AP Images/National Portrait Gallery, London

George Bernard Shaw, Whitehall Court, London, October 1946

Various Irish notables have recently been put on trial in a sparky series of books published by the Royal Irish Academy under its Prism imprint: so far we have had Judging Dev, Judging Cosgrave, and Judging Redmond and Carson. Now it is George Bernard Shaw’s turn in the dock. He could have no more sympathetic an advocate than Fintan O’Toole, the subtlest brain and the sharpest pen in Irish letters today, who makes his position clear in his dedication: “To my father Samuel O’Toole, Shavian, man and superman.” This father was a man to whom, adds O’Toole elsewhere, “Shaw was a pure delight…a pathfinder who had opened the way to the rough but exhilarating terrain of thinking for yourself.”

O’Toole wants “to try to restore at least a little of that admiration for what Shaw did and what he got away with.” That last phrase assures us that he will approach Shaw in no great spirit of reverence (though he makes some pretty big claims for him along the way). He makes no pretension to the inclusiveness of Michael Holroyd’s richly detailed and leisurely four-volume biography, but he covers a remarkable amount of ground. This is no mean feat. Shaw’s longevity, coupled with his heroic productivity, demands an epic approach. O’Toole’s purpose, he says, is “to restore [Shaw]…to the twenty-first century.”

When I started reading seriously, Shaw was very much a force to be reckoned with. In 1965, the socialist millionaire publisher Paul Hamlyn brought out two volumes, one containing all the plays and the other all the prefaces, in affordable editions. They sold like hotcakes; the plays themselves were still regularly performed in London’s West End and across the UK. A mere twenty years later, Shaw had all but faded from view, represented on the English stage by a mere handful of his sixty-two published plays: Heartbreak House, the most regularly revived, with very occasional productions of Saint Joan, Major Barbara, and the shockingly trenchant Mrs. Warren’s Profession.

He had vanished, too, as an intellectual influence, the books once read by anyone who could read—The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism and Everybody’s Political What’s What, to say nothing of The Quintessence of Ibsenism and The Perfect Wagnerite, his masterful exegesis of The Ring of the Nibelung—consigned to oblivion. As early as 1973, Martin Seymour-Smith was writing in his Guide to Modern World Literature: “[Shaw] was a superficial thinker and a third-rate writer. His career as a whole is a monument to the failure of human reason alone to solve human problems…he undoubtedly belongs to the history of the theatre; his place in literature, however, is a very minor one.”

And of course he had completely disappeared as a personal presence. His ubiquity during his lifetime was unparalleled: in print, on stage, on air, in newsreels, on the newfangled television. He had an opinion about everything, and that opinion was eagerly sought. He consciously set out, he said, to embody the zeitgeist. Whether he succeeded in that is to be questioned: Surely he was, rather, a thorn in the side of the zeitgeist, a scourge of the common wisdom? He most certainly became, as O’Toole points out, an inspiration to the newly intellectually aware middle- and lower-middle classes, as they discovered a brave new world of thought and art, rejoicing in the uses of literacy: “He was the touchstone of the autodidact…. Shaw’s writing is highly complimentary to his readers: it assumes that they are up to it.” But by the 1980s, that constituency, with the general increase in higher education, had vanished without a trace.

O’Toole masterfully analyzes how and why Shaw became Shaw. Born in Dublin in 1856, into that most fertile of milieux, the nouveau pauvre—“I was a downstart,” he said, “and the son of a downstart”—Shaw was acutely embarrassed by the decline in circumstances of his drunken father (“a futile person,” he said) and keenly aware of his mother Bessie’s contempt for him. She showed her son no great affection, and soon became romantically involved with her music teacher, the highly original and charismatic George Vandeleur Lee, under whose spell Shaw also fell, seeming to model himself on him. For a while they all lived together in a somewhat bohemian arrangement; eventually and inevitably, Bessie Shaw abandoned her husband and moved to London with Lee. Shaw went to work in a real estate office in Dublin, rising rapidly to become the chief cashier, all the while teaching himself political philosophy and music.

Before long, he moved to London, making his debut as a writer ghosting Lee’s articles on music. Like many an actor, he found his voice by donning a mask, the mask that soon evolved into the world-beating figure of GBS—witty, rigorous, energetic. Meanwhile, he pursued his political education, mingling in socialist circles, studying at the British Museum Reading Room. By intense application, he mastered the classics of philosophy and economics: “his ideas,” O’Toole says, “were an idiosyncratic compound” of Marx’s economics, Wagner’s music and mythology, Schopenhauer’s idea of the world as blind Will, and Nietzsche’s “crusade against morality.” Determined to impose himself on England but aware that he could never do so by playing the socially déclassé Irishman, he presented himself to the English as a superior if compassionate intellect. “Arguably Shaw’s greatest single insight,” writes O’Toole, “was that the best way to be Irish in England was to be German.” And then—the coup de grâce—he was funny with it, “an Irishman full of instinctive pity for those of my fellow creatures who are only English.”


An outpouring of writing ensued: four unpublished novels; in 1884, when he was twenty-eight, a fifth, An Unsocial Socialist, finally appeared in serial form. A year after that, he was appointed music critic of The Dramatic Review, assaulting the dismally low levels of both performance and composition in late Victorian London with coruscating wit; three years after that, he began his highly successful career as a public speaker. His first play, Widowers’ Houses, about slum landlordism, appeared in 1892, playing only two performances in a theater club. He was thirty-six: precocious he was not. His first success in the theater came a year later with Arms and the Man, which ran for a solid fifty performances. He was appointed drama critic for the influential Saturday Review in 1895; it was a further two years before The Devil’s Disciple had its premiere, to great acclaim, in New York. For the first time he earned some proper money.

Shaw was now just over forty, and he was everywhere, writing copiously in the Fleet Street press and for the Fabian Society, the left-wing think tank of which he was an early and increasingly influential member; he sat on the Labour Representative Committee that would ultimately create the Labour Party, “and as such,” says O’Toole, “has a place in the history of mainstream electoral social democracy.” For a while, he sat on his local borough council, but gave it up on the grounds that local government was endemically ineffective. Meanwhile, his fame and indeed his fortune—the former chief cashier knew how to handle his own finances—expanded with the increasing success of his plays across Europe, above all in the German-speaking countries. His last triumph before the outbreak of World War I was Pygmalion; by the time it opened in London in April 1914, it had already been seen in Vienna, Berlin, Budapest, Warsaw, Stockholm, and New York (in the German-speaking theater there). He was, at the age of fifty-eight, arguably the most famous living writer in the world, held in universal admiration, given unique license to say the unsayable.

The war changed all that. The outbreak of hostilities disturbed Shaw greatly, appalled as he was that the two countries to which he was closest, Britain and Germany, should set out to destroy each other. He bided his time, and then in November 1914, he delivered his considered response, Common Sense about the War, a devastating exposé of the deceptions and hypocrisies practiced by both sides, as well as a prescription for action that should be taken when the war ended. It was published simultaneously in The New York Times and the London New Statesman and created a furor that seemed likely to engulf Shaw completely. “The time has now come,” he wrote, “to pluck up courage and begin to talk and write soberly about the war.” The article is neither pacifist nor defeatist: now that Britain and its allies had committed themselves to war, they must win, Shaw believed, but he was utterly unsparing of the foolishness, dishonesty, and self-deception of the British government and indeed the British people that had led to its declaration: “Let us have no more nonsense about the Prussian Wolf and the British Lamb, the Prussian Machiavelli and the English Evangelist. We cannot shout for years that we are boys of the bulldog breed and then suddenly pose as gazelles.”

To write in this vein only four months into a war that was still hugely popular with a nation gripped by hysterical patriotic emotion was extraordinarily brave. In the pamphlet, he expressed again, as he had in Major Barbara (1905), his despair and fear concerning the existence of weapons of mass destruction: “The one danger before us…is the danger created by inventing weapons capable of destroying civilisation faster than we produce men who can be trusted to use them wisely. At present, we are handling them like children.” When the article appeared, the entire nation, not least his fellow writers, seemed to rise up against him. As O’Toole tells us in this superb section of the book, in time much of what Shaw had said seemed to be no more than the bare truth; he was quietly forgiven and absorbed back into the fold. The British commander in chief, Douglas Haig, invited him to go to the front in France and Flanders; on his return he wrote a lengthy and sometimes unexpectedly funny report on conditions there, which was serialized in the News Chronicle. O’Toole notes that this episode (condemnation followed by rehabilitation) had a surprising effect on the way Shaw was perceived by his audiences—and on the way he saw himself. Vindicated, he went in one bound from enfant terrible to sage.


This was regrettable, both for his work—which became increasingly preachy, the ideas he promoted less and less tested and debated—but also for his political influence. Like Dickens, he became increasingly impatient with democracy; unlike Dickens he looked more and more to some great leader to effect change. He admired Hitler (though disparaging his anti-Semitism), endorsed Mussolini, and was positively besotted by Stalin, whose framed portrait was on his mantelpiece (beside Gandhi’s) until the day he died, by which time no one could have harbored any illusions about what had gone on during the collectivization of farms.

Shaw was perfectly compos mentis to the end, but he seemed to have lost his judgment. Like Arthur Koestler after him, he began to feel that the human race’s failure to progress was genetic, that human beings as presently constituted were a mere unsatisfactory stage in a continuing evolutionary process. “There are many people in the world who ought to be liquidated,” he wrote in September 1938, in, of all places, the American magazine Liberty. Even more alarmingly, in the historic year 1933, he had written, in the darkly unnerving preface to his political comedy On the Rocks, that “if we desire a certain type of civilization and culture we must exterminate the sort of people who do not fit into it,” adding that “the terror will act as a sort of social conscience which is dangerously lacking at present and which none of our model educational establishments ever dreams of inculcating.” O’Toole is at pains to characterize such comments as elaborately ironic in the Swiftian manner, but is compelled to acknowledge that there was no irony in Shaw’s embrace of the dictators: he meant it, all right.

O’Toole cites Shaw’s fellow Irishman Swift on a number of occasions, to illuminating effect. Indeed, Shaw’s Irish identity—his carefully preserved status as an outsider—is a central theme of the book, though he rarely returned to his native land after leaving it at the age of twenty. He frequently expressed his contempt for the Dublin of his youth, which “had no society that did not disgust me…. I am not enamoured of failure, of poverty, of obscurity, and of the ostracism and contempt which these imply.”

Nonetheless, Shaw’s political passion had its roots in the deep and desperate poverty he had witnessed in Ireland. He closely monitored developments across the Irish Sea, coming to the conclusion that though he thought Ireland better off as part of the United Kingdom, its passion for self-rule was so intense that it must be conceded. He fraternized with the revolutionary leader Michael Collins (dining with him only days before he was shot) and—in an extraordinary episode described in riveting detail by O’Toole—wrote a speech for Roger Casement to deliver at his trial for treason, an event that Shaw proposed should be staged like a play. The nub of the argument in the speech was that the accused was not English and therefore could not by definition be a traitor to England; as it happens, Casement rejected Shaw’s speech, and was found guilty and hanged.

‘The Campbell Tartan and the Cockney Fling—(if fling it can be called)’; drawing of George Bernard Shaw by Max Beerbohm, July 1922

Despite Shaw’s early departure from Ireland, it remained deep in his bones. He became an Irish citizen when the country gained its independence, holding dual citizenship to the end. As a boy, living for a while in Dalkey Hill outside Dublin and having his first sustained exposure to nature, he had experienced a Wordsworthian sense of rapture that stayed with him for the rest of his life. O’Toole argues that this experience is the source of his subsequent embrace of the notion of the Life Force. Shaw’s extrapolation of the idea of Creative Evolution, deriving from Lamarck rather than Darwin, became an increasingly dominant element in the plays: his leading female characters are shown in the grip of a biological imperative to choose a mate, whether he desires it or not.

It is notable that Shaw himself avoided the Life Force like the plague. A virgin until the age of twenty-nine, he had a modestly active sex life but, as he informed his biographer Frank Harris, he had never been “duped by sex as a basis for permanent relations, nor dreamt of marriage in connection with it.” At the age of forty-two, he married Charlotte Payne-Townshend, who was very rich, a fellow Fabian, and Irish to boot. Their partnership was highly successful, although “as man and wife,” he said, “we found a new relation in which sex had no part.” Shaw succumbed to a number of intense infatuations—including with Mrs. Patrick Campbell and Florence Farr—in which, Henry Higgins–like, he sought to take over and shape their careers, their artistry, and their lives. In the plays, says O’Toole, it is always women who come to dominate the action. They are driven by Nature to create children; men—“Frankenstein’s monsters, created by women,” says O’Toole, “but gone out of control”—are neither here nor there, except as suitable sperm donors. It is a striking view of relations between the sexes, as fatalistic as Strindberg’s, though a little more amusing. Whether it is a promising premise for dramaturgy is another matter, which brings us to the elephant in the room: Shaw’s achievement as a dramatist.

O’Toole is in no doubt of the importance or the quality of many of the plays. He is brilliant at locating Shaw’s life in his work, but less brilliant, perhaps, at assessing the work itself. In his chapter “The thinking cap and the jester’s bells,” he puts forward his case somewhat tortuously and not entirely convincingly. “A great dramatist, as opposed to a good one,” he declares,

is one in whose work the whole history of theatre seems to be alive. A great dramatist is also one who breaks decisively and influentially with the theatre as he or she finds it. These are of course contradictory demands—for a radical continuity and a radical discontinuity—but it is exactly the capacity to contain these contradictions that is the mark of greatness.

This complicated thought lacks the ring of truth. Greatness in a dramatist consists in creating characters who lodge themselves in our consciousness so that we commune with them as with friends or family; the great dramatist makes one believe that one has seen something like the conflicts and resolutions of real life between autonomous human beings who are following their own agendas, not the author’s. O’Toole notes admiringly that “cause and effect does not really operate” in Shaw. But if that is the case, are the characters then not merely subject to the author’s whim? Contrasting GBS the sage with Shaw the playwright, he tells us that “the sage GBS wants to tell people what to think; the playwright wants to make them wonder what it is they are supposed to make of it all. He does not shed light; he leaves us in a more radiant darkness.” This is a fine phrase; they are all fine phrases, but do they really describe the experience of seeing a play by Shaw?

There has always been a certain resistance in theatrical circles to his work. Many great actors have avoided it altogether. Peggy Ashcroft, Michael Redgrave, Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, Alec Guinness, and John Gielgud had but brief encounters with it. Shaw’s inexhaustible verbosity at the expense of emotional depth has attracted certain players more than others. “Oh, that Bernadette Shaw!” cries Captain Terri in Peter Nichols’s Privates on Parade, speaking for many. “What a chatterbox!” The characters are curiously lacking in sensuality, in flesh and blood.

And yet the plays work very well in the theater. Shaw knew exactly how to amuse and stimulate an audience. The problem is that the playwright colludes with the audience over the characters’ heads: they are set up as patsies for him to demolish. The great cartoonist Al Hirschfeld expresses this perfectly in the famous cartoon he drew for the original production of My Fair Lady: Shaw, bearded and twinkling in the clouds, manipulates a puppet Henry Higgins, who in turn manipulates a puppet Eliza.

There is a further problem: many of Shaw’s plays are predicated on conscious inversions of the theatrical conventions of his day, which are now quite forgotten, so the joke is lost on us. Furthermore, the use of the Life Force as the motor of the action is predictable and heavy-handed; and even in the most successful of the plays, the thrust and parry of the argument turns into intellectual badminton, with the umpire always on stage, commenting upon and interfering with the outcome. It may in fact be—heresy!—that the best way to experience Shaw’s plays is to read them. Not only in the prefaces and the back matter, but in witty and evocative stage directions and character sketches, the playwright ensures that you receive the plays exactly as he intended: nothing in the argument is lost, the jokes are vivacious and properly amusing, the stage action is vividly before you. And he himself, pulling the strings in heaven, is always present before you, as he intended.

Notwithstanding my cavils about his view of the plays, O’Toole’s book is a remarkable piece of work, superbly designed and produced by Fidelma Slattery, with facsimiles of manuscripts and letters, cartoons and designs, and rare and marvelously reproduced photographs (many taken by Shaw himself) that give a kaleidoscopic impression of the impact of the great man on his world. It is regrettable, therefore, that there are so many typographical errors, slightly marring an otherwise admirable production, which if nothing else restores Shaw to his rightful place as one of the great prose writers of his time—in all of English literature, perhaps—and one of the most provocative thinkers, wrong though he was about many things. “He democratised scepticism,” says O’Toole, finely. He convinces us that Shaw is indeed urgently relevant to us now, with our “all-purpose-cynicism about ideas and institutions that is also strangely akin to gullibility. Instead of the Shavian ideal that all truths must be questioned and tested, there is the notion that there is no truth at all—and therefore that lies don’t much matter.”

O’Toole shows that Shaw’s creation of GBS is perhaps the most astonishing of his achievements. There is, however, a melancholy truth about that remarkable figure to which, in 1924, his friend and mentor William Archer drew attention:

Voltaire, with no more genius or eloquence than Shaw’s, revolutionised the world; Shaw, a professed revolutionist, will never revolutionise anything…the paradox of his career, it would seem to me, is the disproportion between his fame and his influence: it is hard to think of anyone who has made so much noise and so little mark…he presents a vivacious distortion of life at which [the public] laugh contentedly; but, having done so, they go on their way, unconvinced and uninspired.

Despite all the vigor of O’Toole’s advocacy and the energy and brilliance of Shaw’s personality, a sadness hovers over this splendid book.