- Bernard Shaw: Slaves of Duty and Tricks of the Governing Class by Bernard F. Dukore
According to Bernard Dukore, thirty-seven of Shaw’s fifty-two plays “employ the themes of slaves of duty and tricks of the governing class” (108). Being subservient to conventional notions of duty was, of course, a central theme of Ibsen’s – the first, and perhaps most lasting, of Shaw’s dramatic influences. Shaw borrows the theme from Ibsen in his first “unpleasant plays,” and it remained a central theme of Shaw’s, according [End Page 126] to Dukore, to the very end of his career. This being the case, Dukore seeks to redress a lacuna in Shaw studies: “comments on the specific themes of Slaves of Duty and Tricks of the Governing Class have been made [by Shaw scholars] almost in passing. Until now, they have not been focused upon in detail or in depth” (9).
After locating the roots of this theme in Ibsen – and more superficially in W.S. Gilbert’s The Pirates of Penzance; or, The Slave of Duty (1879) – Dukore sets out in his first chapter, “Duty Bound and Duty Free,” to lay out his argument and to detail for the reader the organization his book will take. Amazingly, we learn that Dukore will explore the twin but interconnected themes of his title in these thirty-seven plays in chronological order, from Widowers’ Houses (1892) to Farfetched Fables (1950), and will do this in the remaining 109 pages of the book.
Chapters two and three, “Unpleasant and Pleasant Plays,” and “Puritans and a Prizefighter,” as the chapter titles suggest, look at most of the works from Shaw’s first three volumes of plays (Plays Unpleasant, Plays Pleasant, and Plays for Puritans), the ten plays he wrote in the 1890s, along with his verse play The Admiral Bashville (1901), which was based on Shaw’s 1882 novel about a prizefighter, Cashel Byron’s Profession. Dukore states that one of the pleasant plays, The Man of Destiny (1895), does not actually “dramatize either slavery to duty or tricks of the governing class” (6), but nonetheless, contains a capsule statement from the character signalled by the title, Napoleon, “whose importance to our analysis is disproportionate to its relative brevity” (6). Napoleon remarks that the Englishman has an uncanny propensity to arrive at the “conviction that it is his moral and religious duty to conquer those who possess the thing he wants” (Shaw, Man of Destiny; qtd. 6). Although he does not otherwise cover The Man of Destiny in his book, Dukore repeatedly returns to Napoleon’s trenchant speech to illuminate other plays under discussion.
Chapter four, “The Big Three,” examines Shaw’s early twentieth-century trilogy, Man and Superman (1902), John Bull’s Other Island (1904), and Major Barbara (1905). This is the first chapter where Shaw’s plays get a little more extended treatment, with an especially incisive, although still very succinct, analysis of John Bull. John Bull’s Other Island is especially rich for uncovering the theme announced by Napoleon in The Man of Destiny, as its central character Tom Broadbent perfectly embodies Shaw’s vision of the English governing class, someone whose trickery is apparently unconscious, as he has made it a matter of moral duty to fulfil his own acquisitive desires. It is also from one of these three ground-breaking plays, Major Barbara, that Dukore takes the last part of his title. In Act Three of that play, the munitions manufacturer Andrew Undershaft announces to his estranged wife that tricks of the governing class will not work on him, as he is a member of that class himself. [End Page 127]
The remaining chapters continue to group a set of plays under a title denominating either the period in which they were written or the dramatic style or form: “Late Edwardian Plays,” “Plays of the War Years,” “An Allegory, an Adaptation, and a Different War,” “Plays during Hard Times,” and “Parables and Playfulness.” “Plays of the War Years” alludes, of course...