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The Devil’s Disciple

In response to:

Pshaw! from the April 2, 1964 issue

To the Editors:

Marvin Mudrick’s judgments on Shaw in the April 2 New York Review are so grotesque that it is hard to believe that they were meant seriously, although I suppose that a reviewer who could dismiss Dubedat’s dying speech in The Doctor’s Dilemma as “fin-de siècle clap-trap” is as capable of critical stupidity as of critical mischieveousness. What rankles most, at any rate, is not the obtuseness of the piece but the inescapable feeling one has that the piece was not written as a serious evaluation (or devaluation) of Shaw at all, but as one of those deliberately smart ass “controversial” essays.

Witness, for example; “Any five consecutive pages of Shaw’s four volumes of music criticism are superior in wit, humor, taste, discrimination, accuracy, robustness, exuberance, and human understanding to Saint Joan, Man and Superman, Caesar and Cleopatra, Candida, Major Barbara, Heartbreak House. The Devil’s Disciple, and The Doctor’s Dilemma singly, in combination, or quintessentially distilled.” The statement is absurd, of course, but oh how modish to praise the music criticism! How titillating for all those collectors of critical boffolas who wouldn’t know Hanslick from Haggin! How unlike Shaw, who always balanced similarly shocking denigrations of big names with proper tributes to their authentic genius.

Again: “The old joke is a statement of fact. The prefaces are better than the plays.” And Beethoven’s songs are better than the symphonies, and one reads the Platonic dialogues for Socraters’ jokes and—shades of Russell Lynes’ highbrowship—thus the in critic makes his “one up” ploys.

Shaw on reputation alone requires that a critic assume some aesthetic burden of proof. Shaw is not, after all, Herman Wouk; the greatest playwright in “two hundred years” deserves some kind of systematic analysis in the process of being assaulted. But Mr. Mudrick’s critique in addition to being “cute” is wholly impressionistic. It offers no discernible critical criteria, no chain of reasoning, no real examination of the Shavian rhetoric or the Shavian dramaturgy. The whole thing is reduced then, in the absence of such analysis, to Mr. Mudrick’s opinion against Shaw’s and “all those others’.” One is therefore justified in asking, “Who the hell is Marvin Mudrick and what gives weight to his pronouncements anyway?” South Hadley, Mass.

Sam Wellbaum

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