Frye and Shaw


Bob Denham sends us still more excerpts from Frye on Shaw.  The mischievous spirit of the Vicar of Bray evidently prevails.  All in all,  a remarkable amount of commentary has been generated by a single compellingly ambiguous diary entry from August 25th, 1942.

From the Diaries,  391-2:

I think the Blake is well in hand, and I’m starting on Shaw. [The reference is to CBC Radio talks on Blake and Shaw that Frye gave in 1950.]  My adolescent interest in Shaw pretty well faded out when I came to college—well, no, it didn’t, as I re-read all of his stuff later, but for some reason I’d never read any play of his later than The Apple Cart. [When he was on a visit to the home of classmate Graham Miller during the summer of 1933, Frye wrote to Helen Kemp that “the family here has all of Shaw’s plays in one volume and I have read six since Wednesday.  I read all of Shaw at fifteen and he turned me from a precocious child into an adolescent fool.  Therefore he has had far more influence on me than any other writer” (NFHK 1:98).]  Doesn’t look as though I’ve really missed much. Too True to be Good is an interesting comedy of humors: his trouble is he can’t just let humors be enlightened by each other: he wants a central character.  In that particular play the nearest norm is Private Meek, an ingenious tricky-slave modulation.  On the strength of The Apple Cart and the name of Good King Charles I’d been saying that Shaw had finally revealed himself as a frustrated Royalist, & I don’t think I was so far out.  Meek is actually a Caesar in disguise, Charles II is certainly the one idealized figure in his play, the Judge in Geneva is a practically royal centre of gravity, & the fact that the king is missing from On the Rocks is what makes that such a silly play: it’s Shaw’s version of England in 1659, waiting for its monarch to appear.  Of course Shaw points out the vulnerable point of hereditary kingship, the non-transmissibility of genius, which he gets around in Major Barbara—significant he has to speak of it.  But there’s more to it than that….

Going on with Shaw, he’s preoccupied by the search for the “ruler”: he simply can’t understand that the world is trying to outgrow all that nonsense about rulers.  He has very little sense of the governor-principle as that which has authority without power: it’s there in the middle of Geneva, I know, but he’s not satisfied with it.  The dialogue of Christ & Pilate ends in a deadlock.  He can see through Pilate, & doesn’t really want a dictator, though he’s enough of a senile enfant terrible to play with the notion.  The closest he comes to it is in the preface to Geneva, where he speaks of Mill & of the right to criticize.  He naturally sees that Stalin is a Pope, the incarnation of a dialectic, & rejects the Papacy, which he’s consistent in regarding as the only possible form of Christianity.  But in a rare flash of real insight he makes King Charles say that the Pope is always a Whig.  And he doesn’t really go for the Platonic philosopher-ruler.  No, it’s the royal epiphany, the king and queen (it’s very funny how he plops the “coupled vote” business into the preface to Good King Charles) [Shaw’s proposal that the representative unit should be a man and a woman so that every elected body would have equal numbers of men and women.  See the preface to “In Good King Charles’s Golden Days,” in Complete Plays with Prefaces (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1962), 6:7–9.] who are also normative in The Apple Cart, the rejuvenated father & mother (Cf. “Mopsy & Popsy” in TTG [To True to be Good]: the process doesn’t carry through there).  Not national royalty ultimately, of course: a Caesar or Charlemagne: Dante’s Feltro or super-Constantine: but still nostalgia for the days “when loyalty no harm meant” [“In good King Charles’s golden days, / When loyalty no harm meant” (The Vicar of Bray, ll. 1–2).] & when a representative of Louis XIV could be the comic Last Judgement on Tartuffe.

 From the Diaries, 398-9:

The Shaw paper didn’t really come up to my expectations, whatever they were.  His chief archetype, which he reads into Ibsen, perhaps correctly, is the idealist-as-humor, as I’ve said.  His superman is just there as the comic society as man—what I now call the Ghibelline epiphany—and to represent a transcendence of all humorous (or all-too-human) syntheses.  I must work out the connection between the superman and the angel.  Meanwhile, the Shavian hero is a superman deputy or regent: the busy, simple, unpretentious, efficient housewife, Caesar & St. Joan.  He’s a complete pragmatist, of course, all dogmatics proceeding from the learned-doctor or humor.  I think Good King Charles, which shows a variety of types being liberalized by one another with a royal archon in charge, is about as concentrated a comedy form as he gives us.  The only thing I haven’t found is a real communion symbol: I could be wrong about that, of course.  The relation to dialectic comes out in a lot of places—Major Barbara, for instance—it’s linked with the fact that creative evolution in a conscious being is partly an act of conscious will, & hence dialectic decisions have transcendental consequences, or may have.  Also, of course, the link between this symposium-comedy & Fabian tactics.

 From Northrop Frye on Literature and Society, 89–90, 156–7:

Many poets seem to feel that, of the three ideals of the French Revolution, liberty, equality, and fraternity, liberty and equality can to some degree be realized in an age of rapidly growing cities, population, and industry, but that fraternity, the sense of immediate and personal relationship, gets lost.  Several of Scott’s novels, including the very popular Waverley, describe the destruction of the aristocratic and primitive society of the Scottish Highlands by the middle-class Hanoverians from the south.  The imaginative sympathy falls on the side of the former.  Scott’s compatriot Carlyle, in Past and Present, symbolizes the lost sense of fraternity by a medieval monastery, which he makes into a kind of model for contemporary society.  As Carlyle presents it, the chief problem of the monastery, and by implication of society generally, is to find the right man for its leader.  The search for a leader or hero whose charisma will draw society into an organic unity again continues into the twentieth century, where it inspires some very quixotic partisanships.  Eliot’s “royalism,” Yeats’s nostalgic cult of aristocracy, Lawrence’s exaltation of a racial Mexican hero in The Plumed Serpent, and many tendencies in Bernard Shaw (see, for instance, the discussion between Charles II and his queen in the second act of In Good King Charles’ Golden Days) are some examples. . . .

Shaw discovered in his own practice that what emerges from comedy is not a dialectic, but emancipation from all formulated principles of conduct.  The shape of such a comedy is very clear in Shaw’s own sketch Good King Charles, where even the most highly developed human types, the saintly Fox and the philosophical Newton, are shown to be humors by the mere simultaneous presence of other types of people.  This is the comedy of Terence’s motto “nothing human is alien to me,” the vision of the free society which by tolerating as wide a variety of life as possible purges the humors from all who belong to it.  It may be noted that the king serves as the umpire of the discussion, and if a socialist writer is impelled to make this use of a royal figure, we can understand better the importance of the courtliness in Shakespeare which so outraged Walt Whitman, of how the aristocrat’s code of liberal manners can be a valid symbol of free society in a comedy like Twelfth Night, whatever it may be in real life.  

From Northrop Frye’s Fiction and Miscellaneous Writings, 283–4:

This sense of cultural advance underlies Shaw’s Fabianism, which is partly too a feeling that the bourgeois town-culture that fought for independence against the landowners is the real basis of revolutionary power.  Cf. Bluntschli, Edward at Calais, etc.  His heroes are those who accept responsibilities, like the hero of Major Barbara, Caesar, the Millionairess who goes off to Russia because it’s a managerial economy.

Sense of advance gets a shock after the first world war, and produces the Chekhovian Heartbreak House.  Saint Joan expresses the new sense of concern, but tendency to get confused and run around in circles.  Second act of the King Charles play: the frustrated royalist there and in The Apple Cart. . . .

Shaw the pamphleteer was a progressivist: he didn’t explicitly believe in progress, but a sense of cultural advance buoyed him up until after the first world war; after that he got sillier and sillier.  I’ve mentioned the Carlyle pseudo-problem of who’s to be the ruler in the King Charles play; it goes with his tee-hee references to Hitler and Stalin as very able rulers.  As a writer of comedy, he really was a social critic.  

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