Superman in Tweeds

AP Images/National Portrait Gallery, London
George Bernard Shaw, Whitehall Court, London, October 1946

Various Irish notables have recently been put on trial in a sparky series of books published by the Royal Irish Academy under its Prism imprint: so far we have had Judging Dev, Judging Cosgrave, and Judging Redmond and Carson. Now it is George Bernard Shaw’s turn in the dock. He could have no more sympathetic an advocate than Fintan O’Toole, the subtlest brain and the sharpest pen in Irish letters today, who makes his position clear in his dedication: “To my father Samuel O’Toole, Shavian, man and superman.” This father was a man to whom, adds O’Toole elsewhere, “Shaw was a pure delight…a pathfinder who had opened the way to the rough but exhilarating terrain of thinking for yourself.”

O’Toole wants “to try to restore at least a little of that admiration for what Shaw did and what he got away with.” That last phrase assures us that he will approach Shaw in no great spirit of reverence (though he makes some pretty big claims for him along the way). He makes no pretension to the inclusiveness of Michael Holroyd’s richly detailed and leisurely four-volume biography, but he covers a remarkable amount of ground. This is no mean feat. Shaw’s longevity, coupled with his heroic productivity, demands an epic approach. O’Toole’s purpose, he says, is “to restore [Shaw]…to the twenty-first century.”

When I started reading seriously, Shaw was very much a force to be reckoned with. In 1965, the socialist millionaire publisher Paul Hamlyn brought out two volumes, one containing all the plays and the other all the prefaces, in affordable editions. They sold like hotcakes; the plays themselves were still regularly performed in London’s West End and across the UK. A mere twenty years later, Shaw had all but faded from view, represented on the English stage by a mere handful of his sixty-two published plays: Heartbreak House, the most regularly revived, with very occasional productions of Saint Joan, Major Barbara, and the shockingly trenchant Mrs. Warren’s Profession.

He had vanished, too, as an intellectual influence, the books once read by anyone who could read—The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism and Everybody’s Political What’s What, to say nothing of The Quintessence of Ibsenism and The Perfect Wagnerite, his masterful exegesis of The Ring of the Nibelung—consigned to oblivion. As early as 1973, Martin Seymour-Smith was writing in his Guide to Modern World Literature: “[Shaw] was a superficial thinker and a third-rate writer. His career as a whole is a monument to the failure of human reason alone to solve human problems…he undoubtedly belongs to the history of the theatre; his place in literature, however, is a very minor one.”

And of course he had completely disappeared as a personal presence. His ubiquity during his lifetime was unparalleled: in print, on stage,…



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