- Shaw and Feminisms: On Stage and Off ed. by D.A. Hadfield, Jean Reynolds
Several years ago, the New York Public Library asked me to speak about Shaw, gender, and women’s history at an event entitled, Why Shaw Still Matters. As I explained to the audience, I felt considerable ambivalence about this charge: my book Shaw’s Daughters: Dramatic and Narrative Constructions of Gender had appeared in 1991, and, from my perspective, other related monographs should have long since supplanted mine, resulting in other feminist scholars’ being invited to appear on that panel. Thus, I was pleased to learn that a recent volume of essays, Shaw and Feminisms: On Stage and Off, edited by D.A. Hadfield and Jean Reynolds, aimed “to collect materials covering various aspects of Shaw’s work and influence and put them into dialogue with contemporary feminist thinking” (8). Since the first flurry of scholarship on Shaw and women emerged in the 1970s, a number of relevant articles, as well as a few monographs, have appeared, but this new collection endeavours to negotiate the tension between current feminist perspectives and history: “even as this contemporary reconsideration calls the extent of Shaw’s feminism into question . . . Shaw played a major role in the early stages of feminism” (9). In other words, Shaw scholars are now able to look more impartially at, and acknowledge the complexity of, questions relevant to feminism in relation to his life and work, without the [End Page 131] resistance that earlier feminists faced. Simultaneously, the volume provides nuanced readings of dramatic, biographical, and historical topics to confirm that Shaw studies has yet to exhaust this rich area of research.
Hadfield and Reynolds organize the collection of eleven essays into three parts: “The Women in Shaw’s Plays,” “Shaw’s Relationships with Women,” and “Shavian Feminism in the Larger World.” Following their introduction, which traces Shaw’s theatrical career in relation to developments in women’s history, four essays examine gender-related political and cultural issues in Shaw’s dramatic works. Tracy J.R. Collins explores “Shaw’s Athletic-Minded Women” (19) through his frequent depiction of female characters’ physical strength. Collins situates these figures alongside the construct of the New Woman and reads them via more contemporary feminist theories of the body. While she rightly notes Shaw’s fascination with this character type, she unfortunately fails to engage either the rational-dress movement that Shaw himself championed or the interest in physical culture that was burgeoning in Europe and America at the time (e.g., through the theories of Delsarte and Jahn) – both of which are integrally related to her topic and would have enriched this discussion. Lawrence Switzky takes up Shaw’s well-known stance as an anti-vivisectionist and juxtaposes it with a trope of gendered violence that he traces through a close reading of The Philanderer. In so doing, Switzky compellingly hypothesizes a lineage from Shaw to Artaud and suggests that “the fragile, sometimes violated, distance between laughter and pain” that we see in Shaw “places him in the vanguard of twentieth-century dramatic experimentation” (53). In her analysis of Vivie Warren as a New Woman, Ann Wilson builds productively on extant scholarship on Shaw and gender to demonstrate how the connections between female identity and British imperialism notably omit England’s daughters. Wilson smartly interweaves these considerations with her examination of the contradictions embedded in Kitty Warren’s aspirations to middle-class status, ultimately demonstrating the interpenetration of British gender, class, and political ideologies. In another strong close reading, Brad Kent notes the comparative paucity of scholarship on Shaw’s Irish women. Using John Bull’s Other Island as his primary example, Kent positions the play in dialogue with Irish nationalist drama, and, more broadly, as emblematic of Ireland’s gendered relationship with England.
The four essays that comprise the volume’s second section examine Shaw’s relationships with professional theatre women: actresses, dramatists, and critics. As Leonard W. Conolly aptly notes, scholars...