Tony Jason Stafford. Shaw's Settings: Gardens and Libraries.
The success of Tony Stafford's Shaw's Settings on the gardens and libraries motifs in nine representative plays by Bernard Shaw written between 1892 and 1921 is in the clarity of its formalism. The plays are among Shaw's most durable works. That gardens and libraries have not been the focus of some general studies of Shaw is surprising. This is an impression left with us in our appreciation of the enticing fruits of Stafford's quarrying of the evidence of them in these plays. Also, about gardens and libraries, there are the unanswered but engaging questions for Shaw's larger canon, and the archeological, intertextual, and anthropological/mythological contexts, that Stafford does not intend to answer in this volume.
Nevertheless, Stafford's three pages on the "Semiotics of Gardens" and "the Semiotics of Libraries" are useful in explaining the polarized meanings each motif actually supports: Gardens are urban humanity's compromise with the retreat from the moral nourishment of nature that civilization has imposed. Thus the "cultivated garden is (1) an attempt to stay in touch with nature, (2) an expression of an expanded consciousness, and (3) a sign of one's ability and means to afford and create such a sanctuary" (4) The clear goodness of (1) and (2), above, are erased in the impiety of (3). As for libraries, they are as antique as gardens. They aid the memories of humans as "an accumulated record,"... "located in one place ..." and "available for consultation and access to all.... A repository of the accumulated knowledge of a culture" (5). Moreover, "the possession of a personal library as a symbol of achievement, enlightenment, and wealth became well established" (6). Such symbolisms could easily be appropriated by hypocrites. The summary of Stafford's readings, which follows, cannot do justice to them, but it may suggest the progress of his method.
Stafford begins with Widowers' Houses (1884/92), which exposes the "heartlessness and injustices of British society [and] the underlying hypocrisy and pretense that is really at the heart of the problem, and this is communicated by Shaw's use of [both] gardens and libraries ... [aiding] the delineation of conflict, the symbolic value of the settings, the establishment of atmosphere ..." (22). Blanche and her father seek respectability in ownership of a garden.
"Shaw takes pains to present a surface, in a lovely garden, with delightful weather, pleasant, tranquil, and, almost, an 'idyllic' world (Cokane's description), which ironically belies the ugliness underneath, the foulness composed of greed, pretense, falsity, hypocrisy, and selfishness.... The powerful unwritten laws of upper-class British society are at work, here and in any number of gardens later on...." (11)
As for the library motif, "Blanche is not interested in the beautiful tooled classics on the library shelves ... [which are displayed] to give an impression of'education and breeding'; ... the library is present for the same reason the garden is ... revelation ... [by Shaw of unsympathetic] attitudes in British society ... that spawn appearance, pretense, and hypocrisy" (19). The "visual irony of Blanche's inhumane behavior being played out in front of 'her' library would be evident to an audience" (20).
Mrs. Warren's Profession (1893): Stafford notes that no library is present in the play. Three of the play's four sets involve a garden. Act 2 ends with the audience looking at the garden, enclosed in a fence, with "the open land of freedom beyond the fence" (25). The weather is ironically clear. While open to the weather, the garden with its palings and gate is a site where all the purveyors of the various prostitutions and dark capitalistic moralities that are attacked in the play come to conspire. Only Vivie escapes capture by the decadence fenced in by this green.
Arms and the Man (1893-94): "The garden setting contains the major turning point in the anti-romantic/idealism theme ... [and also locates the dramatization of] the falsity of Sergius's and Raina's romantic pretensions, while the library [by its provincial paucity of books suggests the irony of the pair's] journey from romantic delusion into the glaring light of the factual world" (43).
Candida (1894): "Of all of Shaw's earlier plays, ... gardens and libraries contribute the most to understanding some ... deeper [meanings in the] play" (44). Because they are dramaturgically the borders of Morell's world, the garden and the library are emblems of Morell. His garden is the 217-acre Victoria Park (47). It became London's "Peoples' Park." Nevertheless, the view of it from the large window of his drawing room is exclusively Morell's (49). Behind Morell are the many books listed in Shaw's stage directions, "fitted with bookshelves" (50). The titles explicitly infer a left to radical left leaning reader. But in the unstable triangularity of the play's progress of Morell, Candida, and Marchbanks, their identities and culpabilities--of Morell especially, as he might be defined by the meanings of the park garden and his books--duly resist a confident interpretation.
Man and Superman (1901) "begins in a library in London and ends in a garden in Granada" (55). The library, ostentatiously shelving titles of an advanced thinker, defines a posturing Ramsden, and the garden, representing nature, helps to define Tanner. Pretentiously progressive, Ramsden's library features Darwin's Origin of Species; busts of John Bright and Herbert Spenser; a portrait of Richard Cobden; photographs of Martineau, Huxley, and George Eliot; autotypes of allegories by G. F. Watts; and an impression of Dupont's engraving of Delaroche's Beaux Arts hemicycle, representing the great men of all ages. Ultimately, Shaw's Superman, Tanner, is off the top of the scale of the most winning of modernist personalities. Stafford's own stimulating reading reminds us that Tanner is also himself the author of the very interesting "Revolutionist's Handbook and Pocket Companion, by John Tanner, Member of the Idle Rich Class."
Stafford observes that the bad weather in Major Barbara (1905) presents a distinct break from Shaw's scenes in his earlier plays of "pleasant decor, lovely gardens, impeccable libraries, and sunny days" (76). Shaw's nice weather in Widowers' Houses, Mrs. Warren, Candida, Arms, and Superman is also a naturally associated detail of a garden motif. Stafford concludes,
"With Major Barbara, the physical settings themselves are less literally a garden and library, although they do remain present to a degree, and more of a metaphorical support for the play's statement that poverty is the Vilest sin' and the 'worse crime,' as dramatized in the 'yard' or 'garden' scene, and that hypocrisy is endemic in society, even among persons of books." (86)
Misalliance (1909) is "unlike anything Shaw has attempted before: The garden, with which much interaction occurs, is outside and seen through the enormous glass pavilion, and books and libraries form a major portion of the conversations, especially discussions involving the host, John Tarleton" (87). "The garden provides the setting for the dramatization of the Life Force as acted out in Hypatia and Percival, books provide the anti-capitalist capitalist [Tarleton] with his weapon [ironically]" (101). Shaw uses a "successful capitalist (Tarleton) to attack capitalism" ... "the successful capitalist has a passion for books, and books will eventually smash up capitalism" (100). "Misalliance [imagines these settings] and anticipates a future kind of theatre, a more nonrealistic type of theatre.... [It is an] almost absurdist style of theatre" (100-01).
Heartbreak House (1916-17): Stafford's commentary calls our first attention to the Hector Hushabye speech near the end of the play: "Heaven's threatening growl of disgust at us useless futile creatures.... I tell you, one of two things must happen. Either out of that darkness some new creation will come to supplant us as we have supplanted the animals, or the heavens will fall in thunder and destroy us" (102). This pronouncement is declaimed in the garden. There are also bookshelves, and books, and Ellie reading Othello, which Stafford remands to the "large literary motif" as supporting the "'invention' theme of the play" (105)--the invention of art (Beethoven's music) and the invention of bombs (technological evil). "The garden is a place of truth ... [and] humans ... are noble, intelligent beings who can confront truth and reality.... The 'great creating nature' in the garden contrasts 'with the issue of invention [the content of books], which is not needed when truth is present' ... [for Shaw] a garden remains the better influence" (110).
Back to Methuselah (1918-20), the last of the plays Stafford examines, begins and ends in the Garden of Eden. In addition, enabling posterity's inheritance of the report of the existence of a "Garden of Eden" has been the function of an ancient invention--the library, an example of which is presented as the sole setting of the third of Methuselah's five "plays," Gospel of the Brothers Barnabas. Stafford remains on script. In fact, gardens as places of capture, illusion of safety, order, and mild adventure, and posts for observation of un-gardened nature beyond; and libraries as references of certification and erudition, of the possibility of wisdom, as well as of pretention, misdirection, hypocrisy, and intellectual confusion tire all meanings he finds in these places. Stafford's account of Methuselah concludes his marvelous discussion. His success whets our appetite for what more there is to consider.
Using E. Dean Bevan's A Concordance to the Plays and Prefaces of Bernard Shaw (1971), we see that among the Shaw prefaces and plays Stafford does not address there are twenty-three references to "library" and "library-" cognate words. But to "book" and "books" and cognate words in prefaces and plays not dealt with, there are over 350 references. And to "garden" and the variations on "garden," there are about 180 references. Sorted out, these references include twenty or more mentions each of gardens in You Never Can Tell (1895-96), John Bull's Other Island (1904), Getting Married (190708), and Simpleton of the Unexpected Isles (1934). Pygmalion (1912) has about fifteen. Each play mentions "book(s)" multiple times. References to gardens, library, and books flit through Caesar and Cleopatra (18198).
Two migrations from Stafford's meanings for libraries will enable additional readings of their relevance in Shaw's productions. One is that the "Mandarin" cultures that generate written records are an inescapable feature of early library cultures, and, unfortunately, remain so to a significant degree, deliberately, especially in the recording of banking accounts, titles, patents, and legal writing. Vivie Warren in Mrs. Warren's Profession is a likely example. Use of these kinds of "books" is limited by advanced skill in reading and special certification. It is not accidental that, without the records of money, property, patents, and laws and wills, the "accumulated knowledge of a culture" would be not so much limited in substance as it would be flatly unintelligible. To support this reading we have no doubt that Shaw knew that Vivie as an actuary is something of a librarian in its most antique and ur-archival sense. Her mathematical analyses calculate insurance risks and premiums and direct her to county records in which deeds and property values and taxes are assigned, such documents being the modern progeny of the contents of ancient libraries, a primary purpose of which was to store on clay tablets inventories of many species of wealth. She might also be available as a conveyancer who oversees the transfer of ownership of property and money. In this view, Vivie might be guilty of being an acolyte for the doing of "business" of the same kind that interests her mother and Crofts--the amoral, or worse, pursuit of personal profit.
In interpreting Superman's Tanner in a garden or even wilderness, Stafford's identification of a "machine in the garden" topoi is an instigation of an interesting reading of the transformation of Tanner; one which Stafford does not identify. It would ramify Shaw's Tanner with the iconic mid-twentieth-century American road narrative made classic by Jack Kerouac--an odyssey of choosing freedom from an ignorantly corseted civilization. Tanner's road narrative can also imply its relationship to a non-mechanized/less-mechanical age that it is displacing and in some sense desecrating--though Shaw is all for this progress.
In his discussion of Methuselah's garden and library motifs, which are at base (although he has not identified them as such) archetypes, Stafford is positioned to encounter the archetypes and the deconstruction of the archetypes that represent the indispensable investments of human myth and history: gardens and wildernesses, and libraries and Babel. He doesn't do this. But he knows that we can. Otherwise the fascinating example of his reading of Shaw would not be so spontaneously compelling to us. Moreover, present so often in them, the vitality of these two axials can make even lesser plays by Shaw breathe.
JOHN R. PFEIFFER
Central Michigan University
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|Author:||Pfeiffer, John R.|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2015|
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