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.