Monday, 7 February 2000

George Bernard Shaw: Plays Unpleasant (1898)

Edition:  Penguin, 1946
Review number: 433

The three plays in this volume, Widowers' Houses, The Philanderer and Mrs Warren's Profession, are Shaw's earliest plays. Considered extremely daring at the time - it proved impossible to produce Mrs Warren's Profession for over twenty years - they can still in places shock us today. Each play is a blatant attack on Victorian society, on the hypocrisy of those who believe themselves morally blameless yet condemn the poor to live in degrading squalor and then live off the money this produces. This is clearest in Widowers' Houses (about slum landlords) and Mrs Warren's Profession (prostitution); The Philanderer is about attitudes to women, and has dated rather more.

The plot of Widowers' Houses is the simplest. Harry Trench falls in love with a girl he meets on holiday in Germany. Accepting her father's description of the source of his income as the respectable "property", they get engaged. Then Trench discovers that the property in question is one of London's most unpleasant slums and is horrified, and eventually he is astounded when it is revealed that his own wealth comes from the interest on a mortgage on the property. The idea is that even the most respectable are not far removed from the immoral and degrading, and this is also the central idea in Mrs Warren's Profession.

Though today most of the Victorian slums in Britain have long been cleared, prostitution is still a surprisingly important part of the economy. Shaw's message, though, is perhaps better applied in other areas. In the West, our relatively affluent lifestyles are to an extent dependant on the poverty of the Third World. People starve not just while our supermarkets are full, but to keep them full. Without the arms trade vital to the economy of many Western nations, much suffering would be eased. Pornography continues to degrade both those involved in making it and those addicted to it, while making fortunes.

Shaw manages to avoid the pitfall of preachiness which traps so many who write fiction to support a campaign, except perhaps in The Philanderer. The central location of this play is the fictional Ibsen Club, which stands for everything progressive in society. Today Ibsenism is an obsolete word, and it is clearer that Ibsen wrote about far more than Shaw thought, blinded as he was by his own social agenda. But at the turn of the century, plays like An Enemy of the People, Ghosts and (above all) A Doll's House seemed iconoclastic attacks on injustice in society. Ibsen was the subject of violent denunciation for the immorality seen in his plays (to the extent that he had to write an alternative happy ending to The Dollshouse before it could be performed in Germany), and this is what attracted Shaw the social campaigner. These plays are far simpler than Ibsen's, and much more obviously making a non-dramatic point. Their effect was much the same, and Shaw (unlike Ibsen) revelled in it.

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