Candida by George Bernard Shaw
ABOUT THE PLAY
Bernard Shaw had two categories for his plays, those that were “pleasant” and those that were “unpleasant”. CANDIDA he put among the pleasant ones, and it is easy to see why. A box office hit in its time (1904), this British classic continues to be one of Shaw’s most popular plays. It deals with a young poet, Eugene Marchbanks, who falls madly in love with Candida, the wife of a respected pastor in London.
Eugene is horrified by what he considers to be the mundane life that Candida is forced to lead with her husband, the Reverend James Morell. Eugene confronts Morell, declaring his love for Candida and claiming that the pastor does not deserve such a charming, magnificent wife. What follows is a marriage in crisis, as the couple’s comfortable life begins to fall apart, and Candida is forced by the two men to choose between them. Along the way, Shaw makes some witty observations about love, the institution of marriage, the treatment of women in society and the age-old problem of having to choose between the ideal and the practical. Although more than a hundred years have passed since people first saw the play, the story still rings true and the jokes are still as funny as ever.
Summary of Bernard Shaw’s Candida
It is a fine morning in October 1894. The setting is a combination study and sitting-room in St. Dominic’s parsonage in London. The Reverend James Morell (Church of England) is at work with his secretary Miss Proserpine (Prossy) Garnett. They are trying to find time in his busy schedule for another speaking engagement; for in addition to being a popular clergyman, Morell is in great demand as a guest speaker. At the moment he is looking forward to the arrival of his wife Candida on the 11.45 train. She has taken their two boys away on holiday and is about to return home for a short time to pick up some additional things for them.
Morell’s young curate, the Reverend Alexander (Lexy) Mill, arrives for work, late as usual. He informs Morell that Candida’s father, Mr Burgess, is on his way to visit him. Clearly annoyed, Morell goes out to greet his father-in-law. As soon as he is gone, Prossy, who is secretly in love with Morell, remarks that Morell should not make a fool of himself by constantly praising his wife. When Lexy supports Morell for praising Candida, Prossy accuses him of simply copying Morell’s opinions and manner of expressing himself.
Mr Burgess comes into the study. He irritates Prossy by pointing out how much younger Morell’s former secretary was. She goes out, bristling, to fetch her boss. Then Burgess informs Lexy that he wishes to speak to Morell in private. The curate leaves the office as Morell enters. Morell and Burgess have not spoken to each other for three years, not since Burgess called Morell a fool for preaching Socialism, and Morell called his father-in-law a scoundrel for underpaying his employees. Burgess assures Morell that he has reformed. As proof of this, he claims that he has raised his workers’ wages. Morell is overjoyed to hear this. He is soon disappointed, however, when he realizes that Burgess is renewing their relationship in order to meet, through Morell, influential people who can provide him with commercial contracts.
Candida arrives home and is delighted that her husband and father are communicating again. She asks James to go out and help Eugene Marchbanks with the luggage. Then she tells her father that Eugene is a young poet, her husband’s latest discovery and that he has been away with her helping with the children. Burgess is unimpressed with what he hears about the young man until he is told that Marchbanks is the son of an Earl.
Morell returns with Marchbanks, who, upon seeing a stranger (Burgess) in the room, becomes shy and nervous. Burgess, however, is keen on meeting the young aristocrat and he forces Marchbanks to shake hands and make small talk. After her father leaves, Candida goes to check on the house, leaving her husband and Marchbanks alone.
Morell invites Marchbanks to stay for lunch. The young man declines, explaining that Candida told him that her husband would want to spend some time alone with her after her absence. Morell therefore suggests that the young poet take a walk in the park, write some poetry, and come back in an hour or so. For he is certain, he says, that a good friend like Marchbanks could not possibly damage a happy marriage such as his and Candida’s. Marchbanks reacts wildly to Morell’s assertion. He does not understand how the clergyman can believe that Candida is happy in their marriage. It is time, Marchbanks says, to force everything out into the open. He announces that he is in love with Candida and wants to rescue her from the mundane life that she is forced to lead with Morell. Morell gives the young man a lecture on manners. Marchbanks calls the clergyman a windbag and claims that his charming wife, in reality, despises him in her heart. At this, Morell grabs the young man by the collar. Marchbanks becomes hysterical and threatens to kill himself if Morell hits him.
After Morell lets him go, Marchbanks challenges the clergyman to a fair contest for Candida’s affections. But it should not be a vulgar physical battle, he insists; it must be a battle of ideas. Eugene vows once more to rescue Candida from her slavery to the clergyman’s ideas and dull way of life.
They are interrupted by Candida who wants to know if Eugene is staying for lunch.
Surprisingly, Morell insists that he is, even though the young man has deeply shaken Morell’s confidence in himself and his marriage. Marchbanks smiles and goes off with Candida, declaring that he is the happiest of men. “So was I – an hour ago,” says Morell.
It is later that afternoon. Prossy is annoyed that Marchbanks has been fiddling with her typewriter. She asks him sarcastically if he was writing a love letter. This prompts the young poet to make some provocative comments on the subject of love that shock Prossy. Eugene perceives that Prossy is secretly in love with Morell and asks her if it is really possible for a woman to love someone like him. When she answers yes, he is miserable.
Burgess enters saying that he has come back to keep the young aristocrat company. He again irritates Prossy, this time by suggesting that she is too low-class to socialize with Marchbanks. She abruptly leaves the room calling Burgess a “silly old fathead”. Candida’s father now takes the opportunity to warn Eugene about the danger of Morell’s progressive social ideas. In his opinion, his son-in-law is, and always has been, mad.
Morell comes in and says that his wife will join them after she has filled the lamps. Marchbanks is horrified that Candida should have to dirty her beautiful hands with such a task. When she appears, he offers to do all the menial work in the house for her and says that he longs for a world where she would never have to scrub the floor again. Morell points out that such a world would contain only lazy, selfish people. Candida, however, is amused by Eugene’s poetic nature and scolds her husband for putting down the young man’s romantic vision of the world. Burgess, who has been listening carefully to Eugene’s views, now suspects he may be as mad as Morell.
Prossy enters with a telegram for Morell. He goes out immediately, presumably to respond to it. Candida then takes Marchbanks up on his offer to help her in the household. She pulls the young man off to the kitchen to slice onions for her. Burgess is appalled by the way his daughter is treating an aristocrat. Convinced that the whole house has gone mad, he goes out for a walk. Morell returns and goodnaturedly asks Prossy why she called his father-in-law a silly old fathead. She mistakenly interprets the question as criticism of her behaviour, and runs from the room, sobbing. Bewildered by her action, Morell sits down at his desk to work on a sermon.
Candida enters. Seeing how tired her husband looks, she asks him to stop working and talk to her for a while. The people in his congregation, she says playfully, are not really interested in his sermons anyway. They come to church because it is respectable to do so, not because his Christian Socialism impresses them. The women come, she says, because they, like Prossy, are in love with him. Morell is shocked by Candida’s cynicism. She then tells him she is worried about Eugene because she suspects that he is about to fall in love with her. Her hint that she might be willing to put aside her morals in Eugene’s case, appals Morell. She laughs at her husband’s stern reaction and asks him to trust her love for him. When she tries to kiss him, he backs away and orders her not to touch him. Burgess and Marchbanks enter. They sense the tension between Morell and Candida, but she makes light of the matter, explaining that James is merely upset because he cannot tolerate ideas that contradict his own.
Lexy Mill comes in. Having heard that Morell has declined an invitation to speak to the Guild of St. Matthew that evening, the curate urges his boss to change his mind. After more encouragement from Candida, Morell asks Prossy to telegraph the Guild that he is coming. Burgess decides to go along too upon learning that a member of the City Council will be there. When Candida suggests that they all attend her husband’s lecture, Morell strongly objects. He insists that she and Marchbanks stay home. They do not enjoy his sermonizing anyway, he says, and he wants to show the young man that he is not afraid to leave him alone with his wife. Marchbanks is clearly impressed by Morell’s courage.
It is past ten in the evening. Candida and Marchbanks are sitting by the fireplace. He is reading poetry to her. Aware that she is not listening to him, he stops reading and apologizes for boring her. She admits that there are limits to her appetite for poetry and says she prefers to talk to him. He wants to know if he is permitted to say wicked things to her. No, she answers, but he may say anything he truly feels. Eugene settles himself on the floor and puts his head against her knee. All he feels at the moment, he says, is the need to repeat her name a thousand times.
Morell enters the room and takes in the scene at once. Candida rises and asks her husband how his lecture went. Morell replies that he never spoke better. She then goes out to talk to the maid. Seeing that Morell is upset, Eugene assures him that nothing happened between him and Candida. He was simply enjoying being in love when Morell came in, he explains.
Candida returns. Sensing that her husband is depressed, she scolds Eugene for annoying him. Hurt by her words, the young man apologizes and is about to leave as Burgess, Lexy and Prossy enter. They congratulate Morell on his excellent speech to the guild. Prossy is disappointed, however, that she could not record everything that he said in shorthand. Morell asks Lexy to see Prossy safely home, and Candida sees her father out.
When Candida returns, Morell announces that Eugene is, in fact, in love with her, and that they have agreed she must now decide which of them she belongs to. Candida is stunned by the arrogance and presumption of the two men. She always believed she belonged to herself, she tells them. But, since in their eyes this is clearly not the case, she angrily insists that they each bid for her, like one does at an auction. She demands that they both tell her what they have to offer for her affection. Morell offers his strength, honesty and ability to support her. Eugene says he can only offer his weakness, loneliness and heart’s need.
Candida considers the offers and tells them that she will give herself to the weaker of the two, the one who needs her most. Morell lowers his head, believing that he has lost. But Eugene knows immediately that it is Morell who has won. When Candida confirms that it is her husband she has chosen, Morell is bewildered. Candida explains. James, she says, has always been loved by everyone, and would fall apart without it. Eugene, on the other hand, has been lonely, disliked and misunderstood; and, as a result, has learned to do without love. James is, therefore, the weaker of the two because he needs her more than Marchbanks does.
Morell, full of gratitude and emotion, confesses that Candida is right about him. As his wife, she makes him feel like he is master in his home by spoiling and loving him like his mother and sisters always did. He is, in fact, Candida’s little boy. Eugene is appalled by this notion of marriage and tells Candida that he could never allow her to mother and sister him. That .kind of. happiness. he does .not want, he says. Disappointed that she has not had the
courage to choose him, he starts to leave. Her voice stops him. She reminds him of the difference in their ages. He brushes this aside as having no importance. She says goodbye and kisses him on the forehead. He runs out into the night convinced that he is freer and stronger than either of them. Candida turns to Morell and they embrace.