Tuesday, July 26, 2022

The Wit and the Occasional Unfortunate Notion of George Bernard Shaw

Shaw in 1909 at the peak of his creative powers.

On July 26, 1856 the only man ever to win a Nobel Prize and an Academy AwardAl Gore doesn’t count because his movie won the Oscar, but he personally did not—was born in Dublin, Ireland to a minor civil servant and an aspiring singer. 

George Bernard Shaw was also a major influence on my young life when I was type cast in another blowhard character part as Alfred E. Doolittle in a high school production of Pygmalion.   Just as a role in Inherit the Wind led me to the treasure trove of Clarence Darrow, American radicalism, and the labor movement, this role introduced me to the wonders of Shavian wit and wisdom and to socialism. 

For several months, until I actual started down the road that would lead to the radical labor movement and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), I bemused and confounded friends with declarations that what America needed was a Fabian Socialist movement to make socialism palatable to the middle classes.  

My infatuation with Fabianism may have been brief; my fascination with Shaw genius was not.  Not that I am an expert in all things Shaw.  I have read his best known plays, some of his socialist screeds, and some of his essays, but that just skims the surface of the prodigious production of words that when issued in a uniform set of complete works took 36 volumes and twenty years to produce before the playwrights death in 1950. 

Shaw got an indifferent education in Protestant schools in Dublin because he rebelled against the mind numbing crushing of creativity by rote learning and especially against the physically abusive culture of repeated discipline by caning. 

After his mother abandoned the family to pursue her dreams of a singing career in London taking his sisters with her, Shaw stayed in Dublin with his alcoholic father.  He dropped out of school and became an estate agent managing the affairs of landowner to get away from home and earn a living.

                          As a young man in Dublin with no good prospects.

After a few years he joined his mother and sisters in 1876 to pursue his dreams of improving his education by personal application.  They subsidized him to the tune of a Pound Sterling a week as he educated himself in the reading rooms of the British Museum. 

He supplemented this meager keep by ghost writing a music criticism column for his mother’s voice teacher, Vandeleur Lee.  That eventually launched him on his first successful career as a critic of the arts. 

Meanwhile he tried his hand as a novelist, completing five manuscripts over the next five years, none accepted by a publisher.  After he became famous the novels were each published over a period of several years and none of them were very good, although the later ones previewed his moral vision and taste for the didactic.  But he was learning a craft. 

In 1885 he finally became a self-supporting writer when he was hired as a reviewer fashionable Pall Mall Gazette writing first under pen name Corno di Bassetto (Basset Horn) and later simply under the initials GBS.  He also published occasional pieces in other journals. 

As a critic, Shaw was disgusted by what he considered the vapid conventions of the popular stage which catered to a self-congratulatory ruling class.  He became one of the first great English language champions of the new realistic drama of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, whose work shocked Victorian sensibilities.   His extended essay Quintessence of Ibsenism published in 1891 was a major breakthrough both for the critic and for Ibsen in the English speaking world.  

                                        Shaw as a rising critic and public intellectual.

In 1895 he became the lead drama critic of the Saturday Review finally publishing under his full name.  His columns, written in a lively, accessible style enchanted a public used to a dry, self-serious style of commentary.  Shaw, at age 40 was just starting to make his mark. 

Meanwhile Shaw’s social and political views had taken a radical turn when he became an early and ardent member of the Fabian Society, named in honor of the Roman general Quintus Fabius Maximus who had advocated tactics of harassment and attrition rather than head-on battles against the Hannibal.  In practice the society rejected violent revolution, urged adoption of a simple lifestyle—including vegetarianism—and used written persuasion to enlist the middling classes in support of the workers. 

With leading spirits Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Shaw was soon one of the Society’s top polemicists.  He authored several pamphlets, many gathered into Fabian Essays in Socialism, published in 1881.  Shaw became a dedicated vegetarian, anti-vivisectionist, and rejected much of modern medicine—including vaccination—advocating a healthy diet, simple life, and excersize.  He tended to be more pacifistic than other Fabians, many of whom explicitly embraced the Empire and believed that adoption of a cooperative commonwealth in Britain would thus further its spread around the world.  The Fabians were influential founders of the British Labor Party in 1906, and many of their proposed social reforms became the heart of the Party platform.  

Shaw stands out at a London socialist rally circa 1910.

Mirroring his relationship with his mother, Shaw’s relationships with women were complicated.  On one hand he adored them and on many occasions wrote about his conviction that they were in every way possible the moral superiors of men.  He conducted protracted, passionate relationships by letter with actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell and others but is never known to have consummated an affair. 

In 1898 he married Anglo-Irish fellow Fabian and feminist Charlotte Payne-Townshend. The couple were devoted to each other and remained together until her death in 1943 despite their mutual vow of sexual abstinence.  For most of their marriage they lived in a rural village of Ayot St Lawrence, Herefordshire at the house that became famous as Shaws Corners while maintaining a London flat.  

In 1885 Shaw’s friend and mentor, the critic William Archer, suggested that he not just complain about the theater as he found it, but that he should teach by example.  Together the two men began collaboration on a play based on an outline by Archer.  The project floundered and Archer withdrew.  Years later Shaw completed the play on his own as Widowers Houses, a scathing attack on slumlords which was first produced in 1892.  Shaw was never satisfied with it, but work on it convinced him that he had found his medium. 

Over the next twenty years he would enter a period of enormous productivity and creativity and write some of the most enduring plays in English.  All cast as comedies, they tackled the deepest issues of society in a witty, approachable way.  They were definitely talking playslong monologues expounded themes and back and forth banter sharpened them. 

The topics of many of the plays were so controversial that they first met with success in production on the Continent or America before they were accepted by British audiences.  The Devils Disciple (1897) set during the American Revolution and sharply critical of Imperialism, was a hit on Broadway before London.  Other plays of enduring appeal and still frequently performed roughly in order of their production were:  Mrs. Warrens Profession (1893),  Arms and the Man (1894), Candida (1894),  Caesar and Cleopatra (1898), Man and Superman (1902–03), John Bulls Other Island (1904), Major Barbara (1905), The Doctor’s Dilemma (1906), The Dark Lady of the Sonnets (1910), Androcles and the Lion (1912), and Pygmalion (1912–13) which was destined to become his most famous and beloved play.  

                                     Shaw's unrequited love, actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell as Eliza Doolittle in the original production of Pygmalion.

Not only were these works successful on the stage, but unlike most scripts, became avidly read by the general public.  Shaw produced three collections of plays and others were issued individually in this era.  Many had long, elaborate prefaces that were as popular as the plays themselves. 

The bloody mayhem of World War I was a disappointment and a discouraging shock to Shaw.  His beloved socialist movement had failed worldwide to prevent the conflict.  Militant workers became jingoistic patriots over night and willing cannon fodder.  He had to revise many of the sunny expectations of Fabian socialism.  Shaw grew to believe that the working class was so abased by its domination by Capitalists and the social elite that they were incapable of taking effective electoral or other political action on their own behalf. 

After the Bolshevik revolution, he reluctantly concluded that revolution and the true transformation of society had to be placed in the hands of benign supermen, who would be selectively bred by wise women selecting worthy mates.  These leaders would be able to act on behalf of the disempowered working class.  Shaw embraced a kind of eugenics in pursuit of the goal.  These ideas were explored in his most important post war plays.  Back to Methuselah (1921) was an epic consisting of 5 one act plays covering the history of humanity from the age of Genesis into the future. 

In 1924, with his reputation in Britain at a low ebb after a string of less distinguished plays and public anger at his wartime pacifism lingering, Shaw had St. Joan premiered in New York.  Coming shortly after the Catholic Churchs canonization of the Maid of Orleans, Shaw spent considerable time researching trial documents and other evidence available at the time.  He found that everyone concerned from the peasants to her accusers and Inquisitors were acting in good faith according to their beliefs.  A critic called it a tragedy without villains.  Shaw had anticipated Hannah Arendt and the banality of evil.

The play was an international sensation and was the immediate cause for the playwright’s selection for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925.  Shaw, who did not believe in honors, was first inclined to turn down the award but his wife convinced him to accept because it would reflect well on Ireland, the homeland he had abandoned 50 years earlier.  He did refuse the money prize and directed that it be used to “translate good Swedish books into English.” 

After St. Joan few of Shaw’s plays were memorable, although some met with initial success on the stage.  He often attracted more attention as a social commentator and as a recognizable international celebrity with his trademark 19th Century white whiskers, old fashion tweed suites, and innumerable eccentricities.   

                                As he aged Shaw was more comfortable flaunting his achievements like posing with his Nobel Medal and Oscar. 

In 1938 Leslie Howard prevailed upon Shaw to undertake the screen play for Pygmalion, which became an enormous international hit staring Howard and Wendy Hiller as Eliza Doolittle.  He was awarded the 1938 Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.  Later, Alan J. Lerner used the film script as the basis for his libretto adaption, My Fair Lady.  

Through the ‘30s Shaw’s political opinions were drifting more and more authoritarian. He had an early infatuation with Mussolini until it became clear that the Italian had abandoned his early socialism.  After a visit to the Soviet Union in the early ‘30s where he met and appreciated Josef Stalin, he even endorsed humane elimination" of those “useless to society.” 

In 1938, with the world on the cusp of war, Shaw published an essay, Dictators—Let Us Have More of Them.  Shaw’s authoritarianism and favoring of eugenics—although Shaw’s version of eugenics was opposed to selection on racial or anti-Semitic grounds—has left many modern writers and critics bitterly critical of him and sometimes dismissive of his whole body of work.

Shaw did not make himself popular in Britain by maintaining his pacifism in World War II and likewise earned the bitter enmity of former Communist admirers for not supporting the Soviet Union when it was under attack.  He congratulated Eamonn de Valera and the Irish Free State for resisting Britain’s threats against neutral nations. 

But just as the first Great War changed his opinions, so did the second.  Shaw was not above admitting his mistakes.  In 1944 he published a rambling reassessment of socialism and his own views, Everybodys Political Whats What which regretted the excesses of what would later be called Stalinism and called for a replacement of simple 19th Century socialism with scientific humanism.   It was very nearly a swan song for the old man. 

There would be one more full length play, not very well written or received.  In 1949 Shaw penned a twenty minute puppet play, Shakes versus Shaw, a kind of intellectual Punch and Judy Show with Shaw and Shakespeare as the combatants.  

The famous poster for the Broadway production of My Fair Lady featured Shaw in heaven pulling Rex Harrison's strings--ironic on several levels.  Shaw was a militant atheist and would have rejected  any idea of heaven or being an angel.  He would have been outraged that the libretto used the ending from the Leslie Howard movie with Eliza returning which he despised.  And finally, Shaw was adamantly opposed to suggestions to make Pygmalian a musical and even left instructions banning his literary executor from allowing it.

The next year he was dead following complications after a fall in his garden at the age of 94.  As requested there was no religious service nor was there any use of a “torture device”—the Cross, allowed.  He had directed that his ashes be mixed with those of his wife and that they be scattered together around the statue of St. Joan in the garden at Shaw’s Corners. 

After his death a spate of revivals of his classic works in Britain, Canada, and the United States re-polished his tarnished reputation.  Today he is second only to the Bard himself in the number of his plays still regularly in production around the word.  The Old Man evidently still has something to say to us. 


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