Bernard Shaw claimed that he built his plays from “atoms of dust.” Showing where these atoms are and explaining how they fit together to form meaning, Bertolini demolishes the conventional argument that Shaw was not a meticulous, self-conscious writer.
Bertolini provides close, subtle readings of six of Shaw’s major plays: Caesar and Cleopatra, Man and Superman, Major Barbara, The Doctor’s Dilemma, Pygmalion, and Saint Joan. He also devotes a full chapter to the one-act plays.
Focusing sharply on details of language andto a greater extent than any other Shavianstage directions, Bertolini probes dramatic structure, examines motifs, and points out patterns to demonstrate Shaw’s artistry and to develop a coherent picture of the playwrighting self of Bernard Shaw. His triumph is to piece together a portrait of the artist from the clues provided by the artist.
To complete this portrait, Bertolini examines the many authors, artists, or artist-figures who are characters in Shaw’s plays. Through these dramatic creations, Bertolini contends, Shaw reveals his ideas and feelings about himself as an artist and about the art of writing plays.
In his chapter on Pygmalion, for example, Bertolini argues that the mother-fixated (Shaw’s term) Henry Higgins seeks to create a duchess out of Eliza Doolittle as a way of denying his creation by his mother. This characterization of Higgins expresses Shaw’s anxiety about his own originality, an apprehension fueled by his sense of rivalry with Shakespeare.
Bertolini presents a Shaw who is less iconoclastic, less abrasive, than the Shaw of legend. He sees Bernard Shaw not as a political writer, but as a traditional literary link in the long line of comic classical dramatists that includes Shakespeare, Molière, and Sheridan.
About the Author
John A. Bertolini is Professor of English at Middlebury College. He has published articles in such journals as Renaissance Drama, Shaw: The Annual of Bernard Shaw Studies, and Twentieth Century Literature.
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