SHAW The Annual of Bernard Shaw Studies 25 (2005) 289-291
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Bernard F. Dukore
What is one to do with Harold Pagliaro's book? Relations between the Sexes in the Plays of George Bernard Shaw does not make use of recent critical theorists, theories, and terminology; its subject, heterosexual relationships in Shaw's plays, is one that most Shavian critics have ignored; it is based on a close reading of Shaw's plays, which he understands very well; it is well organized and marshals the evidence admirably; and it is written lucidly. The answer, of course, is to read and profit from this valuable contribution to Shaw scholarship.
Let me summarize the plot of Shaw's Opus One. Boy and girl meet, each hot for the other. Boy and girl split. Boy and girl meet again, their sexual temperatures steaming perceptibly, and they become engaged to marry. Although few would dispute the accuracy of this summary, all would recognize that it is atypical of how Widowers' Houses is treated in books and even program notes. What it omits is the play's major theme, slum landlordism, which is usually the focus of summaries and analyses of the play. Emphasis on the sexuality of Shaw's characters and action does not preclude this theme. Rather, it propels it: this is why boy and girl split, and why they meet again. Pagliaro's study of the complex and diverse heterosexual relationships of Shaw's characters explicates Shaw's themes as they derive from such relationships.
Pagliaro's topic suggested itself because of the disparity "between the view of Shaw the man's and Shaw the playwright's sexuality as it is characterized in almost all the scholarship, which regards it as somehow inadequate," and Pagliaro's view that the plays "present a wide range of heterosexual relations, often charged with emotion" (p. 1). In almost all of them, heterosexuality is "an integral dynamic energy that radically qualifies other human concerns—social justice, religion, revolution, human evolution, the will to power, government, the law, money, marriage, art and the artist, feminism, human psychology, medicine, and war" (p. 31). After an overview of the role of sexuality in Shaw and his plays, the chapters deal with "Lovers Coupled by the Life Force"; "Truncated Love"; "Mothers, Sons, Fathers, Daughters"; and "The Sexuality of Shaw's Prophets."
Among Shaw's early biographers, Chesterton asserts that Shaw's plays reveal his fear of even kissing in public, Henderson that his incapacity to portray sexual passion is an artistic limitation. Margery Morgan affirms the view that Shaw's sexuality as man and writer is suspect. Despite Maurice Valency's recognition that Shaw had sex with Jenny Patterson and Florence Farr at roughly the same time, he calls Shaw ambivalent about sexuality. Holroyd states "as fact what is only conjecture," that Shaw "was sexually inadequate" and confidently affirms that his plays lack "flesh and blood" (p. 6). Pagliaro's refutation lies in the plays themselves. He rejects Sally Peters' doubts of Shaw's sexuality and his ability to dramatize heterosexual relations, and her "reduction" of Shaw as, among other things, a homosexual (p. 7). What she and other biographical critics have in common is the assumption that one can easily "discover attributes of Shaw the man in the plays. No doubt there are autobiographical traces in the plays. But making the appropriate inferences is at best an uncertain method" (p. 5). Amen, Brother Pagliaro!
My only disappointment with his treatment of Shaw's sexuality is that he does not mention Shaw's liaison with Molly Tompkins, which began after Shaw passed his seventieth birthday and she was a bit shy of her thirtieth. Although Charles Berst built a persuasive case for their sexual affair in the 1986 volume of SHAW, it was not fully documented until the 2004 volume (probably the reason Pagliaro does not discuss it...