Revolutionary States: Bernard Shaw, 1918 (MLA18)

Session 829:

Sunday, January 7, 12:00-1:15 p.m., Sheraton New York, Columbus Circle room

Presiding: Jen Buckley, University of Iowa

Twitter: @jen_a_buckley, @ShawSoc, hashtags #MLA18 #S829

MLA 2018 website

International Shaw Society website


In January 1918, just two months after the Bolsheviks overthrew the provisional Russian government, Bernard Shaw premiered his one-act play Annajanska, The Bolshevik Empress, in which a European grand duchess waves a red handkerchief and declares, “Long live the Revolution!” Shaw was a professed socialist–albeit of the Fabian type–and he closely followed developments over that year in post-Tsarist Russia, as well as in the Great War he had notoriously opposed. The war would end in November, but not before killing the sons of his close friends Mrs. Patrick Campbell and Lady Augusta Gregory. Meanwhile, his native Ireland was preparing for a general election Sinn Féin would dominate, firmly establishing the conditions for the Anglo-Irish War he had dreaded.

This session marks the centenary of these events by examining the responses of Shaw and his associates to these and other political upheavals. Although Shaw is commonly thought to have been a pacifist, recent scholarship has emphasized the complexity of his intellectual and affective responses to both international and intranational conflicts, and to state-sponsored violence more generally (Ritschel 2017; Kent, ed. 2015; Yde 2013; Lenker, ed. 2008).

Though Shaw was arguably the world’s most prominent anti-WWI public intellectual and a prescient critic of twentieth-century nationalisms and of war as spectacle, commentary on his writing has been notably absent from many literary-critical discussions on the Great War’s centenary. This panel situates Shaw, and modern dramatists more generally, within ongoing critical conversations on the events of 1918 and its aftermath. With the approaching anniversaries of the Russian Revolution, the Dáil Éireann’s initial establishment, and the Representation of the People Act (granting the vote to some UK women), we expect Shaw’s and his associates’ dramatic and political writing to assume a greater prominence in critics’ discussions of the historical movements that made those events possible–movements on which Shaw held very strong, and very public, opinions.  

James Armstrong (PhD, Graduate Center-CUNY), “Staging Immortality in 1918: Bernard Shaw and Luigi Antonelli”

Armstrong takes a comparative approach to one of Shaw’s dramatic responses to the Great War’s end and the emergence of state communism. Shaw began work on his five-play cycle Back to Methuselah just as the Italian playwright Luigi Antonelli’s A Man Confronts Himself premiered. Armstrong argues that both tapped into an aspect of the 1918 zeitgeist: the horror of mass slaughter produced a fascination with the extension of human life to something approaching immortality. Armstrong compares the dramatists’ approaches to immortality to examine how each reflects Europe’s fears and aspirations as one war concluded and state Communism dawned. He contends that while both works juxtapose a cold immortality with the grotesque business of ordinary life, Antonelli sounds a traditionalist warning, and Shaw looks forward to a new era of unleashed potential. Though Shaw’s “Metabiological Pentateuch” strives for philosophical completeness, it also forfeits the powerful tensions of the grotesque aesthetic practiced by Antonelli.

Virginia Costello (Lecturer in English, University of Illinois-Chicago), “Revolutionaries of a Different Sort: Bernard Shaw and Emma Goldman”

Costello asks what light Shaw’s writings shed upon our time of deep political divisions. Shaw notably attracts both progressive scholars — self-declared socialists of many sorts — and supporters of a range of conservative political positions; all express sympathy for his political positions. One avenue for approaching the question of Shaw’s relevance to politically opposed scholars is to note the traces in his dramatic works of the singular political drama of his own time, the Russian Revolution. Costello approaches Shaw’s complex relation to the political controversies of his day by drawing upon the relationship, complex in its own right, between Shaw and Emma Goldman. Shaw did not join the socialists who openly supported the revolution; he reserved his judgment — though Annajanksa demonstrates his attention and interestThe imprisoned Goldman initially remarks that this might be the revolution she has been encouraging her entire life. Her hopes were confounded when she visited Russia, a period of profound disappointment that she documents in her book My Disillusionment with Russia. If Goldman was the disappointed revolutionary, her disappointment with Shaw disclosed a broader tension, one bordering on contempt for the position of the much-honored writer who seems to speak for the people in his works while remaining comfortably aloof in his political commitments. Ultimately, Costello emphasizes, both writers struggled equally with the political realities of 1918 and its aftermath.

Martin Meisel (Brander Matthews Professor Emeritus of Dramatic Literature at Columbia University), “War Damage: Postwar Reflections in Bernard Shaw and Seán O’Casey”

Meisel examines Shaw’s response to the Great War by reading his plays alongside those of his compatriot Seán O’Casey. He begins with Heartbreak House, which captures the prewar mood in the fervid enthusiasm — “something happening” — that greeted the war’s commencement. Meisel also considers the little-studied O’Flaherty, V.C.; the better-known Back to Methuselah, Part II of which stages a scathing critique of the politics and politicians that brought on the war and mismanaged the peace; and Too True to Be Good, where the postwar malaise is embodied in a clerical conman undone by the war. Meisel briefly treats O’Casey’s invocation of the War in his “Irish Trilogy,” most notably in The Plough and the Stars, which ends, as Heartbreak House does, with a brutally ironic rendition of “Keep the Home Fires Burning.” Meisel focuses upon the controversial “expressionist” act of The Silver Tassie (1928), which, he argues, Shaw understood far better than the Abbey Theatre directors who notoriously rejected the play. Tracing the play’s dramaturgical trajectory, as well as that of its protagonist — a football hero, a solider, and finally an embittered paraplegic — Meisel shows how O’Casey captures in imagery and action the postwar affects represented in the work of more widely discussed poets and novelists.

Ellen Dolgin (Professor of English, Dominican College), “Women’s Self-Determination in Drama at WWI’s end: Shaw’s [Empress] Annajanska and J.M. Barrie’s The Old Lady Shows Her Medals”

Dolgin returns our conversation to Annajanska, considering its gender politics alongside those of a play even less often treated in discussions of Great War literature: J.M. Barrie’s homefront one-act The Old Lady Shows Her Medals (1918).

Actresses like Lillah McCarthy, for whom Shaw wrote Annajanska and who had represented women’s untapped powers onstage and in the streets in the 1910s, transformed their suffrage roles for the home front in 1914, working in organizations like the Women’s Suffrage National Aid Corp and the Women Police Volunteers. As public opportunities for women widened during the war, motherhood retained its centrality, but also transformed into something beyond biology in a key image of wartime propaganda.

In Shaw’s play, a rebellious royal daughter rejects her biological lineage to affiliate — in male soldier drag, no less — with the Bolshevik revolution. In Barrie’s play, a childless charwoman who had posed as a mother to send gifts and letters to a soldier at the front hosts her “son” during his leave; eventually the two establish an affective unit that functions like an ideal version of the biological family neither one actually has. The plays Shaw and Barrie would write in 1918 speak directly to the experience and impact of war-as-cause for women.