The dreaming of Bernard Shaw

The dreaming of Bernard Shaw

Frank McGuinness investigates what type of thinker Bernard Shaw was, in this excerpt from the Major Barbara programme.

Shaw was quite the gadabout. How many descriptions can be added to his entire span of writing? The literary critic of The Quintessence of Ibsenism, the music critic of Richard Wagner, the polemical contributor to the Fabian essays on radicalism, the emancipator of The Intelligent Woman’s Guide To Socialism And Capitalism, the novelist of Cashel Byron’s Profession, and the playwright of such lasting works as Widowers’ Houses, John Bull’s Other Island, Heartbreak House, The Doctor’s Dilemma, Saint Joan, and this, the most threatening of all perhaps, Major Barbara, in its way as eerie as any dream play, laying bare the nightmares propelling Bernard Shaw’s imagination, ruthless and relentless.

Dreams and nightmares require sleep, and it is hard to envisage that bull of a mind at rest. Shaw’s workload, his energy, and all that ambition seem to cancel calm, and yet if anything, Major Barbara is the work of an experienced dreamer. If Ibsen cried in protest to his obtuse critics he was more of a poet than a civic philosopher, Shaw, more cleverly, more slyly, plants his poetry within the shifting foundations on which the social structures of his plays waver. Fantastic elements hide with the text’s topography. A library dominates the space of Act One. Act Two mysteriously, logically changes the stage into a Salvation Army shelter. Act Three returns to the library, shifting strangely, entirely mid-act. The site of action now is an arms factory, located in a beautifully constructed English village. The dream progress of the play has taken vibrant shape, giving its architecture a surreal power, illuminating the ethics of the piece…

…Read the complete essay by Frank McGuinness in our Major Barbara programme, available to purchase in our online shop.

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