- GBS’s Settings
THIS SLIM VOLUME on the significance of Bernard Shaw’s recurrent use of gardens and libraries as settings in nine of his plays (from Widowers’ Houses to Back to Methuselah) has many commendable aspects, although price is not one of them. The main text runs only 130 pages, while much of the twenty-six pages of notes are given over to “ibid.”
Tony Stafford’s approach is to provide close readings of Shaw’s stage directions as essential components of the plays as a whole, and he argues that the directions reveal that Shaw was a visual as well as a verbal artist. These visual elements also embody themes, characterization, and metaphors. Moreover, in presenting his case, Stafford eschews opaque theorizing and writes clearly and cogently. He also recognizes that, in addition to written stage directions, visual signposts can be implied throughout Shaw’s dialogue, much after the fashion of Shakespeare’s work.
Stafford has plenty of material to elucidate since many of Shaw’s stage directions are novelistic in form and content, perhaps a relic of Shaw’s early ventures as a novelist. However, Stafford does not explore the limitation of Shaw’s method, namely whether the very expansive content of the directions can be fully conveyed in the theatre and apprehended by the audience during an actual production. For example, Shaw’s 300-word description of Major Sergius Saranoff in Arms and the Man, with its nods to heroism, Byron, romance, Parisian salons and the like, surely cannot in any real sense be fully comprehended by an audience. Moreover, that description was added only after the original production (the manuscript indicates only that Sergius enters [End Page 441] the scene) and after Shaw saw the value in offering printed texts of his plays to the public, a facet not recognized here.
Although it is obviously beyond the purview and scope of this study, it would be interesting to know to what extent Shaw’s visual intentions have been fulfilled adequately in production. (It should be noted that there are no illustrations in the present book.) For example, as Stafford rightly points out, the impressive glass pavilion and the English countryside beyond it which Shaw prescribes for the setting of Misalliance provides an important stage picture when male and female characters chase each other (127–28). Yet, curiously, in a 2003 production at the Shaw Festival at Niagara-on-the-Lake, both the glass pavilion and countryside were abandoned by the director. Moreover, in the original 1910 London production the pavilion (and indeed the settings as a whole) failed to be worthy of notice in the reviews in, among others, the Saturday Review (by Max Beerbohm) or The Times. What was noted (and deprecated) were the lengthy verbal debates throughout the play that were only rendered palatable by a strong cast. So, in fact, the verbal overwhelmed the visual.
However, this criticism is probably unfair to Tony Stafford because he is not attempting theatre history and because what he does do he does well, thoughtfully, and interestingly; indeed, much of what he says will provide valuable illumination to many readers. Further, he recognizes and establishes firmly that these plays do need to be approached and discussed as theatrical works and judged accordingly.