- Shaw’s Settings: Gardens and Libraries by Tony Jason Stafford, and: Bernard Shaw and Totalitarianism: Longing for Utopia by Matthew Yde
Two recent monographs indicate the robust ongoing critical conversation around Bernard Shaw’s work. The authors are both astute and attentive readers of the plays, and both books admirably strive to forge new interpretive directions and shine light on areas that have vexed scholars and theater practitioners alike. Together, they rattle some sacred, garden-variety assumptions about Shaw.
Emily Dickinson conceptualized curiosity as “the Garden in the Brain,” a formulation that might have delighted Shaw who, as Tony Jason Stafford details in Shaw’s Settings, seems to have had gardens on the brain. Stafford’s rich study proceeds from the assertion that, as unquestionably brilliant as Shaw’s dialogue is, his copious paratextual material (verbose prefaces, literary stage direction) is far from irrelevant to the theatrical experience of the plays and essential not only to understanding their meaning but in revealing Shaw’s visual artistry and dramaturgical prowess. In particular, Stafford traces the playwright’s adept and varied deployment of two recurrent settings, the garden and the library, through nine major plays that span three decades, to demonstrate how meaningfully Shaw intertwines stage environment with the verbal pyrotechnics and discussion-based dramatic style for which he is so well known.
Stafford approaches the plays as both literary and performance texts and deftly illustrates how Shaw employs these two settings in his campaigns against (among other things) capitalism and romantic idealism, tracking their incarnations from Widowers’ Houses to Back to Methuselah. As archetypes, gardens and libraries signify human advancement and achievement while at the same time being status symbols, indicating that level of British society that, [End Page 115] as Stafford writes, Shaw “ironically targeted for his assaults on…hypocrisy, pretentiousness, hollowness, superficiality, and irrationality” (6). While the appearance of gardens and libraries approaches a kind of ubiquity in the plays, Stafford points out that Shaw never uses them as settings in quite the same way twice, thematically or textually. Rather, in a certain sense, the pattern is that there is no pattern, or, as GBS proclaimed, “the golden rule is that there are no golden rules.”
Stafford’s thesis then is broad, claiming that Shaw chooses gardens and libraries as backdrops neither haphazardly nor frivolously, but deliberately, in order to achieve each play’s intended effect and meaning. After a brief introduction, the bulk of his study analyzes the tropes’ varying formulations, assigning each chapter to a specific play and unpacking its unique intratextual configuration. Each begins by establishing a critical context for the play being discussed and proceeds to make clear the ways in which the author’s reading builds upon, sometimes diverges from, and even discovers blind spots among other scholarly perspectives. Throughout, Stafford’s mining of the material is fruitful, from his discovery of the fecund semantics of character names (most fascinatingly in Mrs. Warren’s Profession) to his interpretive assessment of Shaw’s specified contents of Morell’s bookshelves in Candida and Roebuck Ramsden’s study in Man and Superman. These close readings convincingly emphasize the importance of place (including even Shaw’s designation of weather) to characterization, conflict, and the articulation of each play’s political and philosophical points.
In Shaw’s Settings’ final pages, Stafford reiterates generalized convergences in Shaw’s varying usages of the garden and the library within the architecture of the theatrical text: how they help articulate character and metaphor and serve to create visual and performance effects. However, the brief conclusion fails to venture beyond thematics (how the settings serve an individual play’s meaning) into what, taken together, they might reveal about Shavian dramaturgical form or even heretofore underexplored aspects of the playwright’s thinking. Overall, while Stafford is profitably systematic in his approach, he could be more systemic; he organizes his study by assigning each chapter to a single play, a choice that threatens...