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BERNARD SHAW AND WILLIAM GILLETTE By Dixie King (University of California, Davis) Before 1886 very few American plays were received on the London stage; the unsophisticated American melodramas and romances were held in some contempt by British critics, and the British public, for a long time, remained distinctly uninterested in American themes or subjects.1 However, in 1887, William Gillette, a young American playwright and actor, successfully produced his American hit, HeI d by the Enemy, on the London stage. This Civil War romance, tfce first OT its kind in both British and American theatre, remained popular on both sides of the Atlantic and inspired the numerous Civil War melodramas which followed. Though the prominent romantic themes and motifs of the play were hackneyed, the spectacular stage effects and the dynamic stage "realism" of Gillette's Held by the Enemy not only won it popular acclaim but critical approval at the time as well.2 Une of Gillette's first admirers was a London art critic and book reviewer, George Bernard Shaw. Although Shaw later rejected much of Gillette's work, he did remain loyal to his first impressions of Held by the Enemy.3 Reviewing Gillette's Secret Service ten years later, Shaw confessed his dissappointment in terms of the earlier play: Secret Service at the Adelphi, with a smart American cast, is pure regulation melodrama. . . . but the article is the old article, only more aggressively machine-made than our clumsy hands would have left it. ... I confess I was disappointed; for 1 am an admirer of Mr. Gillette's Held by the Enemy, which seemed to me a new departure in melodrama and an excellent play into the bargain. His Secret Service is not to be compared to it.4 In 1893, just six years after He Id by the Enemy first appeared on the London stage, Shaw began composing his first plays, the third of which, Arms and the Man, was a satirical military drama, completed and performed on the London stage in 1894. Aside from the proximity in dates, Shaw's obvious preference for Gillette's play, and the fact that Arms and the Man was Shaw's first military play, distinctive similarities between the first acts of HeI d by the Enemy and A_rms and the Man suggest that Shaw did more than admire tfhe play. HTe drew extensively from Gillette's knowledge of good theatre. Both plays open with strikingly similar settings and with almost precisely the same action. Shaw exploits in detail Gillette's plot of the fugitive soldier seeking shelter in a hostile town. In both plays it is evening, and the curtains open up to disclose a woman's room. In He Id by the Enemy, it is a Southern living room dotted with the clichés of feminine presence: 239 240 presence: a piano and music, a vase of violets, crocheted material, and a lady's work basket filled with yarn, needles, and spools of thread. In his play, Shaw audaciously takes this idea a step further and puts us in a "Lady's bedchamber," with its dressing table, bed, chest of drawers, and box of chocolate creams. In both cases, the quiet intimacy of the female apartment is carefully used to highlight the violent entrance of the fugitive at a later moment. Shaw also patterns his physical stage set after Gillette's here. The main entrance to both rooms is stage left, and upper stage right is dominated by a larye window which opens out onto a "verandah" or "balcony." At the beginning of the first act, the windows are open and the moonlight, which becomes a source of danger to both fugitives, shines on the world outside.5 The heroines reside within. At the moment in which the fugitive is about to burst in, the lights on both stages are dramatically dimmed. In Arms and the Man, for example, the young heroine puts out her candi es to retire. Immediately before the hunted soldier in each play finally bursts into the room, shouts of alarm and pursuit ring out outside. Shaw here clearly follows Gillette in using the idea of the open window, the woman's room, the...


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pp. 239-241
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Will Be Archived 2021
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