Monday, April 20, 2015


It is not difficult to come across the phrase "Shavian reversal" among the countless pages that critics and scholars have devoted to the plays of Bernard Shaw. Generally, the phrase refers to the many instances of Shaw subverting a particular dramatic convention. For example, Steve Vineberg  (High Comedy in American Movies: Class and Humor from the 1920s to the Present, p. 43) describes Cluny's attitude in Cluny Brown (1938) thus: 

"Cluny (Jennifer Jones) embodies the trademark Shavian reversal when she gets excited about the challenges of unclogging a sink - a verboten subject for the well brought up."

Likewise, Christopher Innes (The Cambridge Companion to George Bernard Shaw, p. 172) comments on the archetypal characters who engage in "discussion" in Getting Married that "in a typical Shavian reversal," as individuals they contradict the stereotypes they represent. 

To quote another example, John Louis DiGaetani (Stages of Struggle: Modern Playwrights and Their Psychological Inspirationsp. 15) acknowledges that "Shaw's presentation of Valentine is another Shavian reversal of a comic stereotype."

The list goes on, including such eminent Shavians as Michael Holroyd (Bernard Shaw: The One-Volume Definitive Edition, p. 407) "Bobby then marries a prostitute and Margaret a footman who (in characteristic Shavian reversal) reveals himself as the younger brother to a Duke."

Eliza Doolittle by George Luks 1908

Another example of the use of the phrase "Shavian reversal" has been brought to my attention recently, albeit with a rather unexpected meaning. Janna Jackson, in a chapter devoted to "How Principles of Video Games Can Transform Teaching" (Learning to Play: Exploring the Future of Education with Video Games, p. 116), speaks of a "Shavian reversal" as "someone who inherits the worst characteristics of both parents."

This definition, of course, must have borrowed 
from the anecdote alluded to in Hesketh Pearson’s Bernard Shaw: His Life and Personality (p. 310-311) when “a strange lady giving an address in Zürich wrote him a proposal, thus: “You have the greatest brain in the world, and I have the most beautiful body; so we ought to produce the most perfect child.” Shaw asked: “What if the child inherits my body and your brains?”

Although the lady in question has often been identified with Isadora Duncan, the truth is that this is likely another spurious associationRegardless of this apocryphal ascription, Shaw's encounters with Isadora must have been memorable - no wonder they even inspired a play

At any rate, the anecdote (whoever the other interlocutor may have been) must have caught on in the collective imagination, because this novel use of "Shavian reversal" can be found in yet another publication. Curiously enough, although the two authors are different, both papers deal with educational video games. I guess it takes all Shaws. 

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