As a committed socialist and dramatist, Bernard Shaw’s primary goal was to reform the existing social conditions and theatrical conventions by his works; he believed that any work of art should have a social function (McDonald 64). Conscious of the moral rottenness of the bourgeoisie and the evils of capitalism and poverty, Shaw devoted himself to the cause of public morality, true progress and justice (Griffith 25-6). As John Gassner also observes, Shaw rejected the doctrine of art for art’s sake and nihilistic tendencies, and regarded art as a means of liberation from materialism (Gassner 298). To enhance the intellectual consciousness of his people and to improve their social condition, Shaw dramatized the relation between sexes, the individual and society, and the problems of conscience, marriage, and religion (Purdom 99). Some of his writings are also a critique of the education system. He believes that the education system should produce perfect humans, but in fact, the education system of his time was an organization which taught useless things by rote, and involved physical punishment (Griffith 146).
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Sociopolitical Worldview of George Bernard Shaw
2. Introduction: Shaw as a reformer of social, political and theatrical conventions
3. War is the Coward’s Art
4. Socialism as a Way to Achieve Political and Economic Freedom
5. Futility of Romantic Love
6. Presentations of Upper Class Society
7. Conventional Family and Marriage as a Hindrance for Reformation
8. Life Force, the Core Relation between Man and Woman
9. Hope in Evolution, or the Replacement of Man by Superman
10. Conclusion: Shaw advertised his doctrines on the problems of modern society
11. Works Cited
George Bernard Shaw is a great nineteenth-century artist. What Ibsen is to the tragic, Shaw is to the comic tradition (Bentley 107). The relation between ideals and reality is the great problem of Shaw’s plays, and this great problem creates the dialectic relation between idealism and realism. Hence he believes in the idea that there is a wrong realism and a right realism (Bentley 123-124). These two types of idealism contradict with each other and Shaw manifests his idea on different issues.
In Bernard Shaw’s hands, the drama became not an artistic creation for aesthetic enjoyment but a medium of social criticism. He has ever considered himself as a very practical reformer. His whole life has been a mission to reform fallen humanity and his dramatic career is a means to an end— the end being the betterment of the human race. Shaw likes to advertise himself and has never ceased to talk about his own beliefs and doctrines on the problems of modern society. Shaw as a reformer for the most part deals with modern sociological problems — poverty, militarism, war, marriage, divorce, crime and punishment, religion, medicine, school and many others that arise from our sociological position and our ethical standpoints.
Shaw has always been obsessed with the idea of reforming the world, remolding it nearer to his heart’s desire; and from first to last he has shown a fairly rational consistency of thought. In fact, he carried out persistent struggle to force the public to reexamine their morals. In order to achieve this object, he wrote plays and his plays were different from the accepted morals and conventions of the society. That is why he has called himself, “A specialist in immoral and heretical plays… I write plays with the deliberate object of converting the nation to my opinions” (qtd. in Thomas 83). These plays were intended to make people to give up the customs. Customs are likely to grow stale and so they become meaningless. Unless they are changed, the society cannot progress and reform itself (Patel no p.n.).
Shaw depicts two conflicting elements in society, the haves and the proletariat or righteous individuals who are working for the regeneration of the downtrodden. Besides he has unified abstract social forces, made them concrete through word pictures and even where he has portrayed individual sentiments and ideas, he has looked at them from two different points of view — as individual and as a social animal.
Shaw was a politically conscious author, a socialist and a Fabian. He had the Shavian concept of society and believed in socialism. His concept of socialism was also influenced by his theory of evolution or Creative Evolution. He thought that nothing was perfect. Everything underwent a process of continuous change and evolution which ultimately led to perfection. He does not seem to be very much in favor of quick change or revolution. He believed that reform should be gradual and induced by peaceful means rather than by outright revolution (Shaw Candida 84-85). On the other hand, he believed in democratic procedure of life. He thought socialism could be brought in by a process of legislations that aimed at bringing about equality in the society and reducing the gaps between the rich and the poor.
As he grew in age, he realized that acts of Parliament could not usher any socialism to increase human welfare and happiness. However, he thought that good men and women could go a long way in bringing about socialism. He also believed that a good society required good laws which are made by good people but good laws passed by a few do not necessarily make a good society (Shaw Candida 84-85). In other words, he had become a believer in individualism along with socialism.
Shaw gave British drama a strong political cast and defined the stylistic terms of realism for 20th century British drama. Dramatists working in this line were faced with the choice of reforming society by depicting its evils in naturalistic details, or attacking its ethos through the representative nature of character. Galsworthy and Lawrence, Arnold Wesker, as well as the English followers of Brecht, John Arden and Edward Bond who came long after him, wrote with almost the same realistic and critical focus as Shaw, presenting moral or ideological analysis of society with immediacy and political aims. Undeniably, there is a tangible difference between Victorian attitudes and the modern aesthetic that defines artistic progress as a radical break with, or in opposition to the past. Shaw was already breaking the moulds of Victorian certainties with subjects like women’s rights, class justice and other major contemporary themes that have shaped the political forms of 20th century British drama. And it is a measure of the radical political implications he gave English drama that most of his plays were banished from the stage (Nforbin 5).
Shaw’s plays presented the problems of women and the problems of society. For this reason, he talks about freedom of women, women’s suffrage movement, socialism and Fabian society. The Background of the play Arms and the Man was highly political. The Suffrage Movement of Women started in England in the late 19th century. In 1889, Shaw established running a public office for himself as a Liberal candidate. The propaganda of his platform would comprise the slogan “suffrage for women in exactly the same terms as men” (Kakutani, 1981).
When Shaw was alive, the European women understood that they could earn a self-regulating livelihood. The next rational footstep was to claim the right to vote. The British women had been fighting for the suffrage and for other rights such as to own property since 1875. Renowned suffragettes Emily Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel were in Shaw’s friend circle. Those suffragettes friends of Shaw made several hunger strikes for the purpose to become martyrs to liberate women and they had been tolerated multiple imprisonments and force-feedings or tube-feedings to prevent them from dying.
Shaw stood against the force feeding that he considered torture. He had supported the women suffrage movement whole-heartedly and frequently had written witty editorials to the suffragettes’ cause. However, he believed that all the European women themselves were completely talented for fighting their own battles for their rights of property inheritance and voting rights. He also believed that women should not rely on men to gain their rights. Furthermore, he regularly expressed his self-criticisms in superficial humor that women were not sure he was essentially helping their cause. His idea on women’s rights was expressed in this manner that “the denial of any fundamental rights to the person of woman is practically the denial of the Life Everlasting” (qtd. in Gahan 43). Anyway, this cause diminished by the turn of the century and the press lost their interest in the women’s suffrage movement. Eventually, women over the age of thirty achieved the right to vote and to take positions in the House of Commons in 1918. At the same time, the property clause requiring male voters to own property (amounting to ten British pounds) was removed (Board xi-xii).
Beatrice Webb and Sidney Webb were two friends of George Bernard Shaw. These three persons formed the core of the Fabian Society and this society took the name from the Roman general Fabius, who saved Rome from the invading Hannibal. This society was not a revolutionary organization like a communist party but the goal of Shaw’s Fabian Society was to gain basic human rights through continuing reforms in society. All the members of the society had their mission to take their lifestyles as simple as possible, in order to disburse their dynamic power for the betterment of the lives of others.
Scottish philosopher Thomas Davidson founded The Fabian Society in 1883. The society was an extension of the Fellowship of the New Life. The goal of this society was achieving moral high-grounds in order to pave the way for upholding socialism. Edward Carpenter, a Cambridge fellow improved the group’s belief to explicitly recommend vegetarianism, hard physical work, and handspun clothing in an obvious rejection of the extravagant lifestyle of the Victorian upper classes. Shaw and the Webbs adopted this philosophy on their own daily living to an extreme level, they worked eighteen-hours in a day by involving themselves in rigorous activities like: gardening, writing, and distributing pamphlets on socialist ideals. They detested any form of luxury like overeating and sex to the wearing of sufficient fine clothing. They withdrew themselves from eating meat, became vegetarian and started to lead celibate, Spartan lives (Board xii-xiii).
Thus the Fabian society not only had a strict view on social and political matters operations, but also had a specific taste on arts and literature. The Fabian Society signed to take steps and Shaw presented a series of lectures about the dramatic influence of Henrik Ibsen. He admired Ibsen’s work and popularized him in Britain. Shaw had lived for nearly ninety years and perhaps not coincidentally, all three founding Fabians worked productively until their eighties, and all of them were writing creatively in their seventies. All the founding members of the Fabian Society lived a long and healthy life accredit to the strict regimen that they had professed. All these activities were carried out to fulfill their needs to greater cause of human equality (Board, xiii).
Even amongst the Fabians he was a member noted as much for his brilliance as for his moderation, which some have interpreted as his conservatism, and critics like Cazamian have pointed out that there has been a gradual softening of his orthodoxy and radicalism. He takes a mild view of changes and opposes anarchism, because revolutionary conduct can do nothing unless the Will has been roused into activity. When the unconscious Will has been moved, it will leap over precipices, and until it has been mingled, we cannot make real progress (Gupta 19)
Although Shaw had a queer outlook about women, marriage and sex, yet he was fully aware of the down-trodden condition of the women-folk. He thought that marriage makes the women subservient to the will of the husband. He did not think it to be a healthy situation. He wanted to free women out of this slavery and, therefore, pleads for complete emancipation of women. In the first line of the preface of Getting Married, he said “There is no subject on which more dangerous nonsense is talked and thought than marriage.” Shaw writes in the Preface named ‘The Revolt against Marriage’ of the play. He further added “If the mischief stopped at talking and thinking it would be bad enough; but it goes further, into disastrous anarchical action” (Shaw Getting). To Shaw, marriage creates anarchical situation, and in his most writings, he presents this idea.
Shaw presented various attitudes on society and politics in his literary works. The play Arms and the Man and Man and Superman also present various ideas about marriage, love, family, Life Force and politics including war, socialism, revolution and democracy. I am going to discuss these issues in the next few chapters.