English 5006 The Drama of Bernard Shaw and the Avant-Garde
Section 001 CRN 97162
The Drama of Bernard Shaw and the Avant-Garde 1530-1800 T
Approvingly characterized as a dramaturgical “terrorist” by Bertolt Brecht, Bernard Shaw is the greatest playwright in the English language after Shakespeare. Beginning in the 1890s, Shaw transformed British drama, bringing to it intellectual substance, ethical imperatives, and modernity itself, setting the theatrical course for the rest of the century. Scholarly work and stage production over the past two decades have largely overturned the playwright’s former reputation as what a contemporary director calls an “uneven-tempered old farmer who would chase one out of his field with a stick.” Shaw’s early dramas are grounded in a kind of didactic realism, characterized by furious drawing-room moralizing and somewhat dated shock and awe tactics. The plays from his middle period are the most famous and epitomize the style of modern drama with which he is most associated: the discussion play. Having been written off unfairly as the result of senile decline or the musings of a lunatic, his late stage experiments are currently being re-appraised as the fullest expression of his artistic vision. In recent critical conversations about Shaw’s style, in fact, the word “surrealism” has appeared increasingly and unexpectedly, especially among theater practitioners. Considering Shaw a surrealist dramatist seems itself a surreal move, yet one that affords an opportunity to explore heretofore neglected late plays but also to re-view his earlier efforts in their context. In addition, situating Shaw within the territory of avant-garde movements such as Futurism, Vorticism, Dada, and Surrealism, has provocative implications for the ways in which we understand the perpetually negotiated idea of Modernism itself.
In this course, we will interrogate this notion of the “Shavian surreal” over the course of eight major plays, framing our readings of them with the works of other contemporary artists (including Wyndham Lewis, Igor Stravinsky, Paul Cezanne, Luis Bunuel, Roger Vitrac, Rene Magritte, and Salvador Dali), theorists (including Andre Breton and Antonin Artaud), and scholars. Part of our work together will involve liberating the plays from their paratextual prisons, resisting the MacGuffin lure of Shaw’s voluminous Prefaces and his own mythologized persona and freeing ourselves to analyze what is apt and what is misleading about situating Shaw not only within the surrealist tradition but among emergent avant-garde forms of literature, theater, music, painting, film, and even literary theory. In addition, then, to very close readings and re-readings of the plays, there will be a fair amount of secondary readings in theory, history, and criticism as well as frequent scholarly writing assignments of various lengths involving research and designed to be challenging. Seminarians will be expected too to contribute energetically and meaningfully to class activities, including discussion and performance.