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  • Undoing Identities in Two Irish Shaw Plays: John Bull’s Other Island and Pygmalion
  • Kimberly Bohman-Kalaja (bio)

In a 1998 television episode of Sex and the City, Carrie, Miranda, Samantha, and Charlotte play a hand of poker and discuss social constructs of power. Charlotte, the prim art dealer, has been offered the opportunity to represent a famous but reclusive painter, who has invited her out to his farmhouse to “view his work.” Wanting to make the most of this chance to get ahead, but concerned over what she suspects to be his dastardly intentions, Charlotte seeks counsel. How far should she go to get what she wants?

samantha. Women have the right to use every means at their disposal to achieve power.

miranda. Short of sleeping their way to the top.

samantha. Not if that’s what it takes to compete.

charlotte. But that’s exploitation!

samantha. Of men—which is perfectly legal.

carrie. So you advocate a double standard. Women can use their sexuality to get ahead whenever possible, but men should not be allowed to take advantage of it?

samantha. No, I’m just saying that men and women are equal-opportunity exploiters.1

In her coup de grâce, “men give and women receive,” Samantha uses biology- based logic to argue that it is not only acceptable but desirable to do whatever is necessary to ascend the power hierarchy. Yet, as they debate, one cannot help but wonder, are they all missing the point? Given their collective privilege, should they be doing more to address the unjust social hierarchies that shape and perpetuate their oppression than merely concern [End Page 108] themselves with practical strategies for social climbing (exploiting others or instigating lawsuits against those who would exploit them)? Or more to the point: Is the best world they can imagine one in which men and women are equal-opportunity exploiters?

Such a contemporary scene might serve as a reminder of just how ahead of their time Bernard Shaw’s John Bull’s Other Island (1904) and Pygmalion (1914) were. Even a century after these plays were written, we are still entrenched in the same categorical norms Shaw was questioning at the turn of the last century. In both plays, the debate over how disempowered groups might move up the ladder of power was one of Shaw’s primary political and philosophical concerns, as were the dangers implicit in such negotiations of power. But Shaw’s revolutionary ideas were, and perhaps still are, at odds with certain political and intellectual norms.

In both John Bull and Pygmalion, Shaw appeals to the comedic and tragic potential of “passing” as a dramatic device. While “passing” is often associated with racial or gender transgressions (Nella Larson’s 1929 novella, Passing, which deals with two African American women’s racial identities and their potential to pass for white women, is a standard), Shaw considers the complicated psychological consequences of social ascension more generally, and both plays have central characters, Larry Doyle and Eliza Doolittle, respectively, who “pass” into adopted identities as a means of climbing the social ladder.

Because passing often involves disguising the body—the visible markers that define identity—Judith Butler refers to passing as a kind of “performative subversion.”2 She explains: “[The] ‘body’ often appears to be a passive medium that is signified by an inscription from a cultural source figured as ‘external’ to that body. Any theory of a culturally constructed body, however, ought to question ‘the body’ as a construct of suspect generality when it is figured as passive and prior to discourse.”3

It is just such a questioning of the underlying constructs of social categories that takes place in John Bull and Pygmalion. In these plays, Shaw confronts this notion of the physical body as “a boundary-constituting taboo for the constructing [of] a discrete subject through exclusion,”4 before literary and sociological theories had an established taxonomy of theoretical terms to describe such phenomena. Shaw’s approach to passing is epistemological—to question the nature of the knowledge on which we base our understanding of how identities work. He is highly attuned to the positive aspects of passing, namely, that changing...


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pp. 108-132
Launched on MUSE
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