from
Three Plays for Puritans
by Bernard Shaw

Bernard Shaw

This page:
preface to Three Plays for Puritans
The Devil’s Disciple
Cæsar and Cleopatra
Captain Brassbound’s Conversion

Category:

Drama

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from the preface to Three Plays for Puritans

(1900)

Why for Puritans? The doctors said: This man has not eaten meat for twenty years: he must eat it or die. I said: This man has been going to the London theatres for three years; and the soul of him has become inane and is feeding unnaturally on his body. And I was right. I did not change my diet; but I had myself carried up into a mountain where there was no theatre; and there I began to revive.

Topic:

Theater

The authors had no problematic views: all they wanted was to capture some of the fascination of Ibsen. It seemed to them that most of Ibsen’s heroines were naughty ladies. And they tried to produce Ibsen plays by making their heroines naughty. But they took great care to make them pretty and expensively dressed. Thus the pseudo-Ibsen play was nothing but the ordinary sensuous ritual of the stage become as frankly pornographic as good manners allowed.
And when I see that the nineteenth century has crowned the idolatry of Art with the deification of Love, so that every poet is supposed to have pierced to the holy of holies when he has announced that Love is the Supreme, or the Enough, or the All, I feel that Art was safer in the hands of the most fanatical of Cromwell’s major generals than it will be if ever it gets into mine. The pleasures of the senses I can sympathize with and share; but the substitution of sensuous ecstasy for intellectual activity and honesty is the very devil. It has already brought us to Flogging Bills in Parliament, and, by reaction, to androgynous heroes on the stage; and if the infection spreads until the democratic attitude becomes thoroughly Romanticist, the country will become unbearable for all realists, Philistine or Platonic.
On Diabolonian Ethics I really cannot respond to this demand for mock-modesty. I am ashamed neither of my work nor of the way it is done. I like explaining its merits to the huge majority who don’t know good work from bad. It does them good; and it does me good, curing me of nervousness, laziness, and snobbishness. I write prefaces as Dryden did, and treatises as Wagner, because I can; and I would give half a dozen of Shakespear’s plays for one of the prefaces he ought to have written.
My personal relations with the critic and actor forbad me to curse them. I had not even the chance of publicly forgiving them. They meant well by me; but if they ever write a play, may I be there to explain!

Topics:

Writing

Authors

Better than Shakespear? It is a dangerous thing to be hailed at once, as a few rash admirers have hailed me, as above all things original: what the world calls originality is only an unaccustomed method of tickling it.

text checked (see note S) Feb 2005

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The Devil’s Disciple

A Melodrama

(1897)

Act I

The year 1777 is the one in which the passions roused by the breaking-off of the American colonies from England, more by their own weight than their own will, boiled up to shooting point, the shooting being idealized to the English mind as suppression of rebellion and maintenance of British dominion, and to the American as defence of liberty, resistance to tyranny, and self-sacrifice on the altar of the Rights of Man. Into the merits of these idealizations it is not necessary to inquire: suffice it to say, without prejudice, that they have convinced both Americans and English that the most highminded course for them to pursue is to kill as many of one another as possible, and that military operations to that end are in full swing, morally supported by confident requests from the clergy of both sides for the blessing of God on their arms.

Topic:

War

Act II

Anderson:
Come, dear, you’re not so wicked as you think. The worst sin towards our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them: that’s the essence of inhumanity. After all, my dear, if you watch people carefully, you’ll be surprised to find how like hate is to love.

Topics:

Sin

Love vs. Hate

Act III

Richard:
[...] I had no motive and no interest: all I can tell you is that when it came to the point whether I would take my neck out of the noose and put another man’s into it, I could not do it.

Burgoyne:
[...] Martyrdom, sir, is what these people like: it is the only way in which a man can become famous without ability.

Swindon:
Do you mean to deny that you are a rebel?

Richard:
I am an American, sir.

Swindon:
What do you expect me to think of that speech, Mr. Anderson?

Richard:
I never expect a soldier to think, sir.

Swindon:
I advise you not to be insolent, prisoner.

Richard:
You can’t help yourself, General. When you make up your mind to hang a man, you put yourself at a disadvantage with him. Why should I be civil to you? I may as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb.

Topic:

Capital punishment

Judith:
Oh, you are mad. Is it nothing to you what wicked thing you do if only you do it like a gentleman?

Swindon:
I can’t believe it! What will History say?

Burgoyne:
History, sir, will tell lies, as usual.

Topic:

History

Notes to The Devil’s Disciple That, of course, is only one of the unfortunate consequences of the fact that mankind, being for the most part incapable of politics, accepts vituperation as an easy and congenial substitute. Whether Burgoyne or Washington, Lincoln or Davis, Gladstone or Bright, Mr Chamberlain or Mr Leonard Courtney was in the right will never be settled, because it will never be possible to prove that the government of the victor has been better for mankind than the government of the vanquished would have been. It is true that the victors have no doubt on the point; but to the dramatist, that certainty of theirs is only part of the human comedy.

text checked (see note S) Feb 2005

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Cæsar and Cleopatra

A History

(1898)

Act II

Pothinus:
Is it possible that Cæsar, the conqueror of the world, has time to occupy himself with such a trifle as our taxes?

Cæsar:
My friend: taxes are the chief business of a conqueror of the world.

Topic:

Taxes

Cæsar:
[...] Call Totateeta.

Rufio:
Ho there, Teetatota.

Ftatateeta:
Who pronounces the name of Ftatateeta, the Queen’s chief nurse?

Cæsar:
Nobody can pronounce it, Tota, except yourself.

Britannus:
Cæsar: this is not proper.

Theodotus:
How !

Cæsar:
Pardon him, Theodotus: he is a barbarian, and thinks that the customs of his tribe and island are the laws of nature.

Note (Hal’s):
This exchange is quoted as a preface to Glory Road by Robert A. Heinlein.

— end note

Topic:

Custom

Act III

Apollodorus:
Majesty: when a stupid man is doing something he is ashamed of, he always declares that it is his duty.

Apollodorus:
Hail, great Cæsar! I am Apollodorus the Sicilian, an artist.

Britannus:
An artist! Why have they admitted this vagabond?

Cæsar:
Peace, man. Apollodorus is a famous patrician amateur.

Britannus:
I crave the gentleman’s pardon. I understood him to say that he was a professional.

Topic:

Artists

Act IV

Musician:
Assuredly I and no one else can teach the queen. Have I not discovered the lost method of the ancient Egyptians, who could make a pyramid tremble by touching a bass string? All the other teachers are quacks: I have exposed them repeatedly.

Cleopatra:
Good: you shall teach me. How long will it take?

Musician:
Not very long: only four years. Your Majesty must first become proficient in the philosophy of Pythagoras.

Cleopatra:
Has she become proficient in the philosophy of Pythagoras?

Musician:
Oh, she is but a slave. She learns as a dog learns.

Cleopatra:
Well, then, I will learn as a dog learns; for she plays better than you. You shall give me a lesson every day for a fortnight. After that, whenever I strike a false note you shall be flogged; and if I strike so many that there is not time to flog you, you shall be thrown into the Nile to feed the crocodiles.

Topics:

Teachers

Music

Cleopatra:
[...] Do you know why I allow you all to chatter impertinently just as you please, instead of treating you as Ftatateeta would treat you if she were Queen?

Charmian:
Because you try to imitate Cæsar in everything; and he lets everybody say what they please to him.

Cleopatra:
No; but because I asked him one day why he did so; and he said “Let your women talk; and you will learn something from them.” What have I to learn from them? I said. “What they are,” said he; and oh! you should have seen his eye as he said it. You would have curled up, you shallow things. At whom are you laughing—at me or at Cæsar?

Iras:
At Cæsar.

Cleopatra:
If you were not a fool, you would laugh at me; and if you were not a coward you would not be afraid to tell me so.

Pothinus:
Does he not love you?

Cleopatra:
Love me! Potinus: Cæsar loves no one. Who are those we love? Only those whom we do not hate: all people are strangers and enemies to us except those we love. But it is not so with Cæsar. He has no hatred in him: he makes friends with everyone as he does with dogs and children. His kindness to me is a wonder: neither mother, father, nor nurse have ever taken so much care for me, or thrown open their thoughts to me so freely.

Pothinus:
Well: is not this love?

Cleopatra:
What! when he will do as much for the first girl he meets on his way back to Rome?

Topic:

Love vs. Hate

Cæsar:
[...] Shall we leave Rome behind us — Rome, that has achieved greatness only to learn how greatness destroys nations of men who are not great!

Cæsar:
Rufio: there is a time for obedience.

Rufio:
And there is a time for obstinacy.

Cleopatra:
I have not betrayed you, Cæsar: I swear it.

Cæsar:
I know that. I have not trusted you.

Cæsar:
[...] You have slain their leader: it is right that they shall slay you. If you doubt it, ask your four consellors here. And then in the name of that right shall I not slay them for murdering their Queen, and be slain in my turn by their countrymen as the invader of their fatherland? Can Rome do less then than slay these slayers, too, to shew the world how Rome avenges her sons and her honor. And so, to the end of history, murder shall breed murder, always in the name of right and honor and peace, until the gods are tired of blood and create a race that can understand.

Topic:

Capital punishment

Notes to Cæsar and Cleopatra

The more ignorant men are, the more convinced are they that their little parish and their little chapel is an apex to which civilization and philosophy has painfully struggled up the pyramid of time from a desert of savagery. Savagery, they think, became barbarism; barbarism became ancient civilization; ancient civilization became Pauline Christianity; Pauline Christianity became Roman Catholicism; Roman Catholicism became the Dark Ages; and the Dark Ages were finally enlightened by the Protestant instincts of the English race. The whole process is summed up as Progress with a capital P. And any elderly gentleman of Progressive temperament will testify that the improvement since he was a boy is enormous.

Now if we count the generations of Progressive elderly gentlemen since, say, Plato, and add together the successive enormous improvements to which each of them has testified, it will strike us at once as an unaccountable fact that the world, instead of having been improved in 67 generations out of all recognition, presents, on the whole, a rather less dignified appearance in Ibsen’s Enemy of the People than in Plato’s Republic.

Topic:

Progress

But even if man’s increased command over Nature included any increased command over himself (the only sort of command relevant to his evolution into a higher being), the fact remains that it is only by running away from the increased command over Nature to country places where Nature is still in primitive command over Man that he can recover from the effects of the smoke, the stench, the foul air, the overcrowding, the racket, the ugliness, the dirt which the cheap cotton costs us.
Goodness, in its popular British sense of self-denial, implies that man is vicious by nature, and that supreme goodness is supreme martyrdom. Not sharing that pious opinion, I have not given countenance to it in any of my plays. In this I follow the precedent of the ancient myths, which represent the hero as vanquishing his enemies, not in fair fight, but with enchanted sword, superequine horse and magical invulnerability, the possession of which, from the vulgar moralistic point of view, robs his exploits of any merit whatsoever.

Topic:

Self-denial

text checked (see note S) Feb 2005

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Captain Brassbound’s Conversion

An Adventure

(1899)

Act I

Sir Howard:
[...] Whenever you wish to do anything against the law, Cicely, always consult a good solicitor first.

Topic:

Law

Act II

Lady Cicely:
[...] Men are always thinking that they are going to do something grandly wicked to their enemies; but when it comes to the point, really bad men are just as rare as really good ones.

Lady Cicely:
[...] Of course he does dreadful things as a judge; but then if you take a man and pay him £5,000 a year to be wicked, and praise him for it, and have policemen and courts and laws and juries to drive him into it so that he can’t help doing it, what can you expect?

Act III

Sir Howard:
It is the truth, Cicely, and nothing but the truth. But the English law requires a witness to tell the whole truth.

Lady Cicely:
What nonsense! As if anybody ever knew the whole truth about anything!

Topic:

Truth

text checked (see note S) Feb 2005

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Background graphic copyright © 2004 by Hal Keen