I read this collection based on the recommendation from Jacques Barzun's amazing From Dawn to Decadence, and on the strength of G.K. Chesterton's friendship with Shaw at the same time that he was diametrically, violently, exactly 180-degree opposed to Shaw's ideas. I don't often read plays and never gave much thought to written plays as an art form. In fact, while reading Shaw's powerful introductory prefaces to his plays, I wondered why he chose this art form. After all, these prefaces are fully developed essays laying out Shaw's political, religious, scientific, and economic views perfectly, and in the case of "The Doctor's Dilemma", the introduction (at 82 pages) is nearly as long as the play.
The collection starts with "Major Barbara", Shaw's comparative study of the religion of Christianity (in the form of the social evangelism of the Salvation Army) and Capitalism. Study is really too polite of a term for Shaw's scorched-earth brand of forceful argument and extreme rationalism. Shaw never meets a shade of gray he can't paint black. The only way to fail to understand a point Shaw was making would be to willfully choose not to accept it; few contemporaries did, a transparency which caused Shaw political and critical problems when his arguments were unpopular, such as during the Great War. Yet his most honest critics like Chesterton found his humor and consistency friend-worthy.
After his study of medical economics and ethics ("Dilemma") comes his most famous play "Pygmalion", where Henry Higgins the overbearing elocutionist represents Shaw (according to his own admission). It was with this play that I was able to finally understand Shaw's choice of the play format--like no other art form it allowed him to directly and unambiguously illustrate his arguments through the dialogue and movement of the characters in a world (the stage) of his own creation and control. Indeed Shaw's stage directions are so precise and at times non-visual and ideological that it is clear that Shaw intended for the plays to be read. The control over the character's thought, dialogue, action, and movement is so precise that at one point in this collection when an apparent stage movement is not marked off by the usual typographical convention I was not entirely sure whether it was a typo or Shaw's allowance of the character an ironic self-awareness of her controlled fate.
It is interesting, too, that Shaw as Higgins is so unrelievedly unlikeable. Few writers have the consistency and confidence to make a self-based character so sour, to the point that even the reader wishes he could soften Higgins's edges. I have never seen the play performed or seen the movie My Fair Lady based on it, but I would be most interested now to see the script realized on stage-but not the film version, which would lose the three-dimensional stage-reality of the characters in the same room as the viewer.
It is also interesting that Shaw doesn't end "Pygmalion", but after resolving the linguistic and psychological conflict to his satisfaction abruptly cuts to an afterward where he spends 15 pages documenting the conflict and outlining how Eliza Doolittle would have worked out the rest of her life including her complex relationship with Higgins.
The collection concludes with "Heartbreak House", an allegory of World War I. While the introductory essay is a powerful summary of the decaying state of English politics, economics, class, and culture in the years leading to the war, the play is the least satisfying of the four, as Shaw's attempts to represent the tottering European democracies is too complex and mediated for our current knowledge of the politics and international relations of the time. This play does highlight that the previous plays in the collection are not in any sense allegorical but are in fact Shaw's ideas embodied, not allegorized.
What makes these plays and essays so powerful was that Shaw was a "writer" first, not just a scientist, theologian, economist, or political theorist. It is a skill too often overlooked in today's landscape of thought, and a refreshing blast of recognition of how well written the classics really are.
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When St. John Ervine, a fellow playwright and future biographer of Shaw, was wounded by a shell and had to have a leg amputated, Shaw wrote to cheer him up. First he recounted to Ervine how he, Shaw, had once broken a leg and had to get around on crutches but found that he could do without his "leg just as easily as without eyes in the back of my head." Shaw then asserted that Ervine was actually better off than he himself was: "You will be in a stronger position. I had to feed and nurse the useless leg. You will have all the energy you hitherto spent on it to invest in the rest of your frame. For a man of your profession two legs are an extravagance." Shaw went on to enumerate other benefits to losing the leg, such as an increased pension, and no more going to the Front. Finally Shaw reached the logical conclusion: "The more the case is gone into the more it appears that you are an exceptionally happy and fortunate man, relieved of a limb to which you owed none of your fame, and which indeed was the cause of your conscription" (Collected Letters, vol. 3, pp. 550-501). Wit does not usually seem a humane weapon, but such a letter shows the same kind of comic courage Aristophanes exhibited when he condemned war by imagining women on a sex strike.
Heartbreak House was written in a context where one could consider writing such a letter, and the play's mixed tones show it. Shaw claimed that the play wrote ...