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Shaw and the Stage Englishman in Irish Literature

  • David Clare
Part of the Bernard Shaw and His Contemporaries book series (BSC)

Abstract

Much has been written by critics about the phenomenon of the Stage Irishman in English drama. For centuries, the Irish were depicted on the English stage as ugly, drunken, sentimental, pugnacious, patriotic buffoons. But how have the English been portrayed in Irish fiction and drama? While Irish writers have resisted the temptation to create deeply offensive ciphers like the Stage Irishman, over the past two centuries a number of important dramatists and fiction writers have repeatedly placed English characters into their work in order to take satirical swipes at the English and their handling of Ireland. These characters may not be crude caricatures like the Stage Irishman, but they are far from completely objective portraits of English people. In fact, even in the cases where these writers intended their English characters to be good, or at least harmless, they still used these portraits to reveal what they saw as drawbacks or peculiarities in the English national character.1 One of the most famous Stage Englishmen in Irish literary history is, of course, Tom Broadbent from John Bull’s Other Island, but, as this chapter will demonstrate, Broadbent must be contextualized within a long, under-considered, virtually invisible, tradition of Irish writing, in which the commendable Irish Self is repeatedly contrasted with the less admirable English Other.

Keywords

English People Irish People Home Rule Fiction Writer Irish Language 
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Notes

  1. 1.
    For an important account of the rise and persistence of notions of an English and an Irish national character, see Seamus Deane. “Irish National Character, 1790–1900.” In The Writer as Witness: Literature as Historical Evidence. Ed. Tom Dunne. Cork: Cork University Press, 1987. 90–113. I should note, however, that Deane often conflates notions of English and British national character, even when it is clear that a non-English commentator like Edmund Burke is attempting to describe a version of the British national character that accommodates the traits of all four countries in the so-called British Isles. Joep Leerssen has also effectively demonstrated that Irish literature has, since the eighteenth century, been fixated on the Enlightenment notion that each country possesses a national character. (See Joep Leerssen. Mere Irish and Fíor-Gael: Studies in the Idea of Irish Nationality, Its Development and Literary Expression prior to the Nineteenth Century. Cork: Cork University Press, 1996.) As my analysis in chapter 3 makes clear, I believe that Ireland has been a multicultural society for centuries. And, like Michael Gardiner, I would like to see Englishness become less associated with racial ancestry. (See the chapter “England without the Cricket Test” in Michael Gardiner. The Cultural Roots of British Devolution. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004. 102–30). I therefore view most attempts by writers to describe or depict the Irish and English national characters with wariness and suspicion—especially since most commentators seem to formulate simplistic, essentialist constructions of Irishness and Englishness that do not take into account qualities associated with minority cultures within each polity. That said, the topics covered in this book—but especially in this chapter—require me to repeatedly compare and contrast the Irish and the English (or to analyze Shaw’s comparing and contrasting of the two nations), and I am keenly aware that in the process I, at times, run the risk of making the kind of essentialist generalizations that I have criticized in the work of others.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
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    The fact that Stage English figures often seem to represent the English generally would indicate that they fit into Alex Woloch’s “synecdoche” category of characters—secondary figures who represent an abstract idea or a larger group of people. That said, Woloch regards these “synecdoche” characters as invariably “flat,” whereas most Stage English figures are quite “round,” as we shall see during the course of this chapter. (Alex Woloch. The One vs. the Many: Minor Characters and the Space of the Protagonist in the Novel. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003. 69.) Also, some Stage English characters (including Shaw’s Broadbent and Elderly Gentleman) are central to the works in which they appear—that is to say, they are not secondary figures.Google Scholar
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    Actually, although Boadicea Baldcock begins Behan’s The Big House with a mixture of fear and racist condescension towards the Irish, she becomes much more of a female sentimental, romantic duffer after she moves back to England. She starts to miss Ireland and insists that she and her husband move back. Her new, sentimental resolve to love Ireland and the Irish is destroyed in an instant, however, when she and her husband discover that “Chuckles” Genokey, their Irish “man of affairs” (as she describes him with comically Stage English hyperbole), has badly swindled them. (Brendan Behan. The Big House. In The Complete Plays. New York: Grove, 1978. 359–384. 383.) Behan’s pessimistic treatment of Boadicea’s (temporary) conversion could be his reaction to the numerous English characters from nineteenth-century Irish fiction who go from initially hating Ireland to later loving it. Horatio from Lady Morgan’s The Wild Irish Girl (1806) is arguably the first—and most famous—character of this type. (For others, see Kosok, “John Bull’s Other Eden,” 186–8.) While one could argue that these characters convert from racist, officious hypocrite to sentimental, romantic duffer, I do not consider them Stage English, because they are not biting satirical portraits. In fact, the authors use these characters to deliberately flatter their English readers; they suggest that, with more exposure to Ireland and the Irish, the English will coolly and rationally change their negative attitudes. (It should be noted that three of the characters included in Kosok’s analysis are not Stage English for the simple reason that they are in fact English-educated Irish people: I am referring to Ormsby Bethel from Maturin’s The Wild Irish Boy (1808), Lord Colambre from Edgeworth’s The Absentee (1812), and Major Yeates from Somerville & Ross’s Irish RM stories (1898–1915). For such characters, embracing Ireland involves accepting their own Irishness and abandoning—or, at least, attempting to suppress—the prejudices and values inculcated in them during their years in England.)Google Scholar
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  21. 33.
    To take an example from Shaw’s very first play, Widowers’ Houses, when he introduces one of the main characters—an Englishman called Cokane—he takes the opportunity to express his pity or disdain for what he sees as the man’s English foibles. Cokane has “affected manners” and is “fidgety, touchy, and constitutionally ridiculous in uncompassionate eyes.” (Bernard Shaw. Widowers’ Houses. In Plays Unpleasant. London: Penguin, 2000. 29–96. 31.) Shaw’s are, presumably, such eyes—more evidence of his Irish outlook. (Of course, Cokane’s surname provides another clue as to why he is “fidgety.”) Other obvious satirical portraits of the English from Shaw plays set outside of Ireland include Britannus from Caesar and Cleopatra (1901) and John de Stogumber from Saint Joan.Google Scholar
  22. 34.
    Bernard Shaw. John Bull’s Other Island. London: Penguin, 1984. 7. For more on the Abbey’s decision to turn this play down, see Norma Jenckes. “The Rejection of Shaw’s Irish Play: John Bull’s Other Island.” Éire-Ireland 10 (Spring 1975): 38–53.Google Scholar
  23. 35.
    As quoted in Michael Holroyd. Bernard Shaw Volume 2 (1898–1918): The Pursuit of Power. New York: Vintage, 1991. 81. Shaw’s use of the word absurdities is telling here. When Oliver Goldsmith, writing as the Chinese “Citizen of the World,” attempted to sum up the nations of Europe for his Chinese readers, he spoke of: the delicacy of Italy, the formality of Spain, the cruelty of Portugal, the fears of Austria, the confidence of Prussia, the levity of France, the avarice of Holland, the pride of England, [and] the absurdity of Ireland[.] (Oliver Goldsmith. The Citizen of the World, or, Letters from a Chinese Philosopher, Residing in London, to His Friends in the East, Volume 1. Bungay: Child, 1820. 26.) While the Longford-born Goldsmith writes of “the pride of England,” the Irishman Doyle in John Bull’s Other Island warns Broadbent that “you don’t know what Irish pride is,” with the strong hint that it is much more potent than its English equivalent. (Shaw, John Bull’s Other Island, 88.) Between this and Shaw’s stated intention to show English and not Irish absurdity, we see that Shaw was writing not only against the English tradition but also, to some degree, the Irish Anglican one.Google Scholar
  24. 43.
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  26. 66.
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  27. 68.
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  28. 70.
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  29. 88.
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  30. 90.
    Brad Kent persuasively argues that Nora has more agency and personal strength than is usually credited by critics in Brad Kent. “The Politics of Shaw’s Irish Women in John Bull’s Other Island.” In Shaw and Feminisms: On Stage and Off. Ed. D. A. Hadfield and Jean Reynolds. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2013. 73–91.Google Scholar
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  32. 99.
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    It could be argued that Broadbent’s infatuation with Nora is just one of many examples from colonial literature of a “civilized” man falling in love with “some mysterious woman of the native tribe,” with “the woman, like the colony,” being regarded by the suitor as “a mystery to be penetrated.” (Kiberd, Inventing Ireland, 620.) Indeed, this plot strand recalls Gayatri Spivak’s famous description of “colonialism” as “white men … saving brown women from brown men,” because Broadbent “saves” Nora from marriage to Larry or some other Irishman. (Gayatri Spivak. A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999. 287.)Google Scholar
  34. 114.
    Bernard Shaw. O’Flaherty, VC. In Selected Short Plays. New York: Penguin, 1987. 253–77. 255.Google Scholar
  35. 122.
    Seán O’Casey, who was a great admirer of Shaw, would borrow this aspect of the plot for his Great War play, The Silver Tassie (1929). For a detailed comparison of O’Flaherty, VC and The Silver Tassie, see Anthony Roche. The Irish Dramatic Revival, 1899–1939. London: Bloomsbury Methuen, 2015. 95–96.Google Scholar
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    Sir Pearce is aware of some of his tenants’ mischief—such as their poaching of his salmon, rabbits, and cow’s milk—and their habit of stretching the truth for dramatic effect, but is very shocked to learn of their lack of loyalty to England, their financial double-dealing, and their prayers for his conversion. Writers from the Ascendancy, such as Edgeworth, Somerville & Ross, and Bowen, repeatedly suggest in their work that even the most staunchly Unionist landlords are very familiar with the ways and views of the Irish tenantry (including the ways in which they are being swindled by them), but have deliberately decided to “not notice” such things, empowered by that great Irish Anglican sense of detachment. Shaw’s inability to capture this unique “‘ascendency’ outlook” in his portrait of Sir Pearce arguably betrays the fact that he is a middle-class Dublin Protestant and not a country gentleman. It is rather surprising that Shaw was unable to better capture this Ascendency perspective since his wife was from the Ascendency and often made him stay at the Big Houses of her relations and friends on their return trips to Ireland. However, it could also be argued that Shaw was aware that he was exaggerating Madigan’s ignorance of the Catholic Irish, and was doing so simply for comic effect. (Elizabeth Bowen. The Last September. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987. 82; Elizabeth Bowen. “Preface to Uncle Silas, by Sheridan Le Fanu.” In The Mulberry Tree: Writings of Elizabeth Bowen. Ed. Hermione Lee. London: Virago, 1986. 100–13. 101.)Google Scholar
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    At this time, the Dramatist Club asked Shaw not to attend their meetings due to his (perceived) war position. With regards specifically to O’Flaherty, VC, Shaw had high hopes that the London producer Arthur Bourchier would stage the play in early 1916. However, Bourchier told him that the play was “unbearable” in the current political climate. (As quoted in Stanley Weintraub. Bernard Shaw 1914–1918: Journey to Heartbreak. London: Routledge, 1973. 144.)Google Scholar
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