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 English and so eliminate the most obvious and, according to Shaw, most stubborn of class distinctions. No doubt there would be huge economies, after some years of spectacular chaos; maybe the next Shakespeare, scribbling phonemically, would leave us seventy-four or one hundred and eleven plays (though God forbid a phonemic Lope de Vega). On the other hand, against Shaw’s hope of abolishing class by imposing a uniform pronunciation, linguistic science assures us that the pronunciation of a language cannot be externally fixed by its orthography: phonemic spelling will not confound Oxbridge and Cockney into egalitarian indivisibility. At any rate, Shaw worries the issue like a civic-minded terrier and declares, with his cross-grained Irish charm, that he will not “grudge…even…a world war” as a prerequisite to the establishment of a rational alphabet: “The waste of war is negligible in comparison to the daily waste of trying to communicate with one another in English through an alphabet with sixteen letters missing.”

Nor is the other posthumous volume more attractive. There is nothing in The Religious Speeches of Bernard Shaw that isn’t far more entertainingly explicit in a half-dozen of his prefaces, as well as flatfootedly declaimed in Man and Superman and Back to Methuselah. Shaw professed himself relieved and invigorated to accept, in place of the omnipotent Hebrew and Christian Jehovah, an evolving Deity to the perfecting of Whose identity every superior man must in pure altruism dedicate the strength of his conscious will. However comforting such a belief may have been to Shaw, it seems unlikely to comfort the generality of mankind, who tend to hold out for present guarantees. The speeches do disclose who Shaw’s authorities are (not that he ever dissembles his reliance on them), and how grossly he can simplify their dicta: Ibsen, Tolstoy, Nietzsche, Bergson, Lamarck, Samuel Butler. Shaw conceives himself to be doing the job of the streetcorner orator, and he blends vulgarity, hearty condescension, toadying, and aggressive heterodoxy into the standard mixture. But he is also Shaw, and it is amusing to see him relapse into the more congenial role of temperance lecturer: “The world must consist of people who are happy and at the same time sober.”


The new books by Shaw’s chroniclers and commentators aren’t very helpful either. The late Lawrence Langner, founder and director of the Theatre Guild, was responsible, beginning in 1920, for the first and numerous later productions of many of Shaw’s plays in New York and at Westport. His memoir opens, unprepossessingly, in a shower of solecism and clichés:

The shock created by Shaw on the modern world was that of an alert intelligent mind—armed with the weapons of rapierlike wit and bludgeoning horseplay, intent on destroying the shibboleths of Victorian morality—whose thrusts delighted the younger generations which followed him.

On the evidence of the book, however, he was genuinely if rather inarticulately devoted to the theater in general and to Shaw in particular; and it is touching to learn of his ineffectuality in commercial dealings with that paranoiacally adamant businessman, who “was so proud of his royalty scale that he was blind to the fact that throughout his lifetime, institutions such as the Theatre Guild were seldom able to pay their way by producing his plays. While G.B.S. had earned about $350,000 in royalties from the Guild, the Guild in turn had lost about the same amount in the production of his plays.” Which seems to prove—though Mr. Langner cannot have intended to prove—that if Shaw had gallantly forsworn all royalties the Theatre Guild would have broken even on his plays. Mr. Langner attempts, also, to comment tactfully on Shaw’s “blind spot” regarding “love and sex,” on his celibate marriage (“I sensed a relationship between them which I was to learn afterward was based upon the deepest respect for each other’s qualities”), on the post-1918 development of Shaw’s increasingly embittered, Armageddon’s-eye view of world politics; but it is a tact without focus or penetration.

If there were a tactful term for Mr. DuCann’s book, one would hasten to use it and be done. To publish a book entitled The Loves of George Bernard Shaw is not necessarily shameful; Mr. DuCann has taken considerable pains to gather information, some of it made public here for the first time, especially about Shaw’s early amours; he prints lengthy excerpts from Mrs. Shaw’s appalling letter to T.E. Lawrence (a letter about which Shaw himself knew nothing till after her death), to whom she confided—at seventy!—the terrors and revulsions of a life that might have ended in madness if it had not settled into an asexual marriage with a famous man; the book preserves a wonderful anecdote about the judgment that Charlotte Payne-Townshend’s sister passed on the wealthy Charlotte’s marriage to Shaw (already a well-known playwright, critic, and Socialist agitator):

The bride’s sister, Mrs. Cholmondeley, who was not at the ceremony, sent no felicitations. Quite the contrary; she wrote to the autumnal bride: “Don’t ask me to meet this man. And as a last kindness to me and for my sake, I ask you to secure your money.”

It is the tone, the very smell, of the the book that baffles tact; a peculiarly English journalistic tone in the ambience of which the New York Daily News appears as a pillar of taste, sobriety, straightforwardness, and honor. It is the tone of much of the English evening and Sunday press, headlines for which are likely to read as follows: HAMPSTEAD SHOCKED BY VICE-RING ORGIES; MADAM TELLS DISGUSTING STORY OF ABANDONED LIFE; NEIGHBOURS OUTRAGED BY STRANGE GOINGS-ON IN BAYSWATER. The trick is to sidle up with lip-licking orotundity for a near view of all the nasty acts and then to deplore with equally orotund English indignation the filthy swine who perform them. The New York Daily News says, People are swine and don’t you just love to wallow! The English gutter press says, People are swine and isn’t it too bad that we upright citizens have to read all about their wallowing. “Once G.B.S. went much further in dishonouring his parents,” writes Mr. DuCann severely. “He asserted that he had been begotten after a brawl when his father was fuddled with drink. Whether that was true or untrue, a son should never have said that, for what good could this blackguarding of his parents do?” And another whiff:

Shaw’s candor (if you are disposed to praise him), his lack of delicacy (if you are not), is amazing. Admitting that he is fully entitled to tell the truth, and nothing but the truth about himself and about the affair, one still asks: Why was it necessary to make the name of Mrs. Jenny Patterson as notorious as the reputation of Potiphar’s wife, when he, G. B. S., was no Joseph in this matter, especially when the poor woman was in her grave?

“Why did Shaw give her name?” snuffles Mr. DuCann in still another of the innumerable nose-drips of moralism in this reechy book. “It was the conduct of a cad.” Mr. DuCann ought to know, since this book proves him to be an expert on caddish behavior.


Very much on the other hand, Mr. Purdom (who observes that he saw his first Shaw play in 1904!) is a gentleman and a Shavian. His book seems intended as a manual for a senior course on his hero. It is divided, ingratiatingly, into three parts: The Man, The Dramatist, and The Plays. Mr. Purdom is confidently obsolete enough to sweep away, with one superb gesture of contempt, Picasso, Klee, Eliot, and Dylan Thomas, “to go no further,” as practitioners and victims of those tendencies in “modern art” against which Shaw is the vigorous corrective: “Nearly all modern art…is little more than the very clever and technically expert effort of artists to work for or to speak to themselves.” Treading softly in the vicinity of Shaw’s aversion to sex, Mr. Purdom comes up with an unusual vindication:

In his marriage, when he was approaching forty-two, a basis of sexual abstention was established to which Shaw remained faithful. This seems to have brought about an induced impotence in him, which may have been a defect from a natural point of view, but was certainly no defect in him as an artist, for it has a conscious origin. As a man in whom the emotional elements were controlled, Shaw provides an example of the lover presented in Plato’s Symposium, who is not subject to carnal love. This is not something to deride, but to honour. To achieve that state does not lessen a man, either as man or artist, for it is a victory of the spirit, that is, of consciousness…. It is my contention that he made himself physiologically incapable in one direction for the sake of increased capacity in another [the writing of his plays].

Mr. Purdom will some day explain how an impotence “induced” by external conditions can be considered a triumph of will and consciousness. In any case, he seems prepared to agree that—on the principle, “If thine eye offend thee pluck it out”—the way to increase one’s capacity as a Christian is to adopt the procedure of Origen.

Discussing the dramatist, Mr. Purdom makes the ritual associations between Shaw and Shakespeare, Dickens, Blake (“To Shaw, as to William Blake, religion and politics are one”; though one would rather not imagine the horror with which Blake would have regarded any page of Shaw).

Part Three is an awesomely industrious scrutiny of every one of Shaw’s fifty-three plays (down to the feeblest squibs), for each of which Mr. Purdom provides a summary of the plot, descriptions of the characters, suggestions for performance (he often remarks—and he is right—that this or that play “can easily be made not very interesting” if it is not done with verve and intelligence by a perfect cast under ideal stage conditions), notes on dates and circumstances of professional productions, precise designations of “climaxes” and “anticlimaxes” (which he seems to think playwrights supply at appropriate refreshing intervals like cartons of hot buttered popcorn). Mr. Purdom suffers also from a complicated obsession concerning the nature of the dramatic protagonist. He believes that every satisfactory play must have a single principal character; and, far more eccentrically, that the events and other characters in a play are to be seen entirely from the standpoint of the protagonist, virtually as his dream: “the protagonist, i.e. the character from whose point of view the dramatic action takes place”; “There is no difficulty in seeing that the entire action is from Tanner’s point of view”; “The play is…Joan’s vision throughout, including the epilogue, which should be seen as her meditation”; “When we see Candida presented by Marchbanks as protagonist we accept her as the marvelous creature he sees her to be”; “The play is, of course [Higgins’s]…” So much for the dramatist’s vaunted impersonality in allowing each of the characters to speak for himself; but Mr. Purdom is not disposing of this notion, he seems never to have heard of it.

It is not surprising that the man who wrote the plays solicits—as his champions and depreciators—this trio of naïf, newspaper moralist, and stage-struck entrepreneur. The prodigality of gab, the self-assertion, the affection of strong-mindedness and impudence, the pretense of convention-shattering wit, the “serious” ideas, the fin-de-siècle claptrap—

Ive been threatened and blackmailed and insulted and starved. But Ive played the game, Ive fought the good fight. And now it’s all over, theres an indescribable peace. [He feebly folds his hands and utters his creed]: I believe in Michael Angelo, Velasquez, and Rembrandt; in the might of design, the mystery of color, the redemption of all things by Beauty everlasting, and the message of Art that has made these hands blessed. Amen. Amen. [He closes his eyes and lies still].

(the artist’s dying speech in The Doctor’s Dilemma!), the clatter of ruthlessly inane paradoxes—all these qualities of the mountebank, taking his opportunity in a medium which had excluded even the semblance of intelligence for two centuries, are just the qualities to make a secular religion for those who, if somewhat otherwise disposed, would follow or deride Mme. Blavatsky or the latest swami instead.

The indictment is overstated, no doubt. Pygmalion is a pleasant and durable romantic comedy, flawed only by Shaw’s preposterous insistence that his puppets not fall into each other’s arms at the curtain. The Devil’s Disciple has moments of blustery melodrama; the epilogue to Saint Joan almost achieves imagination. No doubt one could find salvageable phrases, perhaps speeches, in some of the other plays. Heartbreak House, which has been considered (by Shaw himself, among others) Shaw’s “masterpiece,” is Wilde without wit, Chekhov without pathos, Ibsen without iron, and Shaw without brains; Stark Young describes it as “garrulous, unfelt and tiresome” (epithets which will serve for almost any Shaw play). Caesar and Cleopatra and Saint Joan are Hollywood epics, with bubblegum dialogue by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and low-budget casts. Man and Superman has the style and present utility of a unicycle.

Eric Bentley wrote an amiable and flattering book about Shaw, in the Foreword to which he quoted a number of aspersions on his subject. Since he has missed or ignored some of the more pungent instances, here is a supplement. Wyndham Lewis on the language of Joan of Arc and Back to Methuselah: “[The characters]…speak the jargon of the city tea-shop; as you read you fancy them in bathing drawers, a London bank clerk and his girl, great Wells readers…” Tolstoy on Shaw’s mind: “I read Shaw [who had sent him Man and Superman, John Bull’s Other Island, Major Barbara, and The Impossibilities of Anarchism]. His triviality is astounding. Not only is he devoid of a single thought of his own that elevates him above the banality of the city mob, but he does not understand a single great thought of the thinkers of the past. His whole attraction rests in the fact that he is able to express artistically the most stale trivialities in a most perverted modern way, as though he were saying something his own, something novel. His chief characteristic is this—a tremendous self-confidence equaled only by his complete philosophical ignorance.” Yeats on Shaw as the incarnation of the anti-poetic: “I had a nightmare that I was haunted by a sewing-machine, that clicked and shone, but the incredible thing was that the machine smiled, smiled perpetually.” The great and prophetic music critic Corno di Bassetto, writing in 1889 about his future alter ago, G. B. S.: “Mr. Gilbert’s paradoxical wit, astonishing to the ordinary Englishman, is nothing to me. Nature has cursed me with a facility for the same trick; and I could paradox Mr. Gilbert’s head off were I not convinced that such trifling is morally unjustifiable.”

The old joke is a statement of fact: Shaw’s prefaces are better than his plays. His journalism—especially on music—is best of all, the bright if somewhat metallic efflorescence of a mind that was most genial and active when it wasn’t persuaded that it had a stage to conquer and immortal things to say. As the world grew less and less likely to accept the advice he so abundantly offered, Shaw—who had the asceticism of the painlessly self-de-prived, and really didn’t understand why people ate meat, drank alcoholic beverages, and fornicated at haphazard—grew more and more vindictively certain of its damnation. Shaw’s latter years are disagreeable to contemplate not because like Swift he “expired a driveller and a show,” or feared death like Voltaire, but because the spirit of Ruskin, William Morris, Sidney Webb—the spirit of Shaw’s youthful awakening and his true faith—had turned out not to be capable of fulfilling itself; not in fact, after 1918, to be capable of working at all. It was the breath in the toy balloons of Shaw’s plays; it was also the wind in the sails of Shaw’s polemical writing. When it died, Shaw died with it, the millionaire socialist reduced to applauding the butcheries of a Stalin, the superannuated ghost making faces at itself in the mirror of history.

This Issue

April 2, 1964