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“Shaw, The Philanderer, and the (Un)Making of Shavian Drama

From: Forum Modernes Theater
Volume 25, Number 1, 2010
pp. 33-44 | 10.1353/fmt.2010.0000

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“Shaw, The Philanderer, and the (Un)Making of Shavian Drama” is an essay that considers this early play by Shaw in the context of the popular theater of the time, and bases its appreciation or advocacy on The Philanderer’s honesty in exploring human relationships – a characteristic that disappears from Shaw’s œuvre as his various philosophies ossify into orthodoxy. The first section supplies historical and background information; the second section summarizes and comments on The Philanderer’s action, scene by scene; and the third section analyzes Shaw’s interest in this play in the dramatic confrontation between realists and idealists, before offering some final parting comments. In sum, the author attempts to reevaluate The Philanderer and to try to understand why it has been neglected, how Shaw himself may have contributed to its neglect, and why, in some ways, this drama may not only be better than it has long been thought to be, but may also be better even than the plays by which Shaw is best known (e.g., Major Barbara, Saint Joan, Heartbreak House).

I

“For the right moment you must wait, as [Quintus] Fabius [Maximus] did most patiently when warring against Hannibal …; but when the time comes, you must strike hard, as Fabius did, or your waiting will be in vain, and fruitless.” – Motto of the Fabian Society.1

Shaw was thirty-seven years old in 1893 when he started work on The Philanderer, his second play after Widowers’ Houses. In 1893 Shaw was known in London intellectual circles as a respected music critic, an accomplished orator, and a Socialist propagandist. He had written five novels, two of them published, both unsuccessfully. In 1889 he had edited and contributed two essays to the enormously influential Fabian Essays in Socialism, which went through three editions within a year.2 On July 18, 1890, Shaw delivered his famous lecture on Ibsen to an enthusiastic audience at St. James Restaurant; this lecture was then expanded and published in 1891 as The Quintessence of Ibsenism – the first full-length study of Ibsen in the English language.

Shaw’s writing of The Philanderer in 1893 began, as he himself put it, “with a slice of life; most of the first act really occurred.”3 Here is how it did so: at the age of twenty-nine, Shaw had lost his virginity to an insistent, passionate, strong-willed widow named Mrs. Jenny Patterson, who was twelve years his senior. Mrs. Patterson, one of his mother’s singing students, invited the shy young man over to her London apartment one afternoon for tea. Shaw accepted the invitation, and before the afternoon was over the aggressive woman had almost literally raped him. Shaw did not resist her advances. “I permitted her,” he told Ellen Terry in a letter of October 12, 1896, “being intensely curious on the subject.”4

When Frank Harris asked him forty years later what his affair with Jenny Patterson was like, Shaw responded in a letter dated June 20, 1930: “If you want to know what it was like, read The Philanderer, and cast her for the part of Julia, and me for that of Charteris.”5 He also wrote to Hesketh Pearson that “Mrs. Patterson was my model for Julia; and the first act of The Philanderer is founded on a very horrible scene between her and Florence Farr.”6 Besides supplying Shaw with the opportunity to break off with Jenny, this incident supplied him with the opening situation for his new play. On June 27, 1893, The Philanderer was completed, four and a half months after Shaw had started work on it. But the four acts of the final version of the play (published in 1898) were originally conceived as three acts; and in 1930 Shaw made minor changes to the play for his Collected Works and recompressed Acts II and III into a single act, thereby turning The Philanderer back into the three-act work it was intended to be. His seriousness about the play is evidenced by the fact that the revisions and alterations to its various drafts are more extensive than those for any of his fifty-two plays, with the possible exception of...


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