Bernard Shaw is often thought of as the author of plays of ideas or even propaganda plays where the preaching and the laughing are inextricably mixed. However, the actual writing of the plays and the plays themselves are far more complex than either the popular impressions or Bernard Shaw’s explanations would suggest. The distinguished playwright and critic J. B. Priestley wrote, “Out of his own passion for ideas, his intellectual delight in discussion, the masterly debating style he forged for himself, a brisk good-humour that came naturally to him . . . and a tough knockabout sense of the Theatre, he created a new type of drama” (The Art of the Dramatist [London: Heinemann Educational Books Ltd, 1957], 49). Candida, which, according to some accounts, was Shaw’s favorite play (Allan Chappelow, Shaw the Villager and Human Being: A Biographical Symposium [New York: Macmillan, 1962], 201), is certainly a prototype of that new drama, but it was built from many more observations, occupations, and obsessions than are in Priestley’s catalogue.
Shaw, who often referred to Candida as “the Mother play,” connects it to “a few weeks in Florence, where I occupied myself with the religious art of the Middle Ages” and “a very remarkable collection of the works of our British ‘pre-Raphaelite’ painters” in Birmingham (Complete Plays with Prefaces [New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1963], volume III, 109-110). Indeed, as Louis Crompton argues in Shaw the Dramatist, “Shaw conceived of Candida as a Hegelian drama, showing the conflicts of two systems of ideals, each inadequate in itself, but both having a claim to our interest and respect” ([Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1969], 31). Or as Shaw put it, “To distil the quintessential drama from pre-Raphaelitism . . . it must be shewn at its best in conflict with the first broken, nervous, stumbling attempts to formulate its own revolt against itself as it develops into something higher” (Complete Plays with Prefaces, volume III, 111). That revolt (or at least that strong difference of opinion) involved, for instance, admirers of William Morris as far removed from each other as Bernard Shaw, who “admired the social revolutionary” and William Butler Yeats, who “deplored Morris’s political interests and was attracted exclusively by ‘the idle singer of an empty day’” (Crompton, 33). In the play, of course, Yeats (with a plentiful admixture of Shelley) becomes Marchbanks, while Morrell is closer to Shaw’s basic beliefs. However, no Shaw plan is ever so schematic. Marchbanks is arguably the most frequent speaker of Shavianisms, and Candida also speaks a set of necessary truths.
Of course, there were many other influences on and elements in the play. Ibsen’s A Doll’s House had served as a catalyst in several senses. Ibsen’s vision of Nora as the doll in the house of her husband led to Shaw’s presentation of Morrell as the doll in Candida’s house (Michael Holroyd, Bernard Shaw: The Search for Love [New York: Random House, 1988], 315). The three-way struggle among Marchbanks, Morrell, and Candida has a sense of realism about it that leads naturally (along with Shaw’s anti-romantic principles) to a refusal to follow the normal plot lines usually laid down for such plays. Candida is not resolved romantically, idealistically, or even naturalistically. Even those people who believe that Candida made the right choice may have problems with her reasons for doing so. What sort of romantic triangle ends with the would-be lover sympathizing with the husband? Perhaps some of this complexity and some of Shaw’s insights come from yet another of his sources of inspiration.
With financing from Henry Irving, Charles Charrington staged a production of A Doll’s House “to bring out his wife [Janet Achurch] as a great actress” (Stephen Winsten, Jesting Apostle: The Private Life of Bernard Shaw [New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1957], 76). Shaw, who was no stranger to unconventional relationships, was besotted with her. As he describes it, “I found myself suddenly magnetized, irradiated, transported, fired, rejuvenated, bewitched” (cited in Winsten, 77). He wrote “a sequel to A Doll’s House which Archer read and begged him not to publish because it was” (Winsten, 77) so bad. Having failed with a comedy, Shaw tried to write Janet Achurch a tragedy, but he was compelled to give it up because, he said, “he could write nothing beautiful enough for her, and that he could no longer allow himself to be in love with her because ‘nobody short of an archangel with purple and gold wings shall henceforth be allowed to approach you” (Winsten, 77).
Clearly, Bernard Shaw did manage to create a play that was, at least in part, a homage to his infatuation. Marchbanks suggests that he and Morrell go to the ends of the Earth to find a worthier lover for Candida than either of them, “some beautiful archangel with purple wings”(Complete Plays with Prefaces,volume III, 256). “The rivalry between Marchbanks and Morrell over Morrell’s wife Candida carries echoes from several of Shaw’s three-cornered affairs . . . but was intended as an interpretation of the current drama between himself and the Charringtons. . . . In Candida herself he had written a part at which Janet would excel. Its success, he hoped, would nerve her to separate her interests from Charrington’s, emerging from domesticity as an independent actress of genius” (Holroyd, 315).
However, the play and its early productions seem to have escaped its creator’s control. In Margot Peters’ words, “Candida does not change, as Shaw believed Janet must” (cited in Holroyd, 315). Shaw insisted that Janet Achurch should play Candida, but he could not enforce his casting, and he paid a price for his loyalty. Richard Mansfield, who was to make Shaw famous in America, accepted the play and started rehearsals, but then he cancelled the production. He had many reasons for his action but certainly one of the strongest was, as he wrote to Shaw, “I couldn’t have made love to your Candida [Janet Achurch] if I had taken ether” (cited in St. John Ervine, Bernard Shaw: His Life, Work and Friends, [New York: William Morrow & Company, 1956], 340).
In an irony that is positively Shavian (and which almost suggests that the play was writing the playwright and not the other way round), Shaw came to reject Janet Achurch, saying, when at long last he saw her play Candida, that she “wasn’t the right woman for it at all” (Holroyd, 383). Like Marchbanks, Shaw found himself sympathizing with the despised husband, asking Janet Achurch , “How is he . . . to be got out of your clutches: that is what I want to know?” (cited in Holroyd, 380). Bernard Shaw, of course, could claim that he had already provided a sufficient justification (if not perhaps an explanation) for all these complexities in his preface to the play. Speaking of “the distant light of the new age,” he said, “Discernible at first only by the eyes of the man of genius, it must be focussed by him on the speculum of a work of art. . . . The artist himself has no other way of making himself conscious of the ray: it is by a blind instinct that he keeps on building up his masterpieces until their pinnacles catch the glint of the unrisen sun” (Complete Plays with Prefaces, volume III, 111). Or to quote Pippin, “They say the whole is greater/ Than the sum of the parts it’s made of” (Roger O. Hirson [New York: Avon Books, 1977], 95). And finally, in a reminiscence of Falstaff, Shaw is not only debatable in himself but the cause of debate in other men—and women.