Wednesday, March 11, 2015


You can hear these words in Don Juan in Hell, the oneiric third act of Man and Superman that is often played separately, just like our friends from ShawChicago recently did. Don Juan is discussing life, love, and the Life-Force with Ana and the Statue. The conversation reaches a particularly articulate point when Ana argues that there is a certain ethical virtue in procreation. Don Juan, of course, replies that the act of "begetting" - to use Biblical lexis - is no more virtuous because it happens in wedlock. In that sense, marriage is nothing but a conventional way of doing things that has been perpetuated because it is practical and efficient. These are the actual words:

DON JUAN. [...] Dona Ana has, I admit, gone straight to the real point—yet it is not a difference of love or chastity, or even constancy; for twelve children by twelve different husbands would have replenished the earth perhaps more effectively. Suppose my friend Ottavio had died when you were thirty, you would never have remained a widow: you were too beautiful. Suppose the successor of Ottavio had died when you were forty, you would still have been irresistible; and a woman who marries twice marries three times if she becomes free to do so. Twelve lawful children borne by one highly respectable lady to three different fathers is not impossible nor condemned by public opinion. That such a lady may be more law abiding than the poor girl whom we used to spurn into the gutter for bearing one unlawful infant is no doubt true; but dare you say she is less self-indulgent?
ANA. She is less virtuous: that is enough for me.
DON JUAN. In that case, what is virtue but the Trade Unionism of the married? Let us face the facts, dear Ana. The Life Force respects marriage only because marriage is a contrivance of its own to secure the greatest number of children and the closest care of them. For honor, chastity and all the rest of your moral figments it cares not a rap. Marriage is the most licentious of human institutions—

One may think that this remark is rather ambiguous, given that Shaw was a Fabian socialist and, as such, rather on the side of trade unionism. Not quite. 

In his introduction to the 1913 Waverley edition of Hard Times, Shaw finds fault with Dickens's depiction of Slackbridge because he is just an extravagant "figment of the middle-class imagination. No such man would be listened to by a meeting of English factory hands." But Slackbridge is not an inaccurate portrayal of the typical trade union leader because they are not corrupt, superficial, or trite. Mind you, 

"Not that such meetings are less susceptible to humbug than meetings of any other class. Not that trade union organizers, worn out by the terribly wearisome and trying work of going from place to place repeating the same commonplaces and trying to “stoke up" meetings to enthusiasm with them, are less apt than other politicians to end as windbags, and sometimes to depend on stimulants to pull them through their work. Not, in short, that the trade union platform is any less humbug-ridden than the platforms of our more highly placed political parties." 

In light of this, we can easily equate trade unionism to conventionality, boredom, empty words, and many other negative elements of social organization. Thus, by extension, what most people call virtue is an equally deplorable notion, as Shaw reminds us on many an occasion.

Already in The Irrational Knot (1880), Douglas tries to talk Marian into leaving her husband by saying: "You know what a hollow thing conventional virtue is." A similar conception can be found in one of Shaw's pieces of dramatic criticism. In a review of Sydney Grundy's The Silver Key (an adaptation of Alexandre Duma's Mademoiselle de Belle Isle), Shaw admits to finding something recognizable in Richelieu. After all, "What people call vice is eternal: what they call virtue is mere fashion." The ethics of conventional virtue is systematically attacked by Shaw in an attempt to shake the conscience of his readers. Just like Isabella asks Mr Smith in Immaturity: "do you really believe that virtue is its own reward in this world?" 

Although, to be fair, the preface to Androcles and the Lion contains a more elaborate train of thought in which both sides of the matter are considered: 

"When Talleyrand said that a married man with a family is capable of anything, he meant anything evil; but an optimist may declare, with equal half truth, that a married man is capable of anything good; that marriage turns vagabonds into steady citizens; and that men and women will, for love of their mates and children, practise virtues that unattached individuals are incapable of. It is true that too much of this domestic virtue is self-denial, which is not a virtue at all; but then the following of the inner light at all costs is largely self-indulgence, which is just as suicidal, just as weak, just as cowardly as self-denial."

At any rate, even outside his literary endeavors Shaw still has an axe to grind against this thing called 'virtue'. In a letter to fellow Fabian E. D. Girdlestone (26 Sept. 1890. Bernard Shaw Collected Letters, 1874-1897, p. 266), he points his finger at the real enemy of the born world-betterer: 

"Our enemy is not essentially the landlord or capitalist: these are but accidental forms of the true enemy—the Good Man. Virtue is only a mask for the revolting features of Unhappiness. Let us be religious, if you will, but not virtuous, not moral, not good—anything but that. My only boast is that in these days when it is so easy & cheap to be a Christ, I have ventured to follow the poor, despised, but always right Devil."

Whether Shaw followed God, the Devil, or tried to impersonate either of them, has always been open to interpretation. What is unquestionably true is that, all things considered, the most sensible thing Shaw ever said about virtue is probably written in an unfinished essay entitled "From Dickens to Ibsen." There we read what we all know, that "sham virtue is by no means less poisonous than sham skill in architecture."

Paolo Veronese - The Triumph of Virtue over Vice - WGA24939
Paolo Veronese. "The Triumph of Virtue over Vice." (1554-1556)

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