The following analysis of The Shewing-Up of Blanco Posnet was originally published in The British and American Drama of Today. Barrett H. Clark. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1915. pp. 86-89.
This "crude sermon in melodrama" is one of the most pointedly didactic of all Shaw's plays. As there is scarcely enough material to warrant its development into two or three acts, the author rightly puts it into one. Yet as it now stands it is not a highly successful one-act play. Sudermann's Fritzchen contains but a single incident, which is treated in one breath, as it were: the audience is present while the tragedy is enacted. In Shaw's play, however, the audience sees only sections of the play, rather disjointed sections. Sudermann was interested primarily in the artistic effect, Shaw in the demonstration of a psychological and religious phenomenon. When it is possible to set forth an idea and do it artistically, Shaw is willing to be an artist, but when the idea must suffer, Shaw prefers to be less an artist and more a preacher.
As the audience for which the dramatist originally wrote was unacquainted with the milieu -- as was Shaw himself -- he was forced to create it: notice the rather pointed conversation among the women which occupies the first four pages. These speeches acquaint us with the situation, and prepare us for Blanco's entrance. Again, the stage-directions accomplish much more than Blanco's words, because Shaw could more easily describe a character of whom he had no first-hand knowledge than make him real by means of speech and action.
Possibly the occasional stilted and foreign atmosphere throughout is due to the fact that the entire setting and characters are drawn from the dramatist's knowledge of Bret Harte and Jack London, rather than Blanco Posnet himself and Elder Daniels.
[At one point] a long conversation between Blanco and his brother is introduced for the purpose of making clear something of the lives of the two men: the six pages advance the theme while the play, as drama, stands still. The artistic unity of the piece suffers, while Shaw accomplished his end. The action is resumed the moment Strapper says, "I've got my witness; and I'll trouble you not to make a move towards her when she comes in to identify you." The woman Blanco expects does not come in; this time it is only Feemy, but the audience, seeing Blanco's fear, is curious to know the exact reason. He is not afraid of Feemy, that is certain. Who, then, is the mysterious woman of whom the horse-thief said: "A woman? She aint' real: neither is the child." The trial then proceeds. This is a good scene, full of amusing and character-revealing incidents. Then the action stops, and The Woman enters. Up to this point the dramatist has been preparing the scene for the statement of his thesis. Blanco, having undergone his one great "religious experience," now begins to show the results of it.
THE SHERIFF: Where's the child?
STRAPPER: On Pug Johnson's bench in his shed. He's making a coffin for it.
BLANCO: (with a horrible convulsion of the throat, frantically) Dead! The little Judas kid! The child I gave my life for! (He breaks into hideous laughter.)
It is dangerous to stop the action of a play, especially a one-act play, within a few minutes of the end, but in this case the thesis is so intersting and the action so relatively unimportant, that the audience is likely to forget the play for the idea.
The thesis of this play is so abstract, so subtle, that the dramatist must resort to extremes, to "get it over." It is more than likely that such a man as the hardened horse-thief would have said nothing of the revolution which had taken place in his soul, had it not been for the entrance of The Woman. This was Shaw's method of showing, not the experience itself -- which would have been impossible -- but the result of the experience. But in order to drive home his idea, he felt it was necessary to show Blanco actually trying, if not to reform at least to convince, his companions of the genuineness of his temporary conversion.
No one will deny that to the worst of "bad men" there come experiences of this sort, but they are rarely external in their manifestation. It is not the place of the present volume to criticise the ideas of dramatists, except in so far as they influence the form of the drama. Still, it may be asked, is this play convincing? It is not intended as a comedy, although it is amusing, nor is it primarily a character study: it is a sermon in play form.
Back to George Bernard Shaw