- Shaw and the “isms
Bernard Shaw often proves difficult to pinpoint definitively on any subject, as anyone who has dealt with his socialism, Fabianism, pacifism, and especially feminism has no doubt discovered. The editors and contributors experience this same dilemma in Shaw and Feminisms: On Stage and Off, a much welcomed volume that considers the always-complex Shaw and his favorite topic, women—literal and fictional—from multiple perspectives. The aptly titled work (Feminisms) studies Shaw’s various approaches to feminist thinking, playwriting, and personal actions, for good or ill, with the stated goal of collecting “materials covering various aspects of Shaw’s work and influence and put[ting] them into dialogue with contemporary feminist thinking.” Shaw’s long life and career saw changes and evolutions in his positions, and the book’s contributors explore these developments. The editors praise Shaw as the first British playwright to stage serious debates about the “woman question” and as the creator of extraordinary female characters. However, several of his personal relations with women, especially would-be women playwrights, are called into question.
Much of the book’s considerable strength derives from several chapters that feature au courant literary theory, never-before-published Shaw letters, seldom-discussed Shavian female characters, and Shaw as a multinational figure. For example, in an exemplary essay, Tracy J. R. Collins considers the body as portrayed in drama a major topic in contemporary theory and in the works of Shaw himself. Shaw’s athletic women characters use their bodies to advantage in their relations with other characters and generally prove to be women of action in the quest to describe the New Woman that fascinated society during Shaw’s early playwriting years.
Leonard Conolly presents never-before-published letters from Shaw to the actress Mary Hamilton not only to shed light on Shaw’s relationships with women but also to introduce a previously overlooked addition to Shaw’s large collection of female friends and acquaintances. Fresh Shaw material is always valuable, and in this essay Conolly uses these letters to aptly demonstrate how Shaw could “speak openly and freely about the Life Force, playwriting, acting, morality, love, marriage, and happiness.”
Brad Kent fills a void in Shaw studies by addressing the paucity of commentary devoted to Irish women and focuses on the treatment of female characters in John Bull’s Other Island by “situating them in a broad literary [End Page 224] history.” Kent posits that Shaw’s ambivalence toward women in the play results from his conflicted relationship with his native land, but suggests that Shaw also offers hope for transformation of traditional roles for women into positive agents of progress and change.
Kay Li identifies Shaw as a writer of multinational importance and relays the stage history of the first Chinese performances of Mrs Warren’s Profession (1920), a talky, immoral play by Chinese standards. Nevertheless, according to Li, the play proved useful to Chinese intellectuals in their “slow march toward equality for women.”
In a timely and important interview with D. A. Hadfield, Jackie Maxwell, artistic director of the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, tells of her desire not only to produce stellar productions of Shaw plays featuring his dynamic and energetic women characters, but also to discover and give voice to female playwrights of the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Maxwell surmises: “There’s no doubt that his [Shaw’s] plays are still provocative . . . because the status quo is so hideously unchanged in so many ways.”
The book closes with Michel Pharand’s bibliography of writings by and about Shaw concerning love, sex, marriage, women, and related topics, which will be of great value to those wishing to continue and further the study of Shaw and feminisms.
However, despite these and other stellar contributions, puzzling aspects of the book emerge. The editors aptly describe the various waves of feminist activism that Shaw lived through and participated in yet never define feminisms or clarify the standard(s) to which Shaw is being held by...