Before the advent of the naturalistic drama in the middle of the nineteenth century, European theatre was primarily a form of entertainment and amusement, as manifested in the plays of Pinero, Jones and even Oscar Wilde. However, playwrights like Ibsen, Hauptman, Chekov and Strindberg had revolutionized European drama by turning their attention towards the serious socio-economic problems and issues. In their hands the emergence if the Prose Play of Ideas accrued in which each play is centred around some predominant idea dealing with the social like of man or his relationships. The plays of George Bernard Shaw have similar sociological concerns though he prefers to entitle some of them as 'Pleasant' and others 'Unpleasant'.
Arms and the Man, You Never Can Tell and Candida have been designated by Shaw as being Pleasant, but ironically they are not entirely pleasant plays. Many problems posed in them are thought-provoking and even disturbing. Shaw terms them as 'Pleasant' only in contrast to the 'Unpleasant Plays' such as Mrs. Warren's Profession and Widowers' Houses, in which the problems presented are far more grim and unnerving, such as prostitution and the victimization of the tenants by landlords, than in 'Pleasant Plays'.
A 'Pleasant Play' in Shaw's definition can never be merely an entertaining play. According to him, a merely entertaining presentation is 'bad', and "Bad theatres are as mischievous as bad schools or bad churches." He feels that theatre is extremely important as a 'social organ', and that "dramatic invention is the first effort of man to become intellectually conscious." Thus even in his 'Pleasant Play' Candida he stimulates the audience intellectually to ponder upon different possibilities in human relationships.
The 'Ideas' in Shaw's plays usually revolve around relationships between men and women, husbands and wives, parents and children. Many of them focus on problems related to attitudes, disposition and even moral consciousness. In Candida the central idea is the traditional love triangle in which the youngster, Eugene Marchbanks intrudes into a marital relationship and challenges its assumed bases of happiness. He is compelled finally to depart from the wedded life of Rev. James Morell and Candida, allowing the husband and wife to revive their relationship on new premises of understanding.
The entire play is targeted towards the moment of Candida's final choice. As this point a comparison between Shaw's Candida and Ibsen's Nora becomes unavoidable. Nora symbolizes a woman's quest for emancipation to ascertain her individual identity. She attempts to break free from the shackles of a conventional marriage in which her husband treats her with no more importance than a mere doll. For the sake of her ideal, Nora foregoes the security of a family and a marital life and even leaves her children while walking out of Torvald's life.
Candida's choice reflects Shaw's insistence on the importance of the practical wisdom. Candida, unlike Nora, is a thoroughly practical minded woman. Though she is not crude like Burgess, she inherits some of her father's utilitarian philosophy. Her final choice of staying with Morell, is not decided by her love for him but the financial and social security of a married life that she is afraid of risking. She is temperamentally different from both Morell and Marchbanks. Though she is easily approachable, her thoughts and motives are impenetrable. She is as unmoved by Morell's genuinely passionate sermons on social reform as bored by Marchbank's poetry. She looks after Morell's needs and his households with perfect efficiency; she equally comes to Marchbank's rescue, offering him "her shawl, her wings, the wrath of stars in her head, the lilies in her hand". Yet she is totally remote from both of the men.
Shaw's ideas about women play with a vital role in Candida. According to Shaw, a woman is primarily a manifestation of Life Force whose primary function is the biological continuity of the race. Consequently Shaw believes that while choosing a mate, a woman would select the one who would be the best father fro her offsprings, eliminating others. Thuds her identity as a mother is more fundamental than that of a woman. For this reason Shaw treats Candida as a mother by mentioning to Ellen Terry that "Candida is the Virgin Mother, and nobody else as well as alluding to Titian's painting of the 'Virgin of the Assumptions'. E. Bentley therefore appropriately comments that instead of the traditional concept of the little woman reaching up towards the arm of a strong man, in Candida we see a strong woman reaching down to pick up her child. Being a mother, Candida is committed to neither of the two men.
Shaw deals with the idea of women's emancipation in Candida from an entirely practical point of view. By asserting her will on the two men, Candida converts the patriarchal pattern of the Victorian household setup into a matriarchal one. With her monumental influence on Morell and Marchbanks, she becomes the wielder of power instead of the men. Through her final choice, she exposes Morell's weakness and proves that he is no more than a helpless baby who constantly need her motherly attention. She proves that Morell is the 'doll' of the house and she is the real master. In fact she uses Marchbanks to teach Morell a lesson about his weakness and destroys his complacency.
The play also expresses Shaw's idea of man as the spiritual creator in contrast to the women who is the biological creator. This is particularly evident in his depiction of Marchbanks. Candida realizes that Marchbansk can never be a proper protector for her children nor provide her with security as he is impulsive and passionate. Whereas, as a poet, he has a sublime and universal artistic function to perform. If he is confined to the domestic role of a husband, his aesthetic creativity would be incomplete. It is for this larger creative purpose that she feels that Marchbanks would be able to finally renounce his romantic interest in her. He imparts to him a hackneyed piece of practical advice to remember – "When I am thirty, she will be forty-five. When I am sixty, she will be seventy-five", not realizing that such petty practical concerns do not affect Marchbanks.
The ideas about marriage that Morell advocates or the ideas about love that Marchbanks possesses are dismissed as being utterly childish in contrast to Candida's hardcore practicality. Morel feels that marriage to a good woman is a "foretaste of what will be best in the Kingdom of Heaven" and Marchbanks idealizes Candida as a "great soul, craving for reality, truth, freedom" who should not be confined to trimming of lamp or peeling of onions. Yet ironically neither is able to conjecture her real motive.
As a Play of Ideas, Candida is not a pleasant one, the cruel rejection of Marchbanks and the heavy burden of 'mystery' in his soul with which he departs, leaves a sense of bitterness in the minds of the audience. However, the play has a conventional sense of pleasantness in not allowing the institution of marriage to be seriously challenged by love.
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