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    Author's Preface

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    Chapter 1

    This piece is not an argument for or against polygamy. It is a
    clinical study of how the thing actually occurs among quite
    ordinary people, innocent of all unconventional views concerning
    it. The enormous majority of cases in real life are those of
    people in that position. Those who deliberately and
    conscientiously profess what are oddly called advanced views by
    those others who believe them to be retrograde, are often, and
    indeed mostly, the last people in the world to engage in
    unconventional adventures of any kind, not only because they have
    neither time nor disposition for them, but because the friction
    set up between the individual and the community by the expression
    of unusual views of any sort is quite enough hindrance to the
    heretic without being complicated by personal scandals. Thus the
    theoretic libertine is usually a person of blameless family life,
    whilst the practical libertine is mercilessly severe on all other
    libertines, and excessively conventional in professions of social

    What is more, these professions are not hypocritical: they are
    for the most part quite sincere. The common libertine, like the
    drunkard, succumbs to a temptation which he does not defend, and
    against which he warns others with an earnestness proportionate
    to the intensity of his own remorse. He (or she) may be a liar
    and a humbug, pretending to be better than the detected
    libertines, and clamoring for their condign punishment; but this
    is mere self-defence. No reasonable person expects the burglar to
    confess his pursuits, or to refrain from joining in the cry of
    Stop Thief when the police get on the track of another burglar.
    If society chooses to penalize candor, it has itself to thank if
    its attack is countered by falsehood. The clamorous virtue of the
    libertine is therefore no more hypocritical than the plea of Not
    Guilty which is allowed to every criminal. But one result is that
    the theorists who write most sincerely and favorably about
    polygamy know least about it; and the practitioners who know most
    about it keep their knowledge very jealously to themselves. Which
    is hardly fair to the practice.


    Also it is impossible to estimate its prevalence. A practice to
    which nobody confesses may be both universal and unsuspected,
    just as a virtue which everybody is expected, under heavy
    penalties, to claim, may have no existence. It is often assumed--
    indeed it is the official assumption of the Churches and the
    divorce courts that a gentleman and a lady cannot be alone
    together innocently. And that is manifest blazing nonsense,
    though many women have been stoned to death in the east, and
    divorced in the west, on the strength of it. On the other hand,
    the innocent and conventional people who regard the gallant
    adventures as crimes of so horrible a nature that only the most
    depraved and desperate characters engage in them or would listen
    to advances in that direction without raising an alarm with the
    noisiest indignation, are clearly examples of the fact that most
    sections of society do not know how the other sections live.
    Industry is the most effective check on gallantry. Women may, as
    Napoleon said, be the occupation of the idle man just as men are
    the preoccupation of the idle woman; but the mass of mankind is
    too busy and too poor for the long and expensive sieges which the
    professed libertine lays to virtue. Still, wherever there is
    idleness or even a reasonable supply of elegant leisure there is
    a good deal of coquetry and philandering. It is so much
    pleasanter to dance on the edge of a precipice than to go over it
    that leisured society is full of people who spend a great part of
    their lives in flirtation, and conceal nothing but the
    humiliating secret that they have never gone any further. For
    there is no pleasing people in the matter of reputation in this
    department: every insult is a flattery; every testimonial is a
    disparagement: Joseph is despised and promoted, Potiphar's wife
    admired and condemned: in short, you are never on solid ground
    until you get away from the subject altogether. There is a
    continual and irreconcilable conflict between the natural and
    conventional sides of the case, between spontaneous human
    relations between independent men and women on the one hand and
    the property relation between husband and wife on the other, not
    to mention the confusion under the common name of love of a
    generous natural attraction and interest with the murderous
    jealousy that fastens on and clings to its mate (especially a
    hated mate) as a tiger fastens on a carcase. And the confusion is
    natural; for these extremes are extremes of the same passion; and
    most cases lie somewhere on the scale between them, and are so
    complicated by ordinary likes and dislikes, by incidental wounds
    to vanity or gratifications of it, and by class feeling, that A
    will be jealous of B and not of C, and will tolerate infidelities
    on the part of D whilst being furiously angry when they are
    committed by E.


    That jealousy is independent of sex is shown by its intensity in
    children, and by the fact that very jealous people are jealous of
    everybody without regard to relationship or sex, and cannot bear
    to hear the person they "love" speak favorably of anyone under
    any circumstances (many women, for instance, are much more
    jealous of their husbands' mothers and sisters than of unrelated
    women whom they suspect him of fancying); but it is seldom
    possible to disentangle the two passions in practice. Besides,
    jealousy is an inculcated passion, forced by society on people in
    whom it would not occur spontaneously. In Brieux's Bourgeois aux
    Champs, the benevolent hero finds himself detested by the
    neighboring peasants and farmers, not because he preserves game,
    and sets mantraps for poachers, and defends his legal rights over
    his land to the extremest point of unsocial savagery, but
    because, being an amiable and public-spirited person, he refuses
    to do all this, and thereby offends and disparages the sense of
    property in his neighbors. The same thing is true of matrimonial
    jealousy; the man who does not at least pretend to feel it and
    behave as badly as if he really felt it is despised and insulted;
    and many a man has shot or stabbed a friend or been shot or
    stabbed by him in a duel, or disgraced himself and ruined his own
    wife in a divorce scandal, against his conscience, against his
    instinct, and to the destruction of his home, solely because
    Society conspired to drive him to keep its own lower morality in
    countenance in this miserable and undignified manner.

    Morality is confused in such matters. In an elegant plutocracy, a
    jealous husband is regarded as a boor. Among the tradesmen who
    supply that plutocracy with its meals, a husband who is not
    jealous, and refrains from assailing his rival with his fists, is
    regarded as a ridiculous, contemptible and cowardly cuckold. And
    the laboring class is divided into the respectable section which
    takes the tradesman's view, and the disreputable section which
    enjoys the license of the plutocracy without its money: creeping
    below the law as its exemplars prance above it; cutting down all
    expenses of respectability and even decency; and frankly
    accepting squalor and disrepute as the price of anarchic self-
    indulgence. The conflict between Malvolio and Sir Toby, between
    the marquis and the bourgeois, the cavalier and the puritan, the
    ascetic and the voluptuary, goes on continually, and goes on not
    only between class and class and individual and individual, but
    in the selfsame breast in a series of reactions and revulsions in
    which the irresistible becomes the unbearable, and the unbearable
    the irresistible, until none of us can say what our characters
    really are in this respect.


    Of one thing I am persuaded: we shall never attain to a
    reasonable healthy public opinion on sex questions until we
    offer, as the data for that opinion, our actual conduct and our
    real thoughts instead of a moral fiction which we agree to call
    virtuous conduct, and which we then--and here comes in the
    mischief--pretend is our conduct and our thoughts. If the result
    were that we all believed one another to be better than we really
    are, there would be something to be said for it; but the actual
    result appears to be a monstrous exaggeration of the power and
    continuity of sexual passion. The whole world shares the fate of
    Lucrezia Borgia, who, though she seems on investigation to have
    been quite a suitable wife for a modern British Bishop, has been
    invested by the popular historical imagination with all the
    extravagances of a Messalina or a Cenci. Writers of belles
    lettres who are rash enough to admit that their whole life is not
    one constant preoccupation with adored members of the opposite
    sex, and who even countenance La Rochefoucauld's remark that very
    few people would ever imagine themselves in love if they had
    never read anything about it, are gravely declared to be abnormal
    or physically defective by critics of crushing unadventurousness
    and domestication. French authors of saintly temperament are
    forced to include in their retinue countesses of ardent
    complexion with whom they are supposed to live in sin.
    Sentimental controversies on the subject are endless; but they
    are useless, because nobody tells the truth. Rousseau did it by
    an extraordinary effort, aided by a superhuman faculty for human
    natural history, but the result was curiously disconcerting
    because, though the facts were so conventionally shocking that
    people felt that they ought to matter a great deal, they actually
    mattered very little. And even at that everybody pretends not to
    believe him.


    The worst of that is that busybodies with perhaps rather more
    than a normal taste for mischief are continually trying to make
    negligible things matter as much in fact as they do in convention
    by deliberately inflicting injuries--sometimes atrocious
    injuries--on the parties concerned. Few people have any knowledge
    of the savage punishments that are legally inflicted for
    aberrations and absurdities to which no sanely instructed
    community would call any attention. We create an artificial
    morality, and consequently an artificial conscience, by
    manufacturing disastrous consequences for events which, left to
    themselves, would do very little harm (sometimes not any) and be
    forgotten in a few days.

    But the artificial morality is not therefore to be condemned
    offhand. In many cases it may save mischief instead of making it:
    for example, though the hanging of a murderer is the duplication
    of a murder, yet it may be less murderous than leaving the matter
    to be settled by blood feud or vendetta. As long as human nature
    insists on revenge, the official organization and satisfaction of
    revenge by the State may be also its minimization. The mischief
    begins when the official revenge persists after the passion it
    satisfies has died out of the race. Stoning a woman to death in
    the east because she has ventured to marry again after being
    deserted by her husband may be more merciful than allowing her to
    be mobbed to death; but the official stoning or burning of an
    adulteress in the west would be an atrocity because few of us
    hate an adulteress to the extent of desiring such a penalty, or
    of being prepared to take the law into our own hands if it were
    withheld. Now what applies to this extreme case applies also in
    due degree to the other cases. Offences in which sex is concerned
    are often needlessly magnified by penalties, ranging from various
    forms of social ostracism to long sentences of penal servitude,
    which would be seen to be monstrously disproportionate to the
    real feeling against them if the removal of both the penalties
    and the taboo on their discussion made it possible for us to
    ascertain their real prevalence and estimation. Fortunately there
    is one outlet for the truth. We are permitted to discuss in jest
    what we may not discuss in earnest. A serious comedy about sex is
    taboo: a farcical comedy is privileged.


    The little piece which follows this preface accordingly takes the
    form of a farcical comedy, because it is a contribution to the
    very extensive dramatic literature which takes as its special
    department the gallantries of married people. The stage has been
    preoccupied by such affairs for centuries, not only in the
    jesting vein of Restoration Comedy and Palais Royal farce, but in
    the more tragically turned adulteries of the Parisian school
    which dominated the stage until Ibsen put them out of countenance
    and relegated them to their proper place as articles of commerce.
    Their continued vogue in that department maintains the tradition
    that adultery is the dramatic subject par excellence, and indeed
    that a play that is not about adultery is not a play at all. I
    was considered a heresiarch of the most extravagant kind when I
    expressed my opinion at the outset of my career as a playwright,
    that adultery is the dullest of themes on the stage, and that
    from Francesca and Paolo down to the latest guilty couple of the
    school of Dumas fils, the romantic adulterers have all been
    intolerable bores.


    Later on, I had occasion to point out to the defenders of sex as
    the proper theme of drama, that though they were right in ranking
    sex as an intensely interesting subject, they were wrong in
    assuming that sex is an indispensable motive in popular plays.
    The plays of Moliere are, like the novels of the Victorian epoch
    or Don Quixote, as nearly sexless as anything not absolutely
    inhuman can be; and some of Shakespear's plays are sexually on a
    par with the census: they contain women as well as men, and that
    is all. This had to be admitted; but it was still assumed that
    the plays of the XIX century Parisian school are, in contrast
    with the sexless masterpieces, saturated with sex; and this I
    strenuously denied. A play about the convention that a man should
    fight a duel or come to fisticuffs with his wife's lover if she
    has one, or the convention that he should strangle her like
    Othello, or turn her out of the house and never see her or allow
    her to see her children again, or the convention that she should
    never be spoken to again by any decent person and should finally
    drown herself, or the convention that persons involved in scenes
    of recrimination or confession by these conventions should call
    each other certain abusive names and describe their conduct as
    guilty and frail and so on: all these may provide material for
    very effective plays; but such plays are not dramatic studies of
    sex: one might as well say that Romeo and Juliet is a dramatic
    study of pharmacy because the catastrophe is brought about
    through an apothecary. Duels are not sex; divorce cases are not
    sex; the Trade Unionism of married women is not sex. Only the
    most insignificant fraction of the gallantries of married people
    produce any of the conventional results; and plays occupied
    wholly with the conventional results are therefore utterly
    unsatisfying as sex plays, however interesting they may be as
    plays of intrigue and plot puzzles.

    The world is finding this out rapidly. The Sunday papers, which
    in the days when they appealed almost exclusively to the lower
    middle class were crammed with police intelligence, and more
    especially with divorce and murder cases, now lay no stress on
    them; and police papers which confined themselves entirely to
    such matters, and were once eagerly read, have perished through
    the essential dulness of their topics. And yet the interest in
    sex is stronger than ever: in fact, the literature that has
    driven out the journalism of the divorce courts is a literature
    occupied with sex to an extent and with an intimacy and frankness
    that would have seemed utterly impossible to Thackeray or Dickens
    if they had been told that the change would complete itself
    within fifty years of their own time.


    It is ridiculous to say, as inconsiderate amateurs of the arts
    do, that art has nothing to do with morality. What is true is
    that the artist's business is not that of the policeman; and that
    such factitious consequences and put-up jobs as divorces and
    executions and the detective operations that lead up to them are
    no essential part of life, though, like poisons and buttered
    slides and red-hot pokers, they provide material for plenty of
    thrilling or amusing stories suited to people who are incapable
    of any interest in psychology. But the fine artists must keep the
    policeman out of his studies of sex and studies of crime. It is
    by clinging nervously to the policeman that most of the pseudo
    sex plays convince me that the writers have either never had any
    serious personal experience of their ostensible subject, or else
    have never conceived it possible that the stage door present the
    phenomena of sex as they appear in nature.


    But the stage presents much more shocking phenomena than those of
    sex. There is, of course, a sense in which you cannot present sex
    on the stage, just as you cannot present murder. Macbeth must no
    more really kill Duncan than he must himself be really slain by
    Macduff. But the feelings of a murderer can be expressed in a
    certain artistic convention; and a carefully prearranged sword
    exercise can be gone through with sufficient pretence of
    earnestness to be accepted by the willing imaginations of the
    younger spectators as a desperate combat.

    The tragedy of love has been presented on the stage in the same
    way. In Tristan and Isolde, the curtain does not, as in Romeo and
    Juliet, rise with the lark: the whole night of love is played
    before the spectators. The lovers do not discuss marriage in an
    elegantly sentimental way: they utter the visions and feelings
    that come to lovers at the supreme moments of their love, totally
    forgetting that there are such things in the world as husbands
    and lawyers and duelling codes and theories of sin and notions of
    propriety and all the other irrelevancies which provide
    hackneyed and bloodless material for our so-called plays of


    To all stage presentations there are limits. If Macduff were to
    stab Macbeth, the spectacle would be intolerable; and even the
    pretence which we allow on our stage is ridiculously destructive
    to the illusion of the scene. Yet pugilists and gladiators will
    actually fight and kill in public without sham, even as a
    spectacle for money. But no sober couple of lovers of any
    delicacy could endure to be watched. We in England, accustomed to
    consider the French stage much more licentious than the British,
    are always surprised and puzzled when we learn, as we may do any
    day if we come within reach of such information, that French
    actors are often scandalized by what they consider the indecency
    of the English stage, and that French actresses who desire a
    greater license in appealing to the sexual instincts than the
    French stage allows them, learn and establish themselves on the
    English stage. The German and Russian stages are in the same
    relation to the French and perhaps more or less all the Latin
    stages. The reason is that, partly from a want of respect for the
    theatre, partly from a sort of respect for art in general which
    moves them to accord moral privileges to artists, partly from the
    very objectionable tradition that the realm of art is Alsatia and
    the contemplation of works of art a holiday from the burden of
    virtue, partly because French prudery does not attach itself to
    the same points of behavior as British prudery, and has a
    different code of the mentionable and the unmentionable, and
    for many other reasons the French tolerate plays which are never
    performed in England until they have been spoiled by a process of
    bowdlerization; yet French taste is more fastidious than ours as
    to the exhibition and treatment on the stage of the physical
    incidents of sex. On the French stage a kiss is as obvious a
    convention as the thrust under the arm by which Macduff runs
    Macbeth through. It is even a purposely unconvincing convention:
    the actors rather insisting that it shall be impossible for any
    spectator to mistake a stage kiss for a real one. In England, on
    the contrary, realism is carried to the point at which nobody
    except the two performers can perceive that the caress is not
    genuine. And here the English stage is certainly in the right;
    for whatever question there arises as to what incidents are
    proper for representation on the stage or not, my experience as a
    playgoer leaves me in no doubt that once it is decided to
    represent an incident, it will be offensive, no matter whether it
    be a prayer or a kiss, unless it is presented with a convincing
    appearance of sincerity.


    For example, the main objection to the use of illusive scenery
    (in most modern plays scenery is not illusive; everything visible
    is as real as in your drawing room at home) is that it is
    unconvincing; whilst the imaginary scenery with which the
    audience provides a platform or tribune like the Elizabethan
    stage or the Greek stage used by Sophocles, is quite convincing.
    In fact, the more scenery you have the less illusion you produce.
    The wise playwright, when he cannot get absolute reality of
    presentation, goes to the other extreme, and aims at atmosphere
    and suggestion of mood rather than at direct simulative illusion.
    The theatre, as I first knew it, was a place of wings and flats
    which destroyed both atmosphere and illusion. This was tolerated,
    and even intensely enjoyed, but not in the least because nothing
    better was possible; for all the devices employed in the
    productions of Mr. Granville Barker or Max Reinhardt or the
    Moscow Art Theatre were equally available for Colley Cibber and
    Garrick, except the intensity of our artificial light. When
    Garrick played Richard II in slashed trunk hose and plumes, it
    was not because he believed that the Plantagenets dressed like
    that, or because the costumes could not have made him a XV
    century dress as easily as a nondescript combination of the state
    robes of George III with such scraps of older fashions as seemed
    to playgoers for some reason to be romantic. The charm of the
    theatre in those days was its makebelieve. It has that charm
    still, not only for the amateurs, who are happiest when they are
    most unnatural and impossible and absurd, but for audiences as
    well. I have seen performances of my own plays which were to me
    far wilder burlesques than Sheridan's Critic or Buckingham's
    Rehearsal; yet they have produced sincere laughter and tears such
    as the most finished metropolitan productions have failed to
    elicit. Fielding was entirely right when he represented Partridge
    as enjoying intensely the performance of the king in Hamlet
    because anybody could see that the king was an actor, and
    resenting Garrick's Hamlet because it might have been a real man.
    Yet we have only to look at the portraits of Garrick to see that
    his performances would nowadays seem almost as extravagantly
    stagey as his costumes. In our day Calve's intensely real Carmen
    never pleased the mob as much as the obvious fancy ball
    masquerading of suburban young ladies in the same character.


    Theatrical art begins as the holding up to Nature of a distorting
    mirror. In this phase it pleases people who are childish enough
    to believe that they can see what they look like and what they
    are when they look at a true mirror. Naturally they think that a
    true mirror can teach them nothing. Only by giving them back some
    monstrous image can the mirror amuse them or terrify them. It is
    not until they grow up to the point at which they learn that they
    know very little about themselves, and that they do not see
    themselves in a true mirror as other people see them, that they
    become consumed with curiosity as to what they really are like,
    and begin to demand that the stage shall be a mirror of such
    accuracy and intensity of illumination that they shall be able to
    get glimpses of their real selves in it, and also learn a little
    how they appear to other people.

    For audiences of this highly developed class, sex can no longer
    be ignored or conventionalized or distorted by the playwright who
    makes the mirror. The old sentimental extravagances and the old
    grossnesses are of no further use to him. Don Giovanni and
    Zerlina are not gross: Tristan and Isolde are not extravagant or
    sentimental. They say and do nothing that you cannot bear to hear
    and see; and yet they give you, the one pair briefly and
    slightly, and the other fully and deeply, what passes in the
    minds of lovers. The love depicted may be that of a philosophic
    adventurer tempting an ignorant country girl, or of a tragically
    serious poet entangled with a woman of noble capacity in a
    passion which has become for them the reality of the whole
    universe. No matter: the thing is dramatized and dramatized
    directly, not talked about as something that happened before the
    curtain rose, or that will happen after it falls.


    Now if all this can be done in the key of tragedy and philosophic
    comedy, it can, I have always contended, be done in the key of
    farcical comedy; and Overruled is a trifling experiment in that
    manner. Conventional farcical comedies are always finally tedious
    because the heart of them, the inevitable conjugal infidelity, is
    always evaded. Even its consequences are evaded. Mr. Granville
    Barker has pointed out rightly that if the third acts of our
    farcical comedies dared to describe the consequences that would
    follow from the first and second in real life, they would end as
    squalid tragedies; and in my opinion they would be greatly
    improved thereby even as entertainments; for I have never seen a
    three-act farcical comedy without being bored and tired by the
    third act, and observing that the rest of the audience were in
    the same condition, though they were not vigilantly introspective
    enough to find that out, and were apt to blame one another,
    especially the husbands and wives, for their crossness. But it is
    happily by no means true that conjugal infidelities always
    produce tragic consequences, or that they need produce even the
    unhappiness which they often do produce. Besides, the more
    momentous the consequences, the more interesting become the
    impulses and imaginations and reasonings, if any, of the people
    who disregard them. If I had an opportunity of conversing with
    the ghost of an executed murderer, I have no doubt he would begin
    to tell me eagerly about his trial, with the names of the
    distinguished ladies and gentlemen who honored him with their
    presence on that occasion, and then about his execution. All of
    which would bore me exceedingly. I should say, "My dear sir: such
    manufactured ceremonies do not interest me in the least. I know
    how a man is tried, and how he is hanged. I should have had you
    killed in a much less disgusting, hypocritical, and unfriendly
    manner if the matter had been in my hands. What I want to know
    about is the murder. How did you feel when you committed it? Why
    did you do it? What did you say to yourself about it? If, like
    most murderers, you had not been hanged, would you have committed
    other murders? Did you really dislike the victim, or did you want
    his money, or did you murder a person whom you did not dislike,
    and from whose death you had nothing to gain, merely for the sake
    of murdering? If so, can you describe the charm to me? Does it
    come upon you periodically; or is it chronic? Has curiosity
    anything to do with it?" I would ply him with all manner of
    questions to find out what murder is really like; and I should
    not be satisfied until I had realized that I, too, might commit a
    murder, or else that there is some specific quality present in a
    murderer and lacking in me. And, if so, what that quality is.

    In just the same way, I want the unfaithful husband or the
    unfaithful wife in a farcical comedy not to bother me with their
    divorce cases or the stratagems they employ to avoid a divorce
    case, but to tell me how and why married couples are unfaithful.
    I don't want to hear the lies they tell one another to conceal
    what they have done, but the truths they tell one another when
    they have to face what they have done without concealment or
    excuse. No doubt prudent and considerate people conceal such
    adventures, when they can, from those who are most likely to be
    wounded by them; but it is not to be presumed that, when found
    out, they necessarily disgrace themselves by irritating lies and
    transparent subterfuges.

    My playlet, which I offer as a model to all future writers of
    farcical comedy, may now, I hope, be read without shock. I may
    just add that Mr. Sibthorpe Juno's view that morality demands,
    not that we should behave morally (an impossibility to our sinful
    nature) but that we shall not attempt to defend our immoralities,
    is a standard view in England, and was advanced in all seriousness
    by an earnest and distinguished British moralist shortly after
    the first performance of Overruled. My objection to that aspect
    of the doctrine of original sin is that no necessary and
    inevitable operation of human nature can reasonably be regarded
    as sinful at all, and that a morality which assumes the contrary
    is an absurd morality, and can be kept in countenance only by
    hypocrisy. When people were ashamed of sanitary problems, and
    refused to face them, leaving them to solve themselves
    clandestinely in dirt and secrecy, the solution arrived at was
    the Black Death. A similar policy as to sex problems has solved
    itself by an even worse plague than the Black Death; and the
    remedy for that is not Salvarsan, but sound moral hygiene, the
    first foundation of which is the discontinuance of our habit of
    telling not only the comparatively harmless lies that we know we
    ought not to tell, but the ruinous lies that we foolishly think
    we ought to tell.
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