July 17, 2008

The CCLaP 100: "Candida," by George Bernard Shaw

(Over the next two years, I am writing an ongoing series of essays here that I call the "CCLaP 100," whereby I read for the first time a hundred books considered by many to be classics, and then write reports here on whether or not I think they deserve this title. For the complete list of books, as well as an explanation behind how the list was compiled, you can click here.)

Candida, by George Bernard Shaw
Candida (1898)
By George Bernard Shaw
Book #19 in this essay series

The story in a nutshell:
As one of many "comedies of manners" from the Victorian- and Edwardian-era playwright George Bernard Shaw, the actual storyline of today's book under review is much slighter than normal; it is not much more than a breezy 50-page play about a middle-class couple living in the suburban edge of London at the turn of the 20th century, a liberal activist minister and his smart-as-a-tack wife (the "Candida" of the play's title), as well as the young moon-eyed artist they know who has fallen in love with Candida himself. The actual plotline, then, is not much more than that of this minister husband and artist wooer arguing humorously for an hour over which of them loves Candida more, and of what type of man she obviously most needs in her life; Candida herself finally puts an end to the argument by patiently explaining that she doesn't exactly need a man at all, and that the two of them are pretty much morons. Seriously, that's about the entirety of Candida just from a plot standpoint; the main reason to still read and enjoy this script, then, is mostly for the sparkling wordplay and attention to language Shaw brings to the story, as well as its razor-sharp look at the issues and details making up day-to-day life for the British middle-class during these years.

The argument for it being a classic:
You can't even mention "classic literature" without bringing up Shaw, his fans claim; this was an artist, after all, who both wrote and published new material literally from the 1880s to 1940s, painting an indelible portrait of what was at the time the most literary society on the planet, right during the years that novels and plays were at their most popular with mainstream society in general. By the end of his life, Shaw was considered a literary superhero by most, to this day still the only person in history to win both a Nobel Prize and an Oscar; that makes a whole ton of his old work worth going back and revisiting, argue his fans, and not only that but also spread out evenly over the course of his remarkable 60-year career. Take 1898's Candida, for example; although not as polished, say, as a late-career classic like Saint Joan, nor as popular as something like Pygmalion (itself adapted into the insanely popular Broadway musical My Fair Lady), it nonetheless was one of the first really big hits of Shaw's career, as well as a great record of what the times were actually like for an average middle-class citizen during the end of the Victorian Age. As such, then, its fans say, Candida rightly deserves to still be read and enjoyed on a regular basis to this day.

The argument against:
Of course, as we've all learned over the course of this "CCLaP 100" essay series so far, although Victorian and Edwardian literature still continues to be legible and readable to modern eyes, that's a long way from being entertaining or simply not tedious; and critics will argue that Shaw's work is especially guilty of clunky aging, precisely because he wrote about the issues and pumped out the kinds of light, frothy stories that were so popular with contemporary audiences at the time. In fact, you could almost view Shaw as a brilliant television writer more than anything else, in a time when the television industry didn't actually exist; he did crank out over 60 plays over the course of his career, after all, most of which last no more than an hour or so, most of which deal with the same slight plots and family trivialities of a typical B-level network drama on the air right now. If you take a cold, hard look at Shaw's work, critics say, you'll see that they're mostly valuable anymore as historical documents, as records of the times and of what the average citizen of those times found important, a big part of why he was so popular to begin with; the plays themselves, though, are badly dated relics of the Victorian and Edwardian times from which they came, the exact thing a modern show is satirizing anymore whenever you see one of the characters affect a fake stagey British accent and yell, "I say, Lord Wiggelbottom, what a surprise to see you here, old chap!" Shaw's plays are important, the argument goes, just not worth most people these days taking the time to sit down and actually read.

My verdict:
I have to admit, today I very quickly fall on the side of Shaw's critics, and in fact we can take the printed book version of Candida itself as strong evidence; I find it very telling that of the 140-page manuscript, only 52 of those pages are needed to print the actual play, a whopping 88 pages instead devoted to notes about the play, Shaw's preface to the play, interviews about the play, letters Shaw wrote about the play, etc etc. Because it's definitely true -- there's barely anything to Shaw's actual plays themselves, certainly not the strong three-act structure loaded with suspense and drama like we expect anymore from our live theatre, with their 60-volume cumulative effect being much more important these days than any of the individual volumes themselves. (Want even more evidence? Check out Shaw's Wikipedia bio, and notice that no one's yet bothered creating separate entries for over half his plays, and this from a website that includes detailed plot recaps for every episode of every television show in human history.) I agree that the cumulative effect is important, I want there to be no mistake -- I agree that Shaw is one of the most important figures in the history of the English-language arts and letters, and I agree that there is just a ton of information to be mined from his work concerning real life in the British Empire during both its Industrial-Age height and its eventual downfall. But man, let me admit this as well -- sheesh, was Candida a freaking chore to actually get through. ("I say, Lord Wiggelbottom, what a surprise to see you here, old chap!") Perhaps some of his later, weightier, more mature work (which I definitely plan on tackling in the future) will turn out to be more worth the effort; for now, though, I reluctantly conclude that what is more entertaining for most audience audience members would be an interesting book about Shaw and his work, not the work itself.

Is it a classic? No

The next four books scheduled to be read:
Next Friday: Tropic of Cancer, by Henry Miller
In two Fridays: Gulliver's Travels, by Jonathan Swift
In three Fridays: The Sound and the Fury, by William Faulkner
In four Fridays: Beloved, by Toni Morrison

Read even more: Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 9:00 AM, July 17, 2008. Filed under: CCLaP 100 | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |