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  • Building the New City of God:Shaw's Provisional Supermen
  • Matthew Yde (bio)

What is the use of writing plays?—what is the use of anything?—if there is not a Will that finally moulds chaos itself into a race of gods with heaven for an environment, and if that Will is not incarnated in man, and if the hero . . . does not by the strength of his portion in that Will exorcise ghosts, sweep fathers into the chimney corner, and burn all the rubbish within his reach with his torch before he hands it on to the next hero?

—Bernard Shaw, Letter to Henry James, 19091

In his brilliant book, Modernism and Fascism: The Sense of a Beginning under Mussolini and Hitler (2007), Roger Griffin describes the totalitarian movements of the twentieth century as alternative modernisms, "revitalization movements" responding to the crisis of modernity and seeking to realize a "temporalized utopia."2 Griffin does not see a rigid line separating this type of political modernism from cultural modernism, and he delineates two general types of modernist artists: epiphanic modernists, such as Joyce and Beckett, and programmatic modernists, such as Shaw: "There is a common matrix behind modernism in the bewildering heterogeneity of concrete manifestations. . . . [T]his matrix is usefully seen as the search for transcendence and regeneration, whether confined to a personal quest for ephemeral moments of enlightenment or expanded to take the form of a cultural, social, or political movement for the renewal of the nation or the whole of Western civilization."3 Programmatic modernists, such as Shaw, seek to "inaugurate an entirely new era of society within historical time."4 Certainly Shaw made no secret about his intention of changing the world, both with his playwriting and with his more overtly political work, as he reminds us in the preface to Man and Superman when he says that "'for art's [End Page 117] sake' alone [he] would not face the toil of writing a single sentence."5 Shaw saw his work as a writer and dramatist as an extension of his work as Fabian socialist and propagandist of the Life Force; viewing him as a programmatic modernist, I believe, can bring new insights to his work. Moreover, Shaw's lifelong desire to see humankind and societal institutions transformed can be compared, and even linked, with his desire for urban renewal, also expressed throughout his life and with equal intensity.

Nineteenth-century British society was characterized by a powerful sense of social and economic dislocation. Famously denominated "two nations" by Benjamin Disraeli in Sybil (1845) and envisaged as potentially manifesting in two different species by H. G. Wells in The Time Machine (1895), the unprecedented disparity between rich and poor presented a terrifying shock to the conscientious observer. The increase in urban population and slums throughout the nineteenth century had become alarming, and Shaw had been horrified by the dirt, poverty, and drunkenness found in rundown areas of the city ever since he first encountered them in the Dublin slums as a boy: "Thus were laid the foundations of my life-long hatred of poverty, and the devotion of all my public life to the task of exterminating the poor and rendering their resurrection for ever impossible."6 Joseph V. O'Brien similarly records the "cracked walls, leaky roofs, rickety stairs, broken windows, worm-eaten floors" of nineteenth-century Dublin as well as the staggering mortality rates; for example, in 1845 a local medical officer examined three thousand poor families and concluded that "22 percent of children did not survive the first year of life, 52 percent died before their sixth year, and only one-third of the working class as a whole survived beyond twenty years."7 The situation was probably not much better for the poor in London when Shaw arrived there in 1876. In fact, another historian, J. W. Burrow, has said that to the nineteenth-century progressive Englishman "London, too, with its swarming yet partly invisible masses of the unhealthy, ill-fed poor, became something of an obsession."8 The immensity of the problem certainly obsessed Shaw throughout his life, and of course his first play, Widowers' Houses, is about just that: the...


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