A journal of turn-of-the-century theatre

Issue 7 - Autumn 2015

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Tony Jason Stafford, Shaw’s Settings: Gardens and Libraries

reviewed by Richard Mills

Shaw’s Settings: Gardens and Libraries was published in 2013, and is the first of eighteen books in The Florida Bernard Shaw Series edited by Richard F. Dietrich, from the University of South Florida. The series is dedicated to George Bernard Shaw’s life and work; and its aim is to produce innovative critical readings of Shaw’s work and related Shavian themes. The author of Shaw’s Settings: Gardens and Libraries is Professor Tony Jason Strafford, whose field of expertise is modern British and American dramatists. The book is ambitious in its scope covering the significance of ‘gardens and libraries’ to nine of Shaw’s major plays. In a sense, the book acts as a career overview for Shaw’s work, ranging from Widowers’ Houses (1885), Man and Superman (1903), Major Barbara (1905) and Back to Methuselah (1921).

Stafford’s background as an academic and playwright is significant as the book is an informed discussion of Shaw’s plays as stand-alone literary texts, but more significantly, it is also a book by an academic who is an accomplished theatrical practitioner. It is his experience as a playwright, which gives Stafford the conviction that the written text that can only be fully understood in relation to its scenery. In Shaw’s case, that is the placing of gardens and libraries on stage to compliment the dramatic dialogue and action.

In Shaw’s Settings, Stafford discusses nine plays in total stretching from 1885 to 1921 and views Shaw as a ‘visual playwright’ whose work is concerned with three-dimensional settings, and to the extent to which ‘this placing on stage’ shapes character. To Stafford, Shaw’s scenery is an indispensable part of his theatrical furniture that is as vital to the aesthetic success of his plays as the written text. In the introduction, he writes, that ‘Shaw’s Settings’ […] ‘are integral to the literary and dramatic values and to the very meaning of the play’. Stafford feels the plays require a close scrutiny of the settings to fully understand Shaw’s artistic achievement:   Although Shaw is famous as a wordy dramatist of high concept discussion, Shaw’s backdrops are a key theatrical device to communicate the deeper biographical, cultural and historical meanings of a play; the scenery reveals social conventions, class and a character’s psychology. For instance, Lady Britomart is revealed Major Barbara, as a symbol of ‘good breeding’ and ‘upper-class advanced thinking’ by Shaw’s description of her library, ‘being quite enlightened and liberal as to the books in the library, the pictures on the walls, the music in the portfolios, and the articles in the papers’.

Without the theatrical strategies of the three-dimensional stage setting, Shaw’s dramatic ability to convey socialism and his Ibsen-esque social diagnosis would be severely curtailed.  This is the achievement of Professor Stafford’s study: he manages to communicate the extent to which ‘setting not only composes much of the literary value of Shaw’s plays but also affects their performance’. The plays’ performances are affected in four ways according to Stafford: ‘first, he is also very a visual artist; second that these setting provide strong performance values; third, the settings serve as metaphors; and fourth, these settings lead insight into characters.’

Shaw’s biographical details and his social environment are of vital importance in this book. Stafford discusses how Shaw’s poverty and his lack of education made the ‘garden and library’ tableau central to an understanding of his major themes. ‘Lacking in education’ Shaw was an autodidact who used libraries as means of advancement; and poverty stricken, uncomfortable and alienated in his early years in London, Shaw viewed The English garden ‘with a certain, longing, interest and admiration’. Stafford identifies how both motifs were a constant inspiration throughout his career.

Professor Stafford has produced a scholarly, original and very readable contribution to George Bernard Shaw studies. He has written a book that argues that the scenery is an indispensable part of the theatrical performance.  Shaw’s Settings draws attention to the importance of scenery in stage-productions, and offers unique insight into an unsuspected theme of ‘gardens and libraries’ in Shaw’s plays. Scholars have generally overlooked the significance of this leitmotif in Shaw’s work until recently. By putting the emphasis on the Shaw’s background scenery, Stafford book is a reminder that a play’s written text needs to be coupled with complimentary stage craft, whether the text is expansive Renaissance drama, Brechtian verfremdungseffeckt (de-familiarisation) or Beckettian minimalism, it is the scenery that gives a play its full dramatic meaning. The book shows the effort and detail that George Bernard Shaw dedicated to his scenery with the artistic intention to go ‘beyond mere language for his dramatic effects.’  Richard F. Dietrich’s recognises this importance in his introduction to the book; he suggests that the poetry of scenery or the mis-en scene is ‘crucial to Shaw’s meanings’.

In sum, then, the author has written a book that will become a staple for Shaw scholars in the future. Shaw’s Settings combines impeccable academic research with a very accessible literary style; it is the intention of Stafford to remind the reader that the mis en scene that contributes to the meaning and major themes of Shaw’s plays. Stafford’s thesis is that the scenery is as important as the written word.