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High Spirits

Bernard Shaw: Collected Letters, 1911–1925

edited by Dan H. Laurence
Viking, 989 pp., $45.00

There is something heroic about those literary scholars—Wilmarth Lewis, Frederick Pottle, David Marquand, Gordon Haight, Leon Edel, Richard Ellmann—who have devoted a lifetime to chronicling the days and editing the papers of some luminary in the past. Dan Laurence has now been forty-four years in producing this edition of Bernard Shaw’s letters and there is still at least one volume to come. Gordon Ray, who brought out four volumes of Thackeray’s letters in successive years and added four more about his life and writings, appears insouciant by comparison. No doubt the torrent of Shaw’s letters exceeds in volume the majestic flow of Thackeray’s: and it goes without saying that this volume is as finely edited as the preceding two, obsessive in its care for detail, profuse in acknowledgments to a brigade of scholars and Shaw addicts, in every way a monument to erudition. It is the work of an editor and bibliophile of the first rank. But it is a quarry in which other scholars are anxious to work. They want to relate the man, so overpoweringly alive in his letters, to his work and his times; and they will be looking forward to the time when the warning signs are finally removed from the site where the dynamiting and clearing of debris take place.

Not that the edition aims to be a complete record of all Shaw’s letters. How could it be? Like Dickens, Shaw seemed never to stop writing. Even the letters printed here have been at times shortened, and repetitious material has been weeded out—some may think insufficiently. And yet one wonders what has been omitted. I remember being slightly disappointed at finding in the first volume two rather boring letters to Nathaniel Wedd, E.M. Forster’s mentor at King’s, about a meeting in 1888 of Fabians which Shaw was to address there. Before it took place Professor Westcott, a distinguished theologian, fearing for the morals of the undergraduates, asked Wedd what Shaw’s moral basis was. To Wedd’s inquiry Shaw replied: “You know what W’s moral basis is better than I do: tell him it’s that.”

But what is Professor Laurence to do? This volume covers fifteen years yet it is 989 pages long. Anyone rash enough to ask Shaw’s advice could be overwhelmed by a thirty-page letter. The cataract of words is cataclysmic. Shaw tackles a prodigious number of topics. There are letters on directing and casting his plays; letters to theater managers, actresses, designers, and critics; letters about concert performances; tart business letters, e.g., to Hearst, who tried to cheat him and pay a quarter of what Shaw had been promised even though Shaw had written more articles than he was under contract to write; descriptions of motoring over the Alps and breaking down on the way back; letters analyzing the minute variations in the cockney accent current in various London boroughs; love letters; letters of condolence, political forecasts, war strategy, the Irish question, the German problem; refusals to begging letters; letters of admiration for Lenin—and throughout everything is discussed with unflagging gusto, serene good humor, and, of course, sublime self-satisfaction.

Shaw was nearly fifty-five when this volume begins and he was giving up the life of active politics, the immense round of speechmaking and pamphleteering at Fabian gatherings and on borough councils and public platforms of protest. Suddenly he did something quite normal for a middle-aged married man—he fell in love with a tease and a beauty. Mrs. Patrick Campbell had the shrewdness of a vixen and the mind of a peahen. Her moods were like quicksilver, her tongue astringent, and her temper at once real and simulated. Shaw was infatuated. But infatuation is different from passion. To the fury of his wife, he spent hours by her bedside when she was laid up for months after an accident. Blithe as a lark he determined to have it both ways. “I haven’t the faintest intention of breaking with Charlotte nor of cooling one jot to Stella.” Yet when the break came, did he really suffer anything more than exasperation at being made to look ridiculous? Perhaps he did. Perhaps under that carapace of self-confident banter, his heart was torn. Impossible to deduce this from his letters. Possibly what he endured during the rehearsals of Pygmalion, which he created for her, reconciled him. He had in fact been fencing, playing at a duel in which he enjoyed the riposte, parry, and thrust, her glissade and his own passade. Then the button fell from her foil and she pinked him. She wounded his vanity when she fell for a wasp-waisted twit in the Guards who had just been divorced by Winston Churchill’s mother. And then she married the twit.

The war was a climacteric for Shaw. In 1914 he wrote a pamphlet called Common Sense about the War and the heavens fell upon him. Friends cut him; the playwright Henry Arthur Jones never spoke to him again; Robert Blatchford, the socialist, told him he had committed the meanest act of treachery ever perpetrated by an alien enemy residing in generous and long-suffering England; and he was asked not to go to the lunches at the Dramatists’ Club. To Shaw the whole matter was crystal-clear. The obloquy, which hurt him more than he cared to admit to himself—his letter of reproach to Jones is exemplary—arose to his mind simply because he always spoke it. His speeches before the war advocating a tripartite antiaggression pact between France, Germany, and Britain had been treated as ludicrous. Yet the very people who had mocked his recipe for peace were now hellbent on killing each other.

Reviewers of these letters have praised Shaw for refusing to wallow in the war euphoria and succumb to the delusion that war would cleanse the nation; and they add that at the end of it Shaw was one of the few who had no apologies to make. Unlike the pacifists, he had declared from the start that the Germans must be defeated. His only crime was to state in unflattering terms how corrupt the rulers of England were, how England’s war aims should be to get rid not only of the Prussian Junkers but the English Junkers. The fact that at the end of it he was against those who wanted to revenge and disable Germany compounded his crime. Today it should win our respect.

But the truth is that Shaw wrote a great deal of nonsense about the war. He was always coming up with peace initiatives that depended on both sides overnight becoming lucid rationalists: Why not, he said, calculate the cost of war and ask whether it was reasonable to continue it? Yet simultaneously he would say that the Germans should fight to the death, the better to be skinned alive. The kaiser was entirely within his rights as a sovereign to declare war and Britain within its rights to resist him. He prophesied incorrectly that Japan would take Vladivostok and the maritime provinces from a prostrate Russia, and he rejoiced that the Allies would be powerless to prevent it. The war would never have begun if the kaiser had withdrawn all his troops from Germany’s western frontier and defeated the attacking Russians: France and Britain would not have attacked him. Any diplomat would have told him that was rubbish.

Shaw would tell the death-and-glory boys they were in for a thirty years’ war and the pacifists that unless they were prepared at any time to take on the Germans again England would indeed become a nation of shopkeepers. Enthusiastically in favor of the revolution in Russia, he wrote Gorky that it would never have happened if the czarina had not betrayed Russia to Germany. It was Russia’s duty to fight on because only with the defeat of Prussian Junkertum would British imperialism be defeated. As for the Fabians, Sidney Webb blinded himself to all the political chicaneries that support for the war entailed, simply because he saw in the war a splendid opportunity to introduce collectivism. These aphorisms are not impressive.

To put this in perspective we should imagine a Shavian analysis of the Vietnam war that might have run as follows. All the talk of domino theory on the one side and outraged moralism on the other is flubdub. The Americans are justified in carpet-bombing North Vietnam because its Communist government, determined to impose an inflexible set of principles based on obsolete economics, will bring misery and a lower standard of living to the whole country—a country which is marginally better served by the corrupt scoundrels who rule in South Vietnam. The war, however, is folly because the Americans have so lost touch with the sound sense of militarism and capitalism that they have forgotten that their left flank rests on the Bay of Bengal: they have not got the manpower or the political muscle to prevent themselves from being outflanked.

In fact, Shaw was at his old game of baiting his potential allies and praising his most ruthless enemies. Capitalists and imperialists come off well in his plays: the progressives are treated as ridiculous. He could not endure the platitudes of liberalism; and if riddling that target meant insulting his friends, what better way of waking them from their intellectual torpor? For the first time in his life perhaps, people took him seriously and he was shocked that they did not like what he said. War makes sensible people say foolish things; but when thousands were being slaughtered on the western front the survivors were not likely to be heartened by Shaw urging that they must smash the Germans and simultaneously welcome each of his own peace initiatives. He insisted that he wanted the war to be won but denounced all concerned with its conduct as either criminals or rascals.

It never crossed his mind that the tone of voice, jocular, self-assured, provocative, in which he was accustomed to speak in peacetime might have to be modified during a war of such dimensions. When his fellow Irish playwright and dramatic critic St. John Ervine lost a leg from his wounds, Shaw wrote him a letter mainly about the time he, Shaw, nearly lost his leg, and concluded:

For a man of your profession two legs are an extravagance: the Huns were nearer the mark when they attempted (as I gather from your wife) to knock off your head. Instead of lingering in a hospital for a year, and then being sent back like a lamb to the slaughter you will be down at Beer in a month, quit of the army for life, and with a wound pension which in your case should logically be a reduction of the ordinary pension. The more the case is gone into the more it appears that you are an exceptionally happy and fortunate man, relieved of a limb to which you owed none of your fame, and which indeed was the cause of your conscription; for without it you would not have been accepted for service.

It is well known that the maimed should be weaned from self-pity, and certainly Shaw set about that task with relish. It is a funny letter. Did Ervine laugh?

By this time Shaw had lost patience with English politics, and the war convinced him that attempts to educate the men who wielded power were futile; in other words Fabianism and the policy of “permeation” had failed. The result was Heartbreak House; and in that play Shaw synthesizes as a dramatist the conflict of ideas which in his letters sounds contradictory. It is his farewell to rational politics and hope for the world. In it the heroine loses her belief in the power of romantic love, the power of money, and the power of the intellect. In the end she has no hope for the future. For she realizes that Captain Shotover/Shaw, who thinks he will save the ship of state from being driven onto the rocks by gangster capitalists and the licentious upper classes, is old and mad. Shotover thinks he can save it by sheer power of mind: he will invent a death ray. Shaw did not believe in death rays; but he popularized an attitude of mind which was to be held by thousands of intellectuals from then until now. The first proposition is that “society is one huge conspiracy and hypocrisy”; and the second is that man will destroy himself unless he can learn to “solve” his political problems. H.G. Wells was to send the same message with an even deeper sense of despair at the end of the Second World War in Mind at the End of Its Tether.

It is a message that has become a cliché of our age; and if we apply Shavian analysis to it we shall see that it is false. To suppose that there is a single “rational” solution to each problem whether it is international or domestic, capable of satisfying all conflicting interests, is an illusion. But it is also true that precisely because statesmen are not invariably selfish and irrational, the superpowers are unlikely to start an atomic war. In the best book (miraculously short) ever written on Shaw, Eric Bentley declared that Shaw’s later fantastic plays are about the problems of the atomic age.* Part of the difficulty in understanding Shaw, he argued, is his refusal to overdramatize life. He refused to see problems as either/or. He wanted both/and. That was why he was so hard on liberals for refusing to accept the realities of power, and on capitalists for refusing to acknowledge their obligations to the poor. Yet in one sense Shaw came to see politics as a compound of “either” and “or”: either the reasoned, disciplined use of power to ensure welfare and to compel each to make his contribution to the community; or the continuation of futile predatory rule ending in smash. Such a conclusion seems to bring an enormous sense of satisfaction to some intellectuals.

Heartbreak House is his most puzzling play and it was neither produced nor understood as he wished. To an old Canadian friend Lena Ashwell, who had lost her temper reading the preface, he wrote:

It is so difficult to get even the smallest thing changed that unless there were people who wanted to change everything hammering away at the people who want to change nothing, civilization would stagnate and perish…. Therefore be faithful to the flag, the king, the Church, the Army and Navy, and all the things that look so steady and are so ricketty, and leave revolutionary opinions to reasonable, moderate, timid creatures like me; but don’t forget that you couldn’t do without us.

ever your infatuated


At the end of a performance at Oxford where the cast overacted and played for laughs, he went on stage and said:

This has been one of the most depressing evenings I have spent in the theatre. I imagined I had written a quiet, thoughtful, semi-tragic play after the manner of Chekhov. From your empty-headed laughter, I appear to have written a bedroom farce. All that remains for me to do is to give the actors, and particularly the director, my most heavy curse.

Shaw wrote stunning letters to his actresses. He shows in his letters how much he adored women. He flatters them, amuses them, spins like a top before them, and is engaging and indulgent. His letter to Stella Campbell when her son was killed in the war is a noble outburst of grief, misery, rage, and in the last line—of love. Men were not so lucky. “Dear Sir, Your profession has, as usual, destroyed your brain,” he wrote to one luckless journalist. When he and Wells had a tussle, no holds were barred. Wells told him that the preface to Misalliance was “the lamentable product of an indigestion…. Your mind, early corrupted by public speaking & later almost entirely destroyed by the committee habit, cannot rouse itself unaided to grasp a question comprehensively.” Shaw replied, “Come now, H.G.: none of that. Sit up and behave yourself…. I want help, not cheek.” As for Thomas Demetrius O’Bolger, an American who decided to write Shaw’s biography and bombarded Shaw with advice and vile drafts of chapters, Shaw emptied hogsheads of ridicule, derision, and amazement over his efforts until the poor fellow died of pernicious anemia.

Not every letter is pleasant reading. It was perhaps understandable that having read long serialized extracts from Ulysses he refused to buy a copy from Sylvia Beach, understandable that he wanted to force “every male person between the ages of 15 and 30” to read it and “ask them whether on reflection they could see anything amusing in all that foul mouthed, foul minded derision and obscenity.” But he admitted that Joyce spoke the truth and was “hideously real” about Dublin. Then Ezra Pound, an old friend, returned to the charge. Shaw’s raucous badinage, as he continued to refuse to pay a cent that would end up in the pockets of his fellow Irishman, is displeasing. So was his inability ever to admit that on the smallest possible point he might have been mistaken. When he had predicted Carpentier would beat Dempsey, he declared that all he had done was to protest before the fight that the odds against Carpentier were too long. Off on another tack he argued that Carpentier would have won if Dempsey had not been such a brute and taken punishment that no true boxer could have absorbed. Then he tacked again and complained that Carpentier had thrown the match away by slugging it out. The letter is so full of evasion and excuses that it reminds one how full of tricks and chicanery many of his arguments were.

On being asked whether Shaw spoke French well, Rodin replied “Monsieur Shaw ne parle pas bien; mais il s’exprime avec une telle violence qu’il s’impose.” He might have said the same about Shaw writing English. He does not write imaginative letters like Virginia Woolf’s, full of metaphors, image, and fantasy. He wrote at the top of his voice, and the pace, the geniality, the force, the ridicule, the sympathy, the delight in absurdity, and the fury at imbecility are prodigious. Is there anyone alive today who matches his tear-away high spirits?

  1. *

    Eric Bentley, Bernard Shaw (New Directons, 1947).

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