Sunday, March 31, 2013

Fortnightly Books, March 31

It is a remarkable feature of the nineteenth century that it managed to produce journalism as great literature. This was, of course, amidst a sea of journalism that was not great, but such is literature generally. In various ways we have been trying to imitate them since, for the most part unsuccessfully, although late blossoms like George Orwell or Myles na gCopaleen (Brian O'Nolan) have emerged. But, controversial although it may be, I think we can date the height of opinion journalism to Late Victorian and Edwardian Britain, in large part because we have at this point a large number of brilliant writers who deal with deep ideas on the democratic principle that they don't need to be watered down to be popular. When we look at this period and place, the list of greats actively involved in some form of it is considerable: G. K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, J. M. Barrie, and many others. Among these greats was George Bernard Shaw, who received the Nobel Prize in Literature for 1925 (although he received the Prize in 1926); according to the committee in one of its very occasional moments of genuine literary discernment, it was given "for his work which is marked by both idealism and humanity, its stimulating satire often being infused with a singular poetic beauty".

The fortnightly book this time around will be Two Plays for Puritans, in a nice Heritage Press edition. This consists of two (as you might imagine) plays, The Devil's Disciple, subtitled "A Melodrama", and Caesar and Cleopatra, subtitled "A Page of History". These were originally published with another play, Captain Brassbound's Conversion, subtitled "A Play of Adventure", as Three Plays for Puritans. I have no idea why Heritage Press decided not to do a three-play version; the Sandglass merely says briefly of the third, "But unlike the ffirst two, the third play has never enjoyed continued acclaim." The edition includes line-and-wash illustrations by George Him and has a somewhat unusual twelve-point Plantin typeface, specified by Him himself, which apparently led to some difficulty in finding a printer who had the type.

Since I lack any edition of Captain Brassbound's Conversion, I have decided to make it up by adding another play in a different edition, Man and Superman, this edition being an earlier edition also by Heritage Press. It has illustrations by Charles Mozley. Included with this edition is a little booklet in red wrappers called The Revolutionist's Handbook & Pocket Companion, which is, of course, mentioned in the play itself and written by Shaw.

Shaw's plays, of course, are dramas of ideas, discussion plays, and between their Shavian prefaces and notes and stage directions that say things like "For at this time, remember, Mary Wollstonecraft is as yet only a girl of eighteen, and her Vindication of the Rights of Women is still fourteen years off", border on being novelettes. They dramatize well, but they are plays not merely for the stage but for the book.

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