A George Bernard Shaw Retrospective
by Peter Byrne
George Bernard Shaw
(From the cover of Time, Dec. 24, 1923)
(Swans - March 23, 2009) All great truths begin as blasphemies. GBS, Annajanska, 1919.
When George Bernard Shaw died in 1950 at ninety-four, Eric Bentley's reflections revealed a deep sense of loss, as if his world had lost a dimension. In the same moving article, he went on to say:
Those who take Shaw seriously will read in his solemn death rites the third and latest phase of a disaster that began years ago: the acceptance of Shaw at the expense of all he stood for. The disaster began when Shaw gave them something to accept - "GBS" the irresponsible clown. It entered a second phase when he grew old. The deference that is refused to genius is freely enough accorded to senility. You have an old man pretty much where you want him. A corpse even more so. Honor the corpse, all you whom the living man embarrassed and annoyed! (In Search Of Theater, page 238.)
What exactly did Shaw stand for? Rebellion, before all else.
Parentage is a very important profession, but no test of fitness for it is never imposed in the interest of the children. GBS, Everybody's Political What's What? 1944.
As so often with rebellion, it started as dismay at home. His father was a Dublin lush who put the boy on the water wagon for life. His mother set up an alternative household with her music teacher, George John Vandeleur Lee. As his grandstanding name might suggest, Mr. Lee, Shaw's surrogate father and mentor of sorts, was something of a charlatan. In 1873 he was denounced as an "errant imposter" for acting as a conductor and concert organizer without formal qualifications. He hightailed it for London and the anonymity of its fog. Shaw's mother and two sisters followed Lee a month later, on June 17, 1873. The date was significant because it marked her twenty-first wedding anniversary. Everyone quite reasonably assumed that she, 16 years his junior, was Lee's paramour -- everyone except the young rebel. All his life Shaw would deny any carnal attachment between the two. His rebellion, as we shall see, never did without a hand brake. The free thinking writer who in the wake of Ibsen would champion "modern marriage" never quite chucked every convention. He was all for equality of the sexes but less enthusiastic for sex in bed. It's hard to comprehend his eventual marriage to an heiress -- not the windfall of pounds sterling that got him off Grub Street, but the vaunted matrimonial chastity.
Schools and schoolmasters, as we have them today, are not popular as places of education and teachers, but rather prisons and turnkeys in which children are kept to prevent them disturbing and chaperoning their parents. GBS, Letter, Aug.7, 1919.
The young Shaw turned his back on schooling once and for all. The rebel refused to be instructed by others. At fifteen he became an office clerk. Confounding the received idea of the ineptitude of poets, he succeeded in business, and in 1876 resigned a cashier's post, ("I broke loose."), and joined the reshuffled family ménage in London. He doubtless conjured up an unwelcome specter from the past for the unmarried couple. Maestro Lee's answer was to put the young man to work ghostwriting his music column in the London Hornet -- salary one pound a week. For the young man had been writing for some time and now haunted libraries. (Anyone wondering why Shaw so detested his Christian name "George" should remember that it was not only his boozy father's but began the drum roll of George John Vandeleur Lee.) Lucinda Gurly Shaw -- a semi-pro mezzo soprano -- and her daughters (one soon to die) scraped by as music teachers while Lee promoted his book, The Voice, its Artistic Production, Development and Preservation. The truth was that Shaw at twenty had landed at the threadbare end of middle-class bohemia, the safety valve with a faint, respectable whistle that would ease Britain's transition to the Edwardian age.
Ulysses is a revolting record of a disgusting phase of civilisation; but it is a truthful one [...] I have walked those streets and known those shops and have heard and taken part in those conversations. I escaped from them to England at the age of twenty; and forty years later have learnt from the books of Mr. Joyce that Dublin is still what it was, and young men are still drivelling in slackjawed blackguardism just as they were in 1870. It is, however, some consolation to find that at last somebody has felt deeply enough about it to face the horror of writing it all down and using his literary genius to force people to face it. GBS, Letter to Sylvia Beach, Oct.10, 1921.
In this flash forward, Joyce's modernist novel brings Shaw back to his Dublin youth with a melancholy thud. London's possibilities of change and transformation had freed him from that stagnant world. He wanted no part of it, even in retrospect. He feared the Dublin version of circularity and the eternal return, which resembled nothing so much as an endless pub crawl. Shabby gentility had been a cruel servitude that James Joyce's feats of language could not make him forget. Shaw's childhood gutted romanticism for a lifetime, leaving him a realist, sometimes tempered by whimsy. His exile (1876) differed from Joyce's later flight to the continent (1904). While both shared the Irish curse of a family disrupted by an alcoholic father, Shaw was a Protestant and Joyce a Catholic, a world-splitting distinction in Ireland. A more personal difference was that Shaw saw language as an instrument, albeit an exquisite one, while for Joyce words were the substance of his being and he could no more get away from Ireland ("I really never left it. I carry it around with me.") than be born again with 20/20 vision. The fallen-Catholic novelist kept in the main aloof from politics. He was not out to change the world but to celebrate it. Shaw on the other hand would flesh out his rebellion in the reading room of the British Museum where he would soon discover the lure of utopia.
The only time my education was interrupted was when I was at school. GBS, unsourced.
Peak events in that self-education came in 1882. Hearing Henry George speak "changed the whole current of my life," while his reading of Das Kapital "made a man of me." Completing unpublishable novels and taking on writing jobs for meager pay taught him to write. His style was also improved (and his stammer overcome) by the self-discipline of taking a turn on the soapbox. He was already a friend of William Morris and socialism when the Fabian Society was founded in 1884. Shaw joined immediately. Lenin was wrong to call him "A good man fallen among Fabians": Shaw was practically a founding member. He was soon one of the Society's chief pamphleteers and speakers. He would serve on the executive committee for twenty-seven years.
Of course in view of what was to come in the blood splattered century, Lenin was right about the tameness of the Fabians. At the time, nonetheless, active Fabian membership defied respectability. It was rebellious. The Society was a home that suited a boy whose childhood left him with an abhorrence of violence and whose smiling Methodism made little-by-little progress acceptable. Gradualism would lead to the 1893 Fabian Society Conference that gave birth to the Independent Labour Party.
Melodramatic stage illusion is not an illusion of real life, but an illusion of the embodiment of our romantic imaginings. GBS, unsourced.
The theater that Shaw was born into dealt in melodrama that seemed cranked up by a mindless stage mechanic with his eyes elsewhere. Clockwork family dramas tolled the hour. The high-Victorian parlor encumbered the stage. Shapeless Shakespeare soirées lost the story line among prima donna riffs. The audience would come awake when some seasoned ham went apoplectic in an old chestnut tirade. To call this romanticism is an injustice to the cultural tsunami of a century before.
What Shaw wanted in the theater -- and would seek through comedy -- was seriousness. He took his cue from the continent and demanded the same density and thematic range in stage stories as in the great contemporary novelists Hardy, Tolstoy, and Mark Twain. In 1890, Shaw lectured the Fabians on Ibsen (his The Quintessence of Ibsenism would appear the following year). He arranged a private production of Ibsen's Ghosts and followed it by writing a play of his own, Widowers' Houses. Shaw the playwright was born at thirty-four. As a critic he had already taken up the cudgels for the new drama. Now he would continue the fight as a dramatist. After the hypocrisy of slum landlords, he dramatized sexual inequality and socioeconomic divisions. In short he implanted the theater of ideas in Britain and made the stage again relevant to life.
His approach to becoming a playwright was unusual. Perhaps only Machiavelli prior to him and Sartre after him had a full cupboard of abstract ideas before they successfully put characters to work before the footlights. (It's not an apprenticeship to be recommended to wannabe dramatists who risk never getting out of the cupboard to kindle life on stage.) Shaw's itinerary gave critics a (continuing) problem. They couldn't lock him into the role of playwright. There was all that lively polemical writing preceding his debut on the stage. His first plays, often self-published, were "readers editions"; i.e., meant for the armchair and the midnight lamp. In late Victorian times people with a genuine interest in art had largely forsaken the theater. They had come to feel that even (and especially) Shakespeare couldn't be rendered on stage and should be read in private. It was into this context that Shaw introduced his long, explicatory prefaces.
That hideous war of 1914-18 was at bottom a fight between the capitalists of England, France, and Italy on the one side, and those of Germany on the other, for command of the African markets. GBS, The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism. 1927.
After the first decade of the new century, the public no longer saw Shaw's socioeconomic views as madly exotic. The Labour Party now made its presence felt. If socialism was still a dirty word, it had become a familiar one. The radical of the 1880s who had chosen comedy as his weapon was being pigeonholed as an entertainer. Clarification and Shaw's great test as a rebel came with WWI. That international socialism declared the war not to be the affair of working people meant little as nationalism with its patriotic trappings won over all classes on both sides of the conflict. But Shaw, a man pushing sixty, not only held to the pacifism and socialism of his youth, but put them forward stoutly on November 14, 1914, in Common Sense About The War. He rebelled not only against the state but against turncoat socialists. (Anyone doubting the pressures exerted in Britain in those years should read the letters of D.H. Lawrence who in addition to being a pacifist had a German wife.) Shaw was called treasonous and a German sympathizer. He was forced out of the Society of Authors and the Dramatists' Club. His books were removed from libraries, his plays boycotted, and both his popular and critical reputation seriously damaged.
In order to fully realize how bad a popular play can be, it is necessary to see it twice. GBS, unsourced.
Tout passe, tout lasse, tout casse. WWII had undermined the credibility of what had been the British theater. By 1956, when John Osborne's Look Back in Anger unnerved the London theater establishment, everyone had seen all of Shaw more than twice. Playwrights began to cut across class lines (like Joan Littlewood) admit regional accents (like Arnold Wesker), vaunt ambiguity (like Harold Pinter), and intensify the physical (as Peter Brook did). To be well spoken could be a handicap and drawing rooms with tennis courts beyond French windows were taboo.
These new angles of vision made for a more critical view of Shaw's theater. He was didactic and wordy, and his characters did not always seem to live in a world of the senses. Their vitality could appear to be limited to communication between cerebrum and vocal muscles. When they talked socialism one marveled at their good-natured naïveté and thought of all the arguments and counterarguments they had the good fortune not to have heard. The weakness of a theater of ideas is that ideas can show their age.
In the Transatlantic Review, Summer 1964, Charles Marowitz reminded Ken Tynan "that the modern theatre with its nineteenth-century hangover, its Ibsen-Shaw axis, is in fact very unpopular with a whole new generation of theatre artists who find it woefully effete next to the modern film or the modern sculpture."
Marowitz zeroed in on the culprit in a review of a play of Christopher Hampton's in The Village Voice of August 1970:
The Philanthropist is a beautifully written, sophisticated play in a rather old-fashioned English tradition. About 20 years ago, plays would be presented in the West End in which a host of cultivated men and women swished into a drawing room, settled themselves in comfortable furniture, and began to converse wittily. The spiritual progenitor of all that drawing room kafuffle was not Noel Coward, but George Bernard Shaw.
The golden rule is that there are no golden rules. GBS, Man and Superman, 1903.
At that time, Marowitz as critic clearly did not exult in GBS's brand of theater. In fact his tone recalls the criticism that the rebel himself wrote in the Saturday Review after 1895 when he was trying to unseat what he rightly saw as a clapped-out tradition. But another half century has passed since the postwar renaissance of the London theater. The rule that is never golden may be changing again and the great wheel of the theater ready for another turn. The huge and stunning mises-en-scène of Robert Wilson have now for some years entranced us by their speechless, stationary beauty. But some may have felt shortchanged by their dearth of words. Harold Pinter has offered us a whole career of diamond-cut enigmas. Some playgoers would have willingly accepted an occasional explanation. A master of the written word like Samuel Beckett moved relentlessly in his life as a playwright toward brevity and silence. Some feared that his late five-minute playlets, whose dialogue was limited to groans and heavy breathing, might dwindle some more and dispense us from turning up at the theater at all. We would stay home and meditate on the wisdom of keeping still. The most recent sliver of triumph of Peter Brook, one of our greatest living directors, has been a revival of Beckett's Act Without Words II.
In any fresh version of the perennial theatre, can we really do without the prince of the well-spoken and the articulate whom the reference books matter-of-factly call "the greatest English dramatist of the modern age" -- or, alternatively -- "since William Shakespeare"? It will be up to directors to solve the problem of animating plays that are often fully realized in their language alone and seem to disdain our need for the touchy-feely. Those words on the page are marshaled by a wiry dialectic that is too rare to exile to the bookshelf. As our days are reduced to binary signals and yaps of "Hi!" and "Best," we need more than ever an occasional dose of the gabbiest rebel yet.
More on G. B. Shaw
How I found Shaw, by Isidor Saslav
Probing GBS, by Charles Marowitz
A Guide To G. B. Shaw On Home Video, by Louis Proyect
Giftless Amateurs Bug Shaw And Shay, by Art Shay
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