Fabian Synthesis in the Plays of Bernard Shaw

gbscopyright 2017, SJ Munson

In the tradition of New Comedy, that of the Greek pattern set forth in the plays of Menander (c. 342-290 BCE) and surviving from the works of Plautus (c. 254-184 BCE) to the present day, there is a thematic significance to the final resolution of social reconciliation. In “The Argument of Comedy,” Northrop Frye discusses the importance ofunion in the closure of New Comedy:

In all good New Comedy there is a social as well as an individual theme which must be sought in the general atmosphere of reconciliation that makes the final marriage possible. As the hero gets closer to the heroine and opposition is overcome, all the right-thinking people come over to his side. Thus a new social unit is formed on the stage, and the moment that this social unit crystalizes is the moment of the comic resolution.

At the end of the last act, with all the main characters on stage, there is a “renewed sense of social integration.” The symbolic expression of this reconciliation is normally some kind of celebration, such as a marriage, dance, or feast (Frye, 81).

Just as an ending serves to tie together the themes of a work, in the comedies of Irish playwright Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), final unions are symbolic resolutions or reconciliations of the dialectical conflicts between characters. Perhaps the most outstanding characteristic in the nature of his unions, or the quality that makes them peculiarly Shavian, is their significance as social syntheses of representative or allegorical figures. True to this own Fabianism, Shaw makes union the tool of his socialist purpose. Indeed, the allegorical union of faith and action, intellect and power, has a political significance for the author. Thus, any discussion of closure in Shaw’s plays, especially one that deals with the unions and sense of futurity in these endings, cannot ignore the influence of the playwright’s politics.

In order to approach these plays from a Fabian Marxist perspective, we must first define what we mean by Marxism and Fabianism. In its original form, as developed by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Marxism is a system of thought that views socioeconomic history through the lens of class conflict. In the capitalist stage of economic development, the class struggle is between the bourgeoisie, who own the means of production, and the proletariat, who, having no means of production themselves, must sell their labor for wages. The concentration of the means of production in the hands of a few allows the capitalist class to exploit labor as a commodity (Marx and Engels, Manifesto, ch. 1). The laborer, who is treated as merely a means of increasing capital, rather than as a being with physical, social, and spiritual needs, therefore becomes alienated not only from her own work, but also from her own humanity (Marx, “Working Day,” 388). According to Marxism the only solution lies in radical socioeconomic change, or revolution, the first step toward which is the development of a class-consciousness on the part of the proletariat that will cause it to work in its own best interest. As a reaction (antithesis) to the vagaries of the capitalist market (thesis), this class-consciousness leads to the synthesis of social change in Marx’s dialectical materialism.

The Fabian Society, the socialist branch to which Shaw clung throughout his 65-year career as a novelist, then critic and dramatist, was not an organized political party but a group of intellectuals (Bentley, 2.). They distinguished themselves from traditional Marxists by rejecting the inexorability of revolution and embracing a gradualist and reformist approach. For the Fabians, socialism, chiefly the nationalization of industries, would come about gradually, not through violent uprisings but through the education of the men in power. The name they adopted, which reflects their classical education, refers to the Roman consul Quintus Fabius Maximus (c.280-203 BCE), who though vastly outnumbered, defeated the Carthaginian general Hannibal by avoiding direct confrontation. Instead of pitched battles, Fabius (named Cunctator, “the Delayer,” by his own troops) employed guerrilla tactics, attacking Hannibal’s long supply lines in a war of attrition (Plutarch, 175).

Fabian optimism was deeply rooted in early nineteenth-century utopian socialism, which believed that the more industrial civilization progressed, the more socially minded society would become (Wolfe, 245). In one of his many speeches on religion, however, Shaw points out that one of the “initial mistakes” of early “socialist bodies” was that they included everyone but the capitalists (“To the Progressive League,” 25). Without the power of the men of business who run industrial nations, change could never occur. The belief “that the whole thing will be done by ‘historical development’…” or natural “progress,” Shaw writes in the socialist paper The Clarion, is an “abominable idolatry” of an erroneous absolute (quoted in Bentley, 11). The end of Fabianism, then, is to reconcile the forces of money and political clout with the faith and intellect of the socialists, in an unbeatable superhuman union. It is the duty of the Fabian socialist not to exclude non-believers or remain an outcast but to “join every other society on the face of the earth” and “make his influence felt there” (“To the Progressive League,” 26). While the Society’s emblem is a tortoise ready to strike, the early coat of arms of the movement depicts a wolf in sheep’s clothing, indicating the disguise tactics early Fabians used to permeate every level of society (Perdue, 97). According to Shaw, Fabianism made socialism respectable without suspicion of being anarchistic or revolutionary.

According to classic Marxism, true art should reflect reality honestly, as well as be a means of raising class-consciousness, of transforming the audience and motivating them to action (Dan Shaw). With his unique literary and oratory gifts, Bernard Shaw was able to “permeate,” that is, to extend Fabianism’s influence into, the realm of the arts, first as a music and dramatic critic, and later as a playwright, producing modern plays crammed with realism and socialist dialectic (Carpenter, 12). The Devil’s Disciple (1896), for example, Shaw’s eighth play first published in a collection entitles Three Plays for Puritans (1901), takes place during the American Revolution and ends on a note of celebration effected by a social integration. In Act II Mrs. Anderson, wife of the Reverend Anthony Anderson, describes Richard Dudgeon as a “bad man” and a “smuggler” who “lives with gypsies” and “has no love for his mother and his family,” a reprobate who “…wrestles and plays games on Sunday instead of going to church” (The Devil’s Disciple, in Bodley Head. II, 67-68). Likewise, because their theologies are mutually opposed, Richard regards the minister as an enemy, his dialectical opposite. In reality, the young villain is merely a Shavian type, what critic Arthur Nethercot classes as a Diabolonian, a rebel who, like the playwright himself, delights in shocking middle-class morality and exploding its hypocrisies (Nethercot, 73-74). Yet, when Dudgeon is mistaken for the preacher and arrested by British soldiers, this “Devil’s Disciple” refuses to reveal his identity and thereby proclaims his willingness to be hanged in Anderson’s stead. Dick’s sacrifice, however, is not of the sentimental kind made popular by Sidney Carton in Dicken’s Tale of Two Cities (1859), for he rejects the charge of love. He is really a vital man of “faith,” a being who stands above worldly attachments and a man of genius who sees things for what they are. On the scaffold he realizes that he risks his life for a far, far better thing than love, a greater more universal purpose. “My life for the world’s future!” (137), he cries, acknowledging his role as an instrument of some kind of Life Force, an almost divine, evolutionary power that experiments with humanity but also clearly drives at its betterment. By the end of the play, then, it has become clear that Dudgeon represents true humanitarian (or socialist) faith and intellect, unbowed and uncompromised, in Shaw’s allegory.

Richard is the vital figure around whom the play revolves; his character is subjected only to our reinterpretation, not to any great internal change. In the Reverend Anthony Anderson, however, Dudgeon’s sacrificial act effects a complete conversion. At the end of Act II, upon learning that the wrong man is to be hanged as the town’s preacher, the minister undergoes a startling transformation. In an instant he exchanges his Bible for a pair of pistols, all to the consternation of his spouse. When she asks if he will not even “say goodbye,” he blazes impatiently at her triviality: “And waste another half minute!” (107). Shaw applauds this apostasy instead of condemning it, since Anderson, for the first time in his life, discovers his true nature in leaving the ministry and converting to a Shavian “man of action” (139). The Reverend finds in “the hour of trial” that his place is “…amid the thunder of the captains and the shouting,” just as Dudgeon realizes it is his own “…destiny to suffer and be faithful to the death” (139).

By recapturing Springtown from the British, Anderson secures Richard’s release. We see then that the world is to be saved not through the individual efforts of men of faith or action but through the interaction of the two. When Dick bitterly accuses himself of making a “vain sacrifice,” the Reverend replies, “It takes all sorts to make a world—saints as well as soldiers” (139). It is the “natural tendency” of comedy, Frye writes, to include a variety of characters in its final social festival (82). Indeed, society accepts the Devil’s Disciple at the close of the play. Having shown its gratitude for the heroism of the minister, the crowd of spectators does the same for Dudgeon. The final stage directions read as follows: “Jubilation in the market. The townsfolk surge back again in wild enthusiasm with their band, and hoist Richard on their soldiers, cheering him” (141). From this point the clergyman will serve as Captain of the Springtown militia, and Dick will fill the minister’s shoes as the Reverend Richard Dudgeon and “wag his pow” in Anderson’s old pulpit (139). Shaw, then, divides his heroes into preachers and doers. Both kinds are needed, although in having the soldier save the saint, the playwright himself seems to favor action as indispensable to the survival and effectiveness of humanitarianism or religion.

Eight years later, in Major Barbara (1905), the playwright presents a much more physical union of faith and action, power and humanitarianism. The play is an arsenal of Shaw’s Fabian rhetoric, and in it his dialectical energy reaches one of its greatest heights. The author’s course is clear when, in his preface, he declares with the passion of a socialist that his main objective is to show “…that the greatest of our evils, and the worst of our crimes is poverty, and that our first duty, to which every other consideration should be sacrificed, is not to be poor” (Major Barbara, in Bodley Head, vol. 3, 23).

The character of Barbara Undershaft represents a woman of deep faith. Although she is a major in the Salvation Army, her religion, like Shaw’s, appears to be a “quite original” one (120). As her fiancé Adolphus Cusins discloses, “…the power Barbara wields [in the shelter, or] …the power that wields Barbara herself…” is not the Army’s own Methodism (119). Rather, the source of her faith lies within herself. Thus like so many of Shaw’s central characters, she too seems to be inspired by a divine will or Life Force.

In the millionaire Andrew Undershaft, however, the playwright presents the Major’s dialectical opposite, a man of power and action “…who has become intellectually and spiritually as well as practically conscious of the irresistible natural truth which we all abhor and repudiate”: namely, the iniquity of poverty (23). The cannon-maker is, as Bentley describes him, an example of that ever-present kind of Shavian freethinker, the “soft-spoken” vitalist “in harmony with himself,” a man who has “ideas and impulses” rather than “ideologies and habits” (150-51). Born orphaned and poor, Undershaft clearly recognizes, just as Mrs. Warren justifies her role as a procuress in an earlier play, that “…when society offered him the alternative of poverty or a lucrative trade in death and destruction, it offered him, not a choice between opulent villainy and humble virtue, but between energetic enterprise and cowardly infamy” (27). The munitions-maker’s “sin,” however, is also like Mrs. Warren’s: that he has continued to deal in his iniquitous trade though he has made enough money to retire.

In the two Undershafts, then, Shaw gives us two types of freethinkers, one with a love for mankind, the other with the power to destroy entire nations. Both, however, serve a universal purpose. Barbara herself admits in Act II: “My own father’s a Secularist, I think. Our Father—yours and mine—fulfills himself in many ways; and I daresay he knew what he was about” (105). As in The Devil’s Disciple, however, the author waits until the end of the play to show how these two opposite figures can work together for the amelioration of the human state.

Adolphus Cusins becomes caught in the middle of the dialectical battle. He loves Barbara for her vitality; yet beneath his contention with Undershaft, it is obvious that the two men share an affinity. The professor of Greek, for example, becomes immediately smitten by the cannon-maker’s candor in saying that the only two things necessary for salvation are “money and gunpowder,” since without them, Christian virtues remain unaffordable to the common man (116).

In Act III Cusins becomes a partner in the munitions business. His being, to some extent, an orphan satisfies Undershaft’s requirement and makes him symbolically marriageable to the firm. The professor of Greek will also marry the Major, and thus, at the close of the play, the possibility arises that he may serve as a bridge between socialism and political power. Symbolically, Cusins can combine socialist faith, intellect, and power to act. He will gain the first in a spiritual union by marrying Barbara; the second he already possesses in abundance; the third will come with his partnership in the munitions industry. That the meek professor of Greek will not hesitate to use this power is evidenced by his formerly having supplied a pupil (going off to fight the Turks) not with books but with “a revolver and a hundred Undershaft cartridges” (182). His future course, however, will not be solely one of death and destruction. Instead, it will be the path of the Life Force, not of “petty good or evil.” As Cusins discovers, man must first learn to control the forces of war before attempting to change society for the better. Indeed, the young couple join with the cannon-maker because he represents a magazine of Dionysiac forces, capable of obliterating human kind until its energies are harnessed for the universal welfare. For Shaw, power, in the form of capital and political clout, is preliminary to socialism. Without this strength one cannot dispense justice, truth, mercy, and other virtues. Just as Anderson saves Dudgeon from death, so has Undershaft rescued his daughter from the seven deadly material sins so that she can be free for religious contemplation and possibly make his own work unnecessary. At the play’s end, the munitions-maker challenges her to give up bribing poor, starving people with bread, but to try converting his own factory workers, whose souls are hungry because their bodies are full. Here we have an example of Shaw’s version of Marxist dialectical materialism, in which the material takes precedence over the spiritual. Satisfying the person’s material needs opens the door to the spiritual, which in turn creates a more ideal society.

In the physical configuration of socialist faith and power, the author demonstrates that, while the cooperation of the men in power may be indispensable to the implementation of socialism, this step is not the only one in the path of social change. Some degree of force may be necessary in order to save the socialist cause from dying out. In his letter to The Clarion, Shaw refutes the argument of other socialists who contend that there are two courses to follow, those of Parliamentary cooperation and physical force, and that each excludes the other:

Parliamentary action is usually the first stage of civil war. It brings the issues before the man in the street; it works up public feeling; and when the reactionary party is not prepared to fight, and the advancing party is, it settles the question without bloodshed. It is, of course, possible that Capitalism will go under without a fight; but I confess I should regard any statesman who calculated on that as an extremely sanguine man. The mistake made by our wildcat barricaders is not in believing that the revolution will be effected by force, but in putting the fighting at the wrong end of the process (11).

The First World War, however, shattered much of Shaw’s Fabian optimism. On the home front, the author saw enough dim-wittedness on the part of the men in power to dispel his hope for their eventual conversion. He learned rapidly that he had been screaming into deaf ears. Heartbreak House (1916-17) is evidence of the searing effect the global conflict had on Shaw the socialist. Here, the playwright presents in the character of Captain Shotover a man who has given up on the Fabian means of making the men of power wise, that is, “permeation” and cooperation (Bentley, 140). Instead, the crazy old man concentrates his energies on the perfection of a mysterious “mind ray” capable of exploding all the forces of destruction (Heartbreak House, in Bodley Head, V, 102). In other words, as Bentley states, Shotover “…is trying to attain power by means of the mind” (140). He has given up on dialectical materialism.

Mangan is the splendid capitalist, admired as a “Napoleon of industry,” yet even his millions are nothing but a mirage; he went bankrupt long ago. Yet, the awe in which he is held and the power he wields in government are a dangerous combination for the world. As one character remarks, “It’s madness: it’s like giving a torpedo to a badly brought up child to play at earthquakes with.” Mazzini Dunne was once a socialist activist who “…joined societies and made speeches and wrote pamphlets,” but all that came to nothing, since the people in the societies never learned how to handle money or manage anything. “Every year I expected a revolution, or some frightful smash-up,” he says. “But nothing happened, except, of course, the usual poverty and crime and drink that we are used to. Nothing ever does happen” (175). Instead of a socialist firebrand, Dunne has become that most well-meaning and ineffectual of individuals, the modern liberal. Here, the playwright trains his cannon on his fellow Fabians and their Labour Party comrades who, despite their idealism, have never learned to lead, thus allowing the British ship to founder. What is lacking here, obviously, is the usual Fabian duumvirate of socialist intellect and capitalist power. Yet, with capital in the hands of fools like Mangan, and socialism in the hands of Shotover, a disillusioned alcoholic, or the feckless Dunne, the only course is national disaster.

If Heartbreak House were one of Shaw’s earlier works, the play might end with a glimmer of hope for societal change. Yet a bloody world war has entered onto the stage since the composition of Major Barbara, and so the Captain’s dream of a mind ray turns out to be nothing but rum, an opiate against despair, and the play concludes with the failure of vital forces to counteract the destruction of the death-mongers. Indeed, disillusionment is the principle theme of this later play.

It would be difficult to overestimate the influence the war had on Shaw’s re-evaluation of Fabianism. Yet the faith he lost in the men and political system of his day was replaced by an increased, almost mystical conviction that the Life Force would never lose the will to fulfill its own purpose. “Shaw never abandoned his socialism,” Bentley explains,

But he did come to place less faith in the usual political machinery. And, as his faith in quick progress waned, his faith in slow progress increased. As he became less and less of an optimist over the short period, he became more and more of an optimist over the long period. This sort of optimism necessarily has its roots in a kind of faith that cuts deeper than legislation, political or economic, that cuts deeper, in fact, than socialism (45-46).

As Carpenter maintains, the playwright slowly evolved from a “gradualistic meliorist” to an “otherworldly impossibilist,” becoming more of an “artist-philosopher” than an “artist-Fabian” (88). Earlier in his career, in his essay The Quintessence of Ibsenism (1891), Shaw gives a hint at his burgeoning belief in a “crablike progress of social evolution, in which the individual advances by seeming to go backward,” a fact that “continues to elude us in spite of all the lessons of history” (20).

In the earlier comedies of Bernard Shaw, the final scenes represent more than traditional social reconciliations; they are a synthesis of thesis and antithesis, the very dialectical opposites that create the tension of the play. Specifically, the partnership of humanitarian faith, or socialist intellect, and capitalist economic and political power creates the kind of superhuman union required, from the Fabian perspective, for the transition between capitalism and socialism. Shaw was long-lived, however, and his socialism was practical and malleable as it underwent change. The First World War brought about a crisis in his growing disillusionment with Fabianism, as seen in Heartbreak House, a play that leaves us unsettled and questioning. Yet the playwright had a back-up plan, coming to rely increasingly on his faith in a kind of evolutionary drive toward progress, which he calls a Life Force and which, while not God, ever has humanity’s social amelioration (and therefore socialism) in its sights


Works Cited

Alexander, James. Shaw’s Controversial Socialism. University Press of Florida, 2009.

Bentley, Eric. Bernard Shaw. New Directions, 1947.

Carpenter, Charles A. Bernard Shaw as Artist-Fabian. University Press of Florida, 2009.

Frye, Northrop. “The Argument of Comedy,” in Theories of Comedy. Ed. Paul Lauter. Anchor Books, 1964, 450-460. http://www.yumpu.com. https://www.yumpu.com/en/document/ view/ 12290257/northrop-frye-the-argument-of-comedy-facultad-de-humanidades. Retrieved 4 April 2017.

Marx, Karl. “The Working Day (1867).” Critical Theory, edited by Robert Dale Parker, Oxford University Press, 2012, pp. 388-94.

——, and Friedrich Engels. Manifesto of the Communist Party, in Marx/Engels Selected Works. Translated by Samuel Moore, vol. 1, Progress Publishers, 1969, http://www.marxists.org/ archive/ marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/. Accessed 4 April 2017.

Nethercot, Arthur H. Men and Supermen: The Shavian Portrait Gallery. Harvard University Press, 1954.

Perdue, John B. The War of All the People. Potomac, 2002.

Plutarch. Lives. Tr. Bernadotte Perrin, vol. 3. Harvard University Press, 1916.

Shaw, Bernard. The Bodley Head Bernard Shaw: Collected Plays with Their Prefaces. Ed. Dan H. Laurence. 7 vols. Max Reinhardt, 1970-74.

____. “To the Progressive League,” in The Religious Speeches of Bernard Shaw. Ed. Warren Sylvester Smith. Pennsylvania State University Press, 1963, 20-28.

Shaw, Dan. “Sergei Eisenstein.” Senses of Cinema, vol. 30, 2004, sensesofcinema.com/2004/ great-directors/eisenstein/. Accessed 4 April 2017.

Wolfe, Willard. From Radicalism to Socialism. Yale University Press, 1975.




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