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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Theme and structure in Bernard Shaw's political plays of the 1930's Williams, Jeffery Alvin


The political extravaganzas dominate Shavian drama of the 1930's, Shaw's last really productive decade. They form a fairly large and coherent group, but their topicality and their abstract, seemingly non-dramatic techniques have prevented most critics from examining the plays on their own merits. This thesis attempts to show how Shaw, in his political plays, not only chronicles his very close involvement with the urgent social problems of the interwar years, but also how he develops special artistic devices to embody his themes. Shaw's political plays offer a continual flow of analysis and criticism of an age which he thought was heading for disaster and war. In Too True to be Good (1931); he analyzes modern man's sense of directionlessness and indicates that he must re-evaluate his aims and goals, his morality and economics, and discard worn out values which no longer describe either human nature or contemporary problems. This play introduces a theme which prevails in all Shaw's political extravaganzas of the period: that men must overcome their limited frames of reference and must cultivate an open-mindedness in their search for meaning and direction in a complex world. In On the Rocks (1933), he investigates governmental problems In England and implies that in a world of selfish insularity, democratic government founders, needing more than ever a strong leader to impose a direction on the country. Recognizing the sinister implications of even an interim dictatorship, Shaw is almost driven to despair. In The Simpleton of the Unexpected Isles (1934), Shaw retreats from the ugly and almost insoluble problems of the immediate world, to define and examine in abstract and symbolic terms the problems dis-cussed in the earlier plays. Shaw reaffirms his faith in the Life Force, again stresses that life-will continue to evolve, and asserts that if man wants to be the vanguard of evolution he must be able to adapt to the unexpected . Having expressed his ultimate thoughts and allegiances in The Simpleton, Shaw seemed to abandon his concern "with political problems in his plays, until the urgency of world developments in the late thirties brought the preacher in Shaw to the pulpit of the stage again in Geneva (1938). But in this play Shaw's inability to maintain an aesthetic distance from world events interfered with his artistry so that he produced a play lacking the unity of theme and structure found in the earlier plays of the period. But while the political plays of the thirties chronicle Shaw's very close involvement with complex social problems, they also reveal Shaw's attempt to develop special dramatic techniques to render an artistic expression of his thoughts. The seemingly chaotic structures, weak characters, and garrulous speeches really are in many ways well suited to the topical themes. Shaw utilizes a symposium type of discussion, which is appropriate for the searching for direction, the open investigation of all aspects of a complex problem. But perhaps the most characteristic and least understood technique in these plays is Shaw's use of structure as a major thematic device. Once understood, the seemingly random structures are not evidence of "imitative fallacy", of using negative techniques to express negative themes, hut of an artistic handling of technique to enhance thematic comment on the chaos. In the best of Shaw's political plays there is a well integrated mating of theme and structure which belies any idea that these plays are the products of a man in his dotage.

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