George Bernard Shaw is one of the most notable playwrights in history because of his ingenious and though-provoking plays. Shaw’s works are influential because they urge people to ask the difficult questions. Many people may disagree with Shaw’s views, specifically those that he writes in his plays but through his works, he helps people think about society and life. By Shaw’s criteria, we can call him a gentleman playwright because according to him, “A gentleman is one who puts more into the world than he takes out.” By sharing his ingénue with the world through his works Shaw was definitely able to contribute to the world. Pygmalion and Saint Joan reflects Shaw’s ability to provoke thought and meaningful conversations among human beings.
George Bernard Shaw and his Works: Pygmalion and Saint Joan
George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) was an Irish playwright known for his controversial and well-meaning plays that continue to stir speculative dialogue and debates among the audience or readers. Although Shaw’s plays differ in plot, themes, and genre, his works can be described as witty, stimulating, and thought-provoking because these manage to engage the audience into philosophical arguments and discussions in a way that would bring about social change (Reddy, 205). Shaw also did not limit himself into a specific genre and has managed to write about various themes in his novels and plays. Shaw grew up in Dublin, Ireland. His early years reflect his indifference to formal schooling. His attendance in school was irregular because he did not believe in formal schooling, opting instead to learn by homeschooling and from real life experiences outside the four walls of the classroom. In 1876, Shaw moved to London where his literary career began. Shaw initially worked as a music and theater critic and later on wrote various novels and plays. His early works reflected Shaw’s criticisms of society, specifically of hypocrisy in different forms. Later on, Shaw ventured into other themes. Saint Joan was one of his later works that differed from the themes of his earlier works. Regardless of the differences in themes, Shaw still managed to discuss important issues in the play, specifically those that allude to political issues not only in the past but also at present. Some of his later works also tackle important political issues, such as Major Barbara (1905), which urges people into political engagement and action. Some of Shaw’s works are also witty and amusing. Examples of Shaw’s comedies include Candida (1898) and Pygmalion (1912). Shaw wrote Pygmalion as a nod to one of his writing influences, W. S. Gilbert. Similarly, even with the comedic tone in some of his works, Shaw manages to raise important questions that are relevant to society, such as social norms when it comes to sexual relations and the society’s views and treatment of social classes. Shaw’s ability to write plays about different themes not only shows his impressive range, but also his desire to continually produce artistic literary works that would leave an impression and allow people to think about society, politics, and our way of life in general. Within this context, Shaw was not only a playwright but also a critic of life and human nature. His attitude accurately reflects his views about the purpose of man, which is to contribute to the world more than benefiting from life (“George Bernard Shaw – Biographical”).
Shaw’s Pygmalion (1912) may have been named after a character in Greek mythology but the five-act play it revolves around the life of Henry Higgins, a professor of phonetics. When Higgins meets Colonel Pickering who was also a linguist, they make a bet together. Higgins claims that he can make Eliza Doolittle, a plain flower girl, transform into a duchess within six months simply by training her how to speak as duchesses would. Pickering bet against him. This aspect of the story draws out sexism, specifically the objectification of women, such that Higgins and Pickering saw Eliza as an object that can be changed to fit society (Azizmohammadi & Tayari, 161). Throughout the story, Higgins successfully helps Eliza become a well-mannered woman but in the process, both also get into a series of arguments. Pygmalion also follows Eliza’s inner turmoil, specifically pertaining to the uncertainty of her future and the worry that this brings. Act I not only introduces the characters in the play but also develops Eliza’s characterization as a perceptive and emotive woman. The first act also shows Eliza’s character before Higgins and Pickering’s handlings of her resulting from their wager. The narrative in Act II illustrates the superficialities of men. In this act, we see the physical transformation of Eliza, and only then do we read an adulatory description of the flower girl. Eliza’s behavior, however, shows that people cannot simply change who they are by merely changing their clothes or appearance. Shaw continued to criticize social classes and established norms in Act III. Higgins tells her mother that he will invite Eliza over for the party. Mrs. Higgins refuses in the beginning because she does not approve of Eliza but eventually relents. Prior to bringing Eliza over, Higgins tells Eliza how to act and what to say. This illustrates the impact of the social class in imposing rules that should guide human behavior. Pygmalion, therefore, questions the legitimacy of the social class and why it obscures reality in favor of a manufactured world shared by the elite that widens the gap between them and the lower classes (Pirnajmuddin & Arani, 166). In this way, Shaw also exposed the hypocrisy of the elite, as illustrated in the way that Eliza charms people in the party through her own wit when she decides to deviate from Higgins’ script. Conflict between Higgins and Eliza intensify in Acts IV and V, which actually represents Eliza’s inner turmoil. Even after charming people at the party and proving to Higgins and herself that she can act in such a manner, Eliza feels conflicted and expresses her worries about the future. Eliza also tells Higgins that she would rather return to being a flower girl. Through Eliza’s behavior, Shaw reveals the discontent that posturing brings and that staying true to oneself is more satisfying than this.
Shaw’s Pygmalion illustrates the truths in real life. For one, Pygmalion does not have a happy ending. The last act is open-ended leaving people wanting for an unambiguous ending that could either tie up the relationship between Higgins and Eliza or place Eliza in a better place or position. Fricker highlighted this aspect of Shaw’s plays as a means to re-focus the audience’s attention on the deeper and significant meaning of the play, which pertains to social classes and inequality. Fricker, however, emphasizes that Shaw’s intended meaning in Pygmalion failed to resonate among the audience because the majority focuses too much on the possible romance or the relationship among the characters (Chen, 41), particularly between Higgins and Eliza. Even when enacted in theatre, Fricker argues that Shaw’s statement criticizing social classes fails to translate. This, according to Fricker, is not a reflection of Shaw’s talents but is more telling of the audience’s disposition. Here, Shaw sought to present a linear narrative that disparages established social norms but the audience seems to miss this because of the dynamic relationship between Higgins and Eliza. Griffith’s (81) critique of Shaw’s work also delves into the deeper meaning of the play, beyond the common interpretations and points of interests that majority of the audience talk about after reading or seeing Pygmalion. Pirnajmuddin and Arani’s (166) criticisms of Shaw’s work were positive and he described the playwright as a perceptive observer of social mores. Pinarjmuddin and Arani pointed out Shaw’s honest take on society and exposure of the posturing and snobbery among the elite and expressed their opinion about Shaw’s criticisms of society. In Pygmalion, Shaw presented a solution that would help close the social gap between classes. Shaw believed that to power and influence from the elite to the other classes in society, people must acknowledge that the upper classes prosper because they take away the privileges of the poor. In Pygmalion, Shaw wanted to urge people to behave like Eliza who realized the flaws of the elite and eventually decided to hold on to her principles than continue living a lie to simply fit in. Overall, Pygmalion subtly shows Shaw’s disposition when it comes to socialism (Pirnajmuddin and Arani, 167).
Shaw’s Saint Joan (1924) is about the life and struggles of Joan of Arc. Saint Joan essentially appears like a study of Joan of Arc, specifically a reimagining of who she was as a human being. Act I, for instance, not only illustrates Joan’s intentions and motivations, but also her determination, perseverance, and magnetism. In this first act, we witness how Joan managed to draw allies to her side and the act shows how she happened to do so with her charm and conviction. Shaw established that it was because of Joan’s character and disposition that she mustered enough allies to set her plan in motion. Act II narrates Joan of Arc’s undoing. It narrates the story not only from Joan’s point of view but also from her enemies’ perspectives, Warwick and the Chaplain in particular. Interactions among Joan’s enemies creates an ominous atmosphere that is particular in a tragedy. The tone or mood in Act II builds up to the third act, which is when the enemies set their plan in motion. Villainy eventually leads to Joan’s demise. The play’s three acts represent the tragedy that was Joan of Arc’s life and it was Shaw’s attempt at narrating Joan’s journey up until her death. The play, however, deviates from historical events because Shaw wanted to focus on the life, sacrifices, and the betrayal of Joan instead of the whole situation or context involving France and Great Britain (Coonradt, 93). Shaw once said that some works romanticized Joan’s story but he personally wanted to go a different route because he wanted to see a humanized version of it, hence, Saint Joan. The analysis of Shaw’s Saint Joan does not end, however, after the play. This is because Shaw wrote an epilogue that offers the audience a glimpse of the playwright’s thoughts that would consequently shed light on the relevance of Saint Joan. The epilogue is similar to a dream sequence where some of the characters return to reflect on Joan’s role in the conflict and her heroism. King Charles also returns in the dream and he manages to absolve Joan of all the accusations brought before her when people tagged her as a heretic. Moreover, in the ‘dream sequence’, Shaw wrote that the Church affirmed Joan of Arc’s status as a saint. The epilogue illustrates Shaw’s view about Joan of Arc not only because of what he wrote but also because of what he thought (Watt, 58). Shaw believed that if Joan existed in the present, the same thing would happen to her – that is, people would still condemn her. Contrary to this, however, Shaw though Joan was deserved more than what was handed to her. Shaw put Joan on a pedestal – a saint – because for the playwright, Joan deserved it.
Shaw’s Saint Joan deviates slightly from recorded historical events about Joan of Arc, which is expected because as a literary work, the play would be subjected to Shaw’s interpretations. It is for this reason that any judgment or critique of Saint Joan is not entirely an appraisal of the play but a study of Shaw’s points of views because it is largely based on the playwright’s perspectives and interpretations. Regardless of the subjectivity in Shaw’s Saint Joan, however, the playwright has managed to create a literary piece that engages the audience and spurs meaningful and relevant dialogues about its implications. Michael Holroyd (2007) described Shaw’s Saint Joan as a relevant piece that bridges the ancient and the modern worlds. Saint Joan may be based on historical events and centers on Joan of Arc’s struggles but Holroyd emphasized that the play similarly resonates in contemporary society. Saint Joan is politically relevant, for instance, because it illustrates the implications of despotic political institutions that impinge on the freedom and rights of people. Holroyd cited Shaw’s views about Joan of Arc who some people called a heretic, which was part of propaganda. Hence, Saint Joan was Shaw’s way not only of defending Joan of Arc but also of putting her on a pedestal. Holroyd even said that Shaw compared Joan of Arc to Jesus on account of her sacrifices, which is why he called Joan a saint in the play’s title. Holroyd’s critique of Shaw’s play is complementary to the playwright’s ability to make Joan of Arc’s story relevant in the modern world. Holroyd said that Shaw has managed to make the story relatable in contemporary society and with the play’s epilogue, Shaw initiates a dialogue with the audience and engages them to think about Joan’s heroics and consequently think inwardly to determine what it says about human nature, or about us as human beings (Holroyd). Fielden’s critique of Saint Joan focuses on a different aspect of Shaw’s play. As previously noted, the play portrayed Joan of Arc as a saint. Hence, it essentially portrays Joan’s heroism. Shaw clearly established this in the ‘dream sequence’ in the epilogue. Nevertheless, Fielden’s (59) critique highlights the contradiction between Saint Joan and its categorization as tragedy. Saint Joan is a tragedy but it Shaw’s writing allows the audience to sympathize with and admire Joan because of her heroism. Because of the contradictions in the play as reflected by the differences in tone between the three-act play and the epilogue, it appears that Shaw acknowledged the tragedy in Joan of Arc’s life but also create a means to reverse it.
Shaw’s literary works are testament to his intentions as a novelist and a playwright, as well as his perceived role or purpose as a man, or based on his works, a gentlemen. Shaw did not shy away from injecting his beliefs, views, and perspectives in his work. He also endeavored to write pieces to invoke thought and discussion. Pygmalion and Saint Joan illustrate Shaw’s intentions well. Pygmalion raises issues pertaining to social class, while Saint Joan raises important questions about human nature and politics.
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