Monday, 13 November 2017

Shaw and Ideas

George Bernard Shaw is probably who I could
have been, if I had the work ethic of a late Victorian, a sincere belief in socialism and the ability to grow a proper beard. His writing, unlike his beard, is now out of fashion (probably because his formality now reads like a pompous ramble), but his ideas are a bridge between enlightenment dramaturgy and Brecht, affirming the political potential of theatre and demanding a scientific methodology for the playwright.

Incidentally, reading Shaw explains why all of the Big Ideas that are currently tearing up the internet are around a century old. He's writing in a period when having a Big Idea (socialism, capitalism, religious belief) wasn't an embarrassment or evidence of stupidity. Post-modernism put paid to the dream of the meta-narrative, the one big story that explains everything, but GBS was a modernist, and could conjure up whatever scale of theory he fancied. The best I can go  - and retain any sense of integrity - is place events in their historical context, and have a bit of an idea about a specific event, and not assume that idea can apply anywhere else. 

Back to GBS' dramaturgy... he's a big fan of Ibsen, because he saw in his plays an echo of the revolutionary fervour that infected his politics. While other critics thought that Ghosts or A Doll's House were out of the gutter... GBS agreed, but hoped that gutter could undermine the dull complacency of British society. Pointing out the way in which oppression corrupts the individual - but not in the hyper-erotic manner of Genet's Maids, which traces the sexualisation of oppression into escapist fantasy - Ibsen was, for Shaw, the herald of a new social realism. How could capitalism stand against the shock tactics of the naturalists.

As it turned out, and as Shaw describes in the second edition of his Quintessence of Ibsen, it could by a process of assimilation. Here's where GBS shows his smarts, realising that capitalism can integrate any revolt against its values by emphasising those qualities that support the status quo, and quietly ignoring its dangerous elements. He gives the example of Shelley, who was once a deadly atheist: by the end of the nineteenth century, he was included in the cultural pantheon, because weren't his words just so... poetic. Or, in the words of Tori Amos:

Is it true, devils end up like you - something safe for the picture frame?

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