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  • "Old Gentleman":Age Differences as Plot Subversion1
  • Valerie Barnes Lipscomb (bio)

Shaw's plays have long frustrated the casual theatergoer interested in predictable entertainment; rather than allowing the audience to focus on a pleasant, formulaic plot, Shaw's works often draw attention to unpleasant social conditions, such as class structures and the limitations placed on women. Critics have discussed the methods that these plays employ in order to provoke audience response to issues and ideas, including the more recent literary criticism that addresses Shaw's use of gender, race, and class. One category that has not attracted a great deal of attention is age. Although there is some critical interest in the study of age in theater, that interest tends to focus on performances by groups of older actors, rather than on age itself as a feature in drama. In Figuring Age, Kathleen Woodward finds that scholarly "disregard of age is all the more curious because age—in the sense of older age—is the one difference we are all likely to live into."2 Alternatively, scholars' overlooking issues of age may be attributable to that very biological fact: they must face the passage into old age themselves. Such universal transformation, from youth to old age, makes age unique as a social category among the other issues, such as gender, race, ethnicity, and class, that have been at the center of literary studies. Only in the category of age does the subject—under typical circumstances in Western culture—move slowly from the "unmarked" or privileged end of the spectrum, as theorist Peggy Phelan shows, to the "marked" side, which encounters discrimination.3 Sociocultural as well as individual discomfort with this passage may contribute to critical neglect.

Discomfort with age is reflected in literature, which often polarizes youth against age, as if mirroring a society so fearful of becoming old that it marks the aged with extra vehemence. This polarization dates at least [End Page 147] as far back as the senex blocking figure of ancient drama and is evident in plays as recent as Edward Albee's Three Tall Women, in which the younger and older version of the main character repeatedly, angrily deny each other. Shaw's plays use such strong reactions to aging and the aged as another tool to manipulate audience response. His works show a pattern of relying on the ages of the characters, younger and older, both to establish expectations for their behavior and then to subvert those expectations in order to foreground social issues. This pattern begins in the plays of the 1890s with Mrs Warren's Profession, continues through Candida, Caesar and Cleopatra, and Pygmalion, and culminates in Heartbreak House in 1919.Close attention to the construction of age in both the dialogue and the stage directions of each play reveals the pattern of subversion. By having the characters "act" their ages in both traditional and nontraditional, socially appropriate and not-so-appropriate ways, Shaw draws the audience's attention away from typical plotlines and toward his arena of ideas. Shaw's manipulations primarily target audience expectations about traditional ages for romance and marriage, but these expectations also involve the secondary undercurrent of taboo relations, touching on the issue of incest as he creates romantic possibilities across generational lines.

Age, Romance, and Marriage

Mrs Warren's Profession (1893–94) establishes the relationships among age, romantic attraction, and marriage with the introduction of Vivie Warren, who is twenty-two years old, is romantically involved with Frank Gardner, and has received a marriage proposal from Sir George Crofts. Since a woman of marriageable age is a main character, the audience might immediately expect a marriage plot culminating in the choice of a suitable husband. Shaw describes Vivie as "attractive."4 However, her actions from the beginning are those of the New Woman—independent, rebellious, and determined to make her own way—rather than the typical ingenue awaiting marriage. Mrs. Warren's friend Praed alludes to the courtship tradition: "When I was your age, young men and women were afraid of each other: there was no good fellowship—nothing real—only gallantry copied out of novels, and as vulgar and affected as it could be...


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