle pessimism: the critique of the indissolubility of marriage, when faced with the difficulty of a lasting compatibility between spouses.

3 CRHE, 301.

4 Quoted in Holroyd 1991, 14.

5 See on this the useful qualifications of Weintraub 1982, 222–3.

6 The Latin grammar was the only one he had ever studied, as he confessed (Prefaces, 775).

7 Holroyd 1991, 26.

8 See for instance W. Archer in CRHE, 300, for a frequent comparison between Shaw and Voltaire.

9 Prefaces, 299.

10 Prefaces, 300.

11 Prefaces, 317.

12 Prefaces, 487.

13 Prefaces, 331.

14 Grene 1987, 132–50, is among the few critics that discuss what Shaw really thought, and would like his public to think about the ‘voices’ Joan claims to hear, and about miracles. Grene observes that Shaw, clearly embarrassed, regards miracles as inventions, that is conjectures that stand in place of ‘tedious explanations’.

15 Prefaces, 636.

§ 3. Shaw after 1921 II: ‘Saint Joan’. The divine call, an unthinkable ‘maybe’

The first of the short plays alternating with the long ones, The Admirable Bashville; Or, Constancy Unrewarded,16 appeared in 1901, penned by a Shaw who re-writes himself in the genre, as he put it, of a ‘literary joke’. It is a blank verse adaptation of his early novel Cashel Byron’s Profession, to which ← 14/I | 15/I → Shaw resorted to prevent pirate copies circulating in America.17 The story centres on the situation of the weary Lydia who longs for a man without art or culture, and finds him in the beefy Cashel, who attempts to leave the boxing ring for her sake. After a winning match, though, Cashel is wanted by the police for disturbance of the peace and thrown in prison. But a final twist reveals Cashel is of noble origin and marriage to Lydia follows. It is a successful entertainment farce, whose heap of improbable developments and twists reveals its origin in the Victorian serial. The sheen of verse makes it akin to Gay’s parodic theatre, with echoes and casts from Shakespeare and Milton that turn it sometimes into a delicious and delighting hybrid pastiche, particularly since its subject, boxing matches, is alien and resistant to treatment in verse. In Press Cuttings (1909),18 which aims to be a hilarious farce of militarism and feminism, sprinkled with a succession of comical one-liners, the historical figure of General Kitchener receives at the Ministry of War a suffragette sent to him by the Prime Minister. This opening turns out to be a hilarious coup de théâtre: the Prime Minister – whose name, Balsquith, is a riotous fusion of Asquith and Balfour – has used this ploy to forestall the ferocity of the suffragettes’ campaigns and to escape controls and avoid trouble. It is indeed a time of chaos, as laws that would exclude women from a two-mile perimeter around Westminster are being debated in Parliament. Paradoxically and provocatively, the debate hinges on the feasibility and usefulness of martial law, supported by the general with candid but abhorrent arguments which are rejected by the PM. This battle precedes The Apple Cart because it voices, without completely burying it, the view that governing a country requires the use of force and that democracy has limits. And in fact the repudiation of authoritarian militarism stems solely from the General’s pompous speech, ← 15/I | 16/I → which reveals all the resources at its disposal. As some ad hoc allusions hint, the historical setting is that of the Anglo-Prussian war of the ‘battleships’ and of the feared Prussian invasion of England. A speech more grimly militaristic, warmongering, deafer to appeasement than that of the General is inconceivable. In the second part, the Prime Minister receives in the same Ministry a delegation from the Anti-Suffragette League. Dramatic contrast is provided by the general’s housekeeper, who expresses the position of public opinion, pragmatic and indifferent to the great ideological questions that preoccupy the powerful. The Anti-Suffrage League is picturesque and pompously belligerent: its two representatives pose as Amazons, and their dialogue with the general is peppered with somewhat threadbare verbal gags. Their frenzied thirst for action induces even the general, advocate of authoritarianism, to practice moderation.19 The play then loses its thread as it descends into hard-core absurd with a series of burlesque weddings celebrated on stage. The Glimpse of Reality (1909), an historical ‘little tragedy,’ starts well, with a scandalous situation, close to Browning in appearance: an aged friar confesses a girl with no dowry, who plots to obtain it by attracting a wealthy patron to her father’s tavern. The disgusting monk, 113 years old and with sagging limbs, evokes glimmers of that macabre attraction Salome feels for Jokanaan, but for a moment only and therefore for the sake of parody. He turns out to be a disguised count, the same one that the girl and her publican father are about to kill in order to rob and who, after shedding the disguise, turns vehemently against his assassin. In short, the point of the play hinges on how the innkeeper will manage to kill the count to earn the ten crowns promised by the local lord to the murderer, and how the count will parry his wily attempts. But the short piece languishes well before the denouement: the count tries to kill the assassin, but stays alive, though blackmailed; the crowns flow into the girl’s dowry. In Passion, Poison and Petrifaction; Or, the Fatal Gazogene (1905) a murderer enters a house of a gaudy splendour, where a tired pretentious woman has just fallen asleep. It is her husband, who is approaching the ← 16/I | 17/I → bed but is held back by a sneeze of the sleeper. In evening dress, her lover then knocks on her door; the husband offers the guest a glass of poisoned whisky. Here, more than in any other of these little plays, Shaw would like us to enjoy the humour in his puns. Eventually the husband has the wife all to himself, while the dying lover can be saved with an antidote made of lime peeled from the ceiling. The absurd result is that the dying person is transformed into a living statue, which blesses the reconciled couple. The Fascinating Foundling (1909), not without spikes of invaluable humour, pivots on the encounter between an orphaned fop and the Lord Chancellor, who is asked to provide the youth with a theatre career and an aging wife. Immediately after a handsome suffragette, also orphaned, enters the office: she is the right person, and the deal is done. The little scene is among the wittiest, particularly in the very frank and truthful jokes of valets and orderlies, figures with which Shaw always centres the target. The Music-Cure (1914) describes the plight of a young politician who has bought shares he believed would have risen, but have instead collapsed, reducing him to a state of nervous exhaustion. This is also an absurd farce of weak hold: the patient, asleep with opium, thinks he is seeing crocodiles, and believes that Strega, a pianist who enters the room, is one of them. The latter, a sort of virago, was sent by his mother; on hearing her play a polonaise by Chopin, the young politician falls in love, and offers himself as a domesticated little husband in need of protection (delighted, even, by the prospect of some beatings).

2. The external occasion for Saint Joan (1923) was the canonization of the Maid by the Holy Office in 1920, but in fact a play about her figure had been brewing for some time.20 Shaw researched her life thoroughly, and retraced it in six scenes plus an epilogue, to show the fateful end met ← 17/I | 18/I → by benefactors to society who are crushed by institutions. He even bent the young warrior to the role of a forerunner of Protestantism, a follower of ‘private judgment’ to connect with God, outside of any mediation by ecclesiastical apparatuses. Shaw investigates the source of her courage and how both courage and the drive to act are inspired by the example of an indomitable heroine. As a Puritan, he admires too a fundamental faith that rests on private enlightenment: the maiden is a foreshadowing of the Quaker, Fox,21 and of the future dissenting evangelical sects. He is sceptical and at a close look minimizes the miracles: facts and natural events, though exceptional and unforeseen like the sudden overproduction of eggs from the chickens after a long and tough strike, are miraculous only through coincidence. The Archbishop himself harbours a Victorian brand of scepticism when he declares that miracles are ‘simple and innocent tricks’ to strengthen the faith of the believers, and do not imply anything truly supernatural. Even the sudden change of wind which allows the French to wade the Loire and repel the English is part of the natural order.22 The drama focuses on many key moments in an arc stretching from 1429 to 1456, the year in which the trial is reviewed and overturned under the guise of a dream that breaks with the illusionism of the stage, featuring a contemporary Catholic English priest who reads the bull of canonization. Saint Joan follows the path of the rehabilitation of saints condemned as witches, and has some overlap with the literature of demonic, Faustian imprint in its freest form. The friction in the scenes, the farcical and grotesque flavour turning to the ‘absurd’ in some situations, suggest a sort of Faustian remake such as Browning’s epilogue to Parleyings, entitled ‘Fust and His Friends’.23 In the opening dialogue between the maiden and the captain puns abound precisely because spoken words are not capitalized: Joan has received orders from the Lord, who is not the lord; a similar quid ← 18/I | 19/I → pro quo pivots on the King and the king. It is the first of many contrasts in action and in register: the captain is incredulous and rude in front of a peasant woman who claims to have been invested by God with a mission, and tells it with the utmost candour, simplicity and understatement. Her frankness is the result of an unself-conscious and naïve faith that tells her all are equal before God, and that there are no titles and privileges before him. The significance of Joan’s unconscious political-religious plan begins to take shape further on in the dialogue: on the one hand, the mission was thrust on her by the ‘voices’ of angels and of divine messengers; on the other, her mission is to restore France to the French in accordance with its natural and linguistic boundaries. It is the messianic program of a war inspired by God to carry out his command. In the second scene we see the carousel of faithless prelates, cynical men of the world and inept rulers. None is of heroic stature, all are grotesque and petty. The Dauphin Charles is debt-ridden and the laughingstock of the attendants and the Archbishop. In soldier’s garb, that is, dressed as a man because God has invested her as a warrior, Joan is brought to the king, and easily passes the test to which she has submitted herself by unmasking the king in disguise and recognizing the real thing. The indomitable masculine Joan wants to proceed against the English forts on the bridge of Orleans, as the ‘miraculous’ wind picks up, just like St Catherine had promised in her visions. The fourth scene shifts to the English camp, where the losers ascribe the unfortunate event to magic and indict Joan as a witch who has availed herself of diabolical powers.

3. The theological question at stake is whether Joan acted by magic or is a heretic. The four-way debate between the French bishop and the English priests that takes place in the play sets up Joan as a spiritual antecedent of Protestantism: she leaps over the Church to claim direct contact with God. It is not coincidental that the bishop should compare her to Mohammed and link her to Hus and the other heresies that are sweeping through Europe. But they also see in Joan a historical symbol. If she is not stopped, the mediating function of the priest will be circumvented, but not only that: aristocracy too will be liquidated, since the king and the king only must be in direct contact with God. The representatives of political power, allied with its spiritual counterpart, glimpse in Joan the dawn of a ← 19/I | 20/I → catastrophe and of a cultural earthquake. Thirdly, Joan does not know she is acting against imperialism, putting the brakes on the territorial expansion of the great powers,24 since she supports a nationalist politics, with boundaries drawn along the rigorous demarcations of nations as social-linguistic-ethnic wholes. In the one but last scene, Joan has completed her mission and is about to return to her village, for which she was homesick. Yet she pushes the king to conquer Paris even while surrounded by sceptics and herself suffering a lapse of enthusiasm. The well-disposed and bold Dunois too brings back the reasons for war to pragmatic considerations, with the king offering the usual counterpoint to these solemn disquisitions. Joan challenges him to act with a candour that is mistaken for arrogance and disobedience. The last scene of the trial underlines the origins of the charge of heresy in the words of the inquisitor. During the questioning Joan is the more naturally and humanely sincere, to the point of being witty, of uttering provoking jokes, of making the tragic familiar. She is also silly in a feminine way, as well as firm in her replies. She can but confirm that she puts God’s vital command before the deadly teachings of the Church. She eventually caves in because she realizes that St Catherine had promised her she would not be burnt at the stake, and therefore deduces that it must have been the devil who spoke to her, as she is being made to confess; she signs her confession with a heavy heart. But on hearing she will be imprisoned for life, she tears up the parchment, believing once more that her voices were truthful, and yearning for the beauties of creation which would have been forever barred to her. The epilogue takes place a quarter of a century later, a spectral dialogue in the night-time between the king, former Dauphin, and the ghosts of those who took part in the trial, whose belated review has revealed the corruption and myopia of the judges. After Joan’s spectre, one by one the other ghosts confess themselves, recriminate, regret and are redeemed, in a change brought about by the death of the maiden. Among these, there is a blaspheming soldier who takes a day’s leave from Hell in Joan’s honour: he had given her the two branches out ← 20/I | 21/I → of which she fashioned her imploring cross at the stake. In a fast-forward to 1920, the last ghost to appear is a man dressed as a priest who proclaims Joan’s canonization. But Joan’s request that she should be allowed to live again is turned down, as ‘the heretic is always best left dead’.

16 The title echoes that of a famous play by Barrie (Volume 6, § 299.2). Compared to the novel, Shaw shifts the focus to the brisk servant and his unrequited love for his mistress.

17 In blank verse is also the swift, amusing parodic sketch ‘Shakes versus Shav’, (1949), the last opus of Shaw’s canon. The Bard is imagined to be reborn and to show up at Malvern Festival to unmask his presumptive reincarnation, Shaw himself, who answers back to Shakespeare placing his own masterpieces on the same plane as Shakespeare’s immortal works – indeed, according to his opinion, above.

18 The performance of this play was prohibited until the names of the protagonists were camouflaged.

19 The assertion that the great historical warriors were women in disguise, and that women ‘govern the world using men’, obviously recalls the philosophical background in Man and Superman.

20 Sidetracking many (see e.g. Woodbridge 1963, 117), Shaw claimed that the idea came to him by chance. He did not know what to write, so why not write about St Joan. Compared to the previous tradition, dramatic, melodramatic and biographical, Shaw’s treatment of the heroine is totally anti-romantic: no carnal love – except the pure Platonic sympathy for the ‘bastard’ Dunois – is attributed to Joan, as was in Schiller. Shaw is closer to Verdi, whose opera Giovanna d’Arco is oddly never mentioned by Shaw in the preface, nor remembered by comparatists or historicists.

21 The actual protagonist of In Good King Charles’s Golden Days.

22 As Bishop Cauchon notes, Joan herself never speaks of miracles, her ‘miraculous’ action being simply the product of her lucidity and firmness. Echoing Carlyle, the bishop speaks of the exceptional resources given by ‘the courage of the faith,’ even when the faith might be ‘false’.

23 Volume 6, § 23.5.

24 This might have been a contemporary reflection on the end of the Great War, which dismantled the Empires of Central Europe and remoulded the European chessboard on the principle of national territories.

§ 4. Shaw after 1921 III: Burlesques on the powers-that-be

The rather loose link that joins The Apple Cart (1929), subtitled ‘a political extravaganza’, to a well-researched historical drama like Saint Joan, and to Shaw’s penultimate play, which again came after a number of historical extravaganzas, lies in the theme of the world’s need for a strong leader and decisive political management. Starting from a proverb, the play debates the hypothesis of an imaginary reversal of the British constitutional monarchy, not in explicit terms, but rather in the form of a political fable that has the flavour of Büchner and looks to Orwell’s dystopia (which, since Orwell knew Shaw, well might have been inspired by the latter). The stylized, Latinate, macaronic names in the play signal Shaw’s inability or unwillingness from now on to treat ideological issues if not under the species of mockery and unreal and surreal farce. This is a utopian drama set in the last quarter of the twentieth century,25 a time of political disaffection, and of wealth (pace Orwell): poverty has been completely abolished, but without the need for announcing or implementing the rationing of consumer goods (including Orwell’s chocolate) and luxury items; a prophecy of the welfare state, it has been said. The trouble is the dictatorial direction – and this is Orwellian – taken by the king, who finds himself cornered by the Labour government. Having gained some time to meditate on the government’s ultimatum, which he ends up spending with his mistress, the king receives the American ambassador who – again foreshadowing Orwell – announces America’s return to the British Empire by plebiscite. The king eventually abdicates to stand for election as a private citizen in the town of Windsor. But the government realizes that in this way the king would become a dictator elected by the people, and the withdrawal of the ultimatum props up the status quo. ← 21/I | 22/I →

2. Formally the play consists of two long sessions of the Privy Council, separated by an interlude, where the intention is to satirize the usual pettiness of politics, its small-minded character, made up of comic puppets and homunculi in an atmosphere of burlesque comedy. The issue on the agenda is governance and the ability to govern, which is grounded either in the principle of the iron fist, or on that of blandishments: too much democracy restrains political decisions, a leader is necessary, and then constitutional monarchy becomes a stumbling block. Among the first to arrive at the Council is Boanerges, newly minted Minister of Commerce, who in a private audience asks the constitutional monarch Magnus for a decisive action to tackle the crisis. A union leader of humble origins, Boanerges is obviously a Bolshevik, since he wears a red Russian-style blouse and often comes out in eulogies for a republican system to be established without bloodshed or revolution. Between him and the king the knotty problem is framed in these terms: do we need a constitutional monarch to act as an ‘adhesive postage stamp’, or a strong monarch, semi-divine as in the old days of the Romans? King Magnus replies that after all the president of a republic has ten times more power than a puppet king who serves the interests of the plutocrats. From all this emerges a veiled demand for more executive powers to those who govern, and a rejection of the checks and balances of the democratic system. During a momentary absence of the king, the whole cabinet meets to agree on how to limit the royal prerogatives. This England of the future is in a state of affluence founded, as in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, on capital investments in pockets of poverty and cheap labour. It has achieved that kind of socialism Orwell had in mind and for which he fought: ‘we have the best-paid proletariat in the world’. The ministers then want to silence the king, who responds with a long oration praising the merits of monarchy and barely refraining from declaring his support for absolute monarchy. The interlude between the two acts is filled with skirmishes between the king and his mistress. She oozes a high and delusional romanticism, and wants to free the king, prisoner of the vulgar low intrigues of politics. Stripped of regalia, Magnus turns out to be a melancholy, resigned, hen-pecked husband nagged by the queen. When time is about to run out, the king receives the American ambassador just before entering the Council again. The content of the ← 22/I | 23/I → American’s embassy reveals that already at this early stage, when Burnham’s books were still to be written26 and disseminated, the British assumed, or feared, a division of the world into two or three blocks of influence, with the merging of England into a bigger block, and the end of its centuries-old global supremacy. Socialists, though not to the point of disavowing their patriotism, neither Shaw nor Orwell greeted optimistically this scenario, which nevertheless issued from the very political weakness and submissiveness of the English. Speaking in Orwellian tones, the king sees clearly that this engulfment could be the end of old England: ‘We may survive only as another star on your flag’. To the Council the king paints a bleak picture of a future in which the centre of gravity of the world will have moved to Moscow or Washington. He remains one of Shaw’s historical movers who feels he ‘has forces’ inside him. The trick with which he threatens to return to politics after his eventual abdication ends up by protecting the status quo, and indicates that monarchy is the best possible political form, as long as it is freed from ‘constitutional’ constraints.

25 The internal chronology is shifted thirty years forwards, or in 2000, according to Valency 1973, 391.

26 Volume 8, § 29.2.

§ 5. Shaw after 1921 IV: ‘Too True to Be Good’

Rather quirky, decidedly artificial, diegetically disconnected, the three-act play Too True to Be Good (1931) leans on an initially ingenious and rather astonishing find, but then fails to fill it up, leaving the play stranded in a series of isolated provocations, a collection of eccentricities and sensational scenes, thus preventing the underlying global meaning from emerging clearly and convincingly. In other words, the play does not bear out the plan put forward in the preface, where the stated intention was to represent how having money does not lead to any results, but is rather boring and a source of dissatisfaction. In this preface Shaw presents himself as the socialist thinker in favour of the abolition of capitalism and private property to redeem mankind from a double curse, for the rich and for the poor. The brilliant premise brings us back to the atmosphere and the types of Heartbreak House, as well as to the method of staging a double plane of reality and fantasy. A young, spoiled English aristocrat, bed-ridden with measles, discovers just ← 23/I | 24/I → before it happens the planned theft of a magnificent pearl necklace by her nurse, who is in cahoots with a military chaplain turned thief. Having foiled the theft, the young woman finds herself healthy and full of life; she accepts the two fledgling criminals’ invitation to make common cause and throws herself into a life of adventure away from bourgeois conventions and especially from her mother’s protection. The strongest analogy is with Barrie’s dream-plays, since it is not clear whether the whole play is to be read purely as the patient’s dream.27 If so, even in this projected dream world a luxurious but boring life is swapped for a thrilling one, as in Barrie’s The Admirable Crichton. In Shaw’s fantastic Neverland, the roles are reversed in exceptional circumstances: Nurse Sweetie, former hotel scullery maid, becomes a countess, while the aristocrat has to pose as a native and must submit; in all three beats a longing for a life beyond conventions. Shaw then opens with a satire of the aristocracy and the symbol of the disease that is attacking and eroding it; in the development he attempts to spread around the dull and insipid evolutions of the trio28 a bitter cheer that is never despairing but always tightly controlled. The play moves to the imperial territory of India, where the three pranksters in disguise hold in check a garrison of idlers and eccentric soldiers by letting them believe that a gang of robbers are claiming a huge ransom for a kidnapped Englishwoman. Verbal gags and repeated bursts of oratory aimed at too many gratuitous targets are meant to enliven this drab canvas without dramatic development. Miss Mopply, the ‘patient,’ denounces parental coercion, with its protective cotton wool which nevertheless cannot shield from the disease. Similarly, Aubrey Bagot, who became a priest, and a thieving one at that, despite his secular education and atheistic father, comes out of nowhere to denounce the failures of scientism.29 When in this exotic scenario enters Colonel Tallboys, he introduces a stale satire of sedentary and inactive militarism and of the Indian police, while the caricature of Meek the attendant re-hashes the figure of ← 24/I | 25/I → the impertinent yet alert and resourceful subaltern.30 The simple-minded character of the plot must be continuously masked by inward-looking yet abundant speeches and monologues which aspire to be – and unintentionally are – gratuitous notifications of the chaos and nonsense of life,31 while at the same time invoking a kind of Pentecostal fire of renewal. Shaw attempts to make of his three protagonists Brechtian characters out of role, capable of expressing the friction between an overabundance of rambling words and the need for action; the attempt is a failure.

2. In the first act a patient with measles, whose first name we never learn, has a vision of the microbe that struck her down, though from the point of view of the microbe, she is the one to have infected it. The double plane of the action, the natural and the supernatural, is revealed by the fact that the microbe comments aloud on the actions of the characters and follows closely a long dialogue between the doctor and the concerned mother of the patient. The expected point of view is reversed when the infected bacillus asks the doctor to be healed, conveying the message that the rich are full of infectious diseases, that any cure only deceives the patient who must instead heal herself. In short, the patient has been made ill by too much caring rather than by its absence, and has no good reason to complain of a lack of attentions. It is then not a lively nurse who takes care of the patient, but rather a thief’s sidekick signalling to her accomplice the right time to come in. When the thief enters the room and is about to pull out the drawer of the night-table to steal the pearl necklace, the not-so-ill patient jumps out of bed to face him off and knock him down – an unexpected outpouring of the ‘mysterious power that gives us life but is to all unknown’. Immediately afterwards, the two criminals conceive a plan: to take the patient on as an accomplice, since after the scuffle she feels better than ever. With the proceeds of the sale, the imaginary invalid will enjoy life, true life. The pair will get a hefty commission on the sale of the necklace. Patient and microbe recover, and the three stage a fake kidnapping, ← 25/I | 26/I → still driven by an overwhelming desire for an untrammelled life. The second and third acts look like they only take place in the delusional imagination of the patient as she enjoys the adventurous life that convention precluded. They are however sheer incongruity. In the second act, the former patient, still dissatisfied, is about to be unmasked as English by the colonel. In the third, the first scene is a slow and long-winded dialogue on the prospects of humanity by a pious and delusional sergeant who loves Bunyan, and seems in his delirium to predict Europe’s decay as it submits to dictatorship and the winds of war. Out of nowhere jumps an old man raving and blathering on matter escaping the control of science, in whom the thieving priest recognizes his father. The end unravels as it jumps into utopias arising from the weariness and disappointment for a world ‘that is precisely the opposite of what I was taught’ – and then into the surreal, also with countermoves such as that of the ‘patient’ who ends up founding an order of lay nuns in which her mother will be the cook.

27 There is however no return to the opening scene, and to the bed-ridden ‘patient’.

28 The play concludes with a note that says ‘the author […] does not believe the world can be saved by words alone’.

29 According to Holroyd 1991, 263, the priest is a not-disparaging parody of Rev. Inge, dean of St Paul in London.

30 Riding a powerful and noisy motorbike, Meek has been seen as a reflection of Lawrence of Arabia, a friend of Shaw’s.

31 In the thief’s final speech: ‘everyone is falling, falling, infinitely and despairingly falling into a void where there is no footing’.

§ 6. Shaw after 1921 V: Other extravaganzas and socio-political fables

The short Village Wooing (1933) consists of three conversations between the only two characters, wittily designated with the first and last letters of the alphabet – a and zed – to indicate their fundamental opposition, in three different situations. The sketch ends with the poles overlapping, and therefore with a wedding. A forty-year-old intellectual, sly and reserved, enters into a dialogue with a young, cheeky shop assistant on the deck of an ocean liner. The woman won her passage in a quiz, the man writes travel guides. In deference to Shaw’s ideological scheme, the woman is the one to provoke and tease the slightly misogynist man, widower of a mismatched union. After the initial frost, a connection is made, but neuroses and frustrations emerge too. ‘I do not think the world is rightly arranged’, states the disenchanted writer, who seems to be left untouched by the meeting on the ship. In the second scene the writer is on a countryside ramble when he happens to drop by the very village shop where the young woman works as shop assistant and phone operator (the village being the one where Shaw lived). He does not recognize her because he has had a memory lapse,32 ← 26/I | 27/I → but otherwise he is still as grouchy, grumpy and stubborn. The situation is however gradually reversed as it is the man now who feels the need to speak and communicate, interrupting with his curiosity the shop-assistant’s work. He is undergoing a great transformation, and in the third scene he woos the shop assistant (having bought the shop) and convinces her to get married. It is a bit of a forced fable on the need for marriage as the engine of history, in spite of its penalties and risks. Always dry and funny, the dialogue nevertheless ends up by succumbing to the writer’s vague and fantastical tirades, which deny that marriage merely amounts to sensual satisfaction and praise it for its contribution to the continuation of life and the antidote to the ‘extinction and final annihilation’ of man.

2. The vast and gradually impossible to follow – and therefore also to stage – On the Rocks (1933) may function as the counterpart to The Apple Cart, as it reviews the chaos of contemporary society and politics in the guise of a partly surreal farce. The point of view here is not that of the monarch, but of an imaginary Liberal Prime Minister heading a government of broad national coalition. More precisely, the historical background is that of the discontent of the working classes, of a rising unemployment that brings the masses ever closer to socialism and Marxism, amid fears of a possible proletarian revolution in Britain. On the opposing front, a timid and unsure democracy is in power, tempted by a more repressive policy against the background of shifts in alliances between parties and opinion groups. Many of these issues are the same as those that preoccupied Orwell, whose treatment was however much more direct and far less farcical, as well as coming from the opposite political perspective. The gist of Shaw’s discourse lies in identifying the unavoidable contradictions revealed in totalitarian ideologies once they are implemented, including that of Marx, in Shaw’s opinion. The title is wittily ambiguous: on the one hand, it pessimistically alludes to the sinking of the national ship and to its fatal clash against the rocks; on the other, it mocks the moderate view for which socialism would destroy the family, the rock, or stone, or even pillar on which society rests. As the curtain rises, it shows the premier preparing a speech for a meeting of clergymen which will hinge on the concept that socialism ‘destroys the family’. In ironic contrast, his daughter enters the scene to demonstrate that the PM’s own family is far from harmonious: she protests against her mother’s oppressive interference in her life, while ← 27/I | 28/I → the girl’s mother in her turn confesses her increasing frustration. Crushed by the machinations of politics, the PM is comforted with the acrobatic trick of a half-dreamy interlude where a therapist who proclaims herself a ‘ghost from the future’ admonishes him, cuts him down to size, and then brings him to her sanatorium to heal his mind. Though the first act takes off soberly, is orderly and mindful of theatrical conventions (at least up to this improbable spectral appearance), the major failing of the play turns out to be its uncontrolled verbosity. The second act is among the most incoherent in Shaw’s corpus: a carousel of too many ill-defined and hastily focused public figures expands too freely and in excessive, loving detail on the politics of their class. In Downing Street everyone is waiting for the Prime Minister to wake up after delivering a revolutionary discourse that announced a vast program of nationalizations to wide-spread astonishment, inspired by his reading of the complete works of Marx during his rest-cure. The sequencing of various interventions has the paradoxical task of proving that the program is supported by all but the proletarians it should and would favour. Alternatively, they could be seen as driving home the defeatist conclusion that after each decision – for or against the capitalists and proletarians – there will always be one class that loses out and remains unsatisfied. The workers are the only ones to demand the withdrawal of the socialist program. It is easy for Shaw to demonstrate that every new political direction struggles to reshuffle the deck, but that each reshuffle produces monstrous alliances in accordance with its inspiring principles. The paradox is that ‘chained dogs [the workers] are the fiercest guardians of property’. This extended cabinet meeting concludes with the resignation of the conservative side in the coalition. The playwright does not seem able to stop from suggesting that only the iron fist will be able to restore national order; on the other hand, he is also confident that there will never be a revolution in England.33 Not the least of the contradictions besieging the proletariat is that two revolutionaries should both be vying to marry the ← 28/I | 29/I → son and daughter of the Prime Minister,34 who in his turn must recognize that it is impossible to pursue a sound and thoughtful form of politics. Even the old Marxist points to the failures of the democratic system, once it becomes a reality and is no longer an unreachable chimera. He too calls for the hard iron fist, or to be clear a ‘dictator’. In the preface Shaw barely touches upon the starting event of the drama – the repression of the protesters advocated by the police chief – only to move on to a disquisition on the need of mass exterminations, though without cruelty. Addressing the question of whether a government should be firing on its own people and on unruly demonstrators, Shaw argues that it is a political function from which there can be no exemption. The incorrigible should be eliminated, just as the unredeemable should end up in jail. With a superb page playing devil’s advocate, Shaw ends up arguing that Jesus was rightly ‘exterminated’, although with unnecessary cruelty.


XVIII, 1280
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (November)
English Literature Modernism
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2019. XVIII, 1280 pp.

Biographical notes

Franco Marucci (Author)

Franco Marucci is a former Professor of English at the Universities of Siena, Florence and Venice Ca’ Foscari. His publications include Il senso interrotto. Autonomia e codificazione nella poesia di Dylan Thomas (1976), The Fine Delight that Fathers Thought: Rhetoric and Medievalism in Gerard Manley Hopkins (1994), L’inchiostro del mago. Saggi di letteratura inglese dell’Ottocento (2009) and Joyce (2013). His Storia della letteratura inglese in eight volumes was published by Le Lettere / Editoriale Srl, 2003–2018. As a creative writer he is the author of Pentapoli (2011), followed by Il Michelin del sacro (2012). He runs the blog <http://francomarucci.wordpress.com>, with comments and features on literature and music, and a weekly sports page.


Title: History of English Literature, Volume 7 - Print