A journal of turn-of-the-century theatre

Issue 6 - Summer 2013

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Bernard F. Dukore, Bernard Shaw: Slaves of Duty and Tricks of the Governing Class (Greensboro, NC: ELT Press, 2012) 139pp.; ISBN 978-0944318461.

reviewed by Charles Joseph Del Dotto

Bernard F. Dukore has been one of the most productive Shavians of his generation, having edited Shaw’s film criticism (Bernard Shaw on Cinema) and theater criticism (the four-volume The Drama Observed) and having written such important books as Bernard Shaw, Playwright and Bernard Shaw, Director. 82 years old this year, Dukore is still going strong, and Bernard Shaw: Slaves of Duty and Tricks of the Governing Class is testament to his longevity and productivity.

A discussion of two different theatrical premieres from 1879, Ibsen’s A Doll House and Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance, sets the stage. Dukore takes the phrase “slaves of duty” from Gilbert’s text and explores its meaning in relation to these two pieces. In contrasting ways, the conclusions of both pieces are deeply concerned with questions of duty. In paradoxically comic terms befitting an operetta, the call to duty to queen and country leads to a pleasingly peaceful and upbeat resolution as the Pirate King, a slave to duty, surrenders to General Stanley. Gilbert and Sullivan’s piece, then, is a conservative work whose invocation of duty affirms the prevailing order. In Ibsen’s play, however, Torvald’s invocation of duty is revolutionary, for the very question of to whom duty is owed, to others or to oneself, is at the heart of the play. In deciding ultimately that the duty she owes herself is more important than the duty Torvald says she owes to him and to her children, Nora liberates herself from societal repression and “is no longer a slave of duty” (3). The redefinition of duty here is emancipation. For Shaw, Ibsen’s scene articulates what, in The Quintessence of Ibsenism, he calls “the primal curse from which we must redeem ourselves,” duty (3). Examining the ways in which duty functions in Shaw’s plays is at the heart of Dukore’s book. Turning his attention to Major Barbara, Dukore reminds us that, while a redefinition of duty can be liberating, as it is in Nora’s case, more often than not the conventional definition and deployment of duty involve coercion and manipulation. When Lady Britomart tells Undershaft that it is his duty to install his son, Stephen, as his heir, Undershaft recognizes that the call to duty is just one of the many “tricks of the governing class” (5). Dukore borrows the phrase from Undershaft as he takes up the question of how rulers (economic and political elites) rule the ruled (the poor and the governed). In taking up “slaves of duty” and “tricks of the governing class,” Dukore’s book is fundamentally about power.

The book accomplishes the task with which it charges itself in the Introduction. Dukore writes,

Generally, comments on the specific themes of Slaves of Duty and Tricks of the Governing Class have been made almost in passing. Until now, they have not been focused upon in detail or in depth. This book explores these issues, which are prevalent in Shaw’s dramatic corpus, collectively and coherently, chronologically and in historical context. If it does not shed new light on all of his plays, it does so on what may be a surprising number of them; and it at least provides a fresh way of looking at Shaw’s works, which supplements prevailing views, even though it does not supersede them. (9)

Modest ambitions drive the book, and, indeed, its greatest virtue is its comprehensiveness. At the end of the book, Dukore remarks that “Of the fifty-one or fifty-two plays in what is usually considered the official Shavian canon […] thirty-seven […] employ the themes of slaves of duty and tricks of the governing class” (108), and there can be no doubt that he has discussed all thirty-seven plays in his examination of these themes. Especially noteworthy are the discussions of two of Shaw’s plays from the 1920s and 30s, The Apple Cart and On the Rocks (74-83; 85-95). It’s an unfortunate fact of Shaw Studies that neither play has invited much by way of commentary; Dukore’s attention is therefore welcome, particularly since these plays receive the strongest and most sustained critical examination in the book.

But, reading the book, one wishes at times that the book had set its ambitions a little higher and had reached for greater “detail,” greater “depth” of sophistication and critical insight. Dukore need not have written about Kant or thrown around terms like “deontology” in a study so focused on duty. However, as strong as many of his close readings are, in some cases they could have been stronger. For example, in his discussion of Shaw’s Jitta’s Atonement (a loose adaptation of Frau Gittas Sühne by Siegfried Trebitsch, Shaw’s German translator), which, like The Apple Cart and On the Rocks, is so rarely commented on by Shavians that to see any treatment of it at all is a pleasant surprise, one has the suspicion that, as interesting as the thematic connection Dukore makes to Ibsen’s A Doll House may be (67-69), making a connection to Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler would have been far more interesting. After all, to a large extent, the plots of both plays revolve around a symbolically charged manuscript of what hopes to be a major scholarly book and the efforts, to destroy it or to bring it into the world, the female protagonists of both plays make on its behalf. Yet, Dukore makes no mention of Hedda despite the nagging feeling that the intertextual relationship between Hedda and Jitta’s Atonement is obvious and begging for explication.

Nonetheless, Dukore’s book is a reader-friendly contribution to thematic studies of Shaw. Bernard Shaw: Slaves of Duty and Tricks of the Governing Class is recommended to anyone working on Shaw and duty or the mechanisms by which power is wielded in Shaw’s worlds, which, Dukore reminds us, are still our own.