Shaw, Stoppard, and Audible Intelligibility

By Martin Meisel

            There is a case to be made for Stoppard as Shaw's successor and heir in deploying a dramatic language marked by wit and rhetoric in the service of a "comedy of ideas."   Shaw had a lot to say about dramatic language as critic and correspondent; his precepts to his translators, notably Siegfried Trebitsch, on the action of words in plays could of themselves supply the materials of a virtual handbook.  But underlying all was the fundamental criterion of "audible intelligibility," which in Shaw's view separates the effective playwright from the accomplished novelist, e.g. Henry James.   Shaw's affinities with Stoppard in conducting a comedy of ideas in heightened and eloquent expression, in witty exchanges laced with low comedy, include similar views, for example,  on the necessity of allowing characters the capacity to make the best possible arguments for their own viewpoints, that is "to take everybody's side." And there are numerous affinities in subject matter (i. e. professional conduct) and in dramatic invention (i. e. counterfactual historical conversations).  But there are also significant divergences in language and dramaturgy.  Shaw's tendencies are Socratic and explanatory, his bent towards clarification.  Stoppard's delight is in cognitive uncertainty, the polysemous ambiguity in language and the unreliability of perception.  In consequence, Stoppard sometimes pushes "audible intelligibility" to the limit.  One telling indicator of difference is the paucity of quiproquo passages in Shaw, and their ripe abundance in Stoppard.  The equivalent of such verbal mistaking is the stage situation in Stoppard that the audience, not just the characters, misreads or finds initially unintelligible.  Stoppard is far from a Shavian clone; but he has been able to exploit capacities that Shaw kept alive for the modern theater and make them his own.