The poetics of B.Shaw’s “discussion” plays

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The poetics of B.Shaw’s “discussion” plays

Shaw subtitled Major Barbara “A Discussion” in order to express his exasperation with critics who were unable to appreciate his plays because they did not fit academic definitions of the genres. The year before, John Bull’s Other Island (1904), though drawing distinguished crowds, had initially been panned for being too discursive and had been declared “not a play.” Shaw struck back openly in 1911 with Fanny’s First Play,in which he satirized various critical reactions to his plays, especially that of the academic Idealist who would not allow plays to be called plays unless they fitted conventional models. Continuing his campaign in prose, in 1913 he revised The Quintessence of lbsenism for publication, including a new chapter titled “The Technical Novelty in Ibsen’s Plays,” declaring the Ibsen of the last scene in A Doll House to be the inventor of “discussion” in drama, a technique that post-Ibsen playwrights like himself had developed “until [discussion] so overspreads and interpenetrates the action that it finally assimilates it, making play and discussion practically identical.”14

From about 1904 to 1910, then, Shaw experimented with discussion to see if it could be made the dominant element of a play, to see if his drama of ideas could be, as in “Don Juan in Hell,” a drama of ideas discussed. The Doctor’s Dilemma (1906), a “discussion” of medical ethics, Getting Married (1908), a “disquisitory conversation” about parental relations with marriageable children, and Misalliance (1909-1910), a “debate” on the subject of how to get the right people married to each other, are the major plays of this period that illustrate Shaw’s attempt to generate action from discussion.

Though Shaw’s discussion plays are crowded with incident, the incidents are not the merely mechanical working out of an artificial complication of a sterile plot; rather, they follow naturally from the characters’ struggle to grapple with important ideas. Shaw’s problem, then, was with inattentive directors who, like certain critics, assumed that discussion plays were by definition static, consisting of actors standing around declaiming rhetoric at one another, just as bad directors turn Shakespeare’s plays into mere poetry recitals. When Shaw directed his own plays, actors found his rehearsal readings like opera and ballet and fencing combined.

27. The main tendencies in the development of English literature during the second half of the 20th century: socio- cultural and historical context

No clearly definable trends have appeared in English fiction since the time of the post-World War II school of writers, the so-called angry young men of the 1950s and 1960s. This group, which included the novelists Kingsley Amis, John Wain, and John Braine, attacked outmoded social values left over from the prewar world. Although Amis continued to write into the 1990s, his satirical novel Lucky Jim (1954) remains his most popular work. The working-class or lower-middle class realism in the work of the angry young men gave way in the 1960s and 1970s to a less provincial emphasis in English fiction.

Anthony Powell, a friend and Oxford classmate of Evelyn Waugh, also wrote wittily about the higher echelons of English society, but with more affection and on a broader canvas. His 12-volume series of novels, grouped under the title A Dance to the Music of Time (1951-1975), is a highly readable account of the intertwined lives and careers of people in the arts and politics from before World War II to many years afterward. His four-volume autobiography, To Keep the Ball Rolling (1977-1983), complements the fictionalized details that form the basis of his novels.

In the 1970s interest focused on writers as disparate in their concerns and styles as V. S. Pritchett and Doris Lessing. Pritchett, considered a master of the short story (Complete Stories, 1990), is also noted as a literary critic of remarkable erudition. His easy but elegant, supple style illuminated both forms of writing. Lessing moved from the early short stories collected as African Stories (1965) to novels increasingly experimental in form and concerned with the role of women in contemporary society. Notable among these is The Golden Notebook (1962), about a woman writer coming to grips with life through her art. In 1983 she completed a series of five science-fiction novels under the collective title Canopus in Argus: Archives.

Iris Murdoch, who was a teacher of philosophy as well as a writer, is esteemed for slyly comic analyses of contemporary lives in her many novels beginning with Under the Net (1954) and continuing with A Severed Head (1961), The Black Prince (1973), Nuns and Soldiers (1980), and The Good Apprentice (1986). Her effects are made by the contrast between her eccentric characters and the underlying seriousness of her ideas. Other writers noted for novels of ideas are Margaret Drabble and her sister, A. S. Byatt. Drabble has explored the predicament of contemporary educated women in such novels as The Realms of Gold (1975) and The Gates of Ivory (1991). She investigated the dilemmas faced by intelligent women entering late middle age alone in The Seven Sisters (2002) and other recent novels. Byatt won the Booker Prize, England’s highest literary award, for Possession (1990), about a romantic involvement between two academics. She completed an ambitious quartet of novels tracing changing patterns of family life in England from the 1950s to the 1970s with A Whistling Woman (2002). Art historian Anita Brookner writes of women in search of human connection and established her reputation with Hotel du Lac (1984), which won the Booker Prize.

Other distinctive talents of the second half of the 20th century include Anthony Burgess, novelist and man of letters, most popular for his mordant novel of teenage violence, A Clockwork Orange (1962), which was made into a successful motion picture in 1971; and John Le Carré (pseudonym of David Cornwell), who won popularity for ingeniously complex espionage tales, loosely based on his own experience in the British foreign service. Burgess’s prolific output ended with A Dead Man in Deptford (1993), which vividly recreates the life and times of 16th-century playwright Christopher Marlowe. Le Carré’s novels include The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974), The Russia House (1989), and The Constant Gardener (2001). William Golding displayed a wide inventive range in fiction that explores human evil: the allegorical Lord of the Flies (1954); The Inheritors (1955), about Neandertal life; The Spire (1964); and The Paper Men (1984), about an English novelist's cruel behavior to an American scholar. Golding won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1983.

John Fowles produced several highly experimental novels, including The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969), in which he brings the fictional nature of the novel to the foreground, and A Maggot (1985), a mystery set in the 18th century. Julian Barnes established his reputation with Flaubert’s Parrot (1984), which is about scholarship and obsession, and followed it with other experimental and satiric works, including England, England (1999).

Dark humor permeates the novels of Muriel Spark, who is best known for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), about a schoolteacher who turns out not to be what she seems. It was successfully adapted for stage and screen, with actress Maggie Smith in the role of Brodie. Darkness was the dominant mode of much of the fiction of the 1980s and 1990s. Martin Amis, son of Kingsley Amis, produced ferocious satires of modern society in such works as Money: A Suicide Note (1984) and The Information (1995). Short stories and novels by Ian McEwan have dealt with moments of extreme crisis, as when his characters face their own mortality in Amsterdam (1998), which won the Booker Prize.

Beryl Bainbridge also mined the past, but from unusual viewpoints, in Every Man for Himself (1996) and According to Queeney (2001). Every Man for Himself, which takes place during the voyage and sinking of the Titanic in 1912, is narrated by an assistant to the doomed ship’s designer. According to Queeney portrays British lexicographer Samuel Johnson as observed by his friends the Thrales and their daughter Queeney. Michael Faber produced a contemporary novel of Victorian England, The Crimson Petal and the Rose (2002). The novels of Penelope Fitzgerald reflected a biographer's skill of creating an extremely vivid picture of her subjects' lives and included The Bookshop (1978), Offshore (1979, winner of the Booker Prize), and The Blue Flower (1995).

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