The cultural equivalent of Richard M. Nixon’s “You don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore” speech was delivered by a disgruntled forty-one-year-old critic, failed novelist, and undistinguished playwright named George Bernard Shaw in 1898. In his final column as a critic in the then-towering Saturday Review, for which he toiled even as he struggled to get his own plays produced, Shaw lambasted the public for being unworthy of him. “Do I receive any spontaneous recognition for the prodigies of skill and industry I lavish on an unworthy institution and a stupid public?,” he wrote. “Not a bit of it: half my time is spent in telling people what a clever man I am. It’s no use merely doing clever things in England.” He complained, “It is humiliating, too, after making the most dazzling displays of professional ability, to have to tell people how capital it all is. Besides, they get so tired of it, that finally . . . they begin to detest it.”
Well, yes, when you have to notify the public that you’re clever, that does present a problem. Like Nixon, though, Shaw engineered one of history’s great reversals of fortune when, after a quarter of a century of Shaw strenuously seeking the title of genius, the world finally granted it. As late as 1902, the year he turned forty-six, his annual income was only £90—in the neighborhood of £10,000 today. We might not even know Shaw’s name today were it not for the efforts of a single fanatical devotee, the Austrian writer Siegfried Trebitsch, who in that year undertook to translate Shaw’s plays into German and get them produced in central Europe. “Within the year,” writes Shaw’s biographer Michael Holroyd, “Trebitsch began to accomplish what Shaw had been failing to achieve in Britain in more than a decade” by instigating productions of The Devil’s Disciple, Candida, and Arms and the Man. Shaw’s fame in the German-speaking countries shamed Britain, which grew anxious with Continental taste-envy and began to wonder whether it had missed something in the middling playwright. The London theater world created a sensation around Major Barbara,which premiered in his forty-ninth year. Shaw became first a successful playwright, then an even more successful celebrity.
The list of artists who made their reputations almost entirely after the onset of middle age is short, and to Shaw’s perseverance we must bow. Shaw, styled like a bohemian with his bicycle, his shabby clothes, and his fierce red beard, was a crank (among his pet peeves were vaccination and clothing made of anything but wool, and in his will he directed the proceeds of his plays to be thrown away on the development of a new phonetic alphabet for English speakers). But he also worked sixteen-hour days and was famously a teetotaler and a vegetarian to boot. “I have always been on the side of the Puritans in the matter of Art,” Shaw once declared, inspiring the rejoinder by his friend G. K. Chesterton that “closer study will, I think, reveal that he is on the side of the Puritans in almost everything.” Shaw’s “life force”—a favorite phrase—carried him all the way to the age of ninety-four. When he died in 1950, he was the most acclaimed playwright in English since Shakespeare, and for many years after his death only the Bard seemed obviously to be his superior.
Today, though, Shaw productions are becoming rare in New York (although they remain more common in London, where a Shaw play may fairly be described as something like a Beefeater or Nelson’s Column, a bit of local color to attract the tourists). Shaw is not only no longer in the same class as Shakespeare, he scarcely even seems to matter. Much of his output has turned into a tedious slog. His jokes have, for the most part, long surpassed their expiry dates, which leaves us with the social-justice proselytizing underneath. Yet Shaw’s causes have faded in salience also. In some cases, the game is over because the Fabian side won; in others, Shaw’s dreams came to seem like silly utopianism, as bound to their time as his friend H. G. Wells’s sci-fi prophecies. Today’s pressing issues (gender confusion, racism) did not excite much comment from Shaw. As for the stances he took that remain fashionable, such as pacifism, his works to that end today look like mere trifles. Arms and the Man may be his most amusing play, but though it epitomized pointed social satire in 1894, today its disdain for nationalism and its dismissal of supposed military heroism don’t carry much bite. If performed now, instead of being a devastating comic sally, it would seem merely a pleasant museum piece, like a 1930s Hollywood romantic comedy. Not that many contemporary producers would want to be associated with a play that contains several jokes with the premise that Bulgarians are filthy, unwashed people.
The feminism of Mrs. Warren’s Profession is weak tea compared to today’s more strident taste. The liberated young Cambridge graduate Vivie Warren, the daughter of the titular prostitute turned brothel manager, smokes cigars and enjoys making actuarial calculations—details that might have tickled or dismayed Edwardians, but which don’t exactly get an audience’s pulse racing in the twenty-first century. “The word prostitution,” Shaw wrote in explaining a theme of the play, “should either not be used at all, or else applied impartially to all persons who do things for money that they would not do if they had other assured means of livelihood.” The idea that there is no distinction between prostitution and other forms of labor is so fatuous that it would be laughed off at any level of discussion more advanced than the freshman-dorm bull session. If prostitution is no different than, say, waiting tables, why does the latter profession draw so many more applicants? But like many other social reformers of the pre–welfare state West, and like his contemporary Orwell, who also died in 1950, Shaw got so much of what he asked for that it’s anyone’s guess how startled he would be at the success of his various social projects. A morals-free reckoning of Mrs. Warren’s profession has become the norm rather than subversive.
Even in his prime, Shaw wrote with a naked didacticism that set eyeballs rolling. His friend and successor as Saturday Review theater critic, Max Beerbohm, wrote that Shaw “wants to impress certain theories on us, to convert us to this or that view,” being unable to “accept life as it presents itself to his experience or imagination.” His uninterest in how people actually think and feel and behave marks him as not Shakespeare’s heir but as nearly his opposite. Shakespeare so disappeared into his characters that it is nearly an impossible task to suss out his own positions on most matters sociopolitical; with Shaw, the opposite is the case. Beerbohm: “The men are all disputative machines, ingeniously constructed, and the women . . . are, if anything, rather more self-conscious than the men. . . . his serious characters are just so many skeletons, which do but dance and grin and rattle their bones.” Or, if you like, pamphlets on legs. They don’t converse; they take turns giving speeches. Shaw even turned the emperor of Caesar and Cleopatra into his own ancestral likeness, a plainly dressed, teetotaling grind like his creator—“a fantasy image of Shaw himself upon the Fabian stage and in the theatre of politics,” writes Holroyd. Your interest in Shaw’s plays is likely to be delimited by your interest in the playwright himself.
“Do you call poverty a crime?,” asks the fellow called Cusins (he is his own cousin, you see; Shaw thought this was clever) of the industrial titan Andrew Undershaft in Major Barbara. “The worst of crimes,” declares Undershaft. He continues, in lectern-thumping mode:
All the other crimes are virtues beside it: all the other dishonors are chivalry itself by comparison. Poverty blights whole cities; spreads horrible pestilences; strikes dead the very souls of all who come within sight, sound or smell of it. What you call crime is nothing: a murder here and a theft there, a blow now and a curse then: what do they matter? They are only the accidents and illnesses of life: there are not fifty genuine professional criminals in London. But there are millions of poor people, abject people, dirty people, ill fed, ill clothed people. They poison us morally and physically . . . . Only fools fear crime: we all fear poverty. Pah!
So it goes with the Shavian protagonist; the characters around him interview him and wait reverently while he relieves himself of thousands of words of naive drivel. Pah!, indeed. Shaw’s political thoughts were about as deep and well-considered as his plan to replace the alphabet.
Self-interviews framed as journalism, in the papers, were a staple of Shaw’s strategy to promote his self-interviews, framed as drama, on the stage. Strange and unrepresentative of humanity as he was, Shaw was the only character Shaw put much effort into exploring. To invert the apothegm attributed to the second-century B.C. Roman playwright Terence, everything human was alien to him. He once wrote of a “strangeness which has made me all my life a sojourner on this planet rather than a native of it.” In one self-interview he published to promote his 1908 play Getting Married, he jovially but self-damningly promised, “There will be nothing but talk, talk, talk, talk, talk—Shaw talk. Shaw in a bishop’s apron will argue with Shaw in a general’s uniform. Shaw in an alderman’s gown will argue with Shaw dressed as a beadle. Shaw dressed as a bridegroom will be wedded to Shaw in petticoats.”
In The Quintessence of Ibsen (1891), Shaw held that humanity was easily divided into philistines, idealists, and the rare realists: the supermen who out-think everyone else with their ingenious contrarianism. Once acquainted with Shaw’s stereotypes, you see them everywhere: Major Barbara’s brainless upper-class twit Cholly Lomax is a philistine, Barbara and her fiancé and fellow Salvation Army soldier, Dolly Cusins, are the idealists, and the arms manufacturer Undershaft is the realist who converts Dolly to his cause of using the very machinery of capitalism and imperialism to create a socially just utopia via the daring to “make war on war,” whatever that means. In Man and Superman, the mediocre young suitor Octavius Robinson is the philistine, the well-meaning old liberal reformer Roebuck Ramsden is the idealist, and the roguish Jack Tanner the realist. In Heartbreak House, in which Shaw reworked King Lear on an unhappy Chekhovian country estate, the heartless but not particularly successful capitalist Boss Alfred Mangan is the philistine, his hapless debtor Mazzini is the idealist, and Mangan’s canny fiancée, Ellie, who flatly declares she’s willing to marry for money, is the realist.
In one of the most insufferable chunks of theater ever devised, the exhausting, static, and repetitive “Don Juan in Hell” dream sequence in Man and Superman (that incontinent would-be masterpiece written in frustration in 1903, when Shaw despaired of the stage and was writing for readership rather than performance), Shaw’s authorial stand-in Don Juan (who in life was the Edwardian rake Tanner) is popping open yet another bottle from Shaw’s inexhaustible cellar of anti-orthodox observations when his interlocutor says, “A very clever point that, Juan: I must think it over. You are really full of ideas. How did you come to think of this one?” This is Shaw telling Shaw he loves Shaw’s ideas, barely laundered. And what points are they? In this case, Don Shaw is shocking the other characters, and the Edwardians in the stalls, by making the case for marriage as strategic and transactional—“sacred and holy, if you like, Ana, but not personally friendly”—and castigating an advanced society’s stated belief system as a teetering tower of hypocrisy. Shaw couldn’t stop indulging himself and didn’t much care who noticed. Don Juan:
I tell you 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 my life. That is the working within me of Life’s incessant inspiration to higher organization, wider, deeper, intenser self-consciousness, and clearer self-understanding.
And so on, for hundreds of words. Unlike Wilde, whose wit remains strikingly funny, in Shaw’s case the anvil of messaging keeps stopping the balloon of levity from soaring.
Even the drawing-room repartee that is supposed to be funny (and once was, perhaps) is spoiled by trite premises. Instead of laughing, today’s audience is bound to think “Oh, so this is what passed for mischievous irreverence in Shaw’s day.” Hell is where all the interesting people go! Women are sexual pursuers and men their hapless prey! Family is a prison! The most respected members of the establishment are hypocrites! Prostitution is as legitimate a business as any other! And “there never will be a God unless we make one,” as Shaw wrote in his “Religion of the Future” sermon. All very intoxicatingly new, if you’ve just arrived on campus. As Chesterton wrote in his 1909 monograph on Shaw, his friend was not (as some apparently maintained at the time) particularly difficult to grasp. He believed what he said through his barely disguised authorial surrogates, albeit with a bit of japery. The audience is meant to emerge from Man and Superman chuckling heartily, but also exclaiming, “Good heavens, food for thought!”
From the distance of over a century, it’s hard to say why exactly the Edwardians created the legend of gbs. Certainly the work itself was only part of the attraction. “Success in the theater is very largely a matter of being able to flirt with the public,” Shaw wrote in a 1908 letter. He was, wrote Fintan O’Toole, “Arguably the first person in history to successfully project a global personal brand all on his own, without a state, a church, a movie studio or a record deal.” In 1921 Shaw marveled at his success in creating the world-straddling figure of gbs: “I had to become an actor, and create for myself a fantastic personality fit and apt for dealing with men.”
Like many other famous people, he manufactured his fame, and that celebrity in turn made his jokes seem witty and his ideas seem interesting. Typically, he discussed the phenomenon in a hyperbolic way that may have generated laughter for its outrageousness but wasn’t actually far from the truth: “I am a natural-born mountebank,” he wrote in 1900. “I am well aware that the ordinary British public requires a profession of shame from all mountebanks . . . . I really cannot respond to this demand for mock-modesty.” A sought-after public speaker who gave great entertainment value at his many public speeches and debates, he thrilled to portraiture: “busts, statuettes, medallions, stamps, portraits in oils, watercolours, crayon and needlework,” writes Holroyd. Shaw happily submitted to being depicted “in cars, under parasols, at sea; and as likenesses rendered in stained glass, from a simple stick of shaving soap, as a brass door-knocker or waxwork tricyclist.”
Today Shaw would be a regular guest on the Stephen Colbert show, a cnn sage, a subject of an eight-part Netflix documentary. He’d be an Instagram influencer, a shill for veggie burgers, a contestant on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Everyone would consider him a genius, not because of his plays but in spite of them.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 10, on page 39
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