Thursday, 4 June 1998

George Bernard Shaw: Plays Pleasant (1898)

Contents: Arms and the Man (first performed 1894), Candida (1900), The Man of Destiny (1897), You Never Can Tell (1905)
Edition: Penguin, 1953
Review number: 61

As the introduction makes clear, this collection is intended as a companion piece to Shaw's Plays Unpleasant collection. Not having read the earlier collection, I'm not quite sure what makes a play pleasant or unpleasant; I guess that it's to do with whether it is trying to impart a non-dramatic message. The four short plays here are not really anything other than fun comedies; there is a hint of a social message here and there (particularly in Candida and You Never Can Tell), but it is incidental to the plays themselves.

The play I liked best from the collection, and the best known of them, is Arms and the Man. This is set in Bulgaria, then an exotic barely civilised location, during a war with Serbia. The main characters are a rich Bulgarian family, the Petkoffs. The spoiled daughter of this family, Raina, is engaged to the dashing young soldier Sergius Saranoff, currently at the front. As Raina is going to bed, a young man in Serbian uniform climbs into her bedroom through the window. She is initially scornful of his cowardice, but she sheilds him when Bulgarian troops arrive to find him. She calls him her "chocolate cream soldier", because he avidly eats her sweets. It is perhaps surprising to read in the introduction that Shaw was criticised for portraying a soldier in an unheroic light; attitudes were so different before the First World War.

Candida is about a man who is a genuine Christian and a genuine Socialist, James Morrell. He and his wife, Candida, are a couple who attract those around them; his preaching and public speaking draws hundreds, and she finds herself the idol of the lovesick young poet, Eugene. Neither of them understands the attraction they, or their spouse, have for others; that is their tragedy. The contrast is made between them with their ideals and Candida's father, Burgess, who is a most unpleasant capitalist only interested in the welfare of his dependents because he can make it pay.

Man of Destiny is virtually a two-hander; the other characters are tiny by comparison with the leads. The main character is Napoleon Bonaparte in his youth, as a young general in the French Republican army invading Italy - his first great success. He is at an inn in northern Italy, awaiting the arrival of dispatches. The lieutenant carrying them arrives, but they have been stolen from him on the way by a youth; he recognises a mysterious lady (whose identity we never discover) as the youth. Napoleon protects her, denying the possibility that she can be the same person. The play develops into a battle of wits between him and her.

The final play, You Never Can Tell, is a fairly straightforward comedy. The Clandon family have been living in Madeira, after Mrs Clandon felt forced to leave England following attacks on her feminist views. Returning to this country with her three children (Gloria, a young woman after her mother's heart; Philip and Dolly, who are young enough not to have quite outgrown their childishness), the family meet up with a Mr Crampton, landlord of a dentist who falls in love with Gloria, and who turns out to be Mrs Clandon's abandoned husband and father of the three children.

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