On Language

by George Bernard Shaw, edited by Abraham Tauber
Philosophical Library, 205 pp., $4.75

The Religious Speeches of Bernard Shaw

edited by Warren S. Smith
Pennsylvania State University, 104 pp., $3.50

G.B.S. and the Lunatic

by Lawrence Langner
Atheneum, 313 pp., $6.95

The Loves of George Bernard Shaw

by C.G.L. DuCann
Funk & Wagnalls, 300 pp., $5.00

A Guide to the Plays of Bernard Shaw

by C.B. Purdom
Crowell, 344 pp., $4.95

George Bernard Shaw
George Bernard Shaw; drawing by David Levine

Almost the easiest thing to do with Shaw is to compile a list of his errors and inadequacies as playwright, pamphleteer, vegetarian, anti-vivisectionist, lover, husband, human being, self-confessed great man. Quite the easiest thing is to read him. Except his plays, that is, which (not to embarrass Sophocles, Shakespeare, Racine, and the other big boys) are to Volpone, The Country Wife, The Way of the World, even The Importance of Being Earnest, as Paul Henry Lang’s music criticism is to Shaw’s: not the difference between tenth and first, but between nothing and something. The wrangle about Shaw’s reputation dashes off on the track of this false scent; but Shaw is no more a dramatist than Voltaire. Intelligence having been banished from the English theater since 1700 (the sole anomaly is The Importance of Being Earnest, that fantasia on muffins and cucumber sandwiches), Shaw’s mere rigid simulacra of intelligence on the stage dazed audiences into the hallucination that they were participating in a renaissance. The point is not that Shaw’s plays are tracts, but that they are so much duller, clumsier, more banal than his undramatized tracts, prefaces, reminiscences, feuilletons on the arts, letters to newspapers and random correspondents. 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, Heart-break House, The Devil’s Disciple, and The Doctor’s Dilemma singly, in combination, or quintessentially distilled. Eight years after his centenary, Shaw continues to elude judicious criticism (begging Eric Bentley’s pardon) because the critics are either bemused or horrified by the wooden Leviathan of his drama. Meanwhile the Shaw bibliography proliferates. Of these five books, three are the most recent ones about him, the others belated gleanings from his polemical output.

Unluckily, Shaw is sometimes not even a clever and engaging polemicist. He was always ready to be excited by just about any topical and public issue, and had—perhaps still has—the power to convince many readers that his excitement is a portent and provocation of massive social changes; a politican’s rather than a critic’s power. It is characteristic of him that a collection of essays, prefaces, letters which the editor feels justified in titling On Language, and which Shaw took the trouble to turn out—regularly over a period of fifty years, should be not on language but on the public symbols by which we make it out: on our inefficient alphabet. Shaw was a lifelong advocate of a phonetic—what nowadays would be more precisely called a phonemic—alphabet. In this volume he keeps insisting, with the propagandist’s memorized thin stock of arguments and examples, that its use would not only save oceans of ink, paper, time, and energy, and so, among other consummations permit a writer to double or triple his productivity, but fix a universal pronunciation of…

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