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Dramatic Opinions and Essays with an Apology by Bernard Shaw (1906)

by Bernard Shaw

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In all the arts there is a distinction between the mere physical artistic faculty, consisting of a very fine sense of colour, form, tone, rhythmic movement, and so on, and that supreme sense of humanity which alone can raise the art work created by the physical artistic faculties into a convincing presentment of life. (p. 1) The New Magda and the New Cyprienne ; Review: Magda and The Queen's Proctor; (1896)
(1) (Note: page numbers refer to the 1909 Archibold Constable & Co., Ltd. edition, London)

What was the Romantic movement ? I don’t know, though I was under its spell in my youth. All I can say is that it was a freak of the human imagination, which created an imaginary past, an imaginary heroism, an imaginary poetry out of what appears to those of us who are no longer in the vein for it as the show in a theatrical costumier’s shop window. Everybody tells you that it began with somebody and ended with somebody else; but its beginnings were anticipated, and it is going on still. Byron’s Laras and Corsairs look like the beginning of it to an elderly reader until he recollects “The Castle of Otranto”; yet “The Castle of Otranto” is not so romantic as Otway’s “Venice Preserved,” which, again, is no more romantic than the tales of the knights errant beloved of Don Quixote. Romance is always, I think, a product of ennui, an attempt to escape from a condition in which real life appears empty, prosaic and boresome—therefore essentially a gentlemanly product. The man who has grappled with real life, flesh to flesh and spirit to spirit, has little patience with fools’ paradises. When Carlyle said to the emigrants, “Here and now is your America,” he spoke as a realist to romanticists; and Ibsen was of the same mind when he finally decided that there was more tragedy in the next suburban villa than in the whole imaginary Italy of unauthentic Borgias. Indeed, in our present phase, romance has become the literary trade of imaginative weaklings who have neither the energy to gain experience of life nor the genius to divine it: wherefore I would have the State establish a public Department of Literature, which should affix to every romance a brief dossier of the author. For example:--“The writer of this story has no ascertainable qualifications for dealing with the great personages and events of history. His mind is stored with fiction, and his imagination inflamed with alcohol. His books, full of splendid sins, in no way reflect his life, as he is too timid not to be conventionally respectable, and has never fought a man or tempted a woman. He cannot box, fence, or ride, and is afraid to master the bicycle. He appears to be kept alive mainly by the care of his wife, a plain woman, much worn by looking after him and the children. He is unconscious that he has any duties as a citizen; and the Secretary of State for Literature has failed to extract from him any intelligible answer to the question as to the difference between an Urban Sanitary Authority and the Holy Roman Empire. The public are therefore warned to attach no practical importance to the feats of swordsmanship, the breakneck rides, the intrigues with Semiramis, Cleopatra and Catherine of Russia, and the cabinet councils of Julius Caesar, Charlemagne, Richelieu and Napoléon, as described in his works; and he is hereby declared liable to quadruple assessment for School Board rates in consideration of his being the beneficiary, so far, by the efforts made in the name of popular education to make reading and writing coextensive with popular ignorance.”

For all that, the land of dreams is a wonderful place; and the great Romancers who found the key of its gates were no Alnaschars. These artists, inspired neither by faith and beatitude, nor by strife and realization, were neither saints nor crusaders, but pure enchanters, who conjured up a region where existence touches you delicately to the very heart, and where mysteriously thrilling people, secretly known to you in dreams of your childhood, enact a life in which terrors are as fascinating as delights; so that ghosts and death, agony and sin, become, like love and victory, phases of an unaccountable ecstacy.
-- (p. 287-289) ; Review : Lorenzaccio , drama in five acts by Alfred de Musset. Adapted for the stage by M. Armand d’Artois.
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