Candida by George Bernard Shaw – Critical Appreciation

A Critical Commentary on the Play

Written in 1895, George Bernard Shaw’s play “Candida” comes second in the collection “Plays Pleasant” and is sub-titled “A Mystery”. The play is often categorized as a comedy, an anti-romantic play and a drama of ideas. It is a common plot out of which the theme of the play is spun out. It is the story of eternal triangle that Shaw deals with in an unconventional way.

The plot presents a parson (Reverend James Mavor Morell), his wife (Candida) and a poet (Eugene Marchbanks) involved in the eternal triangle of love. The conjugal relations of the clergyman (Morell) with his wife form the entire content of the play. Marchbanks, a poet, is introduced; he declares his love for the clergyman’s wife. It is rather stock-in-trade domestic affair that is turned into sheer unconventional stuff when the wife decides to stay back with her husband instead of the overtly sentimental poet. The uniqueness of Shaw’s thinking is shown in the final act where the wife rejects the poet-lover in favour of happy conjugal domesticity and financial security.

Thus, the story is divested of the romantic glamour that we expect from a romantic fiction or drama. Shaw is out to attack valiantly the drab sentimentality by the weapon of his thesis and idea. Shaw emerges not only as an iconoclast but also a reformer with a fervent zeal to purge society of spurious senseless conceptions that have hitherto subjugated our rational faculty of mind.

Such startling twist in the story provides ample scope for exposing several anomalies prevalent in late Victorian social institution of marriage. We feel elated on seeing what is happening in the plot of the story. It is no doubt far away from the idyllic charm of Shakespearean romantic comedy. What is most salient as regards the thematic matter is the very thought-provoking exposure of some serious societal issues that get churned up by Shaw’s hammer of high-strung anti-establishment fervour.

The motive as it appears behind Shaw’s manipulation of the theme is his forthright attack on worn-out conventions so that people may become sane and wise in an analytical way. This is the triumph of rationality over foolishness.

Morell, the ardent socialist, is a pious Christian and proud of his married life. But in course of time his illusion fades away when the poet informs him about his love for Candida, his wife. Such high tension in the story is handled by the dramatist in a convincing way. The characters are refreshingly drawn and they are different from the conventional ones. They are suggestively christened names by dint of which we get to know the ruling temper and psychological make-up of the characters. Morell is the embodiment of conventional morality. Candida is noted for her candour. And Burgess, her father, is of bourgeois mentality. Poet Marchbanks is an idealist.

Morell never appears to be a jealous husband; nor does he feel hostile to Marchbanks when he declares love for Candida. No momentary spurt of anger unsettles his calmness. Morell retains his cool without any further altercation with Marchbanks. Such crisis of marital relationship is well averted to as Morell promptly seems too willing to give Candida freedom to choose between himself and his rival. It is absolutely astonishing that a husband appears quite unconventional and generous as to give his wife freedom of choice. It is contrary to the behaviour of a stereotypical husband. Here it is an appeal to the intellectual stimulation on the part of the dramatist.

Candida presents herself as the newly emerging emancipated woman. She openly disapproves of her husband’s sermons. Again, she remains steadfastly dutiful maintaining the traditional conduct of woman. She never declines her wifely duty. Marchbanks is a fiery romantic full of compassion for Candida.

Another important facet of the drama is the presentation of conflict that is well evident in the character of Morell who is found the exact opposite to the ideas that he professes in public. He preaches equality as a believer in Christian piety. Such public orator treats his wife as a slave. This is the duality of human nature revealed through the characterization of Morell. Inherent inner weakness of character is a momentous force that triggers off complexity in the plot.

The main conflict is well modulated till the end of the play. It takes a sudden surprising turn when we see Candida inclined to live with her husband. It is a steady deviation from any sensational happening. Splendidly befitting ending is quite Shavian in regard to his drama of ideas. This is a new beginning for the couple but it brings out the hollowness of the ideal of happiness effectively. Shaw brings out the difference between nobility without happiness and happiness without nobility.

Minor conflict is beautifully summed up between Morell and Burgess. Such is the technical expertise of Shaw’s dramatic art that is helpful in revealing the different facets of the main characters. Morell-Burgess episode speaks volumes about the socialistic traits in the character of Morell. No doubt, we get a glimpse of Burgess who is a representative of business class embodying its vulgar breeding mercantile preoccupation and intellectual backwardness. It speaks of their stubbornly ultra-materialistic attitude. Again, the brief conversation between Eugene and Proserpine delightfully exposes the hypocrisy of existing moral code not permitting a man to express his true self.

Shaw’s dramas are usually furnished with elaborate exposition. The play Candida is no exception. The exposition is mainly allied to characterization and stage directions. At first, Morell is presented as a proficient orator. His other traits are gradually revealed: his true pious nature is shown as an endowment of virtuous character. The rest of the characters, too, are brought to the same room before long. Even the minor conflict between Morell and Burgess is mentioned. Such deft handling of prosaic details draws our attention.

The dialogues in Shaw’s drama are essentially lively instruments for propaganda. His mastery over dialogues is evident in Candida. The sparkling wit of the dialogues imparts to the play a real charm.

Shaw’s psychological study of characters provides us with insight into human nature. Candida shows her lack of courage when he rejects Marchbanks in favour of Morell. This is true human nature revealed astonishingly. Candida is intelligent enough to decide to settle with Morell instead of idealist Marchbanks. She never shows any uncontrolled passion and sentiment. Rash impulsiveness is hardly found in her character.

The conception of love is found far divorced from bodily pleasure. It is really the intellectual aspect of love that is elevated to a higher plane. We know how Morell and Candida lead a respectable conjugal life even though they do not stand on the same intellectual plane. Man is the master as it happens in Candida and woman is a dependant. Their relationship is governed by economic factor. The real face of love is exposed when it comes to choosing between Morell and Eugene, between security and freedom, between domesticity and boundless imagination. Shaw shatters the established belief that women would always prefer the stronger man. Rather, as it appears in the play, woman chooses the more secure and  stable life offered by Morell. This is what makes the play anti-romantic.

Apart from the theme of love and marriage, the play explores a number of minor themes. The freedom of women in Victorian society to choose her own way of life is one such theme in the play. Moreover, the way the central male characters Morell and Eugene show their ignorance of the reality of their actual importance or the truth in their perceptions highlights the theme of ignorance and arrogance.

The play ends with Marchbanks’ secret undisclosed. Justifying the subtitle of the play Candida readers are eager to know the mystery of the poet’s (Eugene) mind.

Written by , Last updated on February 21, 2023