Bernard Shaw and the Comic Sublime by David J. Gordon

By David J. Gordon

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Raina Petkoff has discovered through Bluntschli the artificiality of her romantic attitude toward love and war, and is ready by the end of the last act to put even him in his place. For such a change to be credible within the span of a play, the false idea must be shown as not too deeply rooted. It must seem an aspect of a more educable social neurosis and not at the same time, as with Ibsen, a less educable individual neurosis. Such plays as Mrs Warren's Profession and Arms and the Man dramatise Marx's version of self-deception rather than anticipating Freud's.

The heroines of the first two plays, Blanche and Julia, like some of the women in the novels, possess force in excess of the dramatic requirements. Yet we sense that these overcharged heroines carry a potentiality of significance, that they represent what the play is trying to become but is not ready to become because of the strength of its author's ambivalence toward the strong woman. 6 As his art refined, Shaw learned to handle this force more subtly, but Raina and Judith Anderson are somewhat overchecked by their men while Candida and Lady Cicely are still too strong for theirs.

Paulson (1985) correctly observed that Bakhtin did not want the grotesque romanticised into the sublime (p. 433), even if critics could not otherwise imagine how it could be made compatible with art. I make a point of this because the grotesque is sometimes said to be the inevitable mode in our day of religious questing in literature. One thinks of such writers as Nathanael West, Flannery O'Connor and Samuel Beckett. Shaw himself was not drawn to the grotesque. He was too bound by both Enlightenment rationalism and nineteenth-century progressivism for that tum of sensibility.

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