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Modern Drama 101: Bernard Shaw and Satire


As a philosophical and art form, modernism arose as a result of upheavals in Western society during the late 19th and 20th centuries. In the face of a rapidly changing, urbanised culture, artists strove to self-consciously break away from traditional forms of art and to express themselves freely. From a theatrical perspective, modernism oversaw a dramatic shift that challenged the established representations of Romanticism, melodrama, and well-structured plays. Influenced by the findings of prominent psychologists, artists began to prioritise the inner workings of their characters and how to best represent them on the stage. This struggle for realism came to dominate British and American theatre in the 20th century and would foreground dramaturgy’s fidelity to real life. By mid-century, the violent disruption of society brought about by the world wars, propelled a counter art movement that rejected realism and focused primarily on symbolism and existentialism. Although opposing in many ways, these two art movements both fall under the category of modernism and would simultaneously search for innovative artistic forms to exteriorise a changed world view.

Modern Drama 101 will be divided into seven chapters:

3. Modern Drama 101: Bernard Shaw and Satire

4. Modern Drama 101: Existentialism and the Absurd

5. Modern Drama 101: Mid-Century British Theatre

6. Modern Drama 101: American Theatre and Tennessee Williams

Modern Drama 101: Bernard Shaw and Satire

Even preceding his career as a playwright, Shaw looked to Ibsen's work as a radical model for a new non-traditional form of drama. In 1891, Shaw wrote an essay entitled The Quintessence of Ibsenism, which analysed the works of Ibsen as well as his critical reception in England. Shaw presented Ibsen as a socialist and realist, whose works promoted the individual against the tyranny of societal ideals (Innes, 2004). Shaw’s own plays demonstrate his “utilitarian ethic” of improving social conditions, utilising his writing as a medium to campaign for reform (Luckhurst, 2006, p.64).

What inspired Shaw’s playwriting was the harsh realities of the nineteenth century Industrial revolution in England. Through his plays, Shaw delivered consistent attacks on the capitalist system. Concern with current social issues is a major distinguishing factor for naturalistic drama, but what set Shaw apart from Ibsen and Strindberg was his degree of “political commitment” (Innes, 2000). Whereas Ibsen explicitly rejected all political affiliations, Shaw held strong socialist convictions (Innes, 2000).

Figure 1: Portrait of George Bernard Shaw by Natalie McCoy

Shaw was politically engaged as a socialist and believed in the right of the people to the ownership of the means of production as well as a fair distribution of societal wealth. He joined the Fabian Society upon moving to London, a socialist organisation focused on advancing the principles of social democratic ideals. (Grene, 1983). He wrote the Fabian Essays (1889) documenting the economic theory of a transition to socialism (Stigler, 1959). Shaw thereafter channelled his “socialist agitation” into his writing and began to write plays for the newly established independent theatre in London. (Hoffsten, 1904, p.218).

Shaw used his plays to campaign for particular reforms. His play, Widowers’ Houses, has a clear target — exploitative landlords and inadequate housing for the working class. Shaw wrote the play with the direct intention of inducing people to vote on the Progressive side at the next Council election in London, as he wrote in the 1893 Preface to the play (Innes, 2000). Widowers’ Houses is “a paradigmatic example of Shaw’s commitment to the artistic and cultural role of theatre in relation to London’s urban social welfare” (Russell, 2012, p.86).

Figure 2: Poster for The Fabian Society

During the latter half of the nineteenth century, London experienced dramatic economic growth. An adverse consequence of this was the housing crisis that developed by the end of the century, as the city’s growing middle class pushed the urban working class into the slums and suburbs (Russell, 2012, p.97). As Sandra Rusell explains in her article ‘The Devil Inside: London’s Slums and the Crisis of Gender in Shaw’s ‘Widowers’ Houses’’, “To live in a slum was to be disconnected from the positive aspects of city life, and the poor were continually being classified and treated as something other than human” (Russell, 2012, p.97).

Shaw’s playwriting facilitated the staging of social anxieties as he dramatized the relationship between London’s inadequate housing and social class. The protagonists of his play Widowers' Houses are Harry Trench, a young doctor, and Blanche Sartorius, daughter of a self-made business man, whose romance propels the majority of the narrative. The play is structured as a traditional, romantic comedy, and it is through this “relatively predictable, comedic framework” in which Shaw situates his social commentary (Russell, 2012, p.87). He exploits the formulaic nature of a conventional romantic comedy and uses it to portray London’s “urban decay”, highlighting not only the living space of the poor but also the “social misdirection” of the city’s wealthy citizens (Russell, 2012, p.86).

Figure 3: Talene Monahon and Jeremy Beck in a performance of "Widowers' Houses" performed by The Actors Company Theatre (2016)

By the second act, Harry discovers that Blanche’s father Sartorius is providing the poor with inadequate slum housing. Outraged, Trench refuses any of his money and vows to live off his own meagre salary, leading to Blanche and his breaking off their engagement. Sartorius then explains to Trench that his own income derives from mortgages on Sartorius’ slum properties. During the third act of the play, Trench comes to terms with his own “sense of helplessness within a corrupt social system” and collaborates on an unethical business deal with Sartorius, and whilst there he reconciles his relationship with Blanche (Russell, 2012, p.88).

Throughout, Shaw intersperses familiar romantic interplay between Harry and Blanche, and incorporates with it the “grittiness of a pervasive social problem” (Russell, 2012, p.88). The audience are drawn in by the familiarity of the romantic comedy, whilst Shaw subtly voices public issues; “Widowers’ Houses demonstrates Shaw’s movement away from Victorian ideals, and it intentionally uses performance as a means to heighten the audience’s awareness of social problems” (Russell, 2012, p.89).

Figure 4: Edward Sorel's Illustration of George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells arguing as members of The Fabain Society

Although it employs a conventional form, Widowers’ Houses does not end on a traditionally high, comedic note. Shaw’s characters behave immorally and maintain that their actions, despite the consequences, are unavoidable. For Shaw, this mindset is what feeds into a “generational cycle of social decay and inequality” (Russell, 2012, p.90). Shaw manages to criticise not only those who have contributed to social inequality, such as Sartorius, but also denounces the public for their moral complacency, characterised by Harry Trench.

Shaw’s works are explicitly satiric in nature. Satire is understood to be a work that is comedic and entertaining, whilst subliminally exposing and denouncing vices or abuses of any kind in society (Ebewo, 1997). Through his works, Shaw aligns himself with the expectations of Victorian audiences through an overarching comedic structure, which he then uses to illuminate social aggravations. In his preface to the 1893 edition of Widowers’ Houses, Shaw explicitly states his plays’ intentions — that despite their comedic nature, he writes to draw attention to the injustices incurred by capitalism:

“Nobody will find it a beautiful or lovable work. It is saturated with the vulgarity of the life it represents: the people do not speak nobly, live gracefully, or sincerely face their own position: the author is not giving expression in pleasant fancies to the underlying beauty and romance of happy life, but dragging up to the surface of ‘respectability’ a handful of the slime and foulness of its polluted bed, and playing off your laughter at the scandal of the exposure against your shudder at its blackness.” (Shaw, 1893).

Figure 5: Robert Risko's Illustration of "Mrs Warren's Profession"

Shaw followed Widowers’ Houses with two more plays that would come to be published collectively under the title Plays Unpleasant. The final play of the collection, Mrs Warren’s Profession, was written with the thematic message that capitalism was the root of all evil, compelling proletarian women to sell themselves to earn a living. Shaw intended to subvert the culpability of individuals, and instead incriminate the Victorian middle-classes by linking their capital with the plight of the masses (Guy, 2010). Shaw wrote Mrs Warren’s Profession, as well as the other two plays in this collection, adhering to the ethos that theatre should question social injustices and enforce accountability. In the preface to his Plays Unpleasant, Shaw reasserts the need to hold the public accountable:

“the average homebred Englishman, however honourable and good natured he may be in his private capacity, is, as a citizen, a wretched creature who, whilst clamouring for a gratuitous millennium, will shut his eyes to the most villainous abuses if the remedy threatens to add another penny in the pound to the rates and taxes which he has to be half cheated, half coerced into paying” (Shaw, 2000, p.25-26).

The narrative plot of Mrs Warren’s Profession follows Vivie Warren, who visits her mother in order to learn more about her past. Mrs. Warren reveals that the poverty of her youth left her no alternative but to become a prostitute, to which Vivie sympathises. However, Mrs Warren’s business partner reveals that the two of them run a dozen brothels across Europe and Mrs Warren’s wealth and Vivie’s subsequent education are derived from this business’ income. Shaw’s characterisation of Mrs Warren is a clear response to the public “demonisation” of brothel-keepers (Innes, 2000). Mrs Warren is presented as ordinary and humane, as opposed to ruthless and abominable, and nor does she conform to the theatrical stereotype of a fallen woman driven to suicide by shame (Innes, 2000).

Figure 6: John Clements Conducting a Rehearsal of "Pygmalion" by George Bernard Shaw

When Shaw began to write Mrs Warren’s Profession, prostitution was at the forefront of the news in England. Following a series of inflammatory articles published in the Pall Mall Gazette by W.T. Stead, the campaign for criminalisation of the sex trade and closure of the brothels had been brought to a pitch of public fervour (Innes, 2000). Shaw looked to challenge the overarching view of prostitution and instead brand the profession an indictment of capitalism. When Vivie questions why her mother did not turn to factory work instead of prostitution as a way to earn money, Mrs Warren exclaims; “How could you keep your self-respect in such starvation and slavery?” (Shaw, 2000, p.250). The limited opportunities for women and atrocious factory conditions, not individual women’s virtues, have contributed to the advent of prostitution and Shaw is explicit in his criticism: “If people arrange the world that way for women, there’s no good pretending it’s arranged the other way” (Shaw, 2000, p. 251).

Shaw was greatly influenced by the writing of Ibsen and viewed theatre as a vehicle to express his own socialist affiliations. Whilst Ibsen allowed the moral message of his works to be ambiguous, Shaw presented his plays as morally didactic, utilising satire and conventional comedic formats in order to convey social criticism. In each of his Plays Unpleasant, Shaw uses the familiar Victorian playwriting structure to criticise social injustices and condemn the conditions resultant of a capitalist society.

Bibliographic References

Ebewo, P. (1997). "Reflections on Dramatic Satire as Agent of Change". English Studies in Africa, 40(1), 31-41.

Grene, N. (1983). "Bernard Shaw: Socialist and Playwright". The Crane Bag, 7(1), 162-179. Retrieved from:

Guy, S. (2010). "The Resurgence of Ideology in Bernard Shaw's Mrs Warren's Profession." Cahiers Victoriens & Edouardiends, 71, 275-285. Retrieved from:

Hoffsten, E. (1904). "The Plays of Bernard Shaw". The Sewanee Review, 12(2), 135-140. Retrieved from:

Innes, C. (2000). A Sourcebook on Naturalist Theatre. Oxford: Routledge

Innes, C. (2004). The Cambridge Companion to George Bernard Shaw. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Luckhurst, M. (2006). A Companion to British and Irish Drama: 1880-2005. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Russell, S. (2012). "The Devil Inside: London's Slums and the Crisis of Gender in Shaw's 'Widowers' Houses'". Shaw, 32(1), 86-101. Retrieved from:

Shaw, B. (2000). Plays Unpleasant. London: Penguin Classics

Stigler, G. (1959). "Bernard Shaw, Sidney Webb, and the Theory of Fabian Socialism". Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 103(3), 469-475. Retrieved from:

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Megan Maistre

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