- George Bernard Shaw in Context ed. by Brad Kent
Brad Kent (ed.)
Cambridge University Press, 2015
£74.99, hb., 418 pp., 26 b/w ill
This volume, part of Cambridge University Press's "Literature in Context" series, is comprised of forty-two short essays written by an impressive list of scholars who collectively undermine the simplistic view of George Bernard Shaw as merely a pursuer of the "Fantasy of pure intelligence", as Raymond Williams put it in 1965, and other modes of thought peculiar to his historical moment. The breadth of topics covered complicate and extend our understanding of the temporal and geographical boundaries of the notion of context in relation to Shaw, and while none offers comprehensive discussions, as a whole the volume provides a useful introduction which would benefit advanced undergraduate and postgraduate students.
The collection is arranged into six sections, which gives a structure that is effective in helping readers navigate between the various strands of Shavian studies. In Part One, "People and Places", [End Page 200] Peter Gahan and Desmond Harding consider Dublin and London respectively as significant geographical contexts which shaped Shaw's life and works while other contributions discuss Shaw's relationship with notable literary figures such as Oscar Wilde and W. B. Yeats. Part Two, "Theatre", includes essays on Shaw's contribution to the celebrated 1904-07 management of the Royal Court Theatre by J. E. Vedrenne and Harley Granville Barker, and the early years at Dublin's Abbey Theatre. This segment also includes valuable offerings on the many theatrical forms and genres which influenced Shaw's plays including melodrama, history plays and farcical comedy. In addition to Shaw's involvement with theatre, any comprehensive study of Shaw would also need to consider his mass of non-dramatic writings and thus Part three of this collection, "Writing and the Arts", includes essays on Shaw's novels, journalism and music criticism in addition to his relationship with significant developments and movements of his time such as Modernism.
Part Four, "Politics", perhaps best demonstrates Kent's assertion that in addition to celebrating Shaw, this collection also holds the dramatist to "critical scrutiny" (xxiv) through essays which consider Shaw's ambivalent attitudes towards issues such as feminism, nationalism and, in Kent's notable contribution, censorship. Part Five, "Culture and Society", explores Shaw's relationship with key scientific and philosophical debates of his time via essays on Shaw's views on health and vegetarianism, language and education amongst other topics. The final section is concerned with Shaw's reception and afterlife in essays exploring responses to his work in London and North America, critical and academic evaluations of his writing, and accounts of his life and character in biographies. This section ends with John A. Bertolini's essay on Shaw's influence on later dramatists, mostly focusing on the works of Arthur Miller and Tom Stoppard.
While, as Kent highlights in his preface, the list of topics could have been significantly longer considering the "Diversity of Shaw's activities and interests" (xxiv), within what is discussed there are some striking omissions. For example in "The Contemporary north american stage" L. W. Conolly considers productions of Shaw's plays in Canadian regional theatres, but Shaw's involvement with the United Kingdom's theatrical landscape is predominately explored through his relationship with london's theatres. Some consideration of the performative legacy of Shaw in the UK would have also been a useful addition alongside A. M. Gibbs's views on the academic reception of Shaw following the playwright's death in 1950. Moreover, the repetition of information between essays can sometimes make for a frustrating read. Regardless of these minor drawbacks, however, this collection is an ambitious and extremely valuable addition to shavian criticism. It provides a comprehensive overview of the history and present state of critical writing on Shaw through essays which successfully highlight Shaw's centrality to significant debates of his time and beyond, while indicating new avenues for further research. [End Page 201]