Article Title

Shaw's Saint Joan and the Modern History Play


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

Comedy might almost be said to be extinct in the twentieth century or at least to have reached the same stage of sensibility that tragedy is in. But George Shaw is a great nineteenth-century artist. What Ibsen is to the tragic, Shaw is to the comic tradition.1 -Eric Bentley

Shaw, self-evidently, was a Modern: indeed "modem," as a description, stuck quite generally, and has continued to stick, in that self-conscious and very local transition from a Victorian to post- 1918 world.2 -Raymond Williams

It is a testament to the complexity of Bernard Shaw's drama that scholars so thoughtful as Eric Bentley and Raymond Williams can hold his plays up to the light and see in silhouette two very different authors: a "nineteenth-century" artist and a self-evident "modern." And many perceptive readers of Shaw's work-Martin Meisel and Margery Morgan, for instance3 - seem to have accepted the critical validity of this opposition and marked their territory on one side or the other of the line between Shaw's Victorianism and his modernistic impulses. However, for both theoretical and practical reasons I shall discuss here, this dichotomy is not without severe limitations, particularly where Shaw's historical drama is concerned. That is, while Shaw's later, post-1918 plays differ markedly from his earlier work, the "political extravaganzas" especially so, it is exceedingly difficult to detect a "local transition" from, say, Caesar and Cleopatra (1898) to Saint Joan (1923) or In Good King Charles's Golden Days (1939). In short, these plays are both Victorian and modern. Shaw constructs Saint Joan out of components of both the Victorian and modern drama, especially the latter, and thus demonstrates that while he wrote in the tradition of the Victorian history play he was also transforming Saint Joan into a distinctly "modern" drama.

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