- Shaw on Duty
In Bernard Shaw: Slaves of Duty and Tricks of the Governing Class, Number 27 in the 1880–1920 British Authors series, Bernard F. Dukore explains that he wants to offer readers “a fresh way of looking at Shaw’s plays.” Dukore is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Theatre Arts and Humanities at Virginia Tech and the author or editor of over thirty books and countless articles. In this, his most recent book, he offers readers a chronological survey of Shaw’s plays that considers each one through the lens of duty—hardly a startling concept, but one that becomes edgy and provocative in Dukore’s hands. He has surveyed past publications to see whether other scholars have explored Shaw’s treatment of duty. “Surprisingly,” he notes, “few have [End Page 573] done so.… Generally, comments about the specific themes in Slaves of Duty and Tricks of the Governing Class have been made almost in passing.”
The book begins with conventional morality—“Slave to duty” is a phrase from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance—moves on to Nora Helmer’s “duties to myself” in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, and then dives into the deep waters of Shavian thought. “Tricks of the governing class”—the theme of much of Dukore’s book—comes from Act III of Major Barbara: When Lady Britomart lectures Andrew Undershaft about his “duty,” he responds, “Come, Biddy! these tricks of the governing class are of no use with me.”
Students of nineteenth-century drama will not be surprised that Shaw’s plays often challenge conventional morality and traditional values. But Dukore’s analysis goes deeper, showing that Shaw went beyond even the iconoclastic Ibsen by exploring duty in a variety of political, social, and economic contexts. The centerpiece of the first chapter is a speech delivered by Napoleon in The Man of Destiny (1895) that points out “the hypocrisy of the English conception of duty and how the English use it to attain their ends.” According to Napoleon, when an Englishman “wants a thing he never tells himself that he wants it. He waits patiently until there comes into his mind, no one knows how, a burning conviction that it is his moral and religious duty to conquer those who possess the thing he wants. Then he becomes irresistible.”
Slaves of Duty and Tricks of the Governing Class shows readers that some of Shaw’s characters accept without question the “tricks of the governing class,” while others defy convention and ply a few tricks of their own. There are surprises. When viewed through the lens of duty, two plays that are often dismissed as marginal become unexpectedly interesting: Jitta’s Atonement and The Six of Calais. Another unexpected development, as Dukore explains, is that “the plays that receive the most space are the two that have received comparatively little commentary, The Apple Cart (1928) and On the Rocks (1933).” Strange bedfellows emerge: Kitty Warren, Napoleon, and Andrew Undershaft are seen as taking on the task of exposing the manipulative workings of the rich and powerful, while Saint Joan and Tom Broadbent demonstrate how to use moral persuasion to justify the pursuit of their own desires.
Although Dukore’s lens is always sharply focused on the concept of duty, there is considerable variety in this book. Some of Shaw’s characters accept conventional morality without protest, while others defy [End Page 574] convention through schemes of their own devising. Dukore explains that many plays (such as Major Barbara, On the Rocks, and The Apple Cart) spotlight the “tricks of the governing class,” while others explore duty in the contexts of courtship, marriage, parenting, work, religion, and war. “A foolish consistency,” Dukore says of Shaw, “was not a hobgoblin of his mind, which few if any would call little.”
Dukore is especially interesting when he is discussing the plays in groups. For example, in chapter four he offers readers an intriguing examination of how the ideas in the “Big Three” (Major Barbara, Man and Superman...