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  • Kaleidoscopic Shaw
  • Sally Peters (bio)
Brad Kent, ed. George Bernard Shaw in Context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. 26 black-and-white illustrations. xxxii + 383 pages. $120.00.

This volume is part of the Literature in Context series from Cambridge University, each volume focusing on a single writer and offering insights into the “contexts” that have influenced the writer, including the literary, cultural, and political. Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, and George Eliot are among those already featured. For Shaw, Brad Kent has assembled a team of scholars, each writing on an area of particular expertise or interest. Divided into six parts, the volume presents forty-two brief, original essays. In encyclopedic fashion, they are meant to be informative, summarizing the individual subject at hand and presenting the current state of knowledge, rather than probing new ground. The essays may overlap, cross-reference, or disagree as they treat material from differing perspectives. The intended audience is primarily students, although certainly scholars from other disciplines will find the summaries of benefit, as well as those seeking to be refreshed on a familiar subject.

Although it is impossible here to do justice to the individual essays, I offer a glimpse of their riches. Part 1, “People and Places,” outlines formative influences on Shaw. Peter Gahan opens the section with an engaging tour through Shaw’s Dublin and environs, from his earliest years to his later visits, noting sights, events, history, and impressions important to the boy and the man. Laura Arrington picks up the thread by describing Shaw’s role in the founding of the Fabian Society. Peter Conolly-Smith then traces Shaw’s reception in Germany and Austria, focusing on his [End Page 306] longtime collaboration with his German translator, Siegfried Trebitsch, whose mistakes and misjudgments ironically led to Shaw’s public success. In “London,” Desmond Harding describes the city from the time Shaw arrived in 1876, seeing its “heterogeneity and uncontainability as central to the playwright’s imagination” (35). Looking at Shaw’s relationship to Wilde, Eibhear Walshe finds Shaw’s writings a key contribution to Wilde’s rehabilitation and ascendance in reputation, even while Shaw’s own reputation plummeted; they were “if not quite friends … respectful acquaintances” (39). Similarly, Nicholas Grene observes that W. B. Yeats and Shaw shared “mutual respect; they never fell out, though they could never be close friends” because their art was antithetical (50).

Part 2, “Theatre,” opens with Anthony Roche on the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, for which John Bull’s Other Island formed a major contribution to the Irish Dramatic Revival, and it was the Abbey that staged The Shewing-up of Blanco Posnet after it was banned from performance in England. In “Actors and Actresses,” Margot Peters declares of Shaw that “[n]o playwright has exercised more power over the casting of his plays,” giving as examples Janet Achurch, Ellen Terry, and Mrs. Patrick Campbell (61). Looking at London’s Court Theatre, Sos Eltis describes the fruitful collaboration with Harley Granville Barker and Shaw’s emergence as a popular and admired playwright. In “Fabian Drama,” J. Ellen Gainor highlights the mission and importance of Fabian ideas in the newly established, noncommercial Stage Society. Kerry Powell notes that even while Shaw objected to the unthinking laughter of farce, he often appropriated farcical materials, notably in The Philanderer and You Never Can Tell. In Shaw’s history plays, writes Ellen E. Dolgin, “the inner world of the heroic character” is made “visible and dominant,” as in The Man of Destiny (98). Heidi J. Holder, in “Melodrama,” shows Shaw using materials at hand as he evoked that genre’s emotions “for which he had a modicum of respect” (108). Finally, in “The New Drama,” Jean Chothia discusses the Stage Society from the perspective of its featured experimental work and independent theater initiatives of the period.

Part 3, “Writing and the Arts,” encompasses a wide spectrum. In “Cinema,” John McInerney sees Shaw as “a futurist by habit as well as conviction” (119). “Journalism” emphasizes the personal quality Shaw brought to the form, as Elizabeth Carolyn Miller observes. In “Letters,” Charles Carpenter addresses Shaw’s massive correspondence. Lawrence Switzky, in “Media and Technology,” notes Shaw’s admiration of sound...


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