Bernard Shaw, Coincidentally
By Stanley Kauffmann
Coincidence is a suspect device in dramaturgy.
Can there be a teacher of playwriting anywhere who advises the use of
coincidence in structure? Yet it is a fact, odd and teasing, that Bernard
Shaw uses it frequently in plays that are now fixed in the world’s
treasury of drama.
Some examples. In Mrs. Warren’s Profession, the clergyman
father of Vivie‘s boyfriend turns out to be a former lover of
her mother. In You Never Can Tell, the landlord of Dolly Clandon’s
dentist turns out to be her long-lost father. In Man and Superman,
the longed-for sweetheart of the brigand in the Sierra Nevada mountains
turns out to be the sister of the chauffeur he has just kidnapped. In
John Bull’s Other Island, the Irishman whom Broadbent
consults for guidance turns out to be from the same village as Broadbent’s
partner, Doyle. In Misalliance, the pilot whose plane crashes
in the garden of a country house turns out to be the best friend of
a young man staying in the house. In Fanny’s First Play,
the hooker who knows a certain young man turns out to have been a cell
mate of the young man’s fiancee when the latter was in prison
for civil disturbance. In Heartbreak House, the burglar who
breaks into that house turns out to be a former member of Captain Shotover’s
crew. This list is incomplete.
“Turns out” is the operative phrase in these descriptions.
Shaw does the turning, knowingly, almost ostentatiously. But why does
this dramatist, whose technical skill grew breathtakingly even as he
swept through the first decade of his career, cling to coincidence as
he goes along and aloft?
Several explanations occur. First is a basic paradox in Shaw. He considered
himself a pioneer of the New Drama. (He said that, after he had been
heralding the New Drama in his theater criticism, he found that there
was none and had to supply it himself.) Yet he loved the flavors of
the nineteenth-century popular theater that had absorbed him in Dublin
and London, trumpery though the plays usually were, and he particularly
liked the way the audience was engaged in a kind of proprietary relationship
with the stage. The theater of that day belonged to its audience
in a way that is now quite lost: people went to the theater (Dickens
describes it vividly) as if it were an extension of their homes. The
theater’s artifices, patent as they were, were almost an etiquette.
If Character A did this, then B must do that. The public relished these
arrangements. Shaw, despite his inspiration by Ibsen and others, was
reluctant to discard the heartiness of this rapport. In fact, as Martin
Meisel clarifies in Shaw and the Nineteenth Century Theater,
Shaw’s New Drama frequently used armatures and character ideas
from popular plays of the past, providing them with the soundness they
had lacked yet exploiting their theatrical juiciness.
He clearly saw coincidence as part of his dramaturgic legacy. But as
a serious artist, he had to make sure that it did not fracture verity.
He understood that coincidence could successfully function only in comedy.
Even in Heartbreak House, which eventually is a deeply grave
play, the coincidence occurs in the second act, which is comic.
But why did he want to use coincidences at all? Presumably he could
have constructed his plays without them; why, then, did he risk (the
apt word, I think) the use of coincidence? Here are some possible reasons.
First, they are enjoyable. If they are handled with a kind of effrontery,
rather than embarrassment, and if the progress of the play up to that
point has engaged the audience, the coincidence conveys a thrill of
neatness. It makes us feel fulfillment of a wish. When Mr. Crampton
turns out to be Dolly’s father in You Never Can Tell,
it seems much less a trick than a desired comeliness. It seems part
of the nature of this play that its very shape should add to its delight.
Beyond and perhaps beneath this factor is the peculiar truth that coincidence,
in the hands of a master, is a subtle compliment to the audience. Shaw
seems to be saying to us: “I know that you know that this coincidence
would be highly unlikely in life; but I also know that, if I have done
my job properly, you will chuckle with me at that very fact, both because
it is neat and because we all want it to happen.” When a Shavian
coincidence is played before us -- or is read -- we hear him saying
the above, thus admitting us to a society of connoisseurs. Shaw leaves
it to the low-spirited and literal to balk at the unlikelihood of the
event. The rest of us are relishing the coincidence as a manifest of
theatrical life, set.pleasantly apart from the dailiness of life off-stage.
Of course the toleration of coincidence, even a secret eagerness for
its appropriate use, has its dangers. I was once in a parodic high-school
show in which I played someone who was.needed in a particular scene,
and, to excuse my sudden appearance, the author gave me the line, “I
was in the neighborhood looking for some real estate.” The line
got the desired laugh, but the audience was laughing with the author
at the play, not, as in Shaw, enjoying the play itself more. Like many
other potentially beneficial instruments in all the arts, coincidence
used by clumsy hands can merely obtrude. With Shaw, it helps to confirm
the being of the play as an event in art that illuminates the real world
yet is free of the real world’s limitations.