Sunday, April 14, 2013

Shaw, Two Plays for Puritans; & Man and Superman


Opening Passage from The Devil's Disciple

At the most wretched hour between a black night and a wintry morning in the year 1777, Mrs. Dudgeon, of New Hampshire, is sitting up in the kitchen and general dwelling room of her farm house on the outskirts of the town of Websterbridge. She is not a prepossessing woman. No woman looks her best after sitting up all night; and Mrs. Dudgeon's face, even at its best, is grimly trenched by the channels into which the barren forms and observances of a dead Puritanism can pen a bitter temper and a fierce pride. She is an elderly matron who has worked hard and got nothing by it except dominion and detestation in her sordid home, and an unquestioned reputation for piety and respectability among her neighbors, to whom drink and debauchery are still so much more tempting than religion and rectitude, that they conceive goodness simply as self-denial. This conception is easily extended to others--denial, and finally generalized as covering anything disagreeable. So Mrs. Dudgeon, being exceedingly disagreeable, is held to be exceedingly good.

Opening Passage from Caesar and Cleopatra

An October night on the Syrian border of Egypt towards the end of the XXXIII Dynasty, in the year 706 by Roman computation, afterwards reckoned by Christian computation as 48 B.C. A great radiance of silver fire, the dawn of a moonlit night, is rising in the east. The stars and the cloudless sky are our own contemporaries, nineteen and a half centuries younger than we know them; but you would not guess that from their appearance. Below them are two notable drawbacks of civilization: a palace, and soldiers. The palace, an old, low, Syrian building of whitened mud, is not so ugly as Buckingham Palace; and the officers in the courtyard are more highly civilized than modern English officers: for example, they do not dig up the corpses of their dead enemies and mutilate them, as we dug up Cromwell and the Mahdi. They are in two groups: one intent on the gambling of their captain Belzanor, a warrior of fifty, who, with his spear on the ground beside his knee, is stooping to throw dice with a sly-looking young Persian recruit; the other gathered about a guardsman who has just finished telling a naughty story (still current in English barracks) at which they are laughing uproariously. They are about a dozen in number, all highly aristocratic young Egyptian guardsmen, handsomely equipped with weapons and armor, very unEnglish in point of not being ashamed of and uncomfortable in their professional dress; on the contrary, rather ostentatiously and arrogantly warlike, as valuing themselves on their military caste.

Opening Passage from Man and Superman

Roebuck Ramsden is in his study, opening the morning letters. The study, handsomely and solidly furnished, proclaims the man of means. Not a speck of dust is visible: it is clear that there are at least two housemaids and a parlormaid downstairs, and a housekeeper upstairs who does not let them spare elbow-grease. Even the top of Roebuck's head is polished: on a sunshiny day he could heliograph his orders to distant camps by merely nodding. In no other respect, however, does he suggest the military man. It is in active civil life that men get his broad air of importance, his dignified expectation of deference, his determinate mouth disarmed and refined since the hour of his success by the withdrawal of opposition and the concession of comfort and precedence and power. He is more than a highly respectable man: he is marked out as a president of highly respectable men, a chairman among directors, an alderman among councillors, a mayor among aldermen. Four tufts of iron-grey hair, which will soon be as white as isinglass, and are in other respects not at all unlike it, grow in two symmetrical pairs above his ears and at the angles of his spreading jaws. He wears a black frock coat, a white waistcoat (it is bright spring weather), and trousers, neither black nor perceptibly blue, of one of those indefinitely mixed hues which the modern clothier has produced to harmonize with the religions of respectable men.

Summary: I don't have all that much to say about these works, beyond that they involve typical Shavian paradoxes: the devil's disciple sacrifices himself for another, the brutality and virtue of Caesar are one thing, and the quasi-Nietzschean Superman turns out to be Woman, to name just the most obvious ones. Of the three, Man and Superman is the best, although the very best part of it is the part from Act 3 that is often skipped, the long argument between the Devil and Don Juan Tenorio. In a sense the latter conveys the theme of all Shaw's major works, in its image of heaven being the realm in which people devote themselves to the way things really are while hell is "the home of the unreal and of the seekers for happiness"; hell, it turns out, is all about love and beauty, or at least the appearances of them, and amusing oneself without consequences -- which is only possible in mere fantasy. The general idea of looking at things without rose-colored glasses, without illusions and hypocrisies, is an important one for Shaw.

Favorite Passage from The Devil's Disciple

Go out into the street and bring in the first townsman you see there.

SERGEANT [making for the door]
Yes sir.

BURGOYNE [as the sergeant passes]
The first clean, sober townsman you see.

Favorite Passage from Caesar and Cleopatra

CLEOPATRA [vehemently]
Listen to me, Caesar. If one man in all Alexandria can be found to say that I did wrong, I swear to have myself crucified on the door of the palace by my own slaves.

If one man in all the world can be found, now or forever, to know that you did wrong, that man will have either to conquer the world as I have, or be crucified by it. [The uproar in the streets again reaches them.] Do you hear? These knockers at your gate are also believers in vengeance and in stabbing. You have slain their leader: it is right that they shall slay you. If you doubt it, ask your four counselors here. And then in the name of that RIGHT [He emphasizes the word with great scorn.] shall I not slay them for murdering their Queen, and be slain in my turn by their countrymen as the invader of their fatherland? Can Rome do less then than slay these slayers too, to show the world how Rome avenges her sons and her honor? And so, to the end of history, murder shall breed murder, always in the name of right and honor and peace, until the gods are tired of blood and create a race that can understand. [Fierce uproar. Cleopatra becomes white with terror.] Hearken, you who must not be insulted. Go near enough to catch their words: you will find them bitterer than the tongue of Pothinus. [Loftily wrapping himself up in an impenetrable dignity.] Let the Queen of Egypt now give her orders for vengeance, and take her measures for defense; for she has renounced Caesar. [He turns to go.]
Favorite Passage from Man and Superman

Are you all Socialists here, may I ask?

MENDOZA [repudiating this humiliating misconception]
Oh no, no, no: nothing of the kind, I assure you. We naturally have modern views as to the justice of the existing distribution of wealth: otherwise we should lose our self-respect. But nothing that you could take exception to, except two or three faddists.

I had no intention of suggesting anything discreditable. In fact, I am a bit of a Socialist myself.

STRAKER [drily]
Most rich men are, I notice.

Recommendation: All three are worth reading, but Man and Superman is especially recommended; it would be for the character of Henry Straker alone, even if it had few other virtues.

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