Victorian England was founded on a rigid class system that had institutionalized itself in all quarters of society. The class-conscious aristocrats scorned the lower classes; wealth, manners and refinement were the reserves of those occupying the upper strata of society. It is here, in the context of the late Victorian and early Edwardian reign, that we earmark the appearance of George Bernard Shaw. A committed socialist and playwright par-excellence, George Bernard Shaw’s plays were sermons on class, identity and equality. An iconoclast by nature, Shaw believed in undermining the existing trend of thought to establish a fresh pattern of thinking. To that effect, Shaw dealt with a variety of social scourges in his plays, issues rampant in England, which remain relevant even now.
Shaw not just underlined the issue of appearance and reality as two distinct realities in Victorian society but also presented a solution to bring about social change– by the illumination of intellect. To put that into simpler words, Shaw did not believe in the Marxian concept of immediate revolution. He was strongly critical of crime in every form and condemned hasty breaches of the law to tackle inequalities. His worldview was not based on revolution but rather, on evolution: both personal and universal. Evolution, as a working theory, was the very basis of his Fabian Socialism, defined by the use of life force and creative evolution in his plays. Initially introduced in Man and Superman, Shaw speaks of an evolution that transmutes ordinary or mortal capabilities into something extraordinary, thus, pushing the envelope as a species. In other words, it enables man to progress into a kind of superman. So it is said of Shaw’s concept of the life force viz. a driving impulse behind all human transformation. The life force leads to creative evolution thus ensuring human beings “strive with a purpose” to rise into higher forms of existence. When a man is able to widen his perspective and truly awaken, he no longer feels held back by the day-to-day problems that had once disconcerted him.
Shaw speaks for the poor, the deprived and the oppressed as evinced by a number of his works. Poverty is the subject of Mrs. Warren’s Profession and Widowers’ Houses. In the former, Shaw uses the character of Vivie’s mother to dispel the hypocrisy and taboo surrounding prostitution. Shaw explains why Mrs. Warren has to take up the profession of a prostitute in the first place and criticizes limited employment opportunities available for women in Victorian Britain. Indeed, industrialization and patriarchy were just two faces of capitalism. They made people run out of jobs forcing them into the flesh trade. Sexual pleasure was turned into a commodity courtesy the malevolent forces of capitalism.
Almost all levels of social class are represented in Shaw’s play Pygmalion. Alfred Dolittle and Eliza Dolittle are mouthpieces of the lower class whereas Mrs. Pearce represents the servant class. The Eynsford Hills are prototypes of the genteel poor and the privileged class is contained in Professor Henry Higgins, Mrs Higgins and Colonel Pickering.
Much must be told about Shaw’s play Arms and the Man. War, strife and a “cavalry charge” to be exact, might seem to cosied-up civilians a “high ideal” in the comfort of their homes, but all it is is a regression of civilization. War is never splendid and it will never be glorious. The soldiers stuck cheek and jowl in the midst of conflict, have no business offering themselves for sacrifice as cannon fodder. In war, there are no heroes– just casualties.
Shaw’s cynicism with regard to the lopsided values of society formed the very basis of his portrayal of Victorian society. Shaw sanctions a vociferous commentary on class-distinction, sometimes brushing on the idea of middle-class morality. Shaw saw in capitalism an embodiment of self-actualization deterrents in all shapes and sizes. Capitalism and classism, according to Shaw, had the ability to change faces and manifest themselves in both domestic and public lives of people, to the point of making the world a living hell. Bernard Shaw’s Fabian Socialism was a tool to unwind the capitalist machinery preventing man from reaching his utmost potential. Professor Allardyce Nicholl hailed George Bernard Shaw as the father of the Theatre of Ideas movement in England.
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