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 …

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