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Exploiting Art: The Pictures in Bernard Shaw's Plays STANLEY WEINTRAUB • THROUGHOUT A LONG LIFETIME Bernard Shaw remained intensely interested in the visual arts, and exploited his familiarity with English and Continental art in his plays. A new dimension emerges when Shavian drama is examined through this lens. A century ago, when English painting was still suffering from the blight of the sentimental academic subject picture, and Ireland was culturally at least a generation behind, the young Bernard Shaw could have been guaranteed a surfeit of subject paintings in Dublin. When he left for London at twenty, in 1876, the art which English galleries found saleable, despite the inroads of PreRaphaelitism , was much the same. Victorian religiosity and humanitarianist idealism encouraged production of the overloaded anecdote or genteel landscape, and Shaw's early dramatic settings could not help but be influenced, even when he intended to use a scene ironically, by what English eyes were accustomed to encountering in art. In the final stage directions in Candida (1894), for example, young Marchbanks, spurned, turns to Candida and her husband for the last time, and ~'She takes his face in her hands; and as he divines her intention andfalls on his knees, she kisses his forehead" In his tableau Shaw was parodying the sentimental Victorian anecdote in painting, although his first audiences, aware only of the artistic genre, took it straight. (In The Devits Disciple, the first act includes a Reading of the Will - an obvious grouping of people for a Royal Academy set piece.) In the last act the scene of Dick Dudgeon mounting the scaffold owes much, as Shaw confessed, to dramatizations 215 216 STANLEY WEINTRAUB of Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, but perhaps even more to Frederick Barnard's popular painting, Sydney Carton, UA Tale of Two Cities:>" ex.. hibited at the Royal Academy in 1882 and much reproduced.l When Vivie Warren, in Mrs. Warren's Profession, draws aside the curtains of her window and proclaims, "What a beautiful night!" Shaw's stage directions add, HThe landscape is seen bathed in the radiance ofthe harvest moon rising over Blackdown." It may be no coincidence that Frederick Leighton 's Summer Moon - which fits the description - was exhibited in London shortly before Shaw wrote the play. G.B.S. always did his homework before writing a scene, even researching American Civil War memoirs as preparation for a play in which war would playa part, Arms and the Man. He was thus quick to respond to his critic-friend William Archer, who reviewed the play unfavorably , "Do you think war is any less terrible & heroic in its reality - on its seamy side, as you would say - than it is in the visions of Raina & of the critics who know it from the e!1gravings of Elizabeth Thompson's pictures in the Regent St. shop windows?"2 Elizabeth Thompson (Lady Butler), was famous for her obsessively detailed paintings of British feats of arms during the Napoleonic and Crimean wars: Shaw's play was at least in part a response to her sentimental pictures, one of which, The Roll Call (1874) was purchased by Queen Victoria. But there were certainly others Shaw had in mind as well, as he suggests in the opening stage directions of the later Man of Destiny, where he describes Napoleon as having been "trained in the artillery under the old regime . ... Cannonading is his technical speciality . .. dignifying war with the noise and smoke ofcannon, as depicted in all militaryportraits. " The romanticizers ofwar were only slightly less numerous than its casualties. Sometimes in Shavian drama a painting seems displayed perfunctorily , as in Dr. Paramore's reception room in The Philanderer (written in 1893), where. a framed reproduction of Rembrandt's The Anatomy Lesson is hanging on the wall above a cabinet containing "anatomical preparations." It is the obvious work for the location. But later in the scene Leonard Charteris "strolls across to the cabinet; and pretends to study the Rembrandt . .. , so as to be asfar out ofJulia's reach as possible." As the dialogue develops, he is "still contemplating Rembrandt." The picture has no more than its obvious relationship to a physician's office, but it is there...


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pp. 215-238
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