One could hardly imagine a change so violent, or rather so tranquil, as that from the horror of Mrs. Warren’s Profession to the comedy of Arms and the Man which immediately followed it: breakfast in the garden, with the world at peace again and the washing hanging out to dry on the fruit bushes. Until Major Barbara, the subject of An Unsocial Socialist and the Unpleasant Plays disappears; the action of the intervening plays moves off to Bulgaria or Morocco, to Cleopatra’s Egypt and the America of the War of Independence. But it would be hasty to think this shift of scene a flight; Arms and the Man may have provided the idea for that successful musical comedy The Chocolate Soldier, yet it was intended by its author to be “an attempt at Hamlet in the comic spirit”. The underlying theme of the plays up to Major Barbara is as serious and essentially the same as in Widowers’ Houses and Mrs. Warren’s Profession.
The treatment of it, however, is less powerful and direct. Just as in Shaw’s attempt at Hamlet in the comic spirit one hardly even notices the presence of a Hamlet, so also in the other plays comedy, melodrama, fooling and argument almost conceal something like tragedy. This is both the strength and the weakness of the plays: they are more profound than they appear, but the action never comes thoroughly to grips with its real subject.
Shaw’s Unpleasant Plays attempt full self-expression in dramatic form. The comedies require to be read in the light of their prefaces and of Shaw’s critical writings, particularly The Quintessence of Ibsenism (delivered as a lecture in 1890 and published in 1891), The Sanity of Art (1895) and The Perfect Wagnerite (1898), to which we must now turn, resuming the discussion of the plays in the next chapter.
These critical writings deal not only with Ibsen or Wagner. Their essential theme is “humanity” in evolution. The earlier
“imposing generalizations about the evolution from slavery to serfdom and from serfdom to free wage labor” are now discarded; humanity’s history is now told as the story of its advance from the age of faith to the age of reason, and from the age of reason to the age of the will. Though these three ages are correlated respectively with feudalism, capitalism and anarchism, it is not their economic and political systems which differentiate them, but the predominance of faith, reason or the will; and humanity resembles the divine humanity of Auguste Comte (which is not humanity, but, to quote from the title-page of A General View of Positivism, “the Great Western Republic, formed of the five advanced nations, The French, Italian, Spanish, British, and German, which, since the time of Charlemagne, have always constituted a political whole”).
There are in society three different orders of men: “to wit, the instinctive, predatory, lustful, greedy people; the patient, toiling, stupid, respectful, money-worshipping people; and the intellectual, moral, talented people who devise and administer States and Churches.” This classification is made in The Perfect Wagnerite, where Shaw, wishing to make clear the political meaning of the operas, identifies the three orders with Wagner’s dwarfs, giants and gods respectively, using the dwarfs to represent the capitalists and the giants the workers (in the sense not only of the proletariat but also the serfs). The gods, in whom the “mysterious thing we call life” is most highly organized, are themselves mysterious.
In the age of faith, life organized in the gods (Shaw also calls it “Godhead”) is confronted with the stupidity of the giants; and they, unable to understand the moral faith on which Godhead would found the social order, must be compelled to conform their actions to it by mechanical laws and institutions, which can only retain the necessary power of authority if they are surrounded with the awe of the eternally unchanging; and this awe can only be instilled by associating the legislative power with “displays of splendor and majesty”. “The God turned lawgiver, in short, must be crowned Pontiff and King.” But the thought that shapes the law continually grows with the ceaseless evolution of life, and today’s thought is already beyond yesterday’s law; yet Godhead cannot repudiate its obsolete laws without imperilling the respect for the law on which society
stands. Conscious of this contradiction, Godhead “begins secretly to long for the advent of some power higher than itself which will destroy its artificial empire of law, and establish a true republic of free thought.”
Yet despite the contradiction between yesterday’s law and today’s thought, Godhead in the feudal age of faith, when it has only the stupidity of the giants to contend with, is still able to make a social order which will express its thought without corrupting it. For Godhead can induce the honest giants “to build for Godhead a mighty fortress, complete with hall and chapel, tower and bell, for the sake of the homesteads that will grow up in security round that church-castle.” Rulers and ruled co-operate, Shaw implies, and in that co-operation create a social life that expresses the unifying principle of society.
But then comes the dwarf, who, instead of enjoying innocently the colour and glitter and preciousness of gold, grasps the fact that he can turn it into money and drive millions of men by the invisible whip of hunger to pile up profit for him. The Church makes common cause with the capitalists to rob the people; and the gods become untrue to Godhead.
Finally comes the higher power for which Godhead had longed, to destroy the artificial empire of law. This higher power grows out of man’s discovery of his own will. In the age of faith, man thought that the energy within him was a power outside him, which he worshipped and feared. As he became bolder, he ceased to fear everything and dared to love something, and his duty to what he feared evolved into a sense of duty to what he loved; he began to deny his duty to God and to acknowledge only his duty to his neighbour.
“This stage,” Shaw says, “is correlative to the rationalist stage in the evolution of philosophy and the capitalist phase in the evolution of society.”
Man had, however, emancipated himself from God only to fall under the dominion of society, by which he is remorselessly crushed. But as his courage grows, he revolts; and in the growth of his courage the decisive step is his recognition of the will within him. He revolts first through Protestantism, whose doctrine of “original sin” and “divine grace” is the affirmation of the will as “distinct from the reasoning machinery.”
Protestantism, however, in establishing its own authoritative
church, was false to its own wisdom, until Schopenhauer, to quote from The Sanity of Art, “re-established the old theological doctrine that reason is no motive power; that the true motive power in the world is will (otherwise Life); and that the setting-up of reason above will is a damnable error.”
As Shaw says in a section of The Sanity of Art entitled “Protestant Anarchism”, today we can dispense with Schopenhauer’s pessimism and Nirvana, and “look life straight in the face and see in it, not the fulfilment of a moral law or of the deductions of reason, but the satisfaction of a passion in us of which we can give no rational account whatever.” In the same way, the Protestantism which declared that every man’s private judgment is the most trustworthy interpreter of the will of God must now declare that every man’s private judgment is the most trustworthy interpreter of the will of Humanity. It must take, and has taken, “a fresh step in advance, and become Anarchism.”
In the discussion of Widowers’ Houses, I suggested that Shaw began to write plays because through the drama he wished to arouse for the fight against capitalism those emotions of the people which Fabianism could not stir. There is, I think, a similar intention in these essays.
Their leading ideas—the “Godhead” of The Perfect Wagnerite (1898) is already implicit in the “will” of The Quintessence of Ibsenism (1890/1)—were conceived round about the time of the Unpleasant Plays, when Shaw was most conscious of the real character of capitalist society and loathed it with physical loathing. He had once believed that the years when he was writing the Unpleasant Plays would already have seen the victory of the socialist revolution. Those hopes were defeated, and he had reluctantly accepted the Fabian policy of a slow transition to social democracy. But the hatred of capitalist society remained, and the wish for its immediate destruction. Shaw still longed for the storms and the whirlwinds which he knew the dispassionate, detached, fact-finding Fabianism could neither arouse nor direct. He felt it to be his task to find a policy which should not be vulnerable to the Fabian criticism that a revolutionary policy was not practical; which should meet his own artist’s criticism of Fabianism that it was complacent about the horror of capitalist society; and which should organize, as Fabianism could not organize, the energy and
anger of the people he had embodied in Mrs. Warren and all that force through which audience and actors in a play become a group that is more than the sum of their individual existences. His conception that the divine will of man had found partial expression in feudalism, had been enslaved under capitalism, and had now found its freedom in a Schopenhauerian and Wagnerian anarchism, is intended to be the theoretical foundation of such a policy.
This theoretical foundation had already been demolished half a century before. To Shaw’s theory of the liberation of the human will can be applied, word for word, what Marx and Engels had written in the Communist Manifesto of “German or True Socialism”. Because it did not expose the struggle of one class with the other, “True Socialism” prided itself on expressing “the laws of pure Will, of Will as it must be, of true human Will generally,” and on representing “not the interests of the proletariat, but the interests of Human Nature, of Man in general, who belongs to no class, has no reality, who exists only in the misty realm of philosophical phantasy.”
Shaw’s history of humanity is such a phantasy. When he might have kept his early enthusiasm for the materialistic conception of history and deepened his understanding of it by studying the works of Marx and Engels, he turned instead to Fabianism and laughed at his “lightning sketches of the development of the medieval craftsman into the manufacturer and finally into the factory hand;” but when he thought he was laying aside youthful follies, he was in fact turning back to that “Positivist rot”, as Marx justly called it, the sentimental religion of a metaphysical Humanity, with a very inflated capital.
From this story of abstractions the class struggle has been eliminated. For example, when “man” in the age of faith “becomes the slave of his duty to God,” are the peasants who must till the lands of the Church, and the priests and monks who live on the peasants’ toil, equally the slaves of that duty? In the stage correlative to capitalism, is the capitalist the “he” that becomes a humanitarian, an altruist, acknowledging only his duty to his neighbour?
Because Shaw’s “ man ” and “ society ” are abstractions, he conceives the unity of society as an abstraction also. Society becomes God, and the individual is united with it through his
emotional awareness of an immaterial bond. But—this is typical bourgeois subjectivism—if the individual is unaware of the bond, neither the bond nor society exist. Thus, in Shaw’s description of the three ages of mankind, life or Godhead works in the first period because the gods perceive Godhead; it works in the third period because the anarchist perceives the will. But in the age of rationalism the Godhead is dumb; there is blank silence save for the vain bibble-babble of the conceited reason, and the only flicker of the will is in the Protestant’s original sin and divine grace. Because the rationalist is not conscious ofthe will, the will ceases. When the gods make common cause with the capitalist dwarfs and betray Godhead, then Godhead hangs powerless, crucified. Social forces work only through the individual’s consciousness of them, and only as immaterial forces.
This idealism in Shaw’s conception of individual and society joins hands with his Fabianism. Despite romantic pictures of a Siegfried-like anarchist repudiating all duty, Shaw elevates society above the people who make it, and will hear nothing of a revolutionary power in the people to change it. There is a significant passage in The Quintessance of Ibsenism, when Shaw is discussing the transition from the age of faith to that of reason:
“One of the first and most famous utterances of rationalism would have condemned it without further hearing had its full significance been seen at the time. Voltaire, taking exception to the trash of some poetaster, was met with the plea “One must live”. “I don’t see the necessity,” replied Voltaire. The evasion was worthy of the Father of Lies himself; for Voltaire was face to face with the very necessity he was denying; must have known, consciously or not, that it is the universal postulate; would have understood, if he had lived today, that since all valid human institutions are constructed to fulfil man’s will, and his will is to live even when his reason teaches him to die, logical necessity, which was the sort Voltaire meant (the other sort being visible enough) can never be a motor in human action, and is, in short, not necessity at all. But that was not brought to light in Voltaire’s time; and he died impenitent, bequeathing to his disciples that most logical of agents, the guillotine, which also ‘did not see the necessity’.”
And the mention of which most logical agent convicts Shaw himself of evasion. Had he been Louis XVI, he would have had to own that Voltaire’s necessity can be necessity.
It is true that man’s will is “to live even when his reason teaches him to die”; nevertheless, men can die, and when necessary kill, for ideals founded on reason. Shaw enslaves man and his reason in helpless bondage to “the will”, from which there is no release but in unwilling death.
There must and can be no guillotines, because guillotines do not recognize the “will”; man’s “will” is a metaphysical authority within him against which he neither may nor can rebel. In rejecting historical materialism for the religion of Humanity’s immanent will, Shaw followed the same bias as when he chose the Fabian Society rather than the more proletarian Social-Democratic Federation; neither in his practice nor his theory could he free himself from his class. Having found this religion, which satisfied his need to feel himself part of something greater than himself, he defends it by the most tricky and intricate arguments against his own knowledge that the real world is not a mystic working of an abstract Godhead, but a world of exploitation and struggle.
It is a sign of the strength of that knowledge that Shaw had to resort to such shifts to remain persuaded of his beliefs. In The Quintessence of Ibsenism he has to convince himself that Ibsen shared them; and in order to do so, he distorts Ibsen.
The lesson which Ibsen intended to teach, according to Shaw, is that it is useless to make claims on people which they are not yet prepared to meet:
“Whether, like Brand, we make such claims because to refrain would be to compromise with evil, or, like Gregers Werle, because we think their moral beauty must recommend them at sight to everyone, we shall alike incur Relling’s impatient assurance that “ life would be quite tolerable if we could only get rid of the confounded duns that keep on pestering us in our poverty with the claims of the ideal.” ”
He justifies this interpretation by a most specious argument. Man, he says, is afraid of reality and of himself. To hide his fear and frustration, he creates ideals, a picture of society as it ought to be, to Hide the intolerable truth of society as it is; and unable to bear the truth about himself, he tries not to be himself, but “a good man”, and demands of others that they also should be “good” men, lest their freedom should make him despise himself the more. Such an idealist is Ibsen’s Brand, who declares himself “the champion, not of things as they are, nor of things as they can be made, but of things as they ought to be.” Afraid to face reality as it is, he hides it and stifles it and kills it, as he kills his own son, beneath the mask of reality as it ought to be: “Brand, aspiring from height to height of devotion to his ideal, plunges from depth to depth of murderous cruelty.” He dies a saint and a hero, but his heroism is only the disguise of his fear of reality, and its only result is that in calling on others to follow his ideal he causes “more suffering by his saintliness than the most talented sinner could possibly have done with twice his opportunities.”
Brand falls under the same censure as Voltaire and the French Revolution: he makes and demands the sacrifice of life for an ideal which he has set up by conscious reason. That, according to Shaw, is the rationalist sin against the Holy Ghost (an alternative name for the will); and he makes Ibsen also condemn it as a sin against life.
This misrepresentation is all the more dangerous because it contains an element of truth. It is indeed the weakness of Brand that he is the champion of things as they ought to be rather than of things as they can be made. He never bridges that chasm of which he speaks “between is and should be”; for though he unites life and ideals through his own individual refusal to compromise, he never shows how they are to be united in the social life of all men. The ideal to which he sacrifices himself is an abstraction, and the suffering involved in its pursuit lacks meaning; neither the sacrifices he demands for it from others nor even his own death unite “is and should be” in a tragic conflict. But Shaw twists the weakness of the play into the play’s real purpose (though Ibsen, he says, only became fully conscious of it in his later work): namely, to show all ideals as empty abstractions, and to hold up to contempt all those
who pursue any ideal, good or bad, and who make themselves the champions of things as they ought to be and refuse to accept things as they are. According to Shaw’s interpretation, the mob who stone Brand at the end of the play and then hasten back to their money-making—this mob had Ibsen at their head.
But from the first line of the play to the last Ibsen has for the self-satisfied Philistines and their mocking of all ideals nothing but the fiercest scorn. He created Brand, not to prove the Philistines right, not to condemn the pursuit of ideals, but in an attempt to answer the question ofhow the ideal is to be pursued, how the individual in society can be true to his own will. The problem of Brand is the problem that Shaw set himself with his conception of the anarchist, who by being true to his own will liberates humanity’s Godhead. Ibsen faced his problem, even if he did not solve it; Shaw avoids it. He says to man, “Be yourself;” but when Brand lives these words, Shaw joins the Philistines.
If Shaw’s account of the three ages of mankind defies the attempt to give it a real consistent meaning in terms of actual life, still more does his theory of anarchism. He burkes every problem that it raises. He says, rightly, that the age of rationalism is correlative to capitalism; but he does not say to what economic system the age of the liberated will is correlative. Is it socialism? No; for speaking in The Perfect Wagnerite of Siegfried, who represents the higher power by which man’s Godhead is to be liberated from the artificial empire of law, Shaw calls him “a totally unmoral person, a born anarchist, the ideal of Bakoonin, an anticipation of the “overman” of Nietzsche;” and there have been few bitterer enemies of socialism than Nietzsche. True, as another hero of the liberated will Shaw instances Ferdinand Lassalle (as for Marx, Shaw joined the conspiracy of silence against him); he cites Lassalle, however, not as a socialist, but as “the godless self-worshipper”, and implies that self-worship means the repudiation of duty to the socialist State in the name of the greater freedom glimpsed by Nietzsche and Ibsen.
Ibsen wrote: “The State must be abolished. That is a revolution which will have my approval.” That, however, is not the Ibsenite freedom which Shaw means; for he only wishes to abolish the State by depriving it of its capital letter. One must
still pay the tax collector; one regards him, however, which makes all the difference, “ not as the vicar of an abstraction called THE STATE, but simply as the man sent round by a committee of citizens (mostly fools . . .) to collect the money for the police or the paving and lighting of the streets.” Shaw now forgot the demonstrators running before the police on Bloody Sunday; he forgot how he had warned the meeting, when Annie Besant called on them to return to Trafalgar Square, that they would have to face the State’s machine-guns firing 250 bullets a minute.
Just as Shaw’s conception of man’s Godhead is vitiated by bourgeois idealism, so his conception of man’s freedom is vitiated by doctrines of laissez-faire. By some beneficent pre-established harmony, the release of individual impulse in perfect anarchism will work for the good of all. “The most inevitable dramatic conception, then, of the nineteenth century,” he writes in The Perfect Wagnerite (and adds that this conception is ‘already incipient in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations’),
“is that of a perfectly naive hero upsetting religion, law and order in all directions, and establishing in their place the unfettered action of Humanity doing exactly what it likes, and producing order instead of confusion thereby because it likes to do what is necessary for the good of the race.”
“The unfettered action of Humanity doing exactly what it likes:” did no echo of Mrs. Warren’s Profession sound in his ears? “Wind up a business that’s paying 35 per cent in the worst years! Not likely.” Changing humanity into Humanity does not stop Sir George Crofts; calling the State a committee of mostly fools does not lessen its power.
Shaw admits in The Quintessence of Ibsenism that in his account of the plays he may perhaps have “suggested false judgments by describing the errors of the idealists in the terms of the life they have risen above rather than in those of the life they fall short of.” He justifies himself on the ground that there are no longer any generally recognized values that express what the Protestant anarchism
idealists strive for, and thus the false implication was unavoidable that Ibsen condemned Brand in the name of the place-hunting mob; “accurate terms for realist morality,” Shaw explains, “ though they are to be found in the Bible, are . . . out of fashion and forgotten.”
The task of defining the ideal which the idealists fail to reach was made still more difficult, Shaw says, by
“our inveterate habit of labelling men with the abstract names of their qualities without the slightest reference to the underlying will which sets these qualities in action. At an anniversary celebration of the Paris Commune of 1871, I was struck by the fact that no speaker could find a eulogy for the Federals which would not have been equally appropriate to the peasants of La Vendée who fought for their tyrants against the French revolutionists, or to the Irishmen and Highlanders who fought for the Stuarts at the Boyne or Culloden. The statements that the slain members of the Commune were heroes who died for a noble ideal would have left a stranger quite as much in the dark about them as the counter statements, once common enough in our newspapers, that they were incendiaries and assassins.”
That passage is characteristic of a perverseness in Shaw which makes him almost tell the truth and then unsay it. The truth comes into his mind; he then thinks about it wrongly. The task is, as he says, to find “accurate terms for realist morality;” by speaking of the Paris Commune he answers his own question: the fight of the Communards to establish a workers’ State was realist morality in action. But Shaw passes over action; and because the word “heroes” has been applied both to revolutionaries and reactionaries, he will not see that their different parts in the class struggle provide the test by which right and wrong can be distinguished. He therefore looks for a standard of morality outside socialism; and being unable to find it, longs for the Bible again.
That is the source of all the abstraction and confusion in these essays. As we saw in the discussion of An Unsocial Socialist and the Unpleasant Plays, Shaw’s faith that the workers could achieve socialism was never strong. He always believed in the power
of Marxism as a moral force, rather than in the power of a proletarian movement guided by Marxism; because he never advanced beyond a first sight of the truth of historical materialism, he never understood how important is the contradiction between the growth of the productive forces and the social relations by which they are fettered. The first wild hopes of a revolution having been shattered, Shaw lost faith still more in the workers and the power of Marxism. The people were not ready for socialism, and it is useless to make claims on people which they are not yet prepared to meet. You must put up with people as they are, and place your trust in the “freedom of evolution”. It is, Shaw writes,
“enormously important that we should ‘mind our own business’ and let other people do as they like unless we can prove some damage beyond the shock to our feelings and prejudices. It is easy to put revolutionary cases in which it is so impossible to draw the line that they will always be decided in practice more or less by physical force; but for all ordinary purposes of government and social conduct the distinction is a commonsense one.”
Shaw’s theory of the will is calculated for “ordinary purposes of government and social conduct”, and assumes not only that no revolutionary cases will arise to be decided by physical force, but also that physical force, despite Bloody Sunday, is not used for “ordinary purposes of government”. It asserts not only that progress should be peaceful and tolerant, but that it in fact is so.
Society, says Shaw, would change itself if people would only let it, and not impose their little reasons on its great will. He clings to this metaphysical will until he seems almost to fear the heroism of the conscious will. No less significant than his attack on Voltaire and Brand is the fact that in his discussion of The Wild Duck he makes Relling to be Ibsen’s mouthpiece, and refers only in passing to Hedwig’s death. Yet in her tragic act is the meaning of the play; it is not through the disillusioned Philistinism of Relling that we see the falseness of Werle’s idealism, but through the beauty of the young girl’s true idealism. In her radiance is Ibsen’s vision of what humanity can be; and it was
because the capitalist State frustrates such humanity that Ibsen wished to see the State abolished by revolution. Shaw puts Hedwig out of his mind because her tragic conscious will is the refutation of his metaphysical unconscious will.
Yet Shaw understood Ibsen as well as any man. He wrote in one of his dramatic notices:
“Where shall I find an epithet magnificent enough for ‘The Wild Duck’! To sit there getting deeper and deeper into that Ekdal home, and getting deeper and deeper into your own life all the time, until you forget you are in a theatre at all; to look on with horror and pity at a profound tragedy, shaking with laughter all the time at an irresistible comedy; to go out, not from a diversion, but from an experience deeper than real life ever brings to most men, or often brings to any man: that is what ‘The Wild Duck’ was like last Monday at the Globe.”
Truth could not be better said.
Writing of this quality occurs again and again throughout his dramatic criticisms. They have the love of beauty; they make Duse live for us who never saw her. They have the joy of fighting; they are brilliant polemics, making the man they attack more alive than he could make himself. There are passages which it is a perpetual delight to remember for the knowledge, skill and confident joy with which Shaw gaily annihilates the Philistines of art.
If with the same audacity he had fought capitalism and its State, he would not have taken to religion. But rather than unite himself with the proletarian struggle for socialism, he sought peace in the mystic unity of idealism.
SOURCE: West, Alick. “A Good Man Fallen Among Fabians”. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1950. vii, 172 pp. Chapter VI: Protestant Anarchism, pp; 67-79. Main treatment of Ibsen: pp. 72-79.
Shaw and the New Spirit
by Arnold Kettle
of Ibsenism, Preface to 3rd edition
by George Bernard Shaw
On Man's Cowardice:
Don Juan Debates the Devil
from George Bernard Shaws Man and Superman
George Bernard Shaw on the Artist-philosopher
George Bernard Shaw on Conviction & Style
bourgeois living room drama: from Naturalism to Expressionism
by Raymond Williams
Raymond Williams on Henrik Ibsens The Wild Duck (1952)
& the problem of ideological decay
[extract] by Georg Lukács
For Bernard Shaw / A Note on (toward) Bernard Shaw
by Jorge Luis Borges
Ibsen & Hitler?
Ibsens The Wild Duck & Other Works:
A Select, Annotated Bibliography
Marxism in Philosophy, Science, and Culture Before the New Left:
Essential Historical Surveys
George Bernard Shaw
on R. Dumains Reason & Society blog
Quintessence of Ibsenism (1913 ed.)
by George Bernard Shaw
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