: a Brief Introduction
Bernard Shaw believed in the new.
For Shaw, existing social institutions--the division of wealth, the organization of political power, foreign policy, the class system, education, the criminal justice system, parenthood, courtship, marriage--were inequitable and philosophically unjustifiable, based on hopelessly outdated or downright dishonest premises. Our purpose on earth (doing "God's work," which the title character in Major Barbara, an officer in the Salvation Army, defines as "the work he had to create us to do because it cannot be done expect by living men and women") is to help bring about the new: to invent new systems of organizing the world; and to generate a new species, the next step in our evolutionary destiny.
Virtually all of Shaw's literary and political activities involved sweeping out the old and bringing in the potential, at least, for the new.
As a young man, he re-created himself, transforming himself from a young brow-beaten Irish clerk into a new, vital, and verbally energetic intellectual. (His friend, the theatre critic and Ibsen-translator, William Archer, tells of their first meeting in the British Museum Reading Room, where Shaw had open, on his reader's desk, a French translation of Marx, an illustrated volume of Michelangelo's sculptures, and the score to Wagner's Tristan und Isolde).
Virtually every movement for which Shaw campaigned involved new and unconventional ways of living. He was a life-long vegetarian and anti-vivisectionist (i.e. animal rights activist); he advocated equal income for all occupations, and equal distribution of wealth; he advocated language and spelling reform; he supported women's property rights and the right to vote; he advocated rational dress (in the 1890s, he was the sole customer of the then unknown woolen-goods firm, Jaeger, that had invented a one-piece wool suit that Shaw, and only Shaw, wore in the streets). He rode bicycles when they were first popularized, owned a motorcar as soon as could afford one, rode a motorcycle, and insisted on being taken up in airplanes.
If the theatre industry is not conducive to creating advanced art, Shaw insisted, then restructure the theatre industry so that it can; if long runs of plays can't generate new audiences, then present plays in repertory; if advanced theatres can't survive commercially, then create a subsidized National Theatre that can create art without worrying about commerce. The world, and our lives in it, can be created anew, if only we possess the insight and the will to bring it about.
In Shaw's 1910 play, Misalliance (first produced under the auspices of a new theatre managemeent experimenting, unsuccessfully, with new managerial and financial structures), John Tarleton, the self-made millionaire and manufacturer of Tarleton's Underwear, similarly believes in new ideas and new things. He has built his business out of new products, new technologies, and new efficiencies. He uses his surplus millions to endow free libraries, so that people of all classes can have access to ideas, new and old, that will help them come together to create a new order. And he loves new playthings (the portable Turkish bath sitting in the conservatory of his country house is so new that it's barely been unpacked). Tarleton has made a religion of newness.
And yet Tarleton is also a successful capitalist. Just as we can buy new furniture and live modern lives in old houses, Tarleton lives his life of new ideas while living and thriving within the existing unjust system of social, economic, and political power. This was not the first time that Shaw exploited this irony; in his 1906 play Major Barbara, Andrew Undershaft, the visionary spokesman for the new order, is not only a millionaire capitalist but a munitions manufacturer, an unapologetic purveyor of death and destruction (when asked his religion, Undershaft replies "I am a millionaire"). But while Undershaft has a program (albeit a mystical one) for the new order of civilization that he is helping to bring about, Tarleton appears not to have any plan or program, except indulging his love of new ideas, and empowering the reading masses to do the same.
In the world of Misalliance, the Tarleton family occupies the new seat of power in modern England. The wealthy scions of commerce are now the only ones who can afford the best real estate, the best educations, and memberships in the best gentleman's clubs. The members of the hereditary aristocracy (the class of Lord Summerhays, the retired colonial administrator) may no longer have the money to back up their social power (they borrow money from the industrialists, and marry off their children to the children of industrialists), but they represent an old power base that still wields substantial power in government and high society. A marriage between the hereditary aristocracy and the new merchant classes--the marriage proposed between Hypatia Tarleton and Bentley Summerhays--might still be considered a "misalliance"; but it represents the consolidation of power between the classes that, for better or for worse, hold the reins of power in modern England.
John Tarleton, brimming with vitality, and Lord Summerhays, retired and politically useless, know that they will soon have to make way for a new generation, with its own new ideas and new vitality. But what new ideas does the younger generation bring to the world? Judging by the young men of the play, not much. Johnny Tarleton, the designated heir of Tarleton's Underwear, has become a complacent well-dressed gentleman, accepting inherited codes of morality, and rejecting his father's intellectual speculations. Bentley Summerhays, Lord Summerhays' spoiled youngest son, has brains; but he is a weakling and wastrel,"overbred," Mrs. Tarleton says, "like one of those expensive little dogs." Bentley's schoolfriend Joey Percival may have had three fathers, but these three fathers have enslaved him to three sets of moral "shoulds" that constrict him like a corset. And "Gunner," the unhappy young clerk (a self-portrait of Shaw as a young man), has discovered socialism and progressive politics from reading books from Tarleton-endowed free libraries, but is enslaved by sentimental ideas and petit-bourgeois morality, and so the only revolution he can make is murder and suicide.
The question that Misalliance poses is: "how do you live your life in the old world while waiting for the new world to come into existence?" But if that is the question, then the men of the play don't seem to hold the answers. But what about the women? In the older generation, Mrs. Tarleton (Tarleton's "Chickabiddy") may be reverting to her old lower-middle class habits and values, and may carry ideals about her husband's intellectual greatness; but at least she holds the family and the household together, looking after their emotional well-being and taking care of the drains. The real answers might lie in the younger generation of women. Hypatia Tarleton may be passive as the play begins, but at least she chafes at her own passivity, wanting "to be an active verb." And when things start happening, when adventure does "drop out of the sky," Hypatia unleashes an energy that frees and transforms both herself and the corseted Joey Percival and stirs up the entire household. And Lina Szczepanowska, the Polish lady-acrobat who drops down from the skies, freed from all of the vestigial moral codes and gender-roles of the older order, enthralls all of the men, and wields the potential to transform at least one of the men from a physical weakling into someone capable of soaring with her over the clouds.
For a play so obsessed with novelty and newness, by a playwright so possessed with propagandistic fervor, Misalliance offers surprisingly few specific details about what the new world should look like; and the play is populated by surprisingly few people who seem capable of bringing the new world into existence. But when adventure drops out of the sky, when the characters are forced to examine their prejudices and limited horizons, when they are forced to create new intellectual categories whereby they can understand what they each desire and how they all can relate to one another, the whole world of the play blossoms into a world of pure, undistilled, possibility.