One of the faults which has been found in the "method" approach to acting is that it permits the interpreter to give the characters traits and dimensions which the playwright did not intend the character to have. For example, it is easy to read depth into the characters of Shaw's Candida - sensitivity into Marchbanks, for instance - and thus not only defeat the playwright's intention, but his very specific (and lengthy), stage directions.
It is important to note, in any discussion of a Shaw play, that George Bernard Shaw was an Irish Protestant who had moved to England at the age of twenty and, at the time of the writing of Candida, had not set foot in Ireland since. Shaw was a quintessential iconoclast, with no great love for England, religion, most institutions and most people. With regard to Candida, this is essential, as all of the characters are very English, three are directly associated with organized religion, and one is the errant son of a nobleman.
There are four themes in Candida: ignorance, brutality, hubris and self-righteousness. Each character displays at least one of these traits, and Marchbanks is master of all. Marchbanks may be the most dynamic, but the pivotal character, in my opinion, is the Reverend James Mavor Morell.
"The Reverend James Mavor Morell, is a Christian Socialist clergyman of the Church of England, and an active member of the Guild of St. Matthew and the Christian Social Union." He is forty years old, good looking, well mannered, and has a "sound unaffected voice... with the clean athletic articulation of a practiced orator... ." His affect on his audiences, especially the women who make up the vast majority, is mesmerizing. The effect of his message, especially on these same women, is nil.
Morell lives for the praise and adoration his oratory produces, and for the perceived love, admiration and respect his calling invokes in his wife. He understands nothing of his real effect on people and, at least until the second act, would reject any suggestion that his path is not absolutely correct and totally righteous. He would never believe that his curate is simply a conceited sycophant, or that his secretary's entire interest is in his person, rather than his preaching. And he firmly believes that his position in the world and in his home is totally unshakeable. Even the three "minor" characters exist only to illuminate his character. James Mavor Morell, in his ignorance, is the quintessentially happy man.
Who are these "minor" characters? The Reverend Alexander Mill is "a young gentleman gathered by Morell from the nearest University settlement, whither he had come from Oxford to give the East End of London the benefit of his university training." He is, at least to me, intellectually dishonest and thoroughly obnoxious. He has won Morell over "by a doglike devotion." Burgess is a businessman - ignorant, shallow, greedy, bigoted, totally insensitive to the feelings of those around him. (I have difficulty believing that Candida could have been sired and raised by such a boor.) His role in the play is to underscore Morell's self-righteousness by giving him the opportunity to pontificate on his father-in-law's greed. And last, there's Proserpine Garnett, Morell's secretary, who suffers from what Candida calls "Prossy's complaint." Prossy is a lonely, 30 year-old, lower middle-class woman who loves Morell, but would never admit it, even to herself. She provides the definition of Morell's effect on others.
Candida has been called Shaw's representation of the "ideal woman." On the surface she is young (thirty three), intelligent, physically attractive, kind, efficient, sensitive, loving, supportive, a good wife and a loving mother. (It may be relevant that when I, at the age of eighteen, played the role of Marchbanks, I actually fell in love with the production's Candida. I saw only these wonderful qualities. It was only years later that I saw Candida as a whole "person.") Candida is not all of these things. Her kindness is shallow and her sensitivity is limited to those who are immediately important to her. She has made a successful (and probably happy), marriage by shielding her husband from reality. She has shown him respect, while having little respect for what he thought he was trying to accomplish.
Marchbanks is pathetic. In describing him, Shaw uses the word, "sensitiveness," as opposed to "sensitive." It is appropriate, for the only emotions Marchbanks feels are his own. Youth may excuse his hubris - his assumption that he could almost dictate Candida's feelings, but I see no way to excuse the viciousness he shows to Morell, or the disdain he shows the other characters, or the brutality of his demand that Candida choose between them. Marchbanks is a poet because Shaw says he is a poet. But poetry, indeed all art, is a giving, and Marchbanks is a taker.
Marchbanks is absolutely convinced of his own rectitude and righteousness. But he is a coward, and can only express himself brutally. Morell is absolutely convinced of his own rectitude and righteousness, and cannot hear unless beaten over the head. Candida makes Eugene's judgment - she chooses her husband - but not until making it clear to Morell that he is: