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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The relationship between theme and form in the plays of George Bernard Shaw Frazer, Frances Marilyn

Abstract

The purpose of this study is to establish the thesis that Shaw, the noted iconoclast, was actually much influenced by nineteenth-century theatrical conventions, and that his use of hackneyed forms as bases for satire and subjects for revitalization was often not wholly successful, especially in his earlier plays, because formal conventions tended to confine and constrict the fresh themes he was attempting to develop in the old stage material. The Introduction summarizes and argues against lingering critical attitudes toward Shaw which imply that he was not a playwright but an author of stage debates, and that he should therefore be held exempt from the type of criticism accorded dramatists' in the 'tradition'. Chapter One is a brief critical survey of plays current in London in the Nineties and the English and continental forebears of these plays, and includes some discussion of Shaw's campaign against the 'old' drama, his opinion of the pseudo-realist 'new' dramatists, and the differences between his aims and techniques and those of the post-Ibsen, post-Shavian playwrights. Chapter Two deals with Shaw's first play, Widowers' Houses, and two other sociological plays the relatively early Mrs. Warren's Profession and a play of Shaw's maturity, Major Barbara. These three plays demonstrate Shaw's progress from mere inversion of stock sentimental romance to more positive treatments of initially orthodox situations. Chapter Three is concerned with Shavian transformation of conventional melodrama and men of action and discusses the conflict between orthodox techniques and devices and Shavian ideas in the 'hero' plays. Chapter Four deals with two exceedingly popular plays -- Candida and Man and Superman -- in which Shaw developed his views on the Life Force and the relationships between the sexes. Like Chapter Two, this chapter seeks to prove that Shaw exhibited growing skill in adapting popular stage subjects to his own purposes while sustaining interest and comedy in the eternal conflict he perceived between vitality and system. In Chapter Five, two semi-tragic plays, Heartbreak House and Saint Joan, are discussed as the final steps in Shaw's movement toward achieving harmony of story and theme. Heartbreak House, a disquisitory, symbolic drama, is an improvement upon earlier, less unified discussion plays, and Saint Joan combines the elements of philosophical discussion and powerful story in a play that undoubtedly benefits from the poignancy and melodrama of the legend on which it is based, but is also a triumphant blend of the traditional elements of drama and qualities uniquely Shavian. The chapter and the thesis close with a short comment on Shaw's contribution to modern drama.

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