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SHAW The Annual of Bernard Shaw Studies 23 (2003) 27-35

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The Achievement of Shaw's Later Plays, 1920-1939

Peter Gahan

Because of the constraints of a short conference paper, it should be understood that this contribution provides more in the way of hints than of argument as to how the late plays may be read.

First, a couple of preliminary points: (1) what are called the late plays here are all the short and full-length plays Shaw wrote between the two world wars: from Back to Methuselah (1920) to "In Good King Charles's Golden Days" (1939); (2) the word "achievement" in the title of this article is used with polemical intent, and (3) the term "postmodern" is restricted here to the writings of Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida on reading, writing, and texts. 1

Since these late plays were written, with the exception of Saint Joan (1923) and Back to Methuselah, they have received scant critical attention and, in spite of some successful early productions, what little has been written has been generally negative (except in regard to the first six scenes of Saint Joan). 2 "Formless" has been a constant critical complaint, although very little analysis is required to show that almost without exception the plays have been very carefully structured, if not in the conventional form of the three-act well-made play. In talking of Shaw's achievement in these plays, then, we have to be able to read them somewhat differently in order to confront the general consensus, shared by non-Shavians and Shavians alike, that the late plays are somehow of a lower artistic order than what came before.

There is also a sense of "finished" in the word "achievement," but here I need to be circumspect, as this touches on the burden of my argument, such as it is. That argument wants to state that there is a radical break in Shaw's work between all the plays written up to and including Heartbreak House (1916) and the series of plays starting with Methuselah. That break can be retrospectively recognized not only (in the negative sense) by the generally hostile critical reaction mentioned above, but by recognizing in them "symptoms" of, what is now called, postmodernism. Postmodernism, of [End Page 27] course, calls anything "finished," or "coherent," or "unified" into question, and while I would not want to deny a certain thematic coherence to Shaw's texts extending right from My Dear Dorothea (1878) to Why She Would Not (1950), neither would I like to ascribe an abstract structure or "coherence," a systematic unity, to any single text, let alone any group of texts. Shaw was never that sort of writer. If Methuselah represents a significant break within the Shavian oeuvre, all that is suggested here is that some appreciation of a postmodern approach to writing might help us in saying how.

On a level of dramaturgy, Back to Methuselah, published in 1921, a year before Ulysses and The Waste Land, was part of the modernism of its time (for which Shaw has got little credit). It did away with the classical unities of so-called Aristotelian drama: unity of time, place, and action, and unity of character. The lack of full characterization, in particular, has always been a major criticism of Methuselah, even by those who would hail Brecht's similar practice. And the presence of a sick microbe in Act I of Too True to Be Good (1932), or an angel with questionable proficiency in flying in The Simpleton of the Unexpected Isles (1934), is obviously antithetical to conventions of character derived from the nineteenth-century novel (from which much late nineteenth-century drama was adapted). The late plays develop their aberrant tendencies in different ways. For example, there is both the history play, "In Good King Charles's Golden Days," and the contemporary extravaganza, Geneva (1938), which use real characters participating in events that never happened; or a play, The Millionairess (1935), which is written with two endings; or Too True to Be Good...


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