- Shaw and the Syngean Provocation
From 1900 to 1904, W. B. Yeats made several efforts to entice Bernard Shaw to write an Irish play for the Irish theater he was building in Dublin, first with the Irish Literary Theatre and then with the Irish National Theatre Society (INTS). During this time, Shaw’s interest in Yeats’s theater was minimal. Even when the INTS made its first visit to London on 2 May 1903, for one day of performances (matinee and evening), Shaw was in Italy. He missed Yeats’s Kathleen ni Houlihan (co-authored with Lady Gregory) and The Pot of Broth, Gregory’s Twenty-Five, and Frederick Ryan’s The Laying of the Foundations, a socialist work heavily influenced by Shaw and Widower’s Houses, which was likely seen by Harley Granville-Barker.1 But Shaw’s interest in the INTS changed when the company returned to London in 1904 with a bill that included two plays by the dramatist who would emerge as the INTS’s genius—John Millington Synge.
On 24 March 1904, the INTS made its second London visit, but again only performed for one day. Shaw reportedly saw both the matinee and evening performances at London’s Royalty Theatre.2 His attendance may have been prompted by the rumor that Annie Horniman, the wealthy British tea heiress who had financed Florence Farr’s premier staging of Arms and the Man and Yeats’s The Land of Heart’s Desire in 1894, was purchasing and remodeling a Dublin theater for the INTS.3 The INTS plays performed in London in 1904 included Yeats’s The King’s Threshold, Synge’s Riders to the Sea and In the Shadow of the Glen during the matinee, while the evening saw a repeat of The King’s Threshold, Padraic Colum’s Broken Soil, and Yeats’s A Pot of Broth—all one-act plays.
These performances attracted much attention from the London critics like Max Beerbohm, who had replaced Shaw as critic for the Saturday Review, and William Archer, writing for The World. Both generally wrote favorably on the plays and the acting. Following the engagement, Yeats [End Page 75] wrote to his American supporter John Quinn: “The plays are [sic] been a great success in London as you will see from The World which Miss Horniman has sent you. . . . The audience was as enthusiastic as possible. . . . Synge has had an unqualified triumph, and so too has the company. . . . The theatre was crowded morning and evening. . . . Bernard Shaw has started a play for us”.4 The latter reference indicates that Shaw was finally moved toward writing the long-promised play—but how was he moved?
Included in Archer’s review of the INTS’s 1904 London appearance was one negative note: “the Irish theatre has given us only dramatic sketches—no thought-out pictures with composition and depth.”5 While the comment seems unnoticed by Yeats, Synge was irritated by “Archer’s snub at our short plays.”6 However, Synge knew that Archer was correct in believing that in order for the Dublin Theatre to make its mark, it would have to produce full-length plays. By March 1904, Synge was already writing The Well of Saints, which would become the first full-length work of the INTS, but like another full-length Irish play completed in 1904, it would not open the Abbey Theatre in December—that would be an honor reserved for Yeats’s one-act On Baile’s Strand. Synge had not been the only Dubliner in London in March 1904 to see Archer’s point about the INTS and full-length plays. By June, Shaw was writing his four-act John Bull’s Other Island.
The title John Bull’s Other Island reflects Shaw’s most discussed effort in the play, his undermining of what he perceived as the growing feverish nationalism then in Ireland.7 This undermining was still on Shaw’s mind when he wrote his preface to the play in 1906, “Preface for Politicians.” In the preface Shaw asked, “What Is an Irishman?” He answered by defining himself as a “genuine typical Irishman of the Danish...