Bernard Shaw and the Comic Sublime by David J. Gordon

By David J. Gordon

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Significantly, Shaw paraphrased the plot of Ghosts so as to imply that Mrs Alving is presented as an active protagonist rather than a passive witness to the consequences of prior events (Turco, 1976, p. 48). Rebecca West followed her desire so far as to drive her lover's wife to her death, but suffers from a guilty conscience and comes to a tragic end. The challenge for Shaw, with his Shelleyan and Wagnerian passion for reforming the world, was to work out in his own dramatisations an alternative mode of unmasking, one that kept the problem in the drama open to the possibility of a hopeful future.

Notice again what happens to the phrase 'genuinely scientific natural history' in the following often-quoted declaration: The tragedy and comedy of life lie in the consequences, sometimes terrible, sometimes ludicrous, of our persistent attempts to found our institutions on the ideals suggested to our imaginations by our half-satisfied passions, instead of on a genuinely scientific natural history'. (C 8: xix) The phrase is made to mean not what is actually the case but, in a Platonic sense, what is really the case, that is, what ought to be.

Shaw certainly belongs in this group. Consistently he attacks respectability rather than crime: 'I came not to call sinners but the righteous to repentance' (B 5: 478). Although Dickens and Shaw usually made these rationalisations funny, theirs was a serious kind of joking and did not obscure their moral indignation. The fun of Dickens, Shaw observed, would end in 'mere tomfoolery' without his 'capacity for taking pains': 'The high privilege of joking in public should never be granted except to people who know thoroughly what they are joking about - that is, to exceptionally serious and laborious people' (SM 2: 892-3).

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