The predominating influence in determining Shaw to turn to the drama was the example of Ibsen and equally prominent was his love of debating, in which he had shown how irresistible it was for him to counter his arguments himself if no one else would. These influential strains compelled him to choose the kind of play in which the characters undertake this dual task of proposer and opposer. In 1892, he made it into Widower’s Houses, and thereafter, for nearly sixty years with unflagging energy he made drama peculiarly his own province.
It was not till after Saint Joan that he became the revered elder playwright, a highly respectable figure whom, however, the dramatic critics did not cease to condemn as sharply as before. By then, the old world having been transformed by the war, a new generation had grown up to accept him. Supreme though he had been in his own publicizing of ideas, the parallel preaching of H.G Wells and others had further helped to make his Socialism and his general attitude to ideas and society part of the mind of the age.
But socialists as well as others could still be amazed as the old man, with the energy and the unpredictable originality of his genius, produced such plays as The Apple Cart, Too True to be Good, Geneva and In Good King Charles’s Golden Days.
In this long period of dramatic writing, Shaw displayed the range of his genius in a great variety of plays. It is hard, however, to discern any clear “periods” or trends in his development. At most, there is on the whole a change of theme from the particular to the general, from the contemporary scene to the future and of attitude from the satiric and destructive to the philosophic and constructive, from the materialistic to the mystic. If there is any real division to be made in Shaw’s dramatic development it is the First War that marks it. Unable to produce any new work in those four years, when he resumed with Heartbreak House, he was on the whole as a dramatist more philosophic than before, and more concerned with the future.
In his own account, Shaw refers to Man and Superman as marking the emergence of what he himself aimed to be as a dramatist, one of “the artist-prophets” in the succession of men like Goethe and Ibsen. In his summary of his first years as a playwright, he remarks that in the early nineties, he found the existing state of English Theatre ‘intolerable’. The fashionable theatre prescribed one serious subject: clandestine adultery: the dullest of all subjects for a serious author.
The exuberant high spirits which characterized his plays before 1914, often bringing into his comedy a lively element of farce, did not appear so much afterwards. Instead, something of grandeur and poetry found expression in famous passages of Saint Joan and Back to Methuselah, though hiss comic vision still played freely and variously, fully exemplifying the Shavian wit and humour.
Heartbreak House was the first play that had been written with such deep underlying seriousness. He called it ‘a fantasia on English themes in the Russian manner’, by which he alluded to his being partly inspired by Chekhov, and symbolically through its characters it presents a world which has lost its direction, a world of futilities and insincerities struggling to find reality, a world which to one of the characters appears ‘this cruel,damnable world’.
In his 1923 cycle, Shaw felt himself to be co-operating with the Life Force, for through his drama he was declaring that, if only mankind had the will to control its evolution, it could in time achieve perfection, and his ‘metabiological pentateuch’ therefore become part of this purposive process.
When he had thus fulfilled his great wish to express his fundamental religious faith as a Creative Evolutionist, Shaw returned in Saint Joan to a drama of his normal scope and manner. Its heroine, portrayed as a sane and shrewd country girl of extraordinary strength of min and hardihood of body…a thorough daughter of the soil in her peasantlike matter-of-factness and doggedness”, she was however, in her creator’s mind an instrument like himself of the Life force. In The Apple Cart, he turned again to the future and to the dismay of those who had regarded him as an advanced advocate of democracy showed that the highest ability could be found as well in a king as in a peasant.His brilliance was undiminished and to the end his extraordinary vitality of mind animated all he wrote.
Shaw’s ideas can never cease to form an important part of his dramatic legacy, any more than we can appreciate Shakespeare without reference to the view of life which lies behind his work. Nevertheless, it is as dramatist upon the stage that Shaw demands primary consideration. In his own day, Shaw’s command over audiences which by no means consisted only of those who shared his ideas was an obvious fact.
His wit was always subservient to the total working of the genius of the comic playwright. His dramatic instinct, indeed, was altogether transcendent and so willfully fashioned its own play that the audience almost forgot in its delight the seriousness of the lesson it had been offered.
Those who saw Man and Superman at a performance in which in the Third Act of Juan in Hell was omitted were quite justified in not realizing how much lay behind the farcical comedy of John Tanner trying to flee from the pursuing Ann. Hence, the Prefaces which not only took advantage of the success of a play to make a more comprehensive and detailed attack but which had often to make the public fully conscious of matters which the inspired comic Muse had transmuted into laughter. Shaw once spoke of the lightness of heart without which nothing can succeed in the theatre, and in his own paradoxical union of the prophet and the jester lies the assurance of his dramatic survival.
Shaw’s plays give the impression of his creative powers working in a spontaneous unity. His success lies partly in the command of stagecraft which instinctively he knows how to turn stage situation to profit. His characterization, however, sometimes lacks the power of fully convincing us, because it does not always arise from such immediate creative insight as does the general idea of the play, but is to some extend dependent on that idea for the nature and variety of its figures.
Of outstanding individual characters many surely have the individuality which lives in its own right, a Bluntschli or a Father Keagan, or a Shotover or Saint Joan. Women, above all, he read and presented with a cunning unromantic realism which suggests, like the novelist Richardson, he understood women even better than men: to Saint Joan may be added among his many acutely and vividly realised women Raina, Cleopatra, Candida, Ann Whitefield, Major Barbara Jennifer Dubedat, and Eliza Doolittle, to name only a few.
In two directions his characterization possessed special power- in evoking our sympathetic interest in unattractive people like Mrs. Warren and Louis Dubedat, and in creating beings of broad comedy of a Dickensian vitality like Candida’s father, Straker and Alfred Doolittle.
Other gifts affecting characterization included his ability to allow for the existence in a character of the intuitive, that ‘sort of sixth sense’ which when it is possessed, gives an extra dimension to personality, and his understanding of good simple souls, as pre-eminenetly in the Saint.
“Effectiveness of Assertion is the Alpha and omega of style. He who has nothing to assert has no style and can have none; he who has something to assert will go as far I n power of style as its momentousness and his conviction will caryr him. Disprove his assertion after it is made, yet his style remains.” With his union of assertion and provocation, his style is never dull. There is the further animation given by the dramatic clash of dialogue which shares the general effect of spontaneity.