Typos p. 163: dependent [= dependant]; p. 164: Moliere [= Molière]; p. 164: Moliere [= Molière]; p. 164: Moliere [= Molière]; p. 164: humourist [= humorist]; p. 165: Where there [= Were there]; p. 166: idolatory [= idolatry]; p. 166: Moliere [= Molière]
George Bernard Shaw
Anthony M. Ludovici
The International Journal of Sexology 4, 195051, pp. 163166
- p. 163 -
At the age of twenty, after desultory spells of office employment, he joined his mother in London and became for some time her dependent. He was what the academic world considers uneducated and he had no trade or profession. As so many young men in a similar situation, therefore, he turned to his pen, and in his first nine years in the metropolis wrote five novels. But no publisher could be found for these productions. In 1884, he joined the Fabian Society and wrote and spoke for them regularly. Largely owing to the contacts obtained through these activities, he was within a few years criticising art for the World, books for the Pall Mall Gazette, music for the Star and the World, and ultimately the theatre for the Saturday Review. In 1898, he published The Perfect Wagnerite and later the Quintessence of Ibsenism the most thoughtful of all his works as a critic.
Meanwhile, however, he had turned his energies to play-writing and gradually, very gradually, after encountering much adverse criticism and determined opposition, he made some headway and succeeded in attracting attention as a dramatic author.
Widower's Houses (1892), The Philanderer and Mrs. Warren's Profession (first produced in 1902), were followed during the closing years of the century by Arms and the Man, Candida, You Never Can Tell, The Devil's Disciple, Caesar and Cleopatra and Captain Brassbound's Conversion.
In 1898, Shaw had married Charlotte Frances Payne-Townsend, a wealthy heiress whose fortune undoubtedly assisted him in establishing himself as a dramatist. At all events, with his play, Man and Superman, produced at the Court Theatre in May 1905, he leapt into fame and from that day strode from success to success. There were revivals of his earlier plays and new and famous ones soon followed. By 1924 he had become almost legendary. In other words, he could do no wrong. The critics, as is their wont, cowed by success and popularity into an attitude of subservience, acclaimed his slightest effort as a masterpiece, and hundreds of thousands of the public, who were as incapable of grasping his many revolutionary themes as they were of genuinely enjoying the more obscure flights of his fancy, nevertheless flocked to his plays, if only out of curiosity, in order to see for themselves what all the talk and the large head-lines in their newspapers were about. Whilst the Press bowed, as they always do, to the storm of popular
It would, however, be a great mistake to suppose, as many still do, that Shaw's gradual conquest of his Age was the struggle of an innovator whose public required to be educated up to his aesthetic forms and to his ideas before they could appreciate him. This was not the case; for, as a matter of fact, most of the ideas he advanced were already victorious or nearly so before he became their interpreter. Socialism and Feminism, the principal strings to his ideological bow, were very much in the air and had hundreds of thousands of advocates; and he rose to popularity chiefly because he swam in champion style in these two powerful currents. His struggle was, therefore, not so much that of a prophet with a new message, but of a playwright who, knowing how to create only one form of drama that of the debating chamber was concerned to get a public, conditioned by Sardou, Emile Augier, Pinero and others, to accept this one form as dramatic entertainment. Just as Wagner, stronger in harmony than melody, and Whistler, stronger in monotone than colour, were faced with the problem of making their weaknesses the canon by which their respective arts should be judged; so Shaw, weak in passion, psychology and plot, made it his business, by staggering the bourgeois with the unexpected quips and cranks of his debaters, to solve the problem of converting his weakness into canons. Consequently, he openly attacked and denigrated the conventional drama of passion, psychology and plot, and then made it appear that the stage was only properly understood as a sort of glorified Fabian and Feminist debating centre, in which women and men chopped logic and floored each other at least twice every five minutes by ingenious but obviously specious debating points.
But in all this cross fire of ideas and opinions, it should never be forgotten that he was at bottom purveying, certainly in a novel dress, sentiments which were already accepted, if not sacrosanct, in thousands of homes. Nor was his conception of the drama as a means of testing and investigating the validity of current and conventional views wholly an innovation. Even Moliere had done it before him, and with consummate art.
From the middle of the Nineteenth Century, the English ruling and Middle classes had gradually been growing more and more conscious of the abuses and injustices of the social order. Even those who still clung to their privileges and advantages were secretly all more or less convinced Socialists, although they might profess Conservative loyalties. Men like A. J. Balfour, Haldane and Chamberlain, did not sit at Beatrice Webb's feet because they hoped to shake her convictions. When therefore, a playwright appeared who happened also to be an intimate friend of both Sidney and Beatrice, he could not, when he began to stage Fabian debates, be looked upon as a voice crying in the wilderness.
And the same is true of Feminism. From at least the seventies of the last century to the date of the first production of Man and Superman, Feminism had been scoring ever greater victories. A playwright, therefore, who did not mind playing ducks and drakes with psychology, biology, history and even probability, in order to press Feminist claims further home, could not have expected to meet with deaf ears. He was not blazing a new trail. He was merely heaping fuel on a fire which was already an Anglo-Saxon, if not a European conflagration. And behind him he had all the vanities, complexes, and secret hatreds and aspirations of the greatest playgoers in the world the middle class women of England.
It is here, in the opinion of the present writer, that some critics of Shaw reveal a misunderstanding of his resounding success. It is customary, for instance, to say that "it was his wit, good or bad, shrewd or knockabout, that won Shaw his audience." (Times 31150). But does any one suppose that this same wit, even raised to greater pungency and refinement, as it was in Moliere for instance, would have availed him at the turn of the century, if he had used it as Moliere did in a more masculine age, to decry rather than to defend Feminism? It was by the exaggeration of Feminist sophistries (exaggeration being one of the best weapons of the humourist) that Shaw won the hearts of the majority of English playgoers the women.
It is idle, therefore, to claim that, apart from getting across a more or less novel conception of the drama a conception contingent upon his weaknesses as a dramatist Shaw innovated at all. And he who reads between the lines of his sparse autobiographical notes cannot resist the impression that Shaw himself, unaware of the immense forces that were impelling him upwards, and deeply aware of his weakness was profoundly astonished by the magnitude and intensity of his vogue. One obituary writer (Playfellow) appears to suspect this, for he speaks of a popularity "which he (Shaw) probably found disconcerting." (Truth 101150).
Thus G. B. S., as he came to be known, made his name as a critic, humourist, social reformer and dramatist, chiefly owing to the
The Times writer already quoted says that Shaw drew his ideas from English Socialist tradition, Bergson, Nietzsche and the biologists who differed in important respects from Darwin. To be accurate however, we should add to this list John Stuart Mill (especially his Subjection of Women) and the whole of the pro-Feminist literature and oratory preceding the granting of Female Suffrage.
Even, however, when we enumerate these sources of his ideas, a false impression is created if we imply that Shaw was or became their sincere and passionate advocate, identifying himself and his aims with the causes they severally represent. He did nothing of the sort.
The best proof of the levity with which he plundered the various intellectual arsenals of his day is the way he used them. He did not take them to illuminate his audiences, or to show them the way; but merely to produce a sparkling spectacle just as candles are lighted on a Christmas tree. One outstanding example of this is his use of Nietzsche. The ruling aim of Nietzsche's whole work, which, despite all their inconsistencies, unites his various treatises in one unwavering plea, is the elevation of Man, the urgent need of an eleventh-hour salvaging of all the best in Man so that, out of these salvaged remnants of human quality, a finer and nobler race may emerge. Now, when we read the third act of Man and Superman, especially Don Juan's final speeches, it seems clear that Shaw too, through Don Juan, is proclaiming the same urgent message.
"I tell you," says Don Juan, "that as long as I can conceive something better than myself I cannot be easy unless I am striving to bring it into existence or clearing the way for it. That is the law of life. That is the working within me of Life's incessant aspiration to higher organisation."
He then scornfully contrasts the lazy religion which sets "up a God who looked at the world and saw that it was good," with "the instinct in me (Don Juan) that looked through my eyes at the world (of men) and saw that it could be improved."
Excellent! Here we get an echo of what was noblest in Nietzsche's philosophy and we have it proclaimed as a gospel for Everyman.
But now imagine this last scene of Act III just modified to the extent of putting the real Shaw, the 19th century rather middle-class and essentially debating-society gentleman he actually was, in the place of his Nietzsche-inspired Don Juan, and let us suppose that, at the end of his noble speech Anne cries out: "Very well, Bernard agreed! Now tell us what you would do if you were very rich to promote this noble ideal of yours and further the elevation of Man?"
As is now proved beyond question, Shaw would have replied as follows:
"Certainly! I would devote the bulk of my fortune to the reform of spelling in the English language."
Can any one imagine the effect of this Titanic anti-climax? It is so intrinsically Shavian that, if staged, it would provoke a storm of laughter lasting minutes.
But, for once it is true. It is a factual anti-climax. It turns out that, for once, an essentially Shavian repartee is sincere, earnest and genuine.
No need to tell the thoughtful reader that France, not once but several times in her history, has reformed her spelling without any observable improvement in her inhabitants. No need to point out that as late as the middle of the 18th century she actually rid thousands of her words of their non-functioning consonants in order to make the orthography more phonetic, without, however, achieving any corresponding elevation of her Nationals. Even the most ill-informed programme girl in the theatre would, on hearing Shaw's reply to Ann, appreciate instantly that, as a means towards species elevation, the reform of spelling was to say the least, a very feeble, a very questionable expedient.
Here is but one example of Shaw's Christmas tree candles. Indeed, to call the ideas decking his plays, Christmas tree candles, is really an offence, not to Shaw, but to those he plundered. For, in many cases what he took was gold, and too often he used it as mere tinsel. Where there space, other examples of the kind could be culled from Back to Methuselah.
People will reply: "But surely a playwright is entitled to use anything that comes to hand in order to entertain his audience even the noblest thoughts of the greatest men!"
De mortuis nil nisi bonum! This surely applies only to character, which, in Shaw's case, had many admirable aspects. His friend Beatrice Webb thought him insufferably conceited. But he was in fact more modest than many men only a quarter as successful. For one thing, excepting his advocacy of a reformed spelling, he hardly ever left the strait paths outlined for him by his chosen thinkers. Although he mixed them up often discordantly, as his amalgamation of Nietzsche and Mill, he never innovated beyond them as many a more vain rationalist might have done. He was, moreover, exceedingly brave. In the autumn of 1914, for instance, by his famous letter to the Star, he risked his reputation and popularity by daring to proclaim at the very height of the nation's war fever, that he was not infected by it and that at bottom he could see very little difference between our own rulers and the much reviled "Junkers" of Germany.
He was also undoubtedly humane, and his Socialism, like that of many other Englishmen, was probably but the political manifestation of his fundamental good nature. Even his vegetarianism may very possibly have had one of its principal roots in his humanity. In other respects too he showed an independence of judgment which nearly always had elements of bravery. In the England of his day, for instance, one did not court popularity at least among influential people by opposing blood sports; nor could one avoid a certain amount of ridicule by being a vegetarian. Now that vegetarianism has become respectable, if not actually a claim to wisdom, the case is different. But in Shaw's early days it was almost tantamount to a plea of insanity.
The sentiment expressed in the hackneyed Latin tag, however, does not forbid a searching and sober attempt at estimating the value of a man's work. And, as to this work of Shaw's, let it be said again, if it lives at all, it will do so more as a milestone in the history of the stage than as an artistic opus, timeless, universal, and eternally precious. Much credit is undoubtedly due to Shaw for having established beyond cavil the practicability of creating a dramatic entertainment out of the bare bones of dialectics. For, although he was anticipated to some extent in this, none more than he succeeded in triumphantly converting a weakness into a new form. Moreover, there is little doubt that he laid a firm foundation for the form of play-writing, which is preponderatingly dialectic rather than doctrinally neutral and merely gripping or exciting. But just as the French 17th century critics did an ill-service to their age, to its really great men as well as to those it inordinately praised, by immoderately extolling such writers as Calprenede, Benserade, etc., so the critics of our day, who, in their idolatory of success per se, exalt Shaw to the stature of Shakespeare, Moliere and Racine, are doing not only their contemporaries, but also contemporary art and thought not to mention Shaw himself a grave ill-service.
Thus, although in the light of the present blaze of Shaw as a thinker and dramatist, this may seem rather like a damper, it is hoped that some readers at least will appreciate that when the flames of enthusiasm become so wild as to threaten to burn every one's fingers, it may not be otiose to attempt to damp down the fire, even if the attempt may first appear like an effort to extinguish it.