George Bernard Shaw
George Bernard Shaw; drawing by David Levine

In April, 1894, Yeats’s Land of Heart’s Desire and Shaw’s Arms and the Man were produced, in one strange bill, at the Avenue. Theatre in London. Yeats attended several performances, listening to Shaw’s play “with admiration and hatred.” “Presently,” he reports, “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.” At the first performance Golding Bright booed when Shaw took a curtain call. The sewing-machine smiled and made his famous reply: “My dear fellow, I quite agree with you, but what are we two against so many?” From that moment, Yeats says, “Shaw became the most formidable man in modern letters.” The first volume of the correspondence shows more vividly than ever how he made that sewing-machine, and how he kept it smiling. Mr. Smith’s study and many of the essays in Mr. Kaufmann’s collection concentrate on Shaw’s development in the same period.

The letters are not, indeed, collected; the book is misnamed. Mr. Laurence estimates that Shaw, who once spoke of ink as “an unsympathetic medium of communication,” wrote 250,000 letters in seventy-six epistolary years. The present edition, when complete in four volumes, will assemble 2500 items. The first volume contains about 700, two-thirds of which are now published for the first time. It begins, appropriately, when Shaw writes to his sister Lucy, telling her how to make her mark. “If people bother you to sing when you don’t want,” he says, “never resort to rudeness as I expect you sometimes do; chaff is the best expedient.” Nothing must be wasted.

There is a sense in which Shaw’s letters were his first “productions,” trial balloons sent up with impeccable cheek at a time when publishers were rejecting his novels by return post. Even the famous handwriting was a kind of print. At this stage Shaw was “a young man doing his best to get on in the world.” His background consisted of Ireland, a drunken father, a vaguely Bohemian mother, and a weird musician named Lee. Like Swift he demanded success, to be “used like a Lord.” He would ennoble himself, then, by cheek, wit, and chaff: he would make himself a Lord by acquiring a lordly style. Robed, he would march through the London of Pinero, Henry Arthur Jones, and William Archer. He could talk: so he would lecture. Again it was a formal matter, an essay in the assumption of style. He gave hundreds of lectures, at least as much for Shavian as for Fabian causes, and he knew exactly what he was doing. A vivid speaker standing up to address an audience has one commanding advantage. In 1891 Shaw rebuked Elizabeth Robins for discounting this: “The fact is, you did not sufficiently consider the effect on us of the law of nature by which the resonance of a human body is considerably reduced when it sits down.”

This marks the continuity of the letters, the lectures, and the first publications: by the time he broke into print Shaw had already broken into public form and gesture; where the masses were horizontal he had discovered the advantage of being perpendicular. “I got nothing for nothing,” he recalls in 1895; “I had to slave and plod for bare life to make myself at all current.” He advises Janet Achurch: “Watch and pray and fast and be humbly proud; and all the rest shall be added to you”; the greatest of these being “Watch.” a debased coin to start with, Shaw made himself current. He constantly distinguished between being something and making oneself something, greatly preferring the latter achievement. Scorning born artists, he made himself an artist. He told Florence Farr that he despised born actresses and revered those women who, lacking this birthright, made themselves actresses by watchfulness and dedication. (All for symmetry, he expounded a comic version of this, to Archer’s discomfiture, the distinction between being an ass and making an ass of oneself.) And, to husband this illumination, he made a play of it: Pygmalion.

Meanwhile he borrowed and stole the light of other men; but he never begged. He studied the successful ones, playwrights like Jones and Brieux, journalists like T. P. O’Connor and W. T. Stead; he took more from his enemies than his friends. O’Connor wrote to him in February, 1890: “Though I do not think you treat me quite fairly, that does not alter my regard for you, and then I make large, allowance for the latitude in their private relations of those who preach the fraternity of all mankind.” Splendid: but Shaw was not abashed. Instead, he turned upon friends and enemies, trouncing them in stylish prose. Before attacking W. E. Henley for his politics and his inability to hear Wagner, he pilloried him for altering good prose. “I am a writer of English,” he says, “and not of grammar. If the grammarian cannot square his pedantries with my English, why, so much the worse for his pedantries. I am amazed to find you the slave of the creature to such a depth that you actually turned my living vernacular indicatives into dead, ridiculous, and utterly incorrect subjunctives…. I write as men speak: when my subjunctives come, they are memorable for ever.”


So he achieved a lordly style partly by playing the court jester. He writes to Florence Farr: “It is by jingling the bells of a jester’s cap that I, like Heine, have made people listen to me.” And he must have enjoyed writing to Lord Russell (Bertrand’s brother) in 1892, beginning, “I am not the Shaw you knew at Balliol.” After a dreary stint of speeches in Lancashire, he writes to Beatrice Webb: “The men there want a thorough rousing. They are slaves through and through, standing up with a certain air of sturdiness for their rights as inferiors.” Erik Erikson, one of Mr. Kaufmann’s most engaging essayists, makes a great deal of the scoffer in Shaw, referring to the child’s memories of a drunken father who could not be taken seriously. Shaw describes one such event in a letter to Ellen Terry, concluding: “I have never believed in anything since: then the scoffer began.” But he was not imprisoned in this role. He wanted one kind of success; to lord it over his time. And he set out to do this by the force of his brain. Sometimes it was a matter of quiet teasing. When Jones spoke of the barrenness of politics, Shaw answered: “What conviction can you really have as to their barrenness unless you have fallen in love with them and found that no child came of their embraces?” Often it was a case of instructing the ignorant; as he gave Archer lessons in the quintessence of Ibsenism, and schooled wilful actresses like Alma Murray, Janet Achurch, and the inevitable Florence Farr. “There are ten indispensable qualities which must underlie all your play,” he informs Miss Achurch: “to wit, 1, Dignity, 2, Dignity, 3, Dignity, 4, Dignity, 5, Dignity, 6, Dignity, 7, Dignity, 8, Dignity, 9, Dignity, and 10, Dignity. And the least attempt on your part to be dignified will be utterly fatal.” Dominant, he liked to play the Avenging Angel. Bored with Alice Lockett because she was too indolent and luxurious, he puts her aside, crying for harsher music and sharper wine: “When all the love has gone out of me, I am remorseless; I hurl the truth about like destroying lightning.”

It was largely a matter of style. Indeed, one often has the impression that Shaw’s conduct was dictated by the immediate requirements of that style: once he had acquired it, it acquired him. There is a relevant passage about Voltaire in Kenneth Burke’s Towards a Better Life:

I would have you join me in praising the pressure of speech. Consider Voltaire, by nature fawning, open to any bribe, currying the favor of any despot, limiting flattery solely by the measure of his auditor’s credulousness, bending to any opportunity, renouncing any principle, yet undoing whole months of sycophancy by a sudden flash of wit, for he could stifle a remark which he considered too malicious, unless he also considered it clever. Each time he retorted to avenge an insult, his words were of so pointed a nature that the structure of the state would groan. It was not his bravery, but his phrasing, that made him intransigent.

Shaw, by nature, was timid, painfully shy, heir to nothing. He produced himself, made himself a success, by acquiring a dominating style. And thereafter the man was the style. So it is easier to understand his life by examining his syntax than by following his biography. His relations with women are not as revealing as his relations with verbs. Yeats was right when he took Shaw as an example of Phase 21, in A Vision, saying: “the aim of the individual, when true to phase, is to realize, by his own complete domination over all circumstance, a self-analyzing, self-conscious simplicity.” Right again: “If he is a novelist, his characters must go his road, and not theirs, and perpetually demonstrate his thesis; he will love construction better than the flow of life, and as a dramatist he will create character and situation without passion, and without liking, and yet he is a master of surprise, for one can never be sure where even a charge of shot will fall.” Still right, finally: “Style exists now but as a sign of work well done, a certain energy and precision of movement; in the artistic sense it is no longer possible, for the tension of the will is too great to allow for suggestion. Writers of this phase are great public men and they exist after death as historical monuments, for they are without meaning apart from time and circumstance.”


Goaded by his style, Shaw lived his life. Because the style was endlessly self-perpetuating, it kept him absurdly alive, a Struldbrugg in Ayot St. Lawrence. Whenever the letters are nasty, there is always a stylistic reason. At a time when Shaw was getting on well with Florence Farr, he insulted her in a letter to Ellen Terry: inviting Miss Terry to a more strenuous style of relationship, he couldn’t bear the thought of a milder style. Hence: “I had rather you remembered one thing I said for three days than liked me (only) for 300, 000,000,000,000,000 years. How would you like to be an amiable woman, with semicircular eyebrows?” That is, don’t dare to be Florence Farr. And surely the long and dreary row with Sir Henry Irving was a battle of styles, Ancient and Modern. Indeed, Shaw’s style is so possessive that it even distorts the plays. Mr. Laurence reprints a splendid letter from Richard Mansfield to Shaw in 1895, refusing Candida because it is “all talk” and the stage is no place for sermons. This letter is the gist of what critics have been saying ever since. Christopher Caudwell makes the same points with larger apparatus in Studies in a Dying Culture: the split, in Shaw, between consciousness and being; the characters as “walking intellects”; “he believes that preaching alone will move the world”; “he always believes that whatever he conceives as absolute truth and justice—vegetarianism or equal incomes or anti-vaccination—can be imposed on the world by successful argument.” By and large, I think these criticisms are just. I would only suggest that the attitudes that Shaw adopted were chosen not because they were valid but because the nature of his acquired style pointed to them, moment by moment, as congenial material. And while he was faithless to his lovers, he was loyal to his style.

Meanwhile he said many true things. From the first volume of the Letters I pick a few. Writing to Ellen Terry: “I really don’t know what to say about this silly old Cymbeline except that it can be done delightfully in a village schoolroom, and can’t be done at the Lyceum at all, on any terms.” Of his own plays: “My whole secret is that I have got clean through the old categories of good & evil, and no longer use them even for dramatic effect.” After seeing George Moore’s play, The Strike at Arlingford: “Moore’s counterpoint is weak, he runs too much into duets. A master of polyphony like myself would have made a fine concerted piece out of that quartet & chorus.” To Archer about Pinero: “I think you are wrong about his pioneering. He is, and always has been, a camp follower and not a leader.” And surely he was right about Irving, if hearsay and the contemporary accounts are attended to: “All his performances have to be accepted subject to the initial drawback that they are utterly incredible and impossible.”

The letters are well edited; we are told what we need to know, but not too much. Mr. Laurence’s glosses seem to me eminently judicious, more so than Mr. Smith’s commentary. To give an example: Mr. Smith has a long chapter on Shaw’s sex life, called “Philandering and The Philanderer,” in which he discusses, inter alia, the occasion on which Shaw yielded up his virginity to Mrs. Jenny Patterson. (That is a way of putting it, perhaps not very satisfactory.) Mr. Smith says:

His initiation outraged something deep in his nature; it was followed at once by a sense of revulsion that led him to write a letter of confession—a “full circumstantial account”—to Edward McNulty; then to turn wrathfully upon his companion in sin; and finally to commence an act of penance: bringing Bunyan up to date.

It sounds unShavian. Mr. Laurence’s note on the same event reads:

This belated loss of virginity produced mixed reactions in Shaw. In the first flush of exaltation he wrote a “full circumstantial account” of his affair to his friend McNulty in Dublin, but the next day he “resolved to begin a new Pilgrim’s Progress” (Diary).

This sounds nearer the mark. The letter to McNulty is not given in Mr. Laurence’s volume: I assume it is lost. But it is unlikely that Shaw bared his soul to an old Dublin crony who would probably have received the confidence with hilarity. Indeed, there is no evidence that Shaw’s soul was at all distressed: besides, he was entirely deficient in a sense of sin.

The plays Shaw wrote during these years include Widowers’ Houses, Arms and the Man, Candida, You Never Can Tell, and The Devil’s Disciple. They don’t ring many bells in the age of Beckett. Eric Bentley argues, in Mr. Kaufmann’s book, that where Shaw’s plays are modern the emotion that pervades them is disenchantment or desolation: he finds it mostly in Man and Superman, and remarks that “this note of personal poignancy” is seldom heard, alas, after Saint Joan (1923). I approve of Mr. Bentley’s purpose, and yet it is hardly realized: the only play that passes the desolation-test without quibble is Heartbreak House. This play has achieved canonical status in Shaw’s oeuvre for the same reason that King Lear has ousted Hamlet and we are all saying that Shakespeare is our anguished contemporary. We think of Heartbreak House as if it carried the subtitle, “Where (Finally) There Is Nothing,” rather than “A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes.” It is a weird play, largely because Shaw could not make up his mind whether he detested those characters in the House or whether he merely wanted to soothe them into the sleep of death. Certainly he wanted to substitute a straight “yes” or “no” for the Chekhovian “maybe,” but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. Heartbreak House is a remarkable play, one of the few compelling reasons for taking Shaw seriously, and desolation is its touching note. For once, Shaw faced the possibility that things can’t be straightened out by giving the audience a brisk talking-to: and, that being so, how successfully, after all, had he made that sewing-machine, and what was the point of that Singer smile? The play is genuinely moving because it lives in our world in a sense in which the “coitus interruptus” plays elucidated by Mr. Bentley are merely irrelevant trifles. Yeats said that Shaw was quite content “to exchange Narcissus and his Pool for the signal-box at a railway junction, where goods and travellers pass perpetually upon their logical glittering road.” But this was the young man. After 1914 it was Goodbye to All That.

This Issue

February 3, 1966