- Widowers’ Houses: Shaw’s Spin on Das Rheingold
Unpleasant Dramas by Shaw and Wagner
Widowers’ Houses (1892) was originally titled Rhinegold when Bernard Shaw began to write it in collaboration with William Archer in 1884. According to Archer, the play was so titled because it was to open “in a hotel-garden on the Rhine” and in the end the hero was to “succeed in throwing the tainted treasure of his father-in-law, metaphorically speaking, into the Rhine.” 1 However, when Shaw completed the play at long last in October 1892 with the new title, he did not follow Archer’s ending: instead of rejecting “the tainted treasure of the father-in-law,” the hero marries into the family business of slum landlordism. The wealth of the landlord and his mortgagees is not only secured but also will increase from compensations for city development plans. At the end of Widowers’ Houses, the rich are becoming wealthier, while the poor remain impoverished. Shaw’s first play denies the established moral principles of the well-made-play plot provided by Archer. 2 Ironically, with such an “unpleasant” ending, the play originally called Rhinegold has more in common with Richard Wagner’s music drama Das Rheingold.
It has been argued that Shaw had not been confident enough to write such an “unpleasant” ending until he wrote The Quintessence of Ibsenism in 1891. 3 However, the moment Shaw and Archer called their play Rhinegold, the young Irishman must have envisioned an unpleasant ending. He had been familiar with Wagner and Marx before he knew Ibsen. As Archer recalled, Shaw was simultaneously reading Marx’s Das Kapital (in French translation) and an orchestral score of Tristan und Isolde when they got acquainted in the British Museum Reading Room. Thus it would seem natural that his first play should be a Wagnerian drama with a Socialist viewpoint. Shaw eventually summed up his views on Der Ring des Nibelungen in The Perfect [End Page 46] Wagnerite in 1898, but they had already been formed while he was a musical critic in the 1880s and 90s. For example, he commented in The World on 29 June 1892 on the production of Das Rheingold at Covent Garden, concluding that “Das Rheingold is either a profound allegory or a puerile fairy tale.” 4 Since Shaw was only a few months from finishing Widowers’ Houses, he most likely had already formed his ideas about the “profound allegory,” or what he would elaborate six years later in his commentary on the tetralogy. Thus, although Quintessence might have given Shaw the last push to complete the play, his views on Wagner also played an indispensable part in his first play. This study compares the structure and characterization of Widowers’ Houses with those of Das Rheingold and examines how the play relates to Shaw’s analysis of the Ring cycle in The Perfect Wagnerite.
Both Widowers’ Houses and Das Rheingold depict greed, sharing endings in which every character onstage is prosperous and satisfied, while those offstage bewail their misfortune and predicament. Shaw says that his first three plays were “dramatic pictures of middle class society from the point of view of a Socialist who regards the basis of that society as thoroughly rotten economically and morally.” 5 The marriage of Trench and Blanche is not a triumph of romantic love but a mere piece of business. Shaw’s realistic depiction of slum landlordism in Widowers’ Houses deviates from the conventional happy ending of the well-made play, in which established moral principles are expected to be upheld. Likewise, we can better observe the corruption of the ruling class in Das Rheingold once the mythic settings and grand music are removed. The gods obtain the castle of Valhalla gratis after all; they have paid the giants the ransom for Freia with the gold confiscated from Alberich, which should have been returned to the Rhine daughters. The ring forged from the Rhine gold symbolizes the greed of the characters. Wotan intends to solidify his rule of the world, while Alberich vows to regain the ring and put the world under his own control. Seeing the factories along the harbor of the Thames...