What's a man to do? Muscular Masculinity in Shaw’s Early Drama

In The History of Sexuality Michel Foucault asserts that we are heirs of the late Victorian assumption that links social and sexual deviance and that, in the case of male sexuality, until the late Victorian sexologists made an equation between "effeminacy" and homosexuality, this link was only rarely assumed. Whether you agree with Foucault’s analysis or not, what his statement points up is that the nineteenth century was the great age of sexual taxonomy in which influential and dynamic scientific, legal and ethical communities made up of scientific researchers, historians, clergy and layman, concentrated their energies on studying sexuality and deviance. More importantly, what this comment reveals is the success with which Victorian sexologists and commentators promulgated the myth and discourse of essential, monolithic masculinity.

From the 1830’s onward there was a steady stream of handbooks on how to achieve male self-sufficiency. "Christian manliness" became a common catchphrase which represented a strategy for commending Christian virtue by linking it with more interesting secular notions of moral and physical prowess. "Manliness" in this context generously embraced all that was virtuous and vigorous and it is this blend of perennial religious principle with contemporary heroism that became central to our understanding of the period and determined the construction of the modern masculine ideal.

For most of the nineteenth century and certainly until the 1930's, the prevailing definition of "manliness" as a code of conduct for men was a matter of keen interest to educators and social critics. Emphasis was variously placed on moral courage, sexual purity, athleticism and stoicism, by pundits who ranged from Thomas Arnold through Thomas Carlyle, Charles Kingsley and Thomas Hughes to Robert Baden-Powell. Social historians after Carlyle echoed his preoccupations, not only by excluding women from the public record, but by elevating the "public" man as the object of study and by defining masculinity as natural and monolithic. By the 1880’s Carlyle could be saluted as a prophet because, according to Catherine Hall's account, he had anticipated some of the key attributes of Imperial Man: the emphasis on face-to-face authority, the celebration of the will and the unequivocal assertions of racial superiority. As the male ideal becomes more closely associated with notions of male heroism, Carlyle’s influence becomes more clear.

In this paper, I will examine Arms and the Man (1894) and Candida (1895), George Bernard Shaw's earliest professional plays, to provide a critique of Carlyle’s conceptualization of modern male heroism. In both plays Shaw criticizes the newly-articulated muscular masculinity by creating private worlds in which romantic idealism is insupportable. I will discuss Shaw's use of masculinity as an unstable and relative construct, incomprehensible apart from contemporary notions of men’s social power, never fully possessed, but perpetually renegotiated.