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12 - History plays

from PART II - THEATRE

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 October 2015

Ellen E. Dolgin
Affiliation:
Dominican College of Blauvelt, New York
Brad Kent
Affiliation:
Université Laval, Québec
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Summary

Bernard Shaw's genius lay in examining the characteristics of people who get things done in the world. It might seem somewhat paradoxical for Shaw to point to history in two directions, past and future, but this tendency in his dramaturgy clearly demonstrates that he was more interested in people making history than studying it. Shaw's readings of history were encyclopedic in scope, as evidenced by the extensive historical reference points for thematic concerns in his plays’ prefaces. As is so often pointed out in Shaw studies, the prefaces and indeed the printed copies of the plays mattered a great deal to Shaw, and for a much larger reason than copyright protection would suggest. Shavian characters do speak of history to make cogent arguments in the plays themselves, but there is a clear distinction between these and the preface references. In the latter, Shaw provides a context for the issues that a particular play raises. On the stage, dialogue and actions mention or allude to historical events and figures in terms of ongoing situations, in the language of the moment, often revolving around a challenge to conventional thinking.

Matthew Wikander focuses his analysis of Shaw and the history play on Shaw's ‘claim to find a higher historical truth than that found by pedants worrying the details’. Equally prominent in the plays about historical figures is Shaw's interest in the examination of character rather than a reflection of events for their own sake. Gale Larson's observations about Shaw's methodology for incorporating history into play texts focus on three overriding concerns: examining a range of sources, ‘privileging’ materials from those akin to his own views, and, most importantly, ‘rearranging’ history for the stage to align with his ‘unique perception and interpretation of history and stage exigencies’.

Seeing Shaw's history plays in this light reflects his modernism, but the attitudes and lenses of judgment he employed simultaneously reveal his nineteenth-century influences, Romantic and Victorian. Shavian characters and their desires to change the world as individuals nod to Romanticism's political urgency; Shaw's recurrent portrayals of powerful, imperial leadership in heroic terms place him squarely in the tradition of Victorian obsession with historical representation. J. L. Wisenthal's assessment of Shaw on the heroic incorporates references to William Blake, Thomas Carlyle, and Walter Houghton's Victorian Frame of Mind for its emphasis on hero-worship of great men as substitution for God worship.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2015

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References

Grene, Nicholas. ‘Shavian History’, Shaw: A Critical View. London: Macmillan, 1984. 132–50.Google Scholar
Harben, Niloufer. Twentieth-Century English History Plays: From Shaw to Bond. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1988.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Larson, Gale K.Caesar and Cleopatra: The Making of a History Play’, The Shaw Review 14 (1971): 73–89.Google Scholar
Larson, Gale K., ed. Shaw and History: SHAW 19 (1999).
Morgan, Marjorie. ‘The Histories’, The Shavian Playground: An Exploration of the Art of George Bernard Shaw. London: Methuen, 1972. 239–57.Google Scholar
Roy, R. N.George Bernard Shaw's Historical Plays. Delhi: Macmillan, 1976.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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  • History plays
  • Edited by Brad Kent, Université Laval, Québec
  • Book: George Bernard Shaw in Context
  • Online publication: 05 October 2015
  • Chapter DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781107239081.014
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  • History plays
  • Edited by Brad Kent, Université Laval, Québec
  • Book: George Bernard Shaw in Context
  • Online publication: 05 October 2015
  • Chapter DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781107239081.014
Available formats
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Save book to Google Drive

To save content items to your account, please confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

  • History plays
  • Edited by Brad Kent, Université Laval, Québec
  • Book: George Bernard Shaw in Context
  • Online publication: 05 October 2015
  • Chapter DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781107239081.014
Available formats
×