- Shaw, Class, and the Melodramas of London Life
On Not Looking at the Poor: Widowers' Houses
Shaw's first performed play, Widowers' Houses (1892), is marked by a notable absence. Although the plot centers on rack-renting (the charging of extortionate rents) and the shame of the slum landlords, at no point do we see any such slums or any of their tenants. Shaw would in time avail himself of more direct representations of the urban poor in Major Barbara and Pygmalion. However, I would argue that many of Shaw's dramas of London life, whether they put impoverished characters center stage or deflect our interest toward more apparently romantic plots, as in Widowers' Houses and even Candida, show canny awareness of the conventions of urban melodramas.
In Widowers' Houses, the lower-class victims—and the world they inhabit— remain off-stage. Instead, we begin the drama in Remagen on the Rhine, where a group of English tourists of slightly varying classes attempts to sort out their proper relationships.1 The play seems, at the start, to be a kind of romantic comedy, focusing on the movement toward marriage of aristocratically connected Harry Trench and moneyed Blanche Sartorius (tellingly described by Shaw as "presentably ladylike").2 After a dance of status in which the men attempt to read one another's rank and place based on relations ("I have the honor of being known to Lady Roxdale, who is, I believe, a near relation of yours") and abodes ("I have . . . a furnished villa at Surbiton for the summer. I live in Bedford Square"), it emerges that Blanche and Harry have already commenced a romance, which quickly becomes an engagement (7, 8). The first act of the play reveals little of its eventual focus on London real estate, as Sartorius is evasive when asked the location of his properties. But the act establishes a certain mode, a network [End Page 59] of affiliation, that will prove crucial to a reading of later events in Widowers' Houses—and to Shaw's highly sophisticated treatment of urban poverty in later plays.
Trench and Cokane do not know the Sartorius family, or do not seem to. These people eye one another with interest, hostility, or veiled meaning. The bonds are eventually made or revealed; interestingly, this occurs in part by proxy: Lady Roxdale, whom we never see, is a point of connection, a means of making introductions and establishing common ground. In a peculiar turn of events, Sartorius demands that Harry write immediately to his relations—the esteemed Lady Roxdale in particular: "I shall expect you to write to your relatives explaining your intention, and adding what you think proper as to my daughter's fitness for the best society. When you can shew me a few letters from the principal members of your family, congratulating you in a fairly cordial way, I shall be satisfied. Can I say more?" (16). Harry is "much puzzled" by Sartorius's desire for the letters as a "guarantee," one balancing his own "guarantee" that "there shall be no difficulty about money" (16). Harry promptly settles down to write the letter, which becomes an occasion for an extended bit of business. Harry asks the watchful, ever useful Cokane to draft the letter for him; it is at this point that money becomes more clearly a subject, as Cokane asks, "What is Sartorius?" (18). Harry of course cannot answer and is unsure why he should care how the man has made his money. Once Harry has left his friend to his work, Sartorius himself offers to assist Cokane with his composition (in doing so giving the latter grounds for some suspicion). The scene ends with Cokane presenting the finished work to Sartorius for his perusal, and the happy group heads off to dinner.
The first act has thus provided a romance—a possible misalliance—and dangled before the audience a hint of mystery or scandal as to the origin of Sartorius's wealth. But it has, more importantly, established a template for the key problems of the play. One might wonder about the drawn-out business with the letter. Sartorius demands a guarantee from third...