1000 Books In 10 Years; Vol. 46-49: Mrs. Warren’s Profession, Man and Superman, Major Barbara, and Pygmalion, by George Bernard Shaw

Shaw’s work takes a step outside of the typical blueprint of the traditional plays, and whilst Man and Superman does have a clichéd “engagement”, as does “Major Barbara”, the way they arrive there is not at all typical, but most noteworthy of Shaw’s work is the underlining themes concerning class struggle. Through the examination of the classes, Shaw makes interesting observations that tear down the concepts of virtue often associated with the ruling classes, and the vice associated in turn with the working class and destitute.

 

 

In Mrs. Warren’s profession, Miss. Vivie Warren, the daughter of the title character resigns herself to accept that her mother, though her assumption has never been confirmed, is a prostitute and that the money with which she has raised her daughter in comfort has come from a profession which is considered immoral by most. But when the younger of the two Warrens discovers that the elder has graduated from prostitution to pandering, she decides that she can no longer live on the allowance offered by her mother. Vivie has rationalized that when her mother was faced with back breaking labour in which she would be exploited by middleclass business owners, and prostitution, that she simply choose the one that would offer both herself and her daughter more comforts, and saw no difference in principle between handing your body of to work as a seamstress or labourer, and turning your body over to a man for sexual gratification. Either way you are renting your body out. But pander is different. It is living off of the exploitation of others. The play not only considers the position of the working class, but also the ruling class, as one man put his money together with Mrs. Warren to increase his own personal fortune, whilst there is also a perspective from the church, who hypocrisy in this respect is cleverly highlighted. Oh how many Christian do forget Mary Magdalene. The tradition of marriage is aligned with prostitution (“What is any respectable girl brought up to do but to catch some rich man’s fancy”). The play makes allowances for certain choices based on personal context, but also serves as a moral warning or sorts by illustrating that once one ‘sin’ is seen as acceptable based on context, another is equally acceptable with less of a defence. Mrs. Warren’s choices are not ultimately judged by her daughter, for though she wants nothing more to do with the money earned from pandering, she still has the presence of mind to withhold judgement and allow those who are indulging in what is seen by many as an industry built on exploitation, judge themselves.

 

 

Man and Superman is very much a typical comedy in terms of plot, but it is the questions of class and associates virtues and vices that serve as the merits of the play. Tanner is a young man who goes against the grain and ignores all conventional ideas of morality. Indeed, he lives happily though he freely admits he steels from the poor, when introduced to a man who announces that he steels from the rich. Violet is the love interest, and whilst she allows others to indulge in romantic notions of love, she also tells one of her suitors that he “mustnt be romantic about money”, illustrating that whilst the ruling classes may write of romance, they are ruled by money. When an Irishman named Malone who made his own personal fortune in America comes to speak with the English and tells Violet that his father died of starvation, she asks: “The famine?”, to which Malone, replies: “No. The starvation. When a country is full of food and is exporting it, there can be no famine.” Shaw astutely suggests that other words carry very different subtext in regards to England’s ruling class. Beauty is simply decoration. They are not clean, but rather shaved and starched. Not moral, but conventional. Not virtuous, but cowardly. Not loyal, but servile. Not dutiful, only sheepish. Not just, but vindictive. To look at the romanticised virtues of the ruling class through a different context it is easy to see how each virtue could be vice in disguise. In the prologue Shaw writes that “the man whose consciousness does not correspond to the majority is a madman” hangs over the work and calls upon the Orwellian idea (likely influenced by Shaw) that sanity is not statistical. One of my favourite quotes from the play carries an existentialist undertone: “The only man who behaved sensibly was my tailor: he took my measure anew every time he saw me, whilst all the rest went on with their old measurements and expected them to fit me.”

 

Major Barbara returns to some of the themes from Mrs. Warren’s Profession. In it, a young woman named Barbara, whose biological father has been absent some years from the family returns upon request of the family’s matriarch (who wishes to see some of their allowances increased). Mr. Undershaft, the patriarch of the family, has made himself as wealth as anybody could possibly imagine via selling arms to various countries. Making his living in blood and fire, much as the call of the Salvation Army, of which Barbara is a major. When her superior in the Army of Salvation agrees to not only take a large sum of money as a donation from Mr. Undershaft, but also from one of his entrepreneurial colleagues whose fortune comes from the selling of whiskey, Barbara decides she can have none of it herself because she is not comfortable with where the money is coming from (shades of Miss. Warren). Coupled with this, the nature of the tradition of inheritance comes into question. It is the family tradition of the Undershafts to adopt an heir, and not pass the business on to a blood relative. This clearly suggests a flaw with the nature of inherited position. Applying this to current issues we can see via instances of privatized health care and education that children of the working class are born to lesser means that children of the middle and ruling classes. Why should one child, who has done nothing to deserve special treatment get better health care than another? Or better education? Perhaps even today such questions are too progressive, but this play seems to make and effort to beg the question at least. “NO MAN IS GOOD ENOUGH TO BE ANOTHER MAN’S MASTER.” “ALL HAVE THE RIGHT TO FIGHT: NONE HAVE THE RIGTH TO JUDGE.” “PEACE SHALL NOT PREVAIL SAVE WITH A SWORD IN HER HAND.” “NOTHING IS EVER DONE IN THIS WORLD UNTIL MEN ARE PREPARED TO KILL ONE ANOTHER IF IT IS NOT DONE.” Undershaft employs a number of potent and popular quotations to back up his arguments, and is eager to attack the establishment: “the world… scraps its obsolete steam engines… but it wont scrap out its old prejudices”. He argues that he would “rather be a thief than a pauper…a murder than a slave” and that he would doesnt “want to be either”, but clearly believes that is not an option. Reminiscent of the Paul Simon stance: “I’d rather be a hammer than a nail”. Undershaft is at once diabolical and wise. He cuts through decorum and pairs the world down to the lowest common denominator, rebuking it whilst surviving it because he doesnt know what else to do. Mrs. Warren’s Profession contained the following: “while we’re in this world, we’re in it, and money is money.” Dont hate the player, hate the game. We didnt start the fire. Ect. Ect. “Even mother’s milk nourishes murderers as well as heroes”. And in the end Major Barbara opts for apostasy. She releases herself from the futility of Christ and embraces her father instead.

 

 

Pygmalion is the only one of the four plays that I’ve actually seen performed (Margot Kidder and Peter O’Toole playing the leads). It is a rags to riches story of a cockney flower girl who wishes to trade in her basket of flowers for a position at a flower shop and hopes to learn to speak properly. As with the other plays there is questions of class. When Liza, the flower girl, offers a shilling to Higgins, a linguistics master, to teach her to speak proper English, he is amazed and flattered that she should offer what is the equivalent of two fifths of her days income and considers what that might accumulate to should a man of money offer the same percentage. One cannot help but recall Luke 21:3 “Truly I say to you, this poor widow than all of them”. Of course, Higgins is no Christ figure. Higgins’s cohort, Pickering, is the polar opposite of Higgins, and in a climatic scene when Liza claims that Pickering is the better man for he treated a flower girl as if she were a lady, Higgins (who likely suffers from Assperger’s syndrome) notes that he treats ladies as if they were flower girls. There is an equality of sorts in that sentiment, but the play seems to be an examination of what separates the destitute and working class from the aristocracy. Indeed, with the same tools, Liza, (who is a pet project of Higgins who was wagered that he could not pass Liza off as a lady with six months of training) is very capable of presenting herself as well as any lady. The wager which Higgins took on did make Liza an victim of a certain type of exploitation, but by the play’s end Liza asserts herself and ends on equal footing with Higgins and Pickering.

Each of the plays is accompanied by a prologue by Shaw (and Pygmalion even has an appendix), each of them offering some great insight into the plays and their context. Each is enjoyable and the issues raised in each remain pertinent and topical today. His prose is sharp and brave, entertaining and challenging, and each can be held up against the finest of work of play writing and stand on equal footing.

 

 

Words I thougtht I’d Look Up:

 

 

Disquisition: Long essay.

Nell Gwynne: Rags to riches story: Born poor and HOT, so Charles II takes her as his mistress and bangs her a lot and buys her pretty stuff.

Divan: Backless sofa.

Mendacity: Telling of lies.

Slovenly: Unconcerned with conventional standards.

Ducal: Belonging to, or like a Duke.

Guttersnipe: One who is destitute.

Mezzotint: Engraving process.

Plinth: Supporting block.

Galatea: A strong cotton.

Dithyrambs: Fervent speech.

Concertina: A musical instrument resembling an accordion.

Philandering: From the Greek for “loving men”. One who “gets around”. Wink. Wink. Nudge. Nudge.

Teetotalism: Resolving to abstain from alcohol.

Atrocious: From Latin for “fierce” and “dark”. To be cruel or bad.

Apostasy: Renunciation (denial) of faith.

Coquette: Woman who flirts.

Balustrade: Decorative railing.

Humbug: Deception.

Propitiatory: Favourable, from the Latin meaning the same.

Prostration: To lie face downward.

Pander: Indulge weakness.

Fastidiousness: Demanding or delicate.

Harpagon: Grappling iron.

Privation: Act of depriving somebody.

Spinet: A small harpsichord.

Coxcomb: A jester’s cap.

Fecundity: Ability to produce offspring.

Saracen: Member of accident desert people, or Muslims against Christian Crusades. I wonder if there was a word for Muslims who supported the Christian Crusades? It seems like it would just be implied that that didn’t, no?

Calumny: Defamation.

Invidiously: Unjust.

Effusion: Unrestrained outpouring of emotions.

Syncopated: Shorten word by loss of sound.

Unction: Anointed with oil.

Brigand: Bandit.

Mendoza: To remove damage.

Beaumarchais: Fashionably dressed man, or a boyfriend.

Dastardly: Nasty. Or treacherous. Or cowardly.

Extenuate: To lighten the tone of conversation or a topic.

Decrepit: From the Latin for “creak” or “crack”, old and out of shape.

Maudlin: Sentimental.

Supine: Lying on one’s back, or having palms upward.

Abjectly: Miserable, despicable, or humble?

Capitulate: To yield or surrender.

Polonius: Smoked sausage of mixed meats.

Abeyance: Suspension of activity.

Supplantation: Displacing.

Baronet: Minor nobleman.

Peremptoriness: Expressing urgency.

Ordure: Excrement.

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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