- How to Win an Election
Ask anyone familiar with drama to name political playwrights and chances are Bernard Shaw’s name will appear on the list if not top the list. What may be surprising is how infrequently Shaw dramatizes politics. To phrase this idea differently, a political play is not the same as a play that dramatizes politics.
Most of Shaw’s comedies are political in the sense that they contain discussions of politics or references to politics. A pivotal feature of his first play, Widowers’ Houses, is a parliamentary blue book on slum housing in London; but instead of dramatizing how Parliament deals with the findings of this blue book, the document is a plot device in a story about love and money. Whereas the leading character of Man and Superman is a socialist and the start of Act III—which Shaw in his preface to the play calls “a totally extraneous act” (II, 503)—has a debate among socialists and an anarchist, the politics of socialism are not elsewhere in the play but are in an appendix to it, supposedly written by the protagonist. In Fanny’s First Play, Fanny did time in jail for illegal suffrage demonstrations, but this is not part of the action; rather, it is exposition on the last page. The inner play reflects the women’s suffrage movement, but it does so as background to a story about romantic relationships and generational conflicts.
Politics is a subject of speeches in other plays, such as Major Barbara, where Undershaft derides his son’s admiration of the government of their country by pointedly informing him, “with a touch of brutality,” of its irrelevance: “The government of your country! I am the government of your country: I, and Lazarus” (his business partner). Parliament is a “foolish gabble shop” that does “what pays u s” (III, 151). Yet Major Barbara dramatizes not politics but nonpolitical methods by which religious and capitalist institutions try to alleviate the plight of the poor and eliminate poverty.
How does one dramatize politics onstage? One way is to inform the play’s action with the efforts of a political executive and members of Parliament [End Page 179] to enact or interpret laws. Shaw does this in The Apple Cart and On the Rocks. Another way is to dramatize activities of a political party. In Part 2 of Back to Methuselah, two politicians try to win the support of an eminent biologist and his brother, a distinguished theologian, by spouting banalities and bromides; but the subject of the play is creative evolution, not politics. Another way is broad satire. Press Cuttings mocks the opponents of women’s suffrage through such characters as an antisuffragist woman who insists that Queen Elizabeth I was a man in drag; its chief character is a Prime Minister, Balsquith, whose name conflates those of former Prime Minister A. J. Balfour and then-present Prime Minister H. H. Asquith, both of whom were involved in different ways in the women’s suffrage movement. Still another way is to portray real-life political figures. Geneva’s characters include thinly disguised versions of Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco. There is still another way: to make the electoral process a subject of dramatic action. This means standing (or running, as we say) for public office or having stood for public office.
Whereas Ann Whitefield predicts that John Tanner will enter politics, that day does not arrive in Man and Superman. It does arrive for the protagonist of Shaw’s next full-length play, John Bull’s Other Island . Winning an election to Parliament is my subject, and it is one that has not been considered as fully as it warrants. My focus is on Shaw’s two plays that deal with this theme: John Bull’s Other Island, in which one character becomes a candidate for Parliament, and The Apple Cart, most of whose characters have been elected to Parliament. Some of the latter play’s characters explain or complain about electioneering, and the protagonist, at the play’s climax, proposes to become a candidate for Parliament.
The subject of elections is one in which Shaw had personal...