Candid Midnight Talks

George Bernard Shaw’s works generally dealt with the themes of politics, human and social relationships, and the influence that society has on people’s lives. A staunch critic, he often expressed his views and opinions subtly through incidents and characters in his plays. Candida can be regarded as one of Shaw’s controversial plays, where he gives a strong criticism of the Catholic clergy, the oppression of women in the Victorian society, the prominent socio-economic class divide and the underwhelming graduate education system. The choice which Candida makes in the end between her husband and her admirer, is dependent on several factors - Morell’s political and religious ideologies, the status of a woman in a marriage and in society, and the love and, eventually, respect which she receives in her marriage. Morell’s political and economic ideologies are interesting considerations as the First Act ensues a heated debate between Morell, a socialist and his father-in-law Burgess - a shrewd, capitalist businessman. Furthermore, his notions on marriage are largely based on the patriarchal mindset prevalent in the religion he preaches.

Richard Linklater, on the other hand, is a filmmaker whose films occasionally deal with themes like relationships, loneliness, adolescence, modern life and politics of current American society. His 2013 film Before Midnight follows a couple, Jesse and Celine, spending the last day of their summer vacation in southern Greece with Jesse’s intellectual friends. The film begins with Jesse dropping Henry, his fourteen-year-old son from his previous marriage, at the airport. As they travel around the Greek Peloponnese island on their way to a hotel room that another couple has gifted them for another one-night stay, the couple discuss the choices they had made in life and whether their romance still persists after nine years of courtship or has gradually been replaced by spousal obligations. When they reach the hotel, a passionate sexual moment soon turns into a row, where a conversation on Henry and his well-being, leads to a confrontation where they spill out their resentments, insecurities and the factors which affect their courtship. Like Candida, the couple also make a choice in the end after examining the turbulence in their relationship: the choice to make their relationship work. Therefore, both these works explore the problems in a relationship in their unique ways - while Candida weaves capitalism and money, religion and sex with the institution of marriage, Before Midnight also portrays the effect of these factors on a courtship with a stepchild involved. What links the two works is the fact that, despite the differences in opinions, the couples at the centre of these works choose to carry on with their relationships, signifying that the hardest part of any relationship is compromising and staying together.

“When there is money to give, he gives it; when there is money to refuse, I refuse it”, Candida declares this in the final act of the play. She is the wife of a Socialist clergyman who preaches how life is bigger than money. The comment, however, cleverly indicates that Morell acts as a concerned altruist who gives money to the poor, but only if he receives the opposite publicity. When it comes to undetected private revenue, Shaw suggests that Morell doesn’t seem to know where to draw the line, and it is always Candida who intervenes, preventing Morell from unfairly accepting donations and charging the gullible followers of the Church. This line can be interpreted in many ways, but ‘money’ is a crucial factor behind Candida’s choice. In the first Act, Morell has a heated conversation over money with his father-in-law, Burgess. He despises Burgess’ networking with the elite, and his exploitative methods of profit generation and underpayment of the women workers in his factory. Morell is against such profit-making business ventures and calls Burgess a ‘scoundrel’ for his short-term gain tactics. Shaw tries to show the conflict between socialism and capitalism through this debate. Furthermore, he later tells Candida that his religious lectures are aimed to dissuade people from making profitable money, as he abhors the philosophy of capitalism and the money-hungry businessmen who propel such institutions. Candida points out that Morell lives in an illusion. The survival in any society depends on economic power, which Burgess possesses. Candida has compromised on the frugality in their marriage but points out how he is oblivious to her feelings. She tells him that religion doesn’t act as a deterrent as the very same audience goes out and makes more money, and, thus, implies that Morell promotes idealism, which can never be attained. These political ideologies are equated with their marriage.

Just as a capitalist like Burgess exploits his workers, Morell (a socialist) exploits his followers to believe in the ideology of equality. However, there is no equality in their marriage. Morell believes Candida is economically dependent on him, and that is how marriages should work. He despises Candida’s confrontational speech in the second Act where she says that Morell does bother about money, and he does have chauvinistic, patriarchal notions despite masquerading as a progressive clergyman in public. In fact, his hypocrisy is shown by the preferential treatment and attention which Lexy, an Oxford graduate from a wealthy family, gets over Proserpine, his loyal middle-class typist. Shaw criticises this attitude of self-proclaimed ‘liberals’ like Morell who believe in an ideal world and live in a bubble, far away from reality. Candida’s choice is governed by economics. She chooses to stay with the person who can provide her economic stability, as she knows well that women can never be given jobs that guarantee financial autonomy. Before Midnight has a similar messaging, the difference here being that both the spouses are working. The film, being the third in the trilogy, is unique in its treatment of the protagonists’ relationship. Unlike the other two installments, where the audience have seen them fall in love, here the spousal future they had fantasised about and dreaded in their youth has arrived. For better or worse, they are a functioning couple. Here, Linklater is not concerned with the youthful romance associated with curiosity and blind love, but the wisdom one imbibes with age and the effect of that wisdom on several matters of the relationship. In this case, money is an important factor when Jesse asks Celine to move to Chicago to spend their lives with Henry. She has her ‘dream job’ in Paris and she feels threatened when Jesse asks if there is any possibility in her quitting this job and finding a ‘comparable job’ in America. Linklater, like Shaw, points out the chauvinism which still exists in a modern relationship where a woman is expected to compromise at the professional or financial front. Shaw and Linklater successfully connect economics, money and capitalism with marriage, and drive the point home that despite longing for economic independence, the thought of a woman compromising on the professional front has been cultured into the general mindset.

Candida also gives a perspective on culture and religion. The Catholic clergy in Victorian London is occupied with sermons and gospel speeches - a discourse or a lecture on religion rather than a dialogue with the audience. The setting itself has several religious connotations- the picture of Virgin Mary on the wall, the religious pamphlets and the books on the library shelves. Shaw tries to draw a parallel between Jesus and Morell, the distinction being that Morell does not practice or follow what he preaches. He talks of the liberation of women as an important doctrine of the religion. On the other hand, he privately boasts of how a woman is essential for the maintenance of a house and that a woman can make one’s home and marriage into a ‘paradise’. Several other cultural and mythological references are used in the play. Eugene compares Morell with ‘King David’. The comparison is interesting due to Shaw’s choice of this Biblical character. The King would get drunk and dance in front of his audience, while his wife ‘despised’ him. Shaw seems to imply that the clergyman is no less than David, inebriated with self-contentment and moral superiority such that the audience would amuse themselves by attending his sermons. This allegory in fact rings so true that Morell brutally assaults Eugene. The words hit hard to both Morell and the readers. Linklater also uses Greek mythology to bring out pathos between the couple. Before they visit the hotel, they enter a traditional Greek Chapel, dimly lit with candles. They pray for a few seconds, perhaps for a happy relationship, only to find themselves questioning the basis and the future of their companionship a few hours later. When Celine accuses Jesse of always blaming her for the reason Henry doesn’t stay with them, she uses the reference of Medea (a mythological figure who had killed her children to punish her husband). She hints that his accusations of her trying to sever ties and mar his relationship with his son is similar to Medea’s attempts to punish her partner.

Sexual references and innuendos are also used to illustrate the obstacles in a marriage. At the beginning of the Third Act in the play, Morell spots Candida and Eugene within close physical proximity. As Eugene recites romantic poems, Candida amusingly listens while observing a ‘brass poker’ by the fireplace. Shaw specifically chooses this object due to the phallic nature of the poker, which Candida gazes at intensely with ‘rapt absorption’. Shaw never explicitly states whether there was any affair at all between the two, as Candida is often referred to as a woman with maternal instincts and care. Shaw might be hinting at the lack of intimacy in their marriage, which she considers as she makes a choice. She reminds Morell that although she does provide him the care of his ‘mother and sisters’, she is also a wife and hints that no relationship could suffice without intimacy. The message might be construed as problematic by some, who often ask whether Candida’s choice would have been the same had there been a physical relation with Eugene. Linklater takes a similar approach. While the issue of Henry serves as a trigger to introspect on their relationship, lust and insecurities also become a topic of discussion. Both the spouses allege the infidelity of the other - she alleges that he has an illicit affair with a female student, he alleges that she had oral sex with her former partner. Celine even condescendingly declares that Jesse always makes love to her in the exact same way, and she hates it. Sex builds up further tensions and insecurities within the relationship, and both Shaw and Linklater examine this aspect astutely.

In both their works, the couples at the centre of these works, however, decide to continue with their relationship. Candida chooses her husband over her passionate admirer, and Celine decides to go ahead with her relationship. As Jesse explains, life is “real”- “It’s not perfect, but it’s real”. The reality of marriage and relationships is what has been depicted in these two works. In Candida, there is a statement- “There are no delightful marriages, only convenient ones.” Both these works show that the quotient of delight in a marriage (or a spousal relation) gradually fades away with time. Although Morell had refuted or countered this statement in the play, it dawns on the readers that Morell’s marriage was a ‘convenient’ marriage with marked boundaries and no flexibility in their spousal roles. Before Midnight might not exactly portray the courtship as absolutely convenient for the spouses, as they are both struggling with certain aspects in life - however, the talk of shifting to the States itself shows that there is a definite routine, and distortion of this routine would deteriorate their relationship. These works are, thus, left to the interpretation of the viewers and the readers - how they perceive the joy and the drudgery in these two relationships. It must be noted though, that these works show that marriages and relationships are based on sacrifices and compromises, and both Shaw and Linklater are uncompromising in showing how relationships are affected by several peripheral factors surrounding it. But both couples decide to work towards it and move on in life, in the pursuit of further happiness.


Sarbesh Chaudhury

I am a first year law student pursuing BBA-LL.B. from Jindal Global Law School (2019-2024), with a keen interest in law, corporate finance, films and fiction, Indian classical music and Indian mythology.

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