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Shaw and Super-Shaw

Bernard Shaw Volume II: 1898–1918, The Pursuit of Power

by Michael Holroyd
Random House, 421 pp., $24.95

The first volume of Michael Holroyd’s three-volume biography of Bernard Shaw was warmly received by reviewers, but offstage one has heard some moans about excessive length. All those hundreds of pages stretching out ahead…. Yet how could it have been otherwise? Shaw lived so long, wrote so much, fired off so many opinions, poked a finger into so many pies. And no biography of such a man can afford to restrict itself too closely to the man himself. There are larger historical questions to be considered, and there are the men and women whose lives crisscrossed his own. To cite a single instance from Holroyd’s latest volume, you can’t properly understand Shaw’s role in the Fabian Society quarrels of 1906–1911 unless you also know a fair amount about the careers and temperaments of his allies, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, and his main adversary, H.G. Wells.

Far from being diffuse, in fact, Holroyd has been severely selective, and the skill with which he has organized his material is one of his most impressive achievements. Jostling incidents and proliferating subplots are sorted out without being unduly simplified; each successive slab of narrative slides easily into place.

In other respects, too, he shows himself more than equal to his task. He has a lively style, humor, a feeling for the finer shades of character, a keen sense of social atmosphere. His judgments are flexible and independent. Above all he writes like a writer, not like a technician dissecting a corpse.

It is true that he also has his bumpy moments. Every so often he descends into mere skittishness, and when he moves away from Shaw’s immediate milieu, his grasp tends to be less assured. (If he thinks that the celebrated Danish critic Georg Brandes was Dutch, it seems unlikely that he knows much else about him.) But these are minor faults, of small consequence when you set them beside the book’s virtues.

There is one blemish, however, that can’t be passed over quite so quickly. As in the first volume, Holroyd fails to supply references: if you want to know who said what, and where, you will have to wait until the third and final volume appears in 1991. This seems to me indefensible in principle, and since Holroyd is constantly weaving brief quotations into his text, it makes for even more confusion than you might suppose in practice. Take the following paragraph, from the account of rehearsals at the Court Theatre during its Shaw-dominated seasons of 1904 to 1907:

Shaw was more matter-of-fact [than his colleague Harley Granville-Barker]. If the producer, watching rehearsals, noted “Show influence of Kierkegaard on Ibsen in this scene” or “the Oedipus complex must be apparent here. Discuss with the Queen,” then “the sooner he is packed out of the theatre the better.” If he noted “Ears too red,” “Further up to make room for X,” “He, not Ee,” “This comes too suddenly,” then, Shaw concluded, “the producer knows his job and his place.”

What exactly is going on here? Does every quotation in the paragraph come from Shaw, as “Shaw concluded” might suggest? The references to Kierkegaard and the Oedipus complex don’t sound very Shavian, and if they are, they must surely belong to a much later stage in his career. (It is wildly unlikely that anyone in the British theater in 1904–1907 would have been talking about Kierkegaard or Freud.) Then when and where did Shaw express himself like this, if he did? No doubt all will be made clear in two years’ time. But by then we may not care quite so much—unless we are prepared to sit down and read Holroyd’s first two volumes all over again.

Meanwhile the new volume, starting off with Shaw’s marriage to the wealthy Anglo-Irish heiress Charlotte Payne-Townshend in 1898, takes the story down to 1918. In the course of those twenty years Shaw wrote Man and Superman, John Bull’s Other Island, Major Barbara, The Doctor’s Dilemma, Pygmalion, Heartbreak House, half a dozen other full-length plays, and more than a dozen shorter ones. His nondramatic writings ranged from The Perfect Wagnerite to Common Sense about the War—World War I—by way of Fabian pamphlets and a mass of miscellaneous journalism. He made innumerable speeches, delivered pronouncements on anything and everything, took part in countless debates. The word “Shavian” entered the language (in 1903), and the first books about him began to appear (the very first, by H.L. Mencken, in 1905). He was sculpted by Rodin and caricatured by Beerbohm; when he learned how to drive a car, it was duly reported in the magazine The Motor. He was news.

As much as anything, indeed, Holroyd’s book is the story of the growth of a reputation. In 1898 Shaw was a fairly familiar figure in London, and beginning to be known in America, but nobody thought of him as a literary giant. By 1918 he was probably the most famous writer in the world.

German-speaking audiences proved especially receptive. There were important productions of Shaw’s early plays in Germany at a time when the London managements still assumed that they were bad box office, and he found it impossible to get them performed in the West End. Later on, Pygmalion had its world premiere in Vienna: among those present on the first night was the Archduke Franz Ferdinand—this was less than a year before he was assassinated at Sarajevo.

Holroyd gives an amusing account of Shaw’s dealings with his German translator, Siegfried Trebitsch, and with Augustin Hamon, the high-minded anarchist whom he conscripted as his French translator—a curious choice, given that Hamon didn’t know any English and had absolutely no sense of humor. (At first, according to Holroyd, he failed to suspect that the plays over which he was laboring might be comedies. He is said to have rushed out of a theater where one of his translations was being performed, exclaiming, “Mon Dieu! On rit. Tout est perdu.”)

Then there was America. By the early years of the century, Shaw had begun to attract some fervent American disciples—one of them, Archibald Henderson, persuaded Shaw to take him on as a semi-official biographer in 1904, and spent the next fifty years churning out compilations that were largely masterminded by Shaw himself. American theater managements, too, proved more enterprising or open-minded than their British counterparts. Several of Shaw’s earlier plays, from The Devil’s Disciple to Caesar and Cleopatra, had their first airing in New York, and he was an established, even popular playwright in America at a time when the big London theaters still wouldn’t touch him.

Still, London was where he made his home, and it was the conquest of London that meant the most to him. The crucial breakthrough came with the repertory seasons at the Court—a medium-sized theater, at some distance from the West End (it is in Sloane Square), but central enough to serve as the focus for a theatrical revolution. And it wasn’t only the avant-garde who came and applauded. Arthur Balfour, the prime minister of the day, enjoyed the Court production of John Bull’s Other Island so much that he saw it five times. At a command performance of the same play in 1905 King Edward VII laughed so immoderately that he broke the special chair that had been hired for the evening; and after that, as Holroyd says, “except for a period during the First World War, Shaw never fully recovered his unpopularity.”

It took time, even so, for the commercial theater to catch up. It wasn’t until 1911 that he enjoyed his first long West End run—with one of his lesser efforts, Fanny’s First Play. Then, in 1914, came the huge success of Pygmalion, with Herbert Beerbohm Tree and Mrs. Patrick Campbell in the leading parts. Shaw hated Tree’s gimmicks, his “genius for bad acting and erroneousness.” He swore that he would never see the production again after the opening night, and when he was coaxed back for the hundredth performance he found it even more objectionable than before. But the public lapped it up, and the newspapers were full of it. (One of them, the Daily Express, got hold of a real Covent Garden flower girl called Eliza who professed to be shocked by Eliza Doolittle’s bad language.) It was only because Tree was beginning to get bored that the production was cut short while it was still playing to packed houses.

Shaw was pretty obviously justified in his complaints about Tree, but the actor was so flamboyant, so invincibly himself, that it is hard not to feel a certain affection for him. And whatever the rights and wrongs, the battle between the two men makes a rousing story. At one point during rehearsals Shaw became so incensed that he decided to send Tree a blistering letter, “which will pull him together if it does not kill him.” But when he received it, Tree was unmoved. “I will not go so far as to say,” he reflected in his notebook, “that all people who write letters of more than eight pages are mad, but it is a curious fact that all madmen write letters of more than eight pages.”

Holroyd is good on the theater, and he makes a lively guide to Shaw’s other public activities—or as lively a guide as his material permits. Many of the campaigns and controversies that he describes are inevitably much less interesting than they were seventy-five or eighty-five years ago. But Shaw’s language has kept its freshness, and even on half-forgotten issues (his proposals for an Anglo-Irish federation, for example) he can still dazzle you with his intellectual swordsmanship.

There are times, too, when you can still feel grateful to him simply for getting things right. Take his exchange with G.K. Chesterton during the early months of World War I. For Chesterton, the war was a struggle against the forces of primal darkness. It had always seemed to him, he told Shaw, that “there was in Prussia an evil will.” Intoxicating stuff—but that only makes Shaw’s measured response all the more valuable. “Of course there is an evil will in Prussia,” he replied. “Prussia isn’t Paradise. I have been fighting that evil will, in myself and others, all my life.”

It is one thing, however, to submit to Shaw in small doses. Prolonged exposure tends to produce a much less sympathetic effect: there comes a point at which anyone but the most fully paid-up Shavian is liable to be repelled by the gyrations, the compulsive talking, the incorrigible fooling around. Much of what he wrote about World War I, for example, was as sensible as his rejoinder to Chesterton. He inveighed against jingoism, and kept in sight long-term aims: the war, he insisted, would open up new possibilities for social and economic reform. But if he was seriously hoping to influence public opinion, he chose an odd way to go about it. His cocksure tone was guaranteed to antagonize far more readers than it converted; his arguments were persistently undercut by wanton shifts of direction, and by what Henry James called his “horrible flippancy.”

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