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  • "The Genuine Pulpit Article":Shaw's Prefatorial Practice and the Preface to Man and Superman
  • Frank Duba (bio)

My conscience is the genuine pulpit article: it annoys me to see people comfortable when they ought to be uncomfortable; and I insist on making them think in order to bring them to conviction of sin.1

—Bernard Shaw, Preface to Man and Superman

The single most prolific writer of prefaces in the English language, George Bernard Shaw not only prefaced everything he wrote, but he also prefaced much of what his friends wrote. From the publication of his first plays, Shaw was interested in the reception of his work and the potential of prefaces to guide that reception. Shaw's attitude toward the preface passes through three different, but related, positions: (1) that the prefaces guide our understanding of the playwright's intentions in the play; (2) that the prefaces are continuous with the play and give the playwright an occasion to expound on the same ideas expressed dramatically in a nondramatic form, and (3) that prefaces are merely a way of giving the reader an unexpected but welcome polemic.

No clear biographical divisions exist; the changes are gradual and more dependent on local factors than on any overarching vision of the preface sustained throughout his career. Shaw's career starts with the belief that prefaces can and should provide an interpretive frame for the works to which they are attached and ends with an equally sincere disavowal of any but the most accidental relation between preface and text. In between these two biographical poles, his practice indicates that his view of the role of the preface varied.2 In his early prefaces, he objected to the idea that his plays, or, for that matter, any [End Page 221] plays, should stand on their own, that the author should let the work speak for itself:

I really cannot respond to this demand for mock-modesty. I am ashamed neither of my work nor of the way it is done. I like explaining its merits to the huge majority who dont know good work from bad. It does them good; and it does me good, curing me of nervousness, laziness, and snobbishness. I write prefaces as Dryden did, and treatises as Wagner, because I can; and I would give half a dozen of Shakespear's plays for one of the prefaces he ought to have written. I leave the delicacies of retirement to those who are gentlemen first and literary workmen afterwards. The cart and the trumpet for me.


In this early preface, to Three Plays for Puritans, Shaw argues that he writes prefaces in order to educate his audience. The prefaces are subordinate to the plays to which they are attached and serve the purpose of making the import of those plays clear to the reader.

Almost thirty years after writing this preface, when he serialized his prefaces for John O'London's Weekly in 1928, Shaw's explanation of the relationship between preface and text had changed drastically:

Those who are unacquainted with the oddities of literary tradition may ask how it is possible to separate the prefaces from the plays. Nothing is easier. The only connection between the prefaces and the plays is that they have hitherto kept company within the same book covers. Most of the prefaces were written long after the plays had been performed. The practice of attaching polemical pamphlets to plays as prefaces has persisted from the days of Dryden and Molière to those of Victor Hugo, Dumas fils, and myself. A playwright who deals with human nature instead of artificial "plots" is like a shipwright who finds, when he has built his ship, that he has a store of material left, rejected as unsuitable or superfluous for the ship, but sound and useful for, say, housebuilding. If he is master of the two trades, he builds a house after building the ship. I happen to have the two trades at my fingers' ends; and I hate to waste good material. These prefaces are the houses; and you can inhabit them without having ever seen the ships, just as you can travel...


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pp. 221-240
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