from Leadership Medica n. 1/2001
In a historical period and in an atmosphere which was still connected to the fin de siècle environment, but with an extremely modern and anticipatory thematic vision, George Bernard Shaw succeeded in creating a woman’s character which was revolutionary for the society of the time: Candida, a “mannish” and pleasant woman, capable of choosing her own man and of asserting herself, whilst discreetly retaining her role as mistress of the home.
One of the two male characters of the comedy “Candida” (1895) is Morell, an evangelical minister, a keen reformer, and an extremely eloquent preacher, who is highly esteemed by his proselytes. He is the prototype of the confident man, satisfied and happily fulfilled by his public mission, but also by his private life, where his wife Candida is an incomparable and irreplaceable figure, the driving force which spurs her man in his professional activity in order to come up in the world. Into this sweet and tranquil family situation Morell himself introduces a third element, the very young itinerant poet Marchbanks, a tenderhearted person longing for love. Marchbanks immediately falls for the motherly and charming Candida. The young man openly tells the minister about his passion. Morell has no doubt about his dear wife’s loyalty, but when Marchbanks screams that he is not worthy of a woman of her standard, Morell wavers. The young artist, apparently defenceless with regards to life and the world, displays a fibre and braveness that reveal a really sound and distinct personality; Morell, on the other hand, appears to be fragile when faced with the truth which has opened his eyes. But Candida claims she wants for herself the weakest of the two. So she again chooses her husband, because he would not be able to bear the weight of a life without the woman who has always loved him, helped him and lovingly protected him from every daily worry. With Candida, Shaw creates a being who, in a synthesis of feelings and loving thoughts, sums up in her person the figure of sister, wife and lover for her man.
Amongst Shaw’s plays, a very significant success was achieved by “Pygmalion” (1914), which is also famous in its subsequent musical version, and in the movie version entitled “My Fair Lady”. The film is about the eccentric phonetics master Henry Higgins, who makes a bet with Colonel Pickering that he will succeed in teaching good pronunciation to the flower girl Eliza Doolittle, who speaks very bad “cockney”, a London dialect. Furthermore, he bets that he will succeed in his purpose to such an extent that he will present Eliza to society at a party and pass her off as an upper-class woman. Higgins wins the bet, but the woman no longer wishes to be regarded as a case or as a guinea pig, and announces she intends to marry insignificant Freddy, and finally departs from her Pygmalion. The whole play is a continuous sequence of aphorisms, jokes and hilarious remarks, which make this work an amusing, sparkling and extremely enjoyable comedy. And it is at this stage that the comedy writer chooses the theatre of words, through an extremely vivid language, an extremely skilful construction of dialogues and, above all, a comic vein which uses humour as its weapon, sometimes with a very sharp tongue and sometimes by picking his words.
In “St. Joan” (1923) the leading character is the French heroine Joan of Arc. This is a play in six scenes, which tells the young woman’s story, from her entrance in “public life” to her condemnation to the stake. Here and there Shaw’s irony touches and envelops the scene and especially Joan’s intentions and, in contrast, the narrow-mindedness of the powerful people opposing her. Joan is depicted as the forerunner of modern individualism and of Protestantism, in contrast with the other personalities of History. In all his works Shaw grants his characters great independence, liveliness and dynamism of action and, in addition, he allows the comedy to be at the same time witty and full of action, expressive and meaningful, thus redesigning for the English theatre of the time a role and a creative peculiarity of its own, which it seemed to have lost during the previous century.