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TABLE OF CONTENTS

 

Introduction

 

Some Common Complaints from Critics

 

 

Some Possible Replies

to Critics

 

 

Some Warnings about Criticizing Critics

 

 

 

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"Same old, same old."

Ho Hum, same old, same old

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FIRST AID TO CRITICS

 

IN

 

THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY

 

 

by Lawrence Switzky

 

 

 

 

INTRODUCTION

 

First Aid to Critics is a germinal archive of common complaints about Shaw plays, representative instances, and tentative responses.   It is a database on the move: as a group project inaugurated at the ISS Conference in Guelph in 2011, it depends on the collective genius of Shavians everywhere.    Over the next few months and years, it will expand and flourish and hopefully become a useful resource in the cause of keeping Shaw on the boards and the critics on their toes.

 

On that note: we want you to contribute to the effort to improve criticism of Shaw in production.   Have you seen a theatre critic disparaging Shaw’s playwriting for the same baseless reason that other critics have taken him to task for over a century?   Fight back against cliché-ridden criticism by sending a link to the review (and a possible response) to firstaidtocritics@gmail.com.    Together, we can create the more thoughtful theatre critics of tomorrow.

 

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SOME COMMON COMPLAINTS FROM CRITICS

 

1. All Shaw’s Characters Are Shaw

 

all Shaw’s characters are himself: mere puppets struck up to spout Shaw. It’s only the actors that make them seem different” (“Epilogue” to Fanny’s First Play)

 

2. Shaw is Unoriginal [Corollary: Shaw is Reheated Nietzsche, Ibsen, Wilde, etc.]

 

“Practically all of the sagacity of George Bernard Shaw consists of bellowing vociferously what every one knows.” (H. L. Mencken, “The Ulster Polonius”)

 

3. Shaw is Didactic and Therefore Tedious

 

“…if Chaucer is the father of English literature, Shaw is the spinster aunt….It is only in his writing that the aunt in him rises up, full of warnings, wagged fingers, and brandished umbrellas.” (Kenneth Tynan, Profiles)

 

4. Shaw is Irrelevant/Dated

 

“Despite the revamp, On the Rocks remains unwieldy - long-winded with a pair of love subplots that seem as perfunctory as ever. But, in a paradox that would please Shaw, Healey’s divergence from the original text in fact brings us closer to its spirit. This is perhaps the nearest to what it was like to see a new Shaw play in his heyday, the thrill of a sparkling and sometimes startling storm of ideas provoking debate and discussion rather than passive reverence in the audience.” (J. Kelly Nestruck, Globe and Mail review of On the Rocks)

 

5. Shaw Wrote Debates and Books, Not Plays

 

“Shaw’s plays document the ways the accessories of the page can be used to represent the drama: the setting and even the texture of performance are absorbed by how the play is done into print. The accessories of print are deployed so completely in the service of objectifying the fictional drama that the signs of the theatre are very nearly erased.” (William Worthen, Print and the Poetics of Modern Drama, p. 57)

 

6. Shaw’s Prolixity is Outmoded in the Post-Dramatic/Formalist/Neo-Avant-Garde Theatre

 

“Connoisseurs of Shavian paradoxical wit will quickly recognize Major Barbara as one of the most characteristic works of the canon: long stagebound arguments lit up by rhetorical fireworks, delivered with mellifluous British accents in attractive drawing rooms…the cast begins to break the predictable cadences of the Shavian sentences by exploring asyncopated rhythms in them, unexpectedly emphasizing portions of some words over others, accompanied by a percussion player at the side of the stage” (George Hunka, 2006 review of the Kabuki Major Barbara by Theatre of the Two-Headed Calf in New York City)

 

7. Shaw Doesn’t Understand/Can’t Represent Emotions

 

“But it is really "Major Barbara" itself that has limits; its concerns—its "issues"—are spelled out all too thoroughly and clearly. One could say that there's nothing at stake in this play except the future of humanity; when it comes to actual human beings, Shaw here is perhaps too clever by half, the extra half-portion of cleverness serving as a substitute for emotional depth. The play does draw you in on its own terms—those of a spirited debate—but while "Major Barbara" appears to be an invitation to the audience to think, underneath its merry-prankster ironies is a finger-wagging schoolmaster telling you what to think.” (Nancy Franklin, New Yorker review of Major Barbara in 2001)

 

8. Shaw Can’t Structure a Play

 

“Plum-pudding unity, on the other hand—the unity of a number of ingredients stirred up together, put in a cloth, boiled to a certain consistency, and then served up in a blue flame of lambent humour—that is precisely the unity of Getting Married. A jumble of ideas, prejudices, points of view, and whimsicalities on the subject of marriage is tied up in a cloth and boiled into a sort of glutinous fusion or confusion, so that when the cloth is taken off they do not at once lose the coherent rotundity conferred upon them by pressure from without.” (William Archer, Play-Making)

 

9. Shaw is Superficial

 

“The tragic dramatist must feel pity and terror in a certain way. It is through the hearts of men and women that he must feel them. He must be able to see into their hearts, and show us what he has seen there. He must be able to create human beings. Comedy’s main appeal is to the head, tragedy to the heart. We can be intellectually interested in figures that do not illude us as real, but we cannot feel for them as figures. Thus in comedy a subjectively created figure will do well enough, but in tragedy it is useless. Mr. Shaw cannot create a figure objectively, and thus he cannot communicate to us through drama a tragic emotion.” (Max Beerbohm, “Mr. Shaw’s Tragedy”; also, cp. Robert Brustein, The Theatre of Revolt, “Shaw had no sense of evil”)

 

10. Shaw’s Bad/Inadequate Politics Taint His Art

 

“Shaw had one great intellectual virtue: he has been taken in by almost everything else but never by capitalism. He succumbed to Nietzscheism, Lamarckism, vegetarianism, imperialism, fascism, Stalinism, anti-vivisectionism, Fabianism and what have you; but he knew how rotten were the internal social workings of capitalist society and never stopped saying so. As a result his magnificently composed pamphlets, polemics and prefaces are full of some of the most eloquent and effective anti-capitalist agitation of our times. But that was all. His best writing was always in terms of particularities, always very concrete and limited. As soon as he entered the field of theory, as soon as he essayed generalizations, he usually made an ass of himself.” (Irving Howe, “Bernard Shaw’s Anti-Capitalism”)

 

11. Good Productions of Shaw Save Otherwise Irredeemable Plays

 

12. Shaw is a Good Artist; Unfortunately, His Politics are Awful

 

 

 

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SOME POSSIBLE REPLIES TO CRITICS:

 

            In developing this section, we’re looking for model replies to critics that can be used as templates adaptable to the event.   Write to Larry Switzky at firstaidtocritics@gmail.com with proposals, with copies to lconolly@trentu.ca and  dietrich@shawsociety.org.

 

 

 

 

 

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SOME WARNINGS ABOUT CRITICIZING CRITICS:

 

            It might be counter-productive to adopt Shaw’s audacity in the care and feeding of critics, despite our title, so here we’re looking for advice about what NOT to write in criticizing critics, such as ad hominem arguments.   Write to Larry Switzky at firstaidtocritics@gmail.com with proposals, with copies to lconolly@trentu.ca and  dietrich@shawsociety.org

 

 

 

 

 

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