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“Mad On Reading” and the Glassed-Framed Garden:

The Presentation of Higher Consciousness in Misalliance


By Tony Stafford


          In many of Shaw’s plays, we see one character who struggles to defy society’s conventions, get in touch with his/her true nature, and raise him/herself above the ordinary, conventional level. In Misalliance, Shaw presents two characters, John Tarleton and Lina Szczepanowska, who are fighting to gain a higher consciousness, and he uses the garden and book motifs to reveal these characters to us.  

          A garden is present for the entire play, but we view it through an enormous glass pavilion, as though the garden were part of the interior decor. Shaw notes that the glass pavilion is “a spacious half hemisphere of glass which forms a pavilion commanding the garden, and, beyond it, a barren but lovely landscape of  hill profile with fir trees, commons of bracken and gorse, and wonderful cloud pictures.” Shaw writes that the glass pavilion “springs from a bridgelike arch in the wall of the house” and that “at intervals round the pavilion are marble pillars with specimens of Vienese pottery on them.” In other words, the garden is framed by the marble pillars and the glass pavilion, emphasizing the garden picture and focusing the audience’s attention on it. It is also through this glass wall, and by extension through the garden, that the “aeroplane” crashes, and Lina breaks through the glass wall of conventional British society, thereby bringing liberation to the image of women in the early twentieth century: “I am a free woman [. . .] I am strong: I am skilful: I am brave: I am independent: I am unbought.” Her arrival through the glass-framed garden suggests her derivation, not from society, but from nature, and the natural universe. Moreover, the whole play moves toward the climactic moment in the garden where the play comes to a point and truths revealed.

          While the setting has no actual library or bookshelves in it, books define John Tarleton’s very being, for he is “mad about reading.” Tarleton has become a highly successful underwear manufacturer, but his heart is in books and ideas: “The circumstances that condemned me to keep a shop are the biggest tragedy in modern life. I ought to have been a writer. I’m essentially a man of ideas.” Tarleton constantly commands people to read and quotes from various authors.  His thinking has been molded by the books he has read; he is an unconventional man with recognizable Shavian-like ideas, ideas about old age and death, parenthood, anti-romanticism, democracy, anti-materialism, capitalism, business, spiritual qualities, transcendence, and, ultimately, the superman. He says that “the superman’s an idea. I believe in ideas. Read Whatshisname (Shaw’s self-referential note), and when he says that “the superman may come,” it seems that the superman may have already arrived in the form of John Tarleton himself, with the aid of the books he has read.