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SHAW The Annual of Bernard Shaw Studies 25 (2005) 105-126

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Social Critique and Comedic Reconciliation in Shaw's You Never Can Tell

Ah! I'll never marry, unless I am first made sure of my will and pleasure.
—William Congreve, The Way of the World
For what is more formal than a family dinner?
An official occasion of uncomfortable people
Who meet very seldom, making conversation.
—T. S. Eliot, The Family Reunion

The romantic comedy You Never Can Tell provides a dual love story; it focuses on the courtship of a young couple but also on the possible reunion of family members who, in their indignation over past wrongs, are self-focused and unwilling to compromise. The waiter in George Bernard Shaw's play reassures these obstinate individuals of improved relations with the words "You never can tell," a phrase so central to the play's optimistic philosophy that it serves as the title. While the refrain "you never can tell" proffers seemingly lukewarm advice for such a dynamic experience as falling in love, the philosophy, in fact, allows Shaw to mitigate between two opposing poles: a firmly held critique about the social institution of marriage and a credible faith in the human capacity to love and forgive.

You Never Can Tell is traditionally considered a precursor to Shaw's greater work, Man and Superman, for both plays involve a husband-catching wife and a man who is tentative about marriage. However, viewing You Never Can Tell as merely a prelude for Shaw's theories of Creative Evolution and the Life Force unnecessarily diminishes the play. The comparison applies only if we overlook the main character's feminist position, if we insist on seeing her as a romantic heroine who finds her true self when she falls in love and discards her rigid feminist sensibility. In fact, this play can be seen [End Page 105] as an interesting transitional moment wherein Shaw reexamines the New Woman figure of Vivie Warren, but before he arrives at the husband-chaser Anne. We simplify Shaw's radical thrust if we continue to focus on the play as a lighthearted farce. Instead, in this play, Shaw juxtaposes two important human experiences, as reflected in the epigraphs: a woman's loss of autonomy in matrimony and the difficulty of family reconciliations.

Even as a "Pleasant Play," You Never Can Tell wrestles with serious societal issues, the chief one among them the precarious nature of marriage for Victorian women. Stanley Kauffmann, in an 1986 interview with Jane Ann Crum,1 acknowledges that this play reflects key social and political ideas occurring at the turn of the century, such as the "changing attitudes towards sex, pursuit, courtship, and candor." However, he does not explain how these changing belief systems alter the nature of courtship or matrimony for Gloria. He refers to Mrs. Clandon as a "progressive" thinker in the play, but notes that her ideas are outdated, and therefore does not take her seriously. He prefers to discuss the comedic aspect of the play, noting that it is one of his favorites.2 While his description of the play's operatic structure and the various roles the characters play truly illuminates the dynamic quality of You Never Can Tell, it seems that the social critique of marriage escapes Kauffmann's interest. Because the play provides us with an example of a single mother who has raised her three children alone, it is as crucial for us to consider this play a criticism of marriage and family as it is to view it as a love story. Shaw is masterful at creating characters with equally valid yet diametrically opposed points of view, and in You Never Can Tell he subtly weaves together his negative appraisal of matrimony and familial roles with an equally credible optimism in their durability.

You Never Can Tell (1897) suffers from being critically underrepresented. Nicholas Grene, in Bernard Shaw: A Critical View, offers perceptive reasons for the occasional undervaluing of Shaw's plays...


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