- The Last Word on Last Words:Shaw and Catastrophic Drama
It is a peril: a deadly peril. And it is peril that educates us, not mere bayonet fencing and fisticuffs. Nations never do anything until they are in danger.—G.B.S., Geneva
Contrary to what Don Juan might think in Man and Superman, Shaw writes in his 1896 essay "The Illusions of Socialism" that men make politically useful illusions "as incentives to strive after better realities." Some illusions are necessary—they are the "guise in which reality must be presented before it can rouse a man's interest, or hold his attention, or even be consciously apprehended by him at all"; some are foolish and even dangerous. The worst illusion in socialist terms, according to Shaw, is the millenarian tendency in Marxist thought, which primes revolutionary "world-changers" to anticipate a cataclysmic finale to the old regime and leaves them unprepared for the "prosaic aspect" of governance that will follow. Shaw unfavorably compares the catastrophic luridness of Marxist revolution to an "Adelphi melodrama":
The dramatic illusion of Socialism is that which presents the working-class as a virtuous hero and heroine in the toils of a villain called "the capitalist," suffering terribly and struggling nobly, but with a happy ending for them, and a fearful retribution for the villain, in full view before the fall of the curtain on a future of undisturbed bliss. . . . Closely allied to the dramatic illusion, and indeed at bottom the same thing, is the religious illusion. This illusion presents Socialism as consummating itself by a great day of wrath, called "The Revolution," in which capitalism, commercialism, competition, and all the lusts of the Exchange, shall be brought to judgment and cast out, leaving the earth free for the kingdom of heaven [End Page 190] on earth, all of which is revealed in an infallible book by a great prophet and leader.1
The comparison among Judgment Day, sensationalistic revolutionary propaganda, and tawdry melodrama is present in Shaw's writing from the beginning of his career as a dramatist and becomes more pronounced and urgent in the plays that followed the real-life Armageddon of World War I. As a playwright and a rhetorician, Shaw sensed the transformative power of the generic palette of apocalyptic imagery, as well as its dangerous ability to disable critical judgment. Shaw's provocative dismissal of the Book of Revelation as "a curious record of the visions of a drug addict" belies his awareness elsewhere that St. John's addled visions contain latent narcotic potency.2
Shaw's apocalyptic style is proverbial. Bernard Dukore, for example, begins his book-length study Money and Politics in Ibsen, Shaw, and Brecht by placing quotations by Shaw and Brecht alongside each other and asserting that the "tip-off " that one is by Shaw "is the reference to the end of the human race, a Shavian but not Brechtian motif."3 Shaw's apocalyptic sensibilities changed throughout his career, however; tracing them uncovers a shift from Shaw's belief that apocalypticism is an impediment to realistic perception to his later attempts to rescale his contemporaries' understanding of time through catastrophic imagery. Shaw's appropriation of the apocalyptic image set and its emotional and epistemological power reveals his commitment to making even the most volatile conventions politically and artistically useful. My purpose in this essay is to survey a few key moments of committed millenarianism (as well as ironic subversion of that commitment) in Shaw's career and to suggest how Shaw's 1935 Judgment Day play, The Simpleton of the Unexpected Isles, formally and structurally realizes some of Shaw's most trenchant observations about the apocalyptic atmosphere of his time (and ours) in politics, drama, and rhetoric.
Unlike many of his apocalyptically minded modernist contemporaries such as W. B. Yeats, D. H. Lawrence, and T. S. Eliot, Shaw was consistently aware of the politically explosive potential of accounts of human history that locate a rupture and remaking of civilization in the near future (or the recent past). Frank Kermode, in his lecture series The Sense of an Ending, remarks that one of the dangers of artistic renderings of the end of...