Fabianism and Fabianist Morals in G.B. Shaw’s Widowers’ Houses, Arms and the Man and The Devil’s Disciple

Term Paper 2007 14 Pages

Didactics - English - Literature, Works


Table of Contents

1. Introduction: Shaw’s Drama and Fabian Socialism - portraying politics implicitly

2. “Wilde wrote for the stage as an artist. I am simply a propagandist.” (cited in: Grene, 3)

3. Did Shaw succeed with Widowers’ Houses?

4. Attacking War in Arms and the Man

5. Reconfiguring morality in The Devil’s Disciple

6. Conclusion: Fabian morality and moral Fabians

7. Bibliography
Non-drama (i.e. Political Writing)
Secondary Sources:

1. Introduction: Shaw’s Drama and Fabian Socialism - portraying politics implicitly

This essay shall aim at portraying Shaw’s Fabian thought and morality in his early plays, i.e. Widowers’ Houses, Arms and the Man, and The Devil’s Disciple. Such a task automatically renders the essay no more than an attempt at finding traces, for there are no socialists in the plays mentioned. Instead, socialist thought is conveyed implicitly, i.e. by means of the plot, by method of showing, or by confronting a Victorian theatre audience with realities they would only too well like to ignore. Widower’s Houses is a good case in point: it is highly unlikely any tenants living in the sort of substandard accommodation portrayed in the play could afford a night out in Covent Garden, and it is equally unlikely the theatre-going audience would ever bother to visit them in “their” rundown houses. Consequently, Shaw forced the reality upon the audience and explicitly tried to use drama as a means of propaganda (Grene: 1987: 15 and 3). However, here one could critically add that Shaw – like most Fabians – had as little contact with the working class as those he criticised for the same reasons (Ballay 1980: 237).

I shall focus on Widowers’ Houses, Arms and the Man, and The Devil’s Disciple, for reasons I will explain in the conclusion. The essay follows a hypothesis, which is as written above: Shaw forced upon his audience realities they would like to ignore, and he wished to radicalise his audience (Gahan: 13). The second assumption this essay follows is that morality is as much part of Fabianism as politics are. In his economic and political writings, Shaw made a strong connection between economics and morality (Griffith: 29f.). His opposition to capitalism rooted very much in the fact that he rejected it morally. Hence, according to Fabian logic, the struggle for a better (i.e. socialist) society is hardly to be separated from the question of individual conduct, at least to those who can afford it. The verbal claims made by Trench and Sartorius that they would like to change society for the better but find their hands bound collide with Richard in “The Devil’s Disciple”, who claims to follow the devil but immunises himself from attack by immaculate behaviour. Again, Shaw forced a reality upon his audience they might not have witnessed elsewhere, and effectively used the stage for propagandistic purposes, even though they might not be quite as obvious as with other political writers such as Brecht.

2. “Wilde wrote for the stage as an artist. I am simply a propagandist.” (cited in: Grene, 3)

Shaw’s statement is certainly true for his first play, Widower’s Houses, which he wrote with the intention of generating more votes for the left in the London City Council elections by drawing the voters’ attention to the abysmally bad lodging of many fellow Londoners. (Plays Unpleasant, Introduction: vii)

Arguably, the actual propaganda envisaged by Shaw is to be found in the character Trench and the way he reacts on finding out where his future fortune is to originate. His initial reaction, on being told about his would-be fortune by Lickcheese, is utter disgust and refusal:

I will not. It’s a damnable business from beginning to end; and you deserve no better luck for helping in it. I’ve seen it all among the out-patients at the hospital; and it used to make my blood boil to think that such things couldn’t be prevented. (Widowers’ Houses: 61)

The audience is led to follow Trench’s reaction, particularly after the drastic description (“he likes a low deathrate”: 60) To this point, the audience may identify with the hero and share his moral outrage. Lickcheese’s (we may take this as a telling name) work additionally contrasts with Trench’s implicit self-characterisation of being philanthropic by mentioning that his ordeal is treating “out-patients at the hospital.” Trench later turns to Sartorius, confronting him with the moral issue and attacking him directly:

You are nothing of the sort. I found out this morning from your man – Lickcheese, or whatever his confounded name is – that your fortune has been made out of a parcel of unfortunate creatures that have hardly enough to keep body and soul together – made by screwing, and bullying, and threatening, and all sorts of pettifogging tyranny. (Widowers’ Houses: 69)

The conversation between Trench, Sartorius, and Cockane then shifts to what might be described as a typically conservative discourse: the protagonists claim they would like to change society according to higher moral values, but lamentably do not have the power to do so, and must therefore act with economic foresight on their own behalf or drown with the rest. (Widowers’ Houses: 72 f). They also make it explicitly clear that they are Tory followers (Widowers’ Houses. 70), and Trench quickly gives up his reservation on learning that in fact his entire income (not only the fortune he might marry) depends on the rent-collecting business he initially so strongly repudiated:

Well, people who live in glass houses have no right to throw stones. But, on my honour, I never knew that my house was a glass one until you pointed it out. I beg your pardon. (Widowers’ Houses: 73)

It is at this point that Shaw uses the stage for the above mentioned propagandistic purposes. The metaphor employed is an interesting one: Trench lives in a glass house, hence he might have seen the world around him, but he chooses to shut his eyes and live in ignorance. He treats himself to a few higher virtues, but only as long as they do not get in the way of his living standard, at least the one he is used to. At this point the audience is disappointed by Trench, and it is maybe the most “Brechtian” moment in the play: the alleged hero suddenly turns into quite the opposite for material reasons, not even for his romance with Blanche. To that end, this moment follows the hypothesis in the introduction. The audience is alienated from the character and left bereft of a hero.

In the third act the play finally turns to elements of farce: Lickcheese, having more than recovered economically, no longer has the air of a rent-collector forced to do questionable work for his own livelihood. Cockane, now being in Lickcheese’s service, can no longer maintain his aristocratic image, and is finally ridiculed by his continuously inappropriate and mostly wrong use of French. Trench claims: “a man must live” (contradicting starkly his moral argument in the second act), to which Cockane replies: “Je n’en vois pas la nécesité.” (I do not see the need for it, Widowers’ Houses: 90). Clearly, however, this is exactly the argument upon which Cockane, Sartorius, Lickcheese, and Trench base their acceptance of unjustly distributed assets and exploitation: a man must live. One might argue that this was the first profoundly true statement Trench made. This latter farce element is quite in line with the whole conversation. Trench suddenly turns into an advocate of a highly speculative business at the expense of the tax-payer, however only as long as his own assets remain out of risk, and then, although stating otherwise (Widowers’ Houses: 93), effectively makes his own marriage part of the deal.

Apart from the moral argument, which may be suitable to turn the audience against the protagonists and their means of support, the rent issue is a Fabian one, and to that end a dramaturgic realisation of Fabian ideas, also discussed in the Essays in Fabian Socialism (Economic Basis of Socialism). Likewise, Sartorius is explicit on the issue:

It is because of the risks I run through the poverty of my tenants that you exact interest from me at the monstrous rate of seven per cent, forcing me to exact the uttermost farthing in turn from the tenants. (Widowers’ Houses: 72)

In other words, at this point the whole idea of rented accommodation is at question. While it was Shaw’s idea to confront the theatre-going public with social realities otherwise carefully blended out on their part (preface, 25 f), and while we have seen how he makes the spectator realise the hypocrisy of the landed classes and property owners, it is at this point that the inevitability of “bullying, threatening and tyranny” becomes apparent: it is as much part of the idea of collecting rent for lodging as property itself is.



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University of Heidelberg – Anglistisches Seminar
Fabianism Fabianist Morals Shaw’s Widowers’ Houses Arms Devil’s Disciple



Title: Fabianism and Fabianist Morals in G.B. Shaw’s Widowers’ Houses, Arms and the Man and The Devil’s Disciple