On George Bernard Shaw

GB Shaw pic
When I was at conservatory, this picture hung in my room

Today is the birthday of George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950). When I was a student, his longevity (94 years, lucid to the end) seemed remarkable. Nowadays, it is almost commonplace. Sometimes it almost seems we’ve nearly reached the condition Shaw envisioned in Back to Methuselah. People in their 80s and 90s, once rarities, now proliferate. The word is nearly even true in its literal sense!

My main time of obsession with Shaw was my late-twenties and early thirties. I began calling myself “Trav S.D.” at that time, partially in emulation of “G.B.S.” I read most (but by no means all) of his plays and their lengthy prefaces, much of his dramatic and music criticism, his two book-length treatises, The Quintessence of Ibsenism and The Perfect Wagnerite, and one of his five failed novels Cashel Byron’s Profession, after whom I named my oldest son. I also read Michael Holroyd’s magnificent four volume biography on him (it was only three volumes when I started).

On the face of it, Shaw is an odd person for me to be obsessed with; I couldn’t be less like him aesthetically or politically.  Shaw was a socialist; ironically at the time of my interest in him, I was jumping into its opposite pole, libertarianism, with both feet. Shaw was wrong about so many things. He was a dupe for both Hitler and Stalin in their early days as leaders. (If you know the work of F.A. Hayek, you will not find that surprising; it is true to experience. ) And wrong about so much else. A vegetarian! (I shudder). Sexually abstinent! (I shudder even more). Atheist! (I shudder three times, then cross myself) And this fabled “Shavian wit” — where is it? Can you quote me ONE Shaw witticism? He’s not remotely like Wilde, who turned out epigrams by the bushelful. Shaw’s bag as a dramatist was realism; his spiritual father was Ibsen. He hadn’t an ounce of poetry in him. Don’t get me wrong — he has virtues aplenty as a writer. They are the 20th century virtues of simplicity and clarity, of snipping out all prettiness and ornament. I can appreciate it; but my own preference is for a bit of filigree and artifice; I am in some respects, as Shaw would call it “a Bardolater” (a worshipper of Shakespeare).

And yet! To be that productive! To be so interested in everything, to be involved in everything, to have a hand in everything! (And let’s face it, Shaw was enchanted with an “ism”; and so was I). To be that iconoclastic, that combative. Quite willing to alienate everybody when he knows he is right, even if he is the only one who knows it. Ultimately he redeems himself by proving himself well above even his “ism”. An excellent avenue of appreciation (for Shaw and several other 20th century playwrights) is Robert Brustein’s Theatre of Revolt, a kind of Bible of understanding for what makes this kind of artist tick. It is Shaw’s unrelenting critical spirit and devotion to the truth, even when it proves him wrong, that ultimately redeems him. He is a humanitarian above all else. He dropped Hitler immediately when he learned what his true intentions were. He dropped Soviet communism when he could no longer deny the purges and the famines. A Utopian by nature, he began to realize that his dreams were not for this world, this lifetime, or this species…and so in Back to Methusaleh he invents a new one,

A crackpot? In this sense he was a poet after all.

Another place of overlap between Shaw’s philosophical interests and my own is a passion for evolution; in his case the writings of Bergson and LaMarcke, and in my own, for Herbert Spencer. Both reflect a belief in progress; his led him to Fabian socialism, a philosophy of gradual, non-violent political change through parliamentary methods. (Just as he was not a Darwinist, he was not a Marxist, and remained unconvinced by dialectical materialism, except for perhaps a brief enchantment following the Russian Revolution). Spencer, on the other hand, reinforced my libertarianism.

My aim initially when I founded my company Mountebanks was to be a sort of Shaw of libertarianism. Not in the plays so much, but in the prefaces. Shaw was too good a playwright to restrict himself to straight-up didacticism in the plays. The occasional character may say socialist things, but he puts arguments just as persuasive in the mouth of a capitalist character like Major Barbara’s Andrew Undershaft. At any rate, some of my plays, such as House of Trash and Columbia, the Germ of the Ocean, originally came complete with lengthy Shavian style essays, much of which I would probably repudiate and disown now if I could get up the courage to read them.

And similarly, in the writing of criticism, I have always tried to emulate Shaw. Shaw said the best critic is the best writer. I make no bones about being completely subjective in my criticism. I believe in intruding my personality, in being as entertaining as possible, in being passionate and unrestrainedly hyperbolic. All of that comes from Shaw and Wilde and certain others. The American standard in the present age is to consider criticism a branch of journalism, and to shoe-horn the writing into a pretense of objectivity, as if such a thing were possible. Such writing is false, foolish, and worst of all, boring.

Another area of overlap, is what I call the Shavian “operatic prose monologue.” As we said, Shaw wrote realistic plays. But ironically he was also a major student of the opera. His primary nonrealistic gesture in almost every play is what he called an “aria”, a lengthy, beautifully written monologue by one of his main characters. I love these, and it’s without a doubt Shaw’s main point of influence upon me as a playwright.

Ironic that I haven’t talked much about his plays, yes? Pygmalion was the one I knew first. We read it in school when I was 13, in comparison with My Fair Lady. (I had a VERY good teacher). This is when I first became interested in Shaw, flirted with atheism (even quit being an altar boy), and even invented my own phonetic alphabet. At around 19 I discovered Major Barbara when I saw the movie with Wendy Hiller, Rex Harrison and Robert Morley; it remains one of my favorite Shaw plays. And those who’ve read my books know another favorite of mine, as I reference it often: Mrs. Warren’s Profession. When I was around 21 I played Marchbanks in Candida at school. Nowadays, I guess I’m older than Morell. But at least I’m not older than Shaw!

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