The Quintessence of Ibsenism is an essay written in 1891 by George Bernard Shaw, providing an extended analysis of the works of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen and of Ibsen's critical reception in England. By extension, Shaw uses this "exposition of Ibsenism" to illustrate the imperfections of British society, notably employing to that end an imaginary "community of a thousand persons," divided into three categories: Philistines, Idealists, ...
The Quintessence of Ibsenism is an essay written in 1891 by George Bernard Shaw, providing an extended analysis of the works of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen and of Ibsen's critical reception in England. By extension, Shaw uses this "exposition of Ibsenism" to illustrate the imperfections of British society, notably employing to that end an imaginary "community of a thousand persons," divided into three categories: Philistines, Idealists, and the lone Realist.
Henrik Ibsen (20 March 1828 – 23 May 1906) was a major 19th-century Norwegian playwright, theatre director, and poet. He is often referred to as "the father of realism" and is one of the founders of Modernism in the theatre.
The essay originated in response to a call for papers from the Fabian Society in the spring of 1890, "put forward under the general heading 'Socialism in Contemporary Literature.'". Shaw read the original paper, "the first form of this little book" at the St. James's Restaurant on the 18th July, 1890.
Shaw devotes the piece largely to a discussion of Ibsen's recurring topic of the strong character holding out against social hypocrisy, while acknowledging in his essay's final sentence that the quintessence of Ibsenism is that "there is no formula".
The classification of an individual character into one of the three categories depends on his use or rejection of ideals, which Shaw views as masks which “hide the face of…truth”. Idealists, as their name indicates, rely exclusively on the use of masks; a realist insists on their removal. The Philistine, term for which Shaw is indebted to Matthew Arnold, neither constructs nor removes masks, content not to question reality. According to Shaw, “out of a thousand persons…there are 700 Philistines, 299 idealists, and only one lone realist”.
Shaw, unlike Arnold who viewed Philistines as obstacles to human and cultural progress, constructs this type as relatively harmless though it includes the majority of society. Philistine characterization varies widely in Shaw’s novels and plays, and becomes less and less frequent in his later works. The Philistine is often likeable, endowed with athletic ability, unpretending and credulous. Examples of this type exhibit a range of social backgrounds, including the aristocracy and professions such as the army, the church, and politics. Johnny Tarleton in Misalliance is an ordinary, vaguely incompetent business man; Colonel Daniel Craven in The Philanderer is a well-meaning, gullible retired officer. In his serial drama In the Beginning, Shaw casts Adam himself as Philistine, perhaps allowing an explanation for the sheer numbers of the Philistine type today.
The idealist type is, rather than the Philistine, the focal point of Shaw’s critique of British society. As active rather than passive, the idealist is to be considered dangerous due to his desire to uphold and defend values such as duty and altruism at the expense of individual life and happiness. He is characterized by a “devotion to romantic illusions” such as that of honor and self-sacrifice and the “plausible” excuses with which he seeks to justify the extremes of his conduct (which invariably consist of an “attack on the nonconformist”. A trait common to all idealists is the tendency to enhance the aesthetic value of (and thus reinforce the power of) everything linked with the establishment and with the perpetuation of family life. The idealist confers an inordinate importance to love and sex. A prime example of the idealist is Marian Lind who elopes with an American inventor in The Irrational Knot.
Although Shaw denied portraying either villains or heroes in his plays, he clearly pits the idealist against the realist in a manner which suggests the typological superiority of the latter. Often cynical, opinionated and characterized by independence (due to a diffuse mistrust of others), the realist is first and foremost a skeptic.
George Bernard Shaw (26 July 1856 – 2 November 1950) was an Irish playwright and a co-founder of the London School of Economics. Although his first profitable writing was music and literary criticism, in which capacity he wrote many highly articulate pieces of journalism, his main talent was for drama, and he wrote more than 60 plays. He was also an essayist, novelist and short story writer. Nearly all his writings address prevailing social problems, but have a vein of comedy which makes their stark themes more palatable. Issues which engaged Shaw's attention included education, marriage, religion, government, health care, and class privilege.
He was most angered by what he perceived as the exploitation of the working class. An ardent socialist, Shaw wrote many brochures and speeches for the Fabian Society. He became an accomplished orator in the furtherance of its causes, which included gaining equal rights for men and women, alleviating abuses of the working class, rescinding private ownership of productive land, and promoting healthy lifestyles. For a short time he was active in local politics, serving on the London County Council.
In 1898, Shaw married Charlotte Payne-Townshend, a fellow Fabian, whom he survived. They settled in Ayot St Lawrence in a house now called Shaw's Corner. Shaw died there, aged 94, from chronic problems exacerbated by injuries he incurred from a fall.
He is the only person to have been awarded both a Nobel Prize in Literature (1925) and an Oscar (1938), for his contributions to literature and for his work on the film Pygmalion (adaptation of his play of the same name), respectively. Shaw wanted to refuse his Nobel Prize outright because he had no desire for public honours, but accepted it at his wife's behest.