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Book description
Widower’s Houses (1892), the first of Shaw’s plays to be performed, was first published in the collection Plays Unpleasant. It is indeed an “unpleasant” play, for although it takes the form of a traditional comedy leading inevitably toward marriage, it makes the economic self interest that lies behind such match-making unusually clear and shows how both large and small fortunes may be—directly or indirectly—dependent upon the exploitation of the poor.Failed novelist and successful music critic George Bernard Shaw had been thinking seriously about poverty and inequality since he joined the Fabian Society eight years before. No rabid Marxists, the Fabians believed in “gradualism,” that is, the incremental accomplishment of economic goals through the established political institutions of society (in this, they resembled the Democratic Socialists of America, of which Bernie Sanders is the most famous member.) He was also an early English promoter of Ibsen, admiring the way the Norwegian playwright explored questions of power, money and sexual equality within the traditional structure of the family. He wished to attempt something similar, and Widower’s Houses is the result.The play begins—as any typical comedy might—with poor young doctor of good family Harry Trench who, while vacationing at Remagen on the banks of the Rhine, falls for the charming Blanche, daughter of rich businessman Sartorius. Everything seems promising until Trench discovers the source of Sartorius’ money: he is a slumlord, owner of some of the worst tenements in London.The play is unpleasant because no one in the play—least of all Harry, our “hero”—shows himself to be untainted by money, or unmarked by the unearned privileges of class. (Blanche’s callous abuse of a her female servant lingers uncomfortably in the memory, darkening and enriching this theme of the play.) On the other hand, Shaw creates no cardboard villains here: Sartorius loves his daughter deeply, and our young people strive to be true to each other in an unjust, imperfect world where money is, after all, serious business indeed.The play is not without flaws. The third act, for example, is too full of the dreary details of an complex economic deal, and, though Shaw attempts to lighten things with comic relief, the attempts are not successful. Still, the issues Widower’s Houses raises are important, and the flawed, sadder but wiser lovers offer us an “unpleasant” but realistic “comic” resolution.
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