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  • Shaw, Stoppard, and "Audible Intelligibility"
  • Martin Meisel (bio)

That Shaw is alive as a playwright is borne out in the sustained if fluctuating crackle of productions, collections, reprints, and—rather less obvious—progeny. There never was a true Tribe of Bern, although some Edwardians like Barker and Hankin were thought to aspire to that condition. But that does not mean this otherwise childless playwright was without a proper heir—as I will try to suggest. Yet arguing lineage is not my primary concern. Rather, I want to pursue something more fundamental, something about Shaw's dramatic language, and indeed, dramatic language in general, language tailored to theatrical performance: a quality he once labeled "audible intelligibility."1

Shaw generally knew what he was about, and what he has to say about dramatic language and his own practice is enlightening; but I cannot promote it as a genuine contribution to "the evolution of human consciousness." Nor would I even care to argue that Shaw invented a new kind of dramatic or theatrical discourse—although his usage was certainly distinctive—Shavian, we say—a characteristic idiolect. In fact it is truer to say that what he did was to conserve for another day qualities and capacities that were under attack, explicitly in the name of what William Archer declared "the predestinate line of progress." Archer's celebration in 1923 (the year of Saint Joan) of a theater that had "got utterly away both from the convention of wit and the convention of rhetoric" was simply given the lie, both early and late, in Shaw's dramatic practice.2 A full century before Archer, Thomas Babington Macaulay had offered the pronouncement that, "[i]n general, tragedy is corrupted by eloquence, and comedy by wit."3 As if deliberately intending to embarrass the supposed triumph of such potentially impoverishing views, Shaw happily confused his critics into deploring his corruption of comedy by eloquence and (as in Saint Joan ) tragedy by wit. [End Page 42]

I will come back to some of the issues in what kind of speech is (or was considered) allowable in a respectable, fully evolved "modern" play. But first I think it worth dwelling on this much more basic requirement for spoken drama, the quality Shaw labeled "audible intelligibility."

Shaw had been present in 1895 at the memorable debacle of Henry James's play Guy Domville and even wrote a shrewdly supportive review. A quarter of a century later, amplifying an unsigned article in the Times Literary Supplement on "The Printed Play," Shaw ventured an explanation for the progressive failure of James's theatrical ambitions.4 "In preparing a play for publication the author's business is to make it intelligible to a reader," he writes: "In preparing it for performance he has to make it intelligible to a spectator and listener. The last quality is the one in which a writer who has always worked for publication alone is likely to fail in direct proportion to his inveterate practice and his virtuosity." James's failure, he notes, was a matter of audible intelligibility, and he reports an experiment where, between the acts of a revival of James's The Outcry, Shaw repeated to friends "some of the most exquisite sentences from the dialogue"—none with a word of more than two syllables—yet "not one of my victims could understand me." For Shaw, that shows "[t]here is a literary language which is perfectly intelligible to the eye, yet utterly unintelligible to the ear even when it is easily speakable by the mouth. Of that English James was master in the library and slave on the stage." He continues:

I cannot give any rule for securing audible intelligibility. It is not missed through long words or literary mannerisms or artificiality of style, nor secured by simplicity. Most of the dialogues that have proved effective on the English stage have been written either in the style of Shakespeare, which is often Euphuistic in its artificiality, or in that of Dr. Johnson, which is, as Goldsmith said, a style natural only to a whale. . . . Speech does not differ from literature in its materials. "This my hand will rather the multitudinous seas incarnadine" is...


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