Overruled by George Bernard Shaw

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.
1 of