In his first play Widowers’ Houses (1892) Bernard Shaw presents us with the character of Harry Trench, an idealistic young medical student who falls in love with Blanche Sartorius, the spoiled daughter of a real estate tycoon. All goes well with their engagement until Trench discovers that Mr. Sartorius is a notorious slumlord who makes his fortune off the misery of the poor. Morally outraged, the young doctor insists that he and his bride-to-be will refuse her father’s help and live on Trench’s own modest seven hundred a year. Accustomed to a more lavish lifestyle, Blanche protests and calls off the engagement.
A more conventional Victorian play might have ended there, with the hero choosing the moral high ground over true love, or else with the couple escaping together and striking out on their own in a respectable middle-class manner. But at this point Shaw’s play is only half over, as his characters are about to be ground through the kind of Mephistophelian motive machinery that only exists in real life.
In his daughter’s defense, the real estate magnate takes it upon himself to acquaint his future son-in-law with the facts of life: that slumlording is a necessary evil, without which the poor would be on the streets, and worse yet, that Trench’s own inherited income comes from an old mortgage on one of Sartorius’ substandard tenements. Checkmate.
Part of a collection the playwright later entitled Plays Pleasant & Unpleasant, Widowers’ Houses is an “unpleasant” play since it depicts a hero who, once he has faced his own complicity in grinding the poor and the option of losing his income, can only shrug and accept the way of the world. After all, he says, “A man must live.” His ultimately marrying the slumlord’s daughter then becomes, symbolically, not just a romantic union, but one of socio-economic collusion between the rich and middle class. As Shaw himself states in the play’s preface:
“Here we are confronted not only with the comedy and tragedy of individual character and destiny, but with the social horrors which arise from the fact that the average homebred Englishman, however honorable and good-natured he may be in his private capacity, is, as a citizen, a wretched creature who whilst clamoring for a gratuitous millennium, will shut his eyes to the most villainous abuses if the remedy threatens to add another penny in the pound rates and taxes which he has to be half cheated, half coerced into paying.”
As a socialist and an atheist, Shaw was wrong about many things, from Jesus Christ to Stalin, and many of his plays seem dated by today’s standards. But this first play remains as shocking and distasteful as the day it was written– shocking and distasteful, that is, because it is only too true. The world has changed a lot in twelve decades. But some things never do, especially in economics.
I bring this deeply flawed, little-known and seldom-seen play to our attention not because it is Shaw’s best play (it’s far from that), but because its indictment of British society (specifically, the exploitation of the working class by the middle and upper classes) still brings a sharp sting to us here in America. At least, it should.
We whine about the price of a cup of coffee, not pausing to consider whether the poor soul who picked the beans was paid a fair wage (or any wage at all). We check out at Walmart, our cart laden with bargains, blissfully unaware of the high cost of our discount culture. In the words of President William McKinley, “Cheap merchandise means cheap men.” Someone pays for that bargain, and if not us, then who? Ask little Rosita in Honduras or Chandran in Bangalore.
“And sure, everyone ought to have adequate health care; just don’t raise my taxes.” The average American will put up with the worst villainies, chicaneries, pettifoggeries, and corruption from his elected officials, provided they promise not to raise his taxes. And the church? The American church has drunk so much Kool-Aid we can no longer recognize the gospel when it is presented to us, but call it Bolshevism. If we do not see, it is because vested interest blinds our eyes.
Cheap, cheap, cheap. Now we are fighting two wars to insure that cheap oil continues to flow into our factories and gas tanks. But then, all this is nothing new. American prosperity has always been borne on the backs of slaves. It is the prerogative of empire.
What will we say when we stand before Him? I shudder.