Thursday, September 20, 2012

It's only poetic horror, isn't it, Eugene? - Shaw's Candida

I have burdened George Bernard Shaw with part-accurate negative associations ever since I read the moralistic Mrs. Warren’s Profession almost twenty-five years ago, with what level of attention or understanding I would not want to guess.  Shaw is a writer of Big Ideas, Shaw is preachy, Shaw is if not humorless – he did write a number of comedies – then plodding.  His contemporary Wilde is light and meaningless; Shaw is heavy and meaningful.

All of this is, if true of this or that play, wrong overall, and I have known that it is wrong for a decade or more as what I have haphazardly read about Shaw finally penetrated (film and theater critic Stanley Kauffmann was especially helpful – see the relevant chapter in Conversations with Stanley Kauffmann, 2003, for an enthusiastic appreciation of Shaw).

Borges and Bioy Casares pointed me to the 1898 Candida as a source for a couple of lifelike characters, and I found them, plenty of them.  Michael Feingold, in a recent Village Voice review of the play, calls the two male leads “irresistible actor bait,” which may be a good theatrical substitute for Borges’s verisimilitude, but Feingold also calls the female lead, Candida, “the role of roles,” and a couple of minor roles must also be great fun to play.

“The Reverend James Mavor Morell is a Christian Socialist clergyman of the Church of England” - I will interrupt here to note my surprise at how unimportant the “Christian Socialist” business is, but this turns out to be an unimportant kind of play.  Reverend Morell is perfect in every way, in large part, perhaps entirely, because his wife Candida is perfect, a Strong Female Character blessed with casual grace and a sense of irony.  The young aristocratic Bohemian poet Eugene Marchbanks is a charitable project of Candida and her husband; he is either the representation of the nobility of art and true feeling or a nitwit.  Shaw leans towards the former, I toward the latter.  “Miserably irresolute” is how Shaw describes him.

The drama of the comedy is that Marchbanks, who is all of 18 years old, falls in love with Candida and declares himself not to her but to her husband the minister who is, to the surprise of everyone including himself, shaken in his convictions about his marriage.  In other words, a domestic comedy with minor consequences, but plenty of room for good jabber.  The element of shock that likely accompanied this scenario in 1898 has probably been lost.

What have I omitted that I need for this passage?  Burgess, Candida’s wealthy Cockney father, a representation of Capitalism and broad comedy.  The poet Marchbanks is horrified  that his goddess Candida does housework:

CANDIDA (with serious vexation).  My own particular pet scrubbing brush has been used for blackleading.  (A heart-breaking wail bursts from Marchbanks.  Burgess looks round, amazed.  Candida hurries to the sofa.) What's the matter? Are you ill, Eugene?

MARCHBANKS.  No, not ill.  Only horror, horror, horror!  (He bows his head on his hands.)

BURGESS (shocked).  What!  Got the 'orrors, Mr. Morchbanks!  Oh, that's bad, at your age. You must leave it off grajally.

CANDIDA (reassured).  Nonsense, papa.  It's only poetic horror, isn't it, Eugene?  (Petting him.)

BURGESS (abashed).  Oh, poetic 'orror, is it?  I beg your pordon, I'm shore.  (He turns to the fire again, deprecating his hasty conclusion.)

I should read more Shaw someday.  I should reread Mrs. Warren’s Profession.  I should say something about the characterization, which is why I bothered to read the play.


  1. Only know GBS from Pygmalion, and that's not a play I like a lot.

    But I liked the passage you quoted.

  2. Not to long ago I read Shaw's John Bull's Other Ireland which Declan Kiberd says is his only play with any setting in Ireland and his only attempt to deal with colonial issues. It is about how The English invented their ideas of the Irish. I liked it a lot. I also read his Androcles and the Lion a couple of years ago and enjoyed it.

  3. That was the biggest surprise I took away from that Stanley Kauffmann interview - the variety within Shaw's work. In his pronouncements he can sound narrower than he really is. For example, he can tell jokes when he wants to.

    "[D]eal with colonial issues" - that was my fear of Shaw, exactly. Which issue does this play deal with? And is there then anything else I need to know? But that is obviously too narrow to do Shaw justice.

  4. Interesting! I didn't know that Shaw was considered humorless. In his own day, he had a reputation as a wit. He even had a clownish side, as in his puppet play where he battles Shakespeare.

  5. Yes, it was a pretty bad category error, wasn't it? Any list of Shaw quotations will have some zingers as good as Wilde's.

    That puppet play is a heck of a thing. The Rob Roy puppet beheads the Macbeth puppet.

  6. It's funny, but Shaw could always be funny, right? What he wasn't so often was subtle. Though I don't have a lot of exposure to him: just Pygmalion and Major Barbara and Saint Joan (which is funny and not subtle and ultimately pointless but still enjoyable; his comments about Socrates are spot on though I remember something unflattering about Shakespeare). I should read more Shaw. Maybe after Fortunata and Jacinta. We'll see.

  7. See how you like the fragments of Candida I put up today.

    That puppet play Doug supplied is pretty rough on Shakespeare, although not entirely seriously.

  8. I like the Candida fragments; I might read this one.

    I had no idea about the puppet play. Whaur's your Wullie Shaxper the noo? It's quite the dustup and no mistaking. At least Lear keeps talking after Rob Roy has done with him. Which is maybe the point. Or part of the point.

  9. The knock I would make against the play, if I had any interest in going into it more, is that the point of it all seems trivial. But I have no complaints about everything that moved me along to the point.

    This is just another point that makes it a perfect actors' play. Actors rarely care about the overall meaning of the play. They just want good parts. This play has five of them. So let's put on a show!

  10. As you'll notice, Shakespeare gets the last word in the puppet play, as he snuffs out Shaw's candle. Since Shaw wrote it at 93, fully expecting it to be his last word, it's a sweet and complicated moment. (He started another play, but didn't finish it.)

    He also wrote an alternate fifth act to "Cymbeline," which is, if nothing else, a spirited bit of Shakespearean criticism. I'm not sure if he ever realized that Shakespeare's wildness, richness, and oddness were assets, not liabilities.

  11. I did notice that Shakespeare gets the last word, the final joke, in the puppet play. It seems like Shaw wants people to pay attention to living playwrights but still recognizes that Shakespeare will keep on talking no matter what living writers do. You can't silence Shakespeare. I get the feeling that Shaw wanted to be a great playwright but feared he wasn't one, and (as you maybe imply) didn't really see what it was to be truly great. I like Shaw, even in his ignorance. Or maybe because of it. As you say, it's sweet and complicated. I don't think he really *got* Shakespeare. I think old Bill was too complex, too messy and too full of disunity for Shaw. Sort of the way the 18th century German critics viewed Shakespeare. Maybe.

  12. At times a discussion arises in comments which is so good that the host's best move is to stay out of it.