March 04, 2008

P is for Shaw...

...when P stands for Puritan. G.K. Chesterton argued, here, that the three keys to understanding Shaw's work (three keys misunderstood by the British public at large) were his Irish heritage, his Puritan background and his progressive politics. These elements led Shaw to some fight some battles on unexpected terrain. Chesterton writes of the banning of Mrs. Warren's Profession, also available for online reading here, by a certain Mr. Redford, who was the Censor of Plays. Mrs. Warren runs a brothel; her daughter grows up in the lap of luxury unaware (until the action of the play) of how her mother makes her money. Chesterton explains how Shaw attacked the Censor, the preserver of public morals banning a work on prostitution, to defend his play:

The dramatist found in the quarrel one of the important occasions of his life, because the crisis called out something in him which is in many ways his highest qualityŚrighteous indignation. As a mere matter of the art of controversy of course he carried the war into the enemy's camp at once. He did not linger over loose excuses for licence; he declared at once that the Censor was licentious, while he, Bernard Shaw, was clean. He did not discuss whether a Censorship ought to make the drama moral. He declared that it made the drama immoral. With a fine strategic audacity he attacked the Censor quite as much for what he permitted as for what he prevented. He charged him with encouraging all plays that attracted men to vice and only stopping those which discouraged them from it. Nor was this attitude by any means an idle paradox. Many plays appear (as Shaw pointed out) in which the prostitute and the procuress are practically obvious, and in which they are represented as revelling in beautiful surroundings and basking in brilliant popularity. The crime of Shaw was not that he introduced the Gaiety Girl; that had been done, with little enough decorum, in a hundred musical comedies. The crime of Shaw was that he introduced the Gaiety Girl, but did not represent her life as all gaiety. The pleasures of vice were already flaunted before the playgoers. It was the perils of vice that were carefully concealed from them. The gay adventures, the gorgeous dresses, the champagne and oysters, the diamonds and motor-cars, dramatists were allowed to drag all these dazzling temptations before any silly housemaid in the gallery who was grumbling at her wages. But they were not allowed to warn her of the vulgarity and the nausea, the dreary deceptions and the blasting diseases of that life. Mrs. Warren's Profession was not up to a sufficient standard of immorality; it was not spicy enough to pass the Censor. The acceptable and the accepted plays were those which made the fall of a woman fashionable and fascinating; for all the world as if the Censor's profession were the same as Mrs. Warren's profession.

That passage really captures Shaw's essential genius--the last line is almost Shavian.


Posted by Ideofact at March 4, 2008 01:15 AM