- Shaw and the Sacred Cows: A New Look at the Plays
As this lively new study of Shaw’s plays reminds us, the word “duty” in the nineteenth century covered a wide spectrum of social and personal moral obligations. In Lord Nelson’s famous exhortation to his fleet at the beginning of the Battle of Trafalgar, “England expects that every man will do his duty,” the term no doubt signified an obligation loyally to serve and, if necessary, die for, King and country in the cause of defeating the forces of the enemy. But of course it was not only in the military sphere that the concept of duty held sway as a regulator of conduct in Shaw’s lifetime. In some cases, the concept was supported by the dictates of law and religion; in others, it was simply part of generally accepted assumptions about what constitutes proper human behavior. The codes of conduct included: the duty of children to honor and obey their parents; the duty of wives to [End Page 217] honor and obey their husbands, and to perform their tasks as housewives and mothers, as well as the more subtle obligations to behave in womanly ways; the still-continuing duty of members of Parliament in England and the Commonwealth to swear allegiance to the English Crown, and the more general duty of citizens to show loyalty to their country. As Dukore argues, the concept of duty is often also invoked by politicians as one of the tricks of governing classes to lend a mask of respectability to projects fundamentally driven by acquisitive and power-seeking motives.
The ideal of duty was one of the many sacred cows that Shaw, as playwright and activist, was fond of ridiculing. In The Admirable Bashville, Shaw has his pugilist hero, Cashel Byron, parody Nelson’s immortal message by saying that every man “Shall twaddle / About his duty,” and declare that the two things he hates are “my duty and my mother.” In the Dream in Hell scene of another Edwardian play, Man and Superman, Don Juan calls duty “one of the seven deadly virtues.” Dukore rightly identifies Henrik Ibsen as a major influence on Shaw’s radical questioning of widely accepted ideals of duty. In A Doll’s House, Nora astounds her husband and the rest of the world by renouncing her duty both as wife and mother, and declaring that she has discovered a prior duty—to herself. In Ghosts, Mrs. Alving, as encouraged by the counseling of a sanctimonious pastor, comes to endure the dreadful consequences of being a dutiful wife to her debauched husband.
The twin themes announced in the subtitle of this book are remarkably pervasive in Shaw’s drama. Dukore argues that in one form or another they appear in about two-thirds of his dramatic output of more than fifty plays and playlets. Several early plays lend themselves well to analysis under the “slaves of duty” rubric. In Mrs Warren’s Profession, Vivie Warren is presented from early in the play as a young woman who has emancipated herself from Victorian stereotypes of what constitutes “womanly” behavior. The denouement of the play depends on her final refusal, after a titanic struggle, to follow the rules of loyalty and obedience that Victorians expected from daughters in relation to their mothers. In the first of their two long quarrels, Mrs. Warren describes Vivie as “a bad daughter and a stuck-up prude.” In the second, she rails at Vivie’s refusal to do her “duty as a daughter.”
Like Nora Helmer, the wife/mother figure in You Never Can Tell, Mrs. Clandon (as she now calls herself, having discarded her married name of Crampton) is a woman who has renounced her duty to her husband; unlike Nora, she has taken her children with her when she walks out. After the children have grown up, there is an accidental family reunion at a seaside hotel. The father...