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.”
Faults like these were the symptoms of an unending and unseemly exhibitionism. One respects artistic pride; one is reconciled, where necessary, to artistic arrogance. What is harder to stomach is mere conceit—and has any writer of comparable gifts ever been guilty of quite so much? “I want the Germans to know me as a philosopher,” he told Siegfried Trebitsch, “as an English (or Irish) Nietzsche (only ten times cleverer)….” “The longer I live,” he informed H.G. Wells, “the more I see that I am never wrong about anything.” Remarks like these were no doubt meant to be jokes at the expense of his own vanity; but it is the vanity that impresses, not the jokes. And beyond the outright boasting, there is the implicit self-regard, the sense of Shaw, Shaw, Shaw stretching to the horizon’s edge.
You wonder about the pressure that produced such attitudes, and the ultimate explanation for them plainly has to be looked for in Holroyd’s first volume—in the emotional disarray that surrounded Shaw during childhood (a drunken, hopelessly improvident father, a mother who invested her affections in her music teacher), and in the frustration and self-dissatisfaction that he felt as a young man. By the time he reached his forties, however, he had perfected his confident public persona. The mask of “G.B.S.” was firmly in place, and the second volume has much less to report about his inner life.
It opens, almost literally, with a chapter of accidents. At the time of his marriage Shaw had been suffering from a badly infected foot, which eventually required an operation: he had hobbled to the Registry Office on crutches. Less than three weeks later, on a honeymoon of sorts, he fell and broke his arm, and over the next eighteen months he was to be laid low by a series of further falls and sprains and sundry illnesses. By the end of this period Charlotte had revealed a talent for nursing, Shaw himself had revealed a talent for being nursed, and they had both decided that sex was to play no part in their marriage.
Something for psychoanalysts to puzzle over. Can all those accidents have been an accident? Was Shaw (a great rebel, but also a man who lived with his mother until he was forty-two) punishing himself for the masculine self-assertion that getting married represented? How far did he adopt the role of his ineffectual father, how far that of the dashing interloper in his parents’ marriage, the singing teacher George Vandeleur Lee? Holroyd has some interesting speculations on this last point. Before marriage, he suggests, in his “three-cornered affairs with women,” Shaw had played the part of Lee. In marriage, he took on a double role, that of Lee and his father, although “the dominant role was that of Lee whose ‘potency’ arose from his public life—as did Shaw’s.” Mostly, however—and rightly, I think, in the kind of book he is writing—Holroyd sticks to the ascertainable facts.
The most obvious thing about the marriage was that it worked. It had its tensions, and there were times when Charlotte felt compelled to take refuge from them—in foreign travel, in a little mild mysticism. (She eventually became a disciple of an American spiritual healer called James Porter Mills.) But the clouds always passed, and it seems clear that the relationship between her and Shaw was essentially one of affection and mutual support.
That doesn’t make it particularly exciting to read about. After the opening pages, Charlotte rather fades from view, and for much of the book she remains a silent presence. There is equally little to be said about her money—and it would be equally mistaken to minimize its importance. Shaw’s habits were frugal, and his immediate needs were modest; but you can get some idea of what economic security meant to him if you think of the needless financial anxieties that surfaced in his old age. Early poverty had left lasting scars.
The one rift that seriously threatened the marriage was the result of his infatuation with Mrs. Patrick Campbell. He had first felt drawn to “Mrs. Pat” in the 1890s, and he had written about her with unusual warmth in his days as a theater critic; but it was not until the summer of 1912—when he was fifty-six and she was forty-seven—that he fell completely under her spell. Over the next twelve months or so he paid court, dreamed about her, and bombarded her with letters, and he was mortified when she finally slipped away.
By conventional standards, the episode ought to provide one of the emotional high points of the book. But it doesn’t. There was too much play-acting on both sides, too many false notes.
In one respect, however, it makes compelling reading, since it is inseparable from the story of Pygmalion. Mrs. Pat may have made a somewhat mature Eliza Doolittle, but from the very first Shaw had been determined that the part should be hers. This was while he was still writing the play, before their affair began; and in fact the earliest intimations of Pygmalion had come to him as far back as 1897, when he had watched her act opposite Johnston Forbes Robertson and resolved to write a play for the two of them, “in which he shall be a west end gentleman and she an east end dona in an apron and three orange and red ostrich feathers.”
That, to me, is more beguiling than anything in the self-conscious outpourings (“pseudo-love-letters,” Beerbohm called them) that Shaw wrote to Mrs. Pat fifteen years later. She stirred his creative powers, and the fantasies she provoked went back to childhood. For Pygmalion is the most personal of his plays, the one most deeply embedded in his past. In Holroyd’s words, it “weaves together a variety of Shavian themes, sources and obsessions, imaginatively rephrasing the relationship between his mother and Vandeleur Lee, and casting Mrs. Pat as the emotional replacement for Mrs. Shaw.” Holroyd isn’t the first writer to have made these connections (there is a compact Freudian reading of Pygmalion in Philip Weissman’s 1965 book Creativity in the Theater, for example). But he explores them with commendable skill, and without losing sight of the more conscious concerns—phonetics, the class system, and so forth—that were pressing in on Shaw at the same time.
And what of the other plays? There are more of them than one thinks, or than most of us can recall, and Holroyd works his way faithfully through them all—through The Admirable Bashville, and Getting Married, and The Fascinating Foundling, and Annajanska (the whimsical “romancelet” that was Shaw’s first response to the Russian Revolution of 1917). With the minor works, it is enough for him to summarize and describe; with the more familiar ones he settles for a mixture of straight biography and exposition with a biographical slant. He is excellent, as you might expect, on such things as the medical background of The Doctor’s Dilemma (in particular the sparring matches between Shaw and the pathologist Almroth Wright) and the impact of Shaw’s friendship with Gilbert Murray (the original of the character Cusins) on the writing of Major Barbara. But he is equally intent on tracing concealed or oblique personal themes. Man and Superman, for example, is seen as marking a shift on Shaw’s part toward “spiritual autobiography,” Misalliance as “a monumental, multi-faceted self-portrait, where incompatible aspects of his personality confront one another.”
Most of Holroyd’s interpretations in this vein strike me as sensible and well-founded. What they don’t have to address, on the other hand, is the question of artistic quality. A play like Misalliance may be everything that he says it is, but it can still make for a fairly tiresome evening in the theater; and Shaw’s whole standing as an artist remains equivocal. Inventive, witty, eloquent, surpassingly clever—his work is all these things. But how much hold does it have over the imagination, or the heart? There are far less brilliant writers whose reputations seem more assured.
While Holroyd records his reservations about this and that, he doesn’t seem to have any doubts about Shaw’s essential greatness. This again, in a biographer, is as it should be: major critical debates are best left to critics. But what one might reasonably have hoped for is a sharper and firmer assessment of Shaw’s ideas.
The subtitle that Holroyd has chosen for the new volume is “The Pursuit of Power.” (The first volume was subtitled “The Search for Love.”) This holds out the promise of a unifying theme, and at a number of points in the book he does indeed have illuminating things to say about Shaw’s fascination with power—early on, for example, when he discusses the Caesarism of Caesar and Cleopatra, and later, when he comes to Major Barbara and the part played in it by Undershaft, the armaments king. But he never really pulls the threads together.
The Shavian cult of power became much more pronounced in the playwright’s old age. As soon as there were dictators to admire, he admired them. He found a great deal to commend in Mussolini and Hitler, and he was tireless in his praise of Stalin. (It was only in 1931, incidentally, that he began extolling the Soviet regime: Lenin and Trotsky hadn’t measured up to his standards.)
We hear a lot about the offensive political views of Yeats and Eliot and other reactionary modern masters. We hear less about such things as Shaw’s support for Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia, or his blunt declaration, made at the time, that Hitler’s seizure of Austria was “a highly desirable event.” Many of his political opinions from the 1920s onward were equally reprehensible, and many of them were expressed with a frivolity that can fairly be called disgusting. Consider, for instance, the way in which he chose to dismiss firsthand reports that there was widespread hunger in the Soviet Union (this was in 1932): “I did not see a single under-nourished person in Russia, young or old. Were they padded? Were their hollow cheeks distended by pieces of India rubber inside?” Even as he wrote, a man-made famine was about to ravage the Ukraine on a horrendous scale.
Something has to be allowed in all this for the effects of old age; but not much. For the most part Shaw was simply pushing to extremes, in a more conducive climate, tendencies that had long been a feature of his thought. The belief in ruthless social engineering, the admiration for strong men, the Fabian elevation of the expert, the contempt for democracy, the brushing aside of individual rights in the name of Creative Evolution—all of them pointed in the direction he eventually took; and the comfortable bourgeois atmosphere of his pre-1914 plays shouldn’t be allowed to disguise his willingness to blow existing institutions sky-high. A terrorist, Brecht called him, and Brecht knew whereof he spoke.
There was also, of course, his socialism. In its negative and in its local aspects, this is something that still commands respect: he stood out boldly against social injustices that most of his contemporaries regarded as laws of nature, and he was an admirable exponent of the municipal “gas and water” socialism of the Fabians. But by 1910 he had also committed himself to a fixed general definition of socialism that he was to stick to for the rest of his days. First and last, he wrote, it meant
a state of society in which the entire income of the country is divided between all the people in exactly equal shares, without regard to their industry, their character, or any other consideration except the consideration that they are all living human beings.
It would have been hard to devise a scheme better calculated to wreck an economy; but then there is something unreal about the whole idea. Socialism of this order was a fetish or a fantasy, an absolute that begged all the awkward questions.
Acknowledging the appearance of what he called a “philosophy of violence” in Shaw’s later life, Holroyd puts it down to frustration. It was a product, he suggests, “of his sexual and then his political neutering,” and politically the decisive episode was his appearance before the parliamentary committee on stage censorship in 1909. The committee treated him shabbily—it refused, without giving its reasons, to admit the long written statement he had prepared as evidence—and even the limited reforms that it proposed in its report proved too much for the government: they were soon shunted aside and forgotten. Looking back, he came to believe, in Holroyd’s words, “that it had been this Censorship Committee that altered his views on how to obtain political results.” The sham of parliamentary procedure stood exposed.
Stage censorship, which wasn’t abolished in Britain until 1968, was a deplorable business, and in campaigning against it Shaw spoke with the voice of enlightenment. But before we attach too much symbolic importance to the 1909 episode, three points are worth noting.
In the first place, assuming that the setback over censorship really did mark a turning point in Shaw’s political outlook, there is a grotesque disparity between the occasion and what it led on to. Holroyd seems not to have noticed any irony in the idea of Shaw’s frustration driving him to support regimes that practiced forms of censorship ten thousand times worse than anything he had ever had to encounter himself.
Secondly, censorship was only one issue among many; there were other battles to fight, and if Shaw really was politically “neutered,” it was by his own choice. By 1909 the Labour party was a going concern, with an obvious future—an imperfect vehicle from Shaw’s point of view, but one that still held out important new possibilities for social reform.
Finally, the roots of his later attitudes went back a good deal further than 1909. In discussing the Boer War, for example, he used many of the same arguments he was to deploy at the time of the Ethiopian war thirty-five years later. He wanted the British to win—not for patriotic reasons, needless to say, but in the name of progress. The backward regions of the earth had to be colonized, and states like the Boer republics which obstructed the march of international civilization had to be swept away.
There is still time for Holroyd to go into such matters more thoroughly; it will be interesting to see what kind of summing-up he attempts at the end of the biography, and whether he is going to take a hard look at early Shaw and middle Shaw in the light of late Shaw. But either way I am impatient to read his next volume. It can hardly fail to set the cap on what is, all said and done, a formidable achievement.
December 21, 1989