According to nineteenth and twentieth-century playwright George Bernard Shaw, a theatergoer with an appetite for “true comedy” in the late Victorian era was hard-pressed to find any at all. Shaw defines true comedy as "the fine art of disillusionment"; one found, instead, in the late-Victorian comedy, a lot of "harmless laughter," or frothy escapism without a lot of deeper meaning(Meisel 122-123). Shaw's work, consisting of over sixty plays, is unusual because it attained much commercial success as it shattered Victorian theatrical tradition; a prime of this type of work is found in the "Don Juan in Hell" episode of Shaw's "comedy and philosophy," "Man and Superman,” a dream sequence-like fragment of the third act. In this “Don Juan in Hell,” Ann, Jack, Ramsden, and Mendoza’s alter egoes from Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” meet in Shaw’s imagined hell and discuss love, war, religion, vitalism, and most interestingly, the status of women. The seemingly irrelevant nature of “Don Juan in Hell,” in addition to its humorous yet disturbing discussion of women’s roles not only breaks from late-Victorian theatrical tradition, but anticipates a style of writing and theatrical performance largely viewed as the epitome of modern theater: Brechtian "alienation," or "estrangement." While I argue that Shaw’s playwriting in a way anticipates Brecht’s writing and theory, I also maintain that Shaw does not conform, exactly, to Brecht’s standards of the modern “epic” theater; Brecht describes the component of his “alienating” epic theater in his essay “Theatre for Pleasure or Theatre for Instruction,” which derives its title from the Horation platitude that theater should both “please and instruct.”
Flocken, Sarah, "Don Juan in Pre-Brechtian Hell, or Shaw the Unexpected Terrorist" (2010). ECLS Student Scholarship.
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