- Shaw and Feminisms: On Stage and Off ed. by D. A. Hadfield and Jean Reynolds
Thirty-six years have elapsed since the publication of Rodelle Weintraub’s groundbreaking Fabian Feminist: Bernard Shaw and Woman. No time like the present, then, for D. A. Hadfield and Jean Reynolds’s new essay collection Shaw and Feminisms: On Stage and Off, which attempts to bring the field up to date and consider the relationship between Shaw and women today.
After a foreword by Weintraub herself, Hadfield and Reynolds’s introduction sets the stage by offering a brief history of feminism and feminist criticism, from the first wave to the third, situating the roles that Shaw played and the reception of his work within this narrative. As though in explanation of the plural in the title, they point out that the “idea of a singular ‘feminism’ has given way to multiple ‘feminisms’ as third-wave feminists recognized a need for diversity” (5). The editors take seriously the implication that “[i]f feminism’s future is imbricated with its revisions and reassessments of its past, it seems useful to revisit one of its original, foundational political and literary figures” (7). The responses to Shaw and his work contained here take a variety of approaches to revisit and reassess the playwright and his plays.
Part 1, “The Women in Shaw’s Plays,” stands as the strongest section of the book. In chapter 1, “Shaw’s Athletic-Minded Women,” Tracy J. R. Collins critiques the extent to which so much feminist theory restates a Cartesian dualism between mind and body, arguing that the New Women in Shaw’s early plays and the heroines in some of his later works embody both the physical and mental prowess that he thought necessary for emancipation and equality. In “Shaw and Cruelty” (chapter 2), Lawrence Switzky offers a brilliant meditation on the instrumental cruelty inherent in any reformist drama—that is, the suffering an audience feels in recognizing its complicity both onstage and off—reading such a rhetorical appeal in light of Shaw’s advocacy against vivisection. Focusing on The Philanderer, Switzky deconstructs the claims that characters make to justify their cruelty in terms of advancing knowledge. He demystifies the gender politics that make cruelty possible and reanimates an articulation of weakness that, in the best sense, feminizes and civilizes the play’s audience. In chapter 3, “Shutting Out Mother: Vivie Warren as the New Woman,” Ann Wilson problematizes the mother/daughter relationship at the heart of Mrs Warren’s Profession. Her piece is at its best in its discussion of class, and it persuasively argues that Vivie and the New Woman are only possible insofar as they are dependent on the ugly mechanisms of capital and the ideologies that support them, as embodied by Kitty Warren. In “The Politics of Shaw’s Irish Women in John Bull’s Other Island” (chapter 4), Brad Kent reads Shaw’s play as a pacifist response to William Butler Yeats and Lady Gregory’s Cathleen ni Houlihan and its call for martyrdom. He locates the resistance to self-destructive nationalism and neoliberal economic capitulation in the play’s women, particularly Nora Reilly, who, despite agreeing to marry Broadbent and emigrate to London, will nonetheless play an active role in the destiny of her Irish homeland.
The essays in part 2, “Shaw’s Relationships with Women,” are generally straightforward examples of theatre historical scholarship, with varying levels of archival research on display. In chapter 5, “Bernard Shaw and the Archbishop’s Daughter,” Leonard Conolly traces the story of Shaw and Mary Hamilton, a minor actress at the Court Theatre during the Vedrenne-Barker seasons. Conolly reproduces Shaw’s seven extant letters to her, written over the course of the years 1906–19, and they reveal something of Shaw’s humanity as he tells her his hopes for his plays and for her. Conolly’s Shaw stands in stark contrast to the Shaw of Hadfield’s “Writing Women: Shaw and Feminism behind...