It started in 1884.
For years, Shaw had been toying with the idea of writing plays. Longtime friend and collaborator, critic William Archer, proposed a plot based on Ceinture Doree by Frenchman Emile Augier. Previously, Shaw had dabbled in verse drama, but the new play was to be in prose and to be rooted in Shaw’s Marxist agenda. The working title was The Way to a Woman’s Heart, but it soon was changed to Rheingold and then anglicized to Rhinegold. He finished two acts in two months, but twenty-three lines into Act III he stopped, having exhausted Archer’s idea.As a young man, Shaw had been a rent-collector for a London slum lord, and he was finding that Augier’s Parisian story wasn’t lending itself to his own idea of a socially-relevant drama on the subject of real estate reform. He began to borrow from other sources: Dickens’ Little Dorritt; an 1883 penny pamphlet called The Bitter Cry of Outcast London; and his own novel An Unsocialist Socialist. Finding the exercise ineffectual, however, he laid down fiction and drama for a time, and instead focused his attention on lectures and treatises political. The British theatre was not mature enough yet for his ideas, and Shaw felt it “sinking for want not of an Augier, but of an Ibsen.”
In 1887, he took up the play again. He made a longhand copy of the first two acts, and brought them to Archer. The two argued its readiness. Shaw pointed out that he had taken Archer’s “romantic” notion, and brought it “into vivid contact with real life.” He asked that Archer suggest how to complete it. Their accounts differ on what happened next, but they are sure to have disagreed on the quality of the structure—as well as the original premise—and whether it needed more “clockwork machinery” or “artificial flowers.” It is unclear who favored which. Ultimately, Archer fell asleep while Shaw read him Act II.
Again, Shaw laid the play aside. Then, once again, in 1888, he laid fiction aside, this time for good. “I could not stand the form. It is too clumsy and unreal.” He would say later, in response to an enquiry from a publisher, “No thank you: no more novels for me. Five failures are enough to satisfy my appetite for enterprise in fiction.” In his drama, however, he had merely changed direction. Partnered with an Anglo-Norwegian, H.L. Braekstad, he had begun to translate Ibsen’s Peer Gynt into English. The process was slow and frustrating, however, and was soon abandoned. A new idea for a play came into Shaw’s head the following year. Having recently fallen in love with a married woman, and having entered into a quarrel over it with the Archers, he began a series of dramatic dialogues on marriage. The play, a comedy called The Cassone, was never finished, but in it are the seeds of ideas that would eventually grow into Candida. His despair over another abandoned drama was great, but the example of Ibsen still drove him.
He blamed his country for his lack of success, and he “set to work to destroy the society that makes bad plays possible.” He knew, based on the success of Ibsen, that a serious social agenda could be brought to the stage, and he also knew that his writing alone couldn’t do it, but that London would also need an entire theatre company committed to such work. That company would be created in 1891 by a Dutchman named J.T. Grein. It was called ‘The Independent Theatre’, and it opened with Ibsen’s Ghosts. The production was a sensation, and it transferred from a glorified barn into the Royalty Theatre. Grein and Ibsen were the talk of the town.
Grein needed new British playwrights, though, and Shaw was there to fill the gap. In 1892, he again took up Rhinegold, and found inspiration to revise it. The improvements came in making the hero less heroic, and the villain less sinister. Dr. Trench would be more real, and the slumlord, Sartorius, would simply be a cog in the social machinery, no more at fault than anyone else. Borrowing from the scriptures, Shaw came up with a new title, Widowers’ Houses, and he gave it the subtitle ‘An Original Didactic Realistic Play in Three Acts.’
Rehearsals for the Independent Theatre’s production began on November 15, 1892. It had a rough opening on December 9, and Shaw made a post-show curtain speech accompanied by hisses from the audience. It had a second and final performance on December 13, and this time—no critics being present—his curtain speech was applauded. To publicize this, his first staged play, he filled the local papers with his own columns and correspondence, reviews of reviews, and even interviews with himself.
He welcomed the controversy the play had engendered as part of the whole aesthetic experience, relishing even the hooting and hissing. This, he hoped, would be the beginning of a new theatrical dialogue on British society, of which he himself would be at the forefront. His characters may have seemed wholly unsympathetic, but this was something that would improve with later plays and even within the growth of Widowers’ Houses itself. He would instruct future producers that the character of Lickcheese, the discomfiting rent-collector, should be played with sincerity. Like his former employer, Sartorius, he was incapable of being any better than the world around him.
We would see these characters again later. Lickcheese developed into Pygmalion’s Doolittle, and Sartorius into Major Barbara’s Undershaft. Shaw’s sympathy for these characters, and fury at the world around them—much more artfully explored later in his career—are never more simply stated than in Widower’s Houses. In this way, it is a very human play, and an interesting glimpse into the rawer early work of a major dramatist.
from Bernard Shaw (Volume One: The Search for Love 1856-98)