Why do we treat Shaw so shabbily?
1997I remember being taught, when I was a child, the G. B. Shaw was the second greatest playwright in the English language (Shakespeare, of course, was first). Now some may consider such an assessment overblown, but it is hard to argue against the assertion that Shaw was a literary giant of the 19th century, fin de siècle, and first half of the 20th century. Still we lack any good compilation of Shaw’s writings (or a quality edition of his plays). How could someone so highly praised in his own era (Shaw won awards ranging from the Nobel Prize in Literature to an Oscar for Best Screenplay) have fallen so far a few mere decades since his death.
Now, some may argue that Shaw is still held in high esteem, pointing, for example, to the Shaw Festival in Canada. However, this year’s program reduces productions of Shaw to a mere two out of ten plays! Similarly, there are some outstanding volumes of Shaw’s plays. I particularly want to praise the “New Mermiads” volumes on him: Arms and the Man, Major Barbara, Mrs Warren’s Profession, Pygmalion, and Saint Joan. Nonetheless, “New Mermaids” treats a number of other playwrights better: Thomas Middleton and Christopher Marlowe, for example. (Middleton does particularly well, with Oxford publishing a luxurious collected works and textual companion.) Penguin publishes a scattering of Shaw plays, with many volumes now out of print. We have better collections (e.g., Metheun’s volumes) of the writings of Noël Coward than Shaw. Even modern playwrights such as Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, and August Wilson are treated better than Shaw.
I do own three serious collections of Shaw, but all of them are flawed (and long out of print):
- From 1994-1997, Viking published a three volume set of the Complete Prefaces of Shaw, collecting the various prefaces that Shaw had to his various plays. One interesting point is that several of these prefaces were previously uncollected, even among so-called complete editions of the plays and prefaces.
- From 1970-1974, Bodley Head published a seven volume set of Complete Plays with Prefaces, which aimed to present in chronological order, the fifty-two plays (with prefaces) that comprise Shaw’s “official” canon, augmented by “pertinent essays and programme
notes by Shaw, and […] self-drafted interviews, many of which have not previously appeared in book form, and some of which have not previously been identified as by Shaw. A history of composition, publication, and earliest performances [is] provided for each play, as well as a cast of characters.” They attempt to preserve Shaw’s unique spelling and punctuation (e.g., spelling “don’t” as “dont,” “show” as “shew,” and putting spaces in some words for empahsis.) While this is arguably the best edition of Shaw ever published, it leaves much to be desired. Reviewer Bernard Dukore complained: “First, the rationale underlying what is to be included and what excluded is never made explicit, and if there is an implicit justification, it escapes me. For instance, the publishers include Shaw’s Preface to the 1893 edition of Widowers’ Houses (which is in neither the Standard Edition nor the Dodd, Mead), but why do they fail to include his three appendices […] ? They include Shaw’s spoken and written prefaces to the film version of Major Barbara, but why do they exclude the added scenes Shaw wrote? They include Shaw’s reply to a questionnaire about the ending of the movie Pygmalion, but not the ending Shaw actually wrote. […] Why did the publishers not include or summarize significant textual variations […] ? It would be instructive, for instance, to have the original version of Act III, Scene 2 of Major Barbara, for it is strikingly different from the final version. It would be useful, too, to have the Candida references in the original How He Lied to Her Husband and Shaw’s added dialogue for the extras in the crowd scenes of Caesar and Cleopatra. The latter would be of obvious value not only to students and scholars but also to directors of the play. Helpful as well would be indications of such variations as the final line (by Sergius, after Bluntschli’s departure) of Arms and the Man: first edition (1898), ‘What a man! W h a t a man!’ […]; Standard Edition (1931), ‘What a man! I s he a man!’ […]; Odham’s Complete Plays (1950), ‘What a man! Is he a man?" Although the third version was also printed during Shaw’s lifetime, Bodley Head uses the second. The punctuation is in this instance a significant change, and I for one should like to know whether the third version is a typo or an authorial change, and, whether or not this can be answered, why the publishers chose the second.”
- In 1963, Dodd, Mead published a six volume set of Complete Plays with Prefaces which is hardly complete and arranged in an apparently haphazard fashion. (Dukore notes one volume, typically, ranges from the 1892 Widowers’ Houses to the 1937 Cymbeline Refinished.)
The mind staggers that a major writer such as Shaw has yet to receive a worthy complete collection of his plays, much less Shaw’s many other prosaic and critical pieces.