26 July 2015

Reading Shaw 1: Widowers' Houses

Quite a few years ago, back in the pre-Internet days when a book lover depended on serendipity, I was browsing the drama section of my favorite bookstore, Moe's in Berkeley, when I came across a six-volume set in fairly good condition of Bernard Shaw's Complete Plays with Prefaces (Dodd, Mead & Company, 1963). I had never seen a complete set before and though I hesitated for a moment because it cost $50 and I was already as usual too much in debt, the magic word Complete worked its enchantment on me and I walked out of Moe's the thrilled owner of Shaw's entire dramatic corpus (as well as the indispensable Prefaces). The clerk at the counter told me that they didn't get those sets very often, which reassured me that I had done the right, the only possible, thing, and indeed in the years since I have never seen such a set again in my many subsequent trips to Moe's and other used bookstores (though you can find them on-line).

I had read a fair amount of Shaw in my younger days, but not much recently, though about twenty years ago I read through the three volumes of his music criticism (as edited by Dan H. Laurence and published by The Bodley Head). As is the way of such things, my prize purchase sat on the shelves in a place of honor, but unread. So I've decided to read all the plays in chronological order, then do a post of some sort on each one. Since I'm perpetually behind, I'm not sure how often these entries will appear, but I decided the first one would land today, 26 July, since it is the day on which Shaw was born in Dublin in 1856.

First up is Widowers' Houses, subtitled An Original Didactic Realistic Play, begun in 1885, laid aside, and then finished in 1892. In the preface Shaw discusses his decision to make a living as a writer, his success as a critic, his feeling that his river of critical remarks was starting to run dry and the next generation was starting to rise, and his subsequent decision to leave life as a reviewer and to publish the plays he had started to write (as a bit of math will show you, he was nearing forty when he finished his first play). He then describes his love of the theater and notes that he is, "as intelligent readers of this preface will have observed, [himself] a bit of an actor." He always has this clear-sighted awareness. When describing, earlier in the preface, how he cast about for a career, he noted, "Better see rightly on a pound a week than squint on a million. The question was, how to get the pound a week." The first sentence is witty, but also approaches the bromidic; the second sentence anchors it in the reality of everyday life – high-minded sentences are fine, but not enough to live on.

After describing the lack of serious theater in England and the "new theater" opened up by the works of Ibsen, Shaw describes an attempted collaboration with William Archer (who was, among other things, an early translator of Ibsen into English). The partnership fell apart with the play unfinished. Several years later, Shaw took it up again and completed it, but because socially and culturally aware people often avoided the trivial commercial theater, and because the institution of theatrical censorship severely limited what could be shown on stage, he felt he could reach a wider audience by publishing his plays in a form that made them pleasurable to read (this is why he writes such elaborate stage directions; it's to help readers picture the action as if they were reading a novel).

If you've ever read Shaw, you will recognize that my bald summary does not do justice to the wit and insight with which he discusses his career and the social and theatrical situation of his time.

In his later plays Shaw uses his prefaces to lay out the arguments behind the plays, but this one has a more general introductory purpose; it was written for Volume 1 of Plays: Pleasant and Unpleasant, and covers the three "unpleasant" plays: Widowers' Houses, The Philanderer, and Mrs Warren's Profession. Shaw's explanation for calling these plays unpleasant: "The reason is pretty obvious: their dramatic power is used to force the spectator to face unpleasant facts." I might as well continue quoting and let him sum up Widowers' Houses himself: "No doubt all plays which deal sincerely with humanity must wound the monstrous conceit which it is the business of romance to flatter. But here we are confronted, not only with the comedy and tragedy of individual character and destiny, but with those social horrors which arise from the fact that the average homebred Englishman, however honorable and goodnatured he may be in his private capacity, is, as a citizen, a wretched creature who, whilst clamoring for a gratuitous millennium, will shut his eyes to the most villainous abuses if the remedy threatens to add another penny in the pound to the rates and taxes which he has to be half cheated, half coerced into paying. In Widowers' Houses I have shewn middle class respectability and younger son gentility fattening on the poverty of the slum as flies fatten on filth. That is not a pleasant theme."

Indeed, not a pleasant theme, but the play itself is very entertaining and, given the real estate realities of the Bay Area, some enterprising local theater should schedule it pronto. Shaw's ingenious technique is to take a banal romance of the sort that is ever popular – will young Dr Trench end up marrying Blanche, whom he met traveling with her stern and somewhat mysterious father, Mr Sartorius? Does he have prospects enough? are Blanche and her father respectable enough for a young professional with a small but steady income and aristocratic connections? – and to spell out the social and economic conditions lying underneath the conventional situation. Sartorius has risen to wealth because he is a slumlord. When Trench discovers this, he renounces in a noble way any income from his future father-in-law, until Sartorius tells him a few home truths about his own respectable income. Despite Shaw's declaration in his subtitle that his play is didactic, it is also sharply amusing (perhaps part of what we are supposed to learn is that didactic and amusing are not mutually contradictory concepts). It is filled with clever remarks that seem like things clever people might actually say. The plays of his contemporary Wilde are filled with brilliant remarks, but part of their point is that they are obviously brilliant, to the point of being somewhat detachable from the plays in which they are set like sparkling jewels.

Another important point is that, though the situation is resolved to the satisfaction of all concerned, including the scrubby rent-gatherer fired by Sartorius in one act only to return in the next resplendent in new-found real-estate wealth, that solution will not be to the satisfaction of anyone in the audience who is disturbed by the continuing existence of slums, or by the miserable lives of those who have to live there. This misery is not shown, only described at second-hand and occasionally by characters who would clearly prefer to avoid the topic; the respectable people decry such things abstractly but have no personal experience of such miserable, grinding poverty, while Sartorius, who does have personal experience of it, talks coldly but reasonably about what would happen to his property if he did improve it, and what would happen to his renters, who have nowhere else to live – though at the end, and Shaw subtly does not belabor the point, he does in fact abandon his renters in order to increase gains for himself and the rest of the group. It's left to the audience to remember the cruel life on the streets facing these unseen impoverished renters.

Faced with a happy ending whose very happiness exposes the corruption of its society, the audience must figure out a solution on its own. An indication of the direction to go in is given when Sartorius begins his explanation and justification to Trench by saying, "I assume, to begin with, Dr Trench, that you are not a Socialist, or anything of that sort." To which Trench replies, "Certainly not. I'm a Conservative. At least, if I ever took the trouble to vote, I should vote for the Conservative and against the other fellow." It seems likely that Trench has little idea who "the other fellow" is, or what Socialism is, and so, good-hearted as the young doctor is, he can make no response to the chill blast of Sartorius's exposition.

Sartorius himself is an excellent example of Shaw's psychological and dramatic skill: far from being the villainous, evil-hearted slumlord of melodrama, he is an intelligent man, one capable of analyzing social and economic reality, though not of seeing beyond them into possible alternatives. He perhaps is also not interested in such alternatives because the system did in fact work for him; he raised himself out of desperate poverty into wealth and respectability through skill, hard work, and determination (and, of course, some good luck and a little capital that landed his way). Part of his intimidating exterior is no doubt the wish to hide his origins as well as the source of his income (and the respectable are only too happy to look the other way; Trench has an older friend, Cokane, who constantly urges his blundering young friend towards tact, propriety, and gentlemanly behavior, and though he initially cautions his friend to find out whether the Sartorius fortune is from a respectable source, he is the very first to leap at Sartorius's explanation and sweep aside any further thought of improving conditions for those in the slums – his tact is really a form of complicity).

Sartorius has a wonderful moment when Blanche bursts out with her opinion of his tenants after she sees an official Parliamentary bluebook describing life in his properties. She exclaims, "Oh, I hate the poor. At least, I hate those dirty, drunken, disreputable people who live like pigs. If they must be provided for, let other people look after them. How can you expect any one to think well of us when such things are written about us in that infamous book?" Sartorius's response is, and Shaw specifies that this is spoken "coldly and a little wistfully": "I see I have made a real lady of you, Blanche." It's the classic dilemma of the immigrant – you raise your children to be "better" than where you came from, and it creates an emotional divide – and Sartorius is an immigrant from another class. He has raised his daughter into heartlessness.

Blanche herself is quite an interesting character. She can look, at least at the beginning, like one of the independent "new women" of the late nineteenth century, but it's easy to imagine her aging into a conventionally terrifying dowager. Headstrong, heedless even, her anger has an erotic charge: there's an interesting, sort of Strindbergesque love-hate scene with a parlormaid she mistreats emotionally as well as physically, and there's a key moment towards the end when Trench realizes what lies beneath her fury; as Shaw's stage direction has it: "For a moment they stand face to face, quite close to one another, she provocative, taunting, half defying, half inviting him to advance, in a flush of undisguised animal excitement. It suddenly flashes on him that all this ferocity is erotic: that she is making love to him. His eye lights up: a cunning expression comes into the corners of his mouth. . . ." There is a popular conception that Shaw is rather bloodless, but here in his first play he is as perceptive about the erotics of society as he is about the economics. And the two are connected: it's the drive towards marriage that helps resolve the economic dilemma to the satisfaction of the characters, if not of the audience.

You may have noticed the names, which are as suggestive as those in Dickens. The doctor is Trench, as in a rut, or a ditch he's dug himself into; his friend is Cokane, which brings to mind the medieval myth of Cockaigne, the land of endless ease and plenty, with no need to work for any of it: a fairytale analogous to Cokane's social position. Sartorius brings to mind sartorial, clothing, tailoring: Sartorius both covers and exposes the naked human truth. The name is also a reminder of how crucial outward things like clothing are in signalling class (we see this embodied on stage in Mr Lickcheese, the rent-collector whose initial shabbiness signals his low degree and low spirits and whose return in slightly overdone splendor signals his nouveau riche status). The splendid Latin sound of Sartorius reinforces the formidable, distancing impression made by the man's manners. Sartorius makes me wish I had already read Carlyle's satirical novel Sartor Resartus (The Tailor Re-Tailored); I can't help feeling there's probably some reference there. And his daughter Blanche: blanch can mean to remove color, to whiten something, which brings to mind her family's social ascent to the world where you can wear white clothing because someone else has to wash it; blanch can also bring to mind blench, a sudden flinching out of fear or pain, an action not infrequent in those around her. And Lickcheese: a name both slightly distasteful and ludicrous, indicative of a bootlicking sort of nature, but with something almost endearingly odd and mouselike about it.

In his preface Shaw refers to Widowers' Houses as "a farfetched Scriptural title"; Holroyd's epic biography of Shaw refers me specifically to Matthew 23:14: "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows' houses, and for a pretence make long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation." Why does Shaw change the houses from widows' to widowers'? Perhaps it is to avoid an automatic sentimental feeling about widows, a sense of humble virtue and propriety that might attach to that social role (a feeling no doubt conventional in the England of the widowed empress Victoria). Widows are traditionally deserving of social protection, from Biblical days on down; widowers are much more ambiguous creatures. And of course Sartorius himself is a widower, and the possessor of these houses; the title's plural possessive is an ironic reminder that the widower who owns the property is inextricably joined to the lonely widowers who have to live there.

I was planning to end each of these entries with quips and quotes from the play or its preface, but I've already pulled some of them into the entry. Maybe I should highlight those words in red, the way some Bibles do the words of Jesus: I think Shaw would be OK with that. So let me flip through the many post-it notes I've stuck in my book and find some lines I haven't already used:

"Can't you say he's a gentleman: that won't commit us to anything."

Blanche: I don't want to marry a fool.
Sartorius: Then you will have to take a husband over thirty, Blanche. You must not expect too much, my child.

From a description of the Sartorius drawing room, a keen observation on that guarantee of respectability, the parlor piano (and an illustration of how carefully Shaw thought about his stage sets): " . . . the pianoforte, a grand, is on the right, with a photographic portrait of Blanche on a miniature easel on a sort of bedspread which covers the top, shewing that the instrument is seldom, if ever, opened."

"Why not have a bit of romance in business when it costs nothing?"

1 comment:

Michael Strickland said...

I read the first three volumes in this COMPLETE COLLECTED set back in the 1980s, checking them out from the Mechanics' Institute Library. Absolutely adored every play and every preface, wishing I could see a great-or-maybe-even-good production of any one of them but realizing that was probably asking too much of San Francisco theater.

Looking very much forward to your series of essays. The leap from Widowers' Houses and The Philanderer to Mrs. Warren's Profession is colossal, and Shaw never looked back after that moment.