THE PLAYWRIGHT IN SPITE OF HIMSELF -- GEORGE BERNARD SHAW: MAN, SUPERMAN, AND SOCIALISM
by Laurie Morrow
Nobody called him "George." It was his father's name, and George Bernard Shaw hated his father. Disrespect for authority became the theme of his life, along with the complementary certainty that he had better answers to life's questions than anyone else. Usually, such a personality merely annoys a small circle of friends, family, and associates, but Shaw had an unusual talent -- he was one of the most brilliant of British playwrights. He annoyed just about everybody and still does. With the passion of a Puritan minister dispensing hellfire sermons, Shaw preached through his plays his vision of How Things Ought to Be. This included, at various times, such harmless beliefs as vegetarianism and abstention from alcohol, but they also included such vile beliefs as the endorsement of fascism and a blind devotion to Stalinism. All had a cynical edge to them, of disdain for lesser folk.
George Bernard Shaw was born in Dublin, Ireland, on July 26, 1856, to a Scottish-Protestant family. His father, George Carr Shaw, was a grain wholesaler who suffered from a serious squint, which Oscar Wilde's father, a famous Dublin ophthalmologic surgeon, operated on. But squinting wasn't his worst problem -- alcoholism was. George Shaw's wife, Lucinda "Bessie" (Gurley) Shaw, came to have contempt for his weakness, even though they remained sufficiently well off to have their children reared by servants.
In a letter to Ellen Terry (June 11, 1897), Shaw describes how his sudden recognition of his father's alcoholism converted him into a cynical teetotaler: "The first moral lesson I can remember as a tiny child was the lesson of teetotalism, instilled by my father, a futile person you would have thought him. One night, when I was about as tall as his boots, he took me out for a walk. In the course of it, I conceived a monstrous, incredible suspicion. When I got home, I stole to my mother and in an awestruck whisper said to her, 'Mamma, I think Papa's drunk.' She turned away with impatient disgust, and said, 'When is he ever anything else?' I have never believed anything since: then the scoffer began. ... Oh, a devil of a childhood, Ellen, rich only in dreams, frightful in realities." Bessie Shaw brought her children up to loathe George Shaw so much that, when he died in 1885, neither she nor they attended his funeral.
Although Bessie was an affectionate mother to her daughters, she remained emotionally distant from George, her only son and youngest child. A singer who taught music to her daughters, Bessie made no effort to teach "Sonny" music, nor to send the obviously bright boy to university. What Shaw became was by dint of his own efforts. He never knew encouragement or praise from his mother. "Fortunately I have a heart of stone," the playwright would write as an adult, "else my relations would have broken it long ago."
George Shaw was not
the only George whose influence prompted the playwright to eschew his
first name. Bessie, who was sixteen years younger than her husband,
studied voice under the tutelage of a man who called himself Vandeleur
Lee. Lee, also known as George Lee, George John Lee, and George
Vandeleur Lee, developed a passionate relationship with Bessie. In 1866,
he moved in with the Shaws, in a ménage à trois, which may or may not
have been consummated. In 1876, Bessie, Lee, and Shaw's elder sister,
Lucy, moved away together to London. Shaw left his father and followed
soon after. It would be almost thirty years before he would return to
The turning point in Shaw's career was his discovery of socialism, the religion in which he found his life's calling. Of this conversion, he remarked, "I became a man with some business in the world." In 1882, Shaw heard political economist Henry George lecture and was intrigued by George's theory that if government owned the land, while individuals owned their labor, poverty could be alleviated without destroying individual incentive.
This made sense to Shaw, and, in search of like-minded men, he joined the Social Democratic Federation, where he became friends with such figures as William Morris, Eleanor Marx, and Annie Besant. He read Karl Marx but recognized that Marxism would not be embraced by ordinary workers. As Shaw observed, "Marx never got hold of [the working man] for a moment. ... The middle and upper classes are the revolutionary element in society; the proletariat is the conservative element." Shaw believed that the change to socialism must come gradually, "by prosaic installments of public regulation and public administration enacted by ordinary parliaments, vestries, municipalities, parish councils, school boards, etc."
Shaw became one of the earliest members of the Fabian Society, a group of middle-class socialists, which was named after the Roman general Quintus Fabius Maximus, famous for advocating a war of attrition over direct confrontation with Hannibal. The Fabian Society was founded in May 1884, and Shaw served on the executive committee from 1885 until 1911. The organization believed in "the inevitability of gradualism" and emphasized a gradual replacement of capitalism with socialism. The Fabian Society also endowed government with the quasi-religious role of the development of individual character, believing that society could be rebuilt "in accordance with the highest moral possibilities." Shaw's own description of socialism reflects his cold perspective on humanity: "Socialism is not charity nor loving-kindness, nor sympathy with the poor, nor popular philanthropy ... but the economist's hatred of waste and disorder, the aesthete's hatred of ugliness and dirt, the lawyer's hatred of injustice, the doctor's hatred of disease, the saint's hatred of the seven deadly sins." Basing society on hatred fit well with Shaw's disdainful character.
Shaw speaks with some of the actors and actresses on the London set of the 1930 film production of his play How He Lied to Her Husband.
promised future benefits for the masses, it had a more immediate benefit
for Shaw. It was a fashionable belief. Shaw's interest in socialism, and
the networking it afforded with some of England's most wealthy
In Shaw's time, as now, social progressives out to improve human character were drawn to ideological micromanagement. Even their clothing was employed as a billboard for their belief in progress through "scientific" knowledge, which is more theory than examined and proven fact. The trendy Dr. Jaeger, professor of zoology at Stuttgart, proclaimed wool the most healthful fabric, which he recommended wearing from the skin out; the suits Jaeger designed became the politically correct fashion statement of the 1880s. In 1885, along with William Morris and Oscar Wilde, Shaw started wearing garments designed by Jaeger -- two suits, one brown, the other silver gray. He rigidly adhered to this sartorial correctness, long after the fashion had passed. About Shaw's choice of garments, G.K. Chesterton observed (1910), "His costume has become part of his personality: one can come to think of the reddish-brown Jaeger suit as if it were a sort of reddish brown fur. ... His brown woolen clothes, at once artistic and hygienic, completed the appeal for which he stood; which might be defined as an eccentric healthy-mindedness."
professed interest in helping laborers, like many socialists today, he
confined his personal relationships to the intellectual and social
elite. What friends he did make were primarily political allies within
his socialist circles. He was profoundly uncomfortable around ordinary
people, preferring words over actions and ideas over human contact when
it came to helping the poor.
On one memorable evening, Patterson, who had been in Italy, returned unexpectedly and discovered Shaw and Farr involved in a fairly unusual means of interpreting Whitman's verse. In a scene straight out of a bad play, Patterson screamed at Farr that she couldn't have Shaw. The next morning, at Shaw's urging, Patterson sent an apology to Farr, giving her note to May Morris Sparling to deliver -- unaware that this young woman, the married daughter of Shaw's friend William Morris, was yet another object of his seductions. When Shaw heartlessly turned the embarrassing catfight between his two mistresses into a scene in The Philanderer, the outraged Farr wrote a novel, The Dancing Faun, in which an angry woman gets away with murdering her lover.
Melodramatics were, however, largely uncharacteristic of Shaw's own philandering. It seemed that unconsummated seductions were more appealing to him than consummated relationships, that he derived more pleasure from the romantic conquest than from the spoils of love's war. While this might seem an exercise in chaste romance, it was more a game of dominance and withheld self. Generally, Shaw's loveless love was channeled into mere flirtations with young actresses, so much so that biographer Frank Harris deemed him "the first man to have cut a swathe through the theatre and left it strewn with virgins." In a peculiar iteration of his parents' relationship with Vandeleur Lee, Shaw repeatedly entered into chaste manages trois with married women. This pattern was evident in his relationships with Edith Nesbit (Mrs. Hubert) Bland, May Morris (Mrs. Henry) Sparling (the aforementioned messenger), and actress (Alice) Ellen Terry (1847-1928), who was involved in a long-term relationship with Henry Irving. Shaw each time positioned himself as an innocent pursued by an unavailable but ardent woman.
The fear of death finally inspired him to involve himself with a woman free to accept his proposal. In 1898, mistakenly believing himself near death, Shaw married the wealthy Charlotte Payne-Townsend, a fellow member of the Fabian Society. Though the couple had engaged in sexual relations prior to marriage, the marriage itself remained unconsummated for its forty-five-year duration. This was as much Charlotte's wish as Shaw's, as she wanted to ensure that she did not have children -- a wish he seems to have shared.
Among the most passionate of Shaw's amours was with the actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell (Beatrice Stella Tanner, 1865-1940), with whom he became obsessed while reviewing plays in which she appeared. Shaw wrote Pygmalion for her, including its determinedly unhappy ending, where the lovers nearly merge, then part, presumably forever. "The quantity of Love that an ordinary person can stand without serious damage," claimed Shaw, "is about ten minutes in fifty years." When Stella came upon hard times, she asked Shaw if she might publish his love letters to her to make some money. Shaw refused to give her permission, responding, "I will not, dear Stella, at my time of life, play the horse to your Lady Godiva." Shaw's affection for her did, however, last the rest of her life -- indeed, beyond it. When she died in poverty in the south of France in 1940, Shaw secretly paid for her funeral, and when her family tried to repay him, he accepted their checks but never cashed them.
Shaw with his wife, Charlotte Payne-Townshend, at their London home, 1905.
The one true love of Shaw's life was socialism. Shaw did not start out to be a playwright. He decided to become one, after he realized the propaganda possibilities of the drama, which occurred to him while reading the translations of Ibsen done by his friend William Archer. Ibsen's plays deal compellingly with social and moral problems. Shaw studied his technique and, in 1891, published "The Quintessence of Ibsenism," one of the most important essays in modern drama criticism. In this essay, Shaw explains that man is a philistine (a category to which he relegates most of us), an idealist (intellectual revolutionaries), or a Great Man, the rare, Nietzschean leader characterized by great personal force. Greatness, for Shaw, meant power -- and the men he deemed great would, unfortunately, include fascists and Stalinists.
Shaw's early attempts to use plays to promote socialism were thinly veiled lectures on social and moral problems, in which capitalism plays the top-hatted, mustachioed villain. In Widowers' Houses (1892), the capitalist evildoers were slum landlords. His next effort, Mrs. Warren's Profession (1894), was banned, as Mrs. Warren's Profession turned out to be the oldest one. Shaw classified these early efforts as "Plays Unpleasant," as they focus on unpleasant ideas, though he could have called them with equal accuracy "Plays Unsuccessful." In part, this was because he conceived of characters not as flesh-and-blood human beings but as mouthpieces for conflicting political and social points of view.
If he were to have any influence, Shaw realized, he would have to write plays people were willing to watch. He had greater success with his comedy Candida, about a woman who must choose between remaining with her contented, if dull, clergyman husband and running off with an 18-year-old poet who wants to rescue her from respectability. Candida is considered a wise and strong woman, except by feminist critics, who are contemptuous of her choice to remain with the man who needs her, rather than to embrace short-lived pleasure with a flattering naîf. Similarly, Arms and the Man (1894) balances serious themes with a plot that evokes interest and sympathy -- in this case, contrasting a romantic with a realistic view of war -- and culminates in a happy, romantic ending.
Shaw recognized that another means of expanding his influence was to print his plays with detailed introductions and stage directions articulating his views, thus fusing two genres, the polemical essay with the drama. Man and Superman (1903), for example, offers a discussion of his Great Man theory, particularly in the famous dream sequence, "Don Juan in Hell."
The play that really launched Shaw's career as a playwright, however, was John Bull's Other Island (1904), which Yeats commissioned for the Abbey Theatre, then rejected. The plot concerns an Anglo-Irish plan to transform worthless land into a garden city. Shaw presents Irish concerns about independence unsentimentally but with a recognition of the importance of home rule to Ireland, as evidenced by comments such as this: "A healthy nation is as unconscious of its nationality as a healthy man of his bones. But if you break a nation's nationality it will think of nothing else but getting it set again." Though making many serious points, the comedy was so successful that British King Edward VII fell off his chair, laughing.
Among Shaw's most popular plays is Major Barbara (1905), which focuses on an idealistic heiress who joins the Salvation Army, hoping to help the poor by saving their souls. She rejects the capitalism of her father, the arms manufacturer Undershaft, until she visits the village in which his contented workers lead happy lives and comes to recognize the importance of financial stability to spiritual and social growth. "I am a Millionaire," explains Undershaft when his daughter offers to save his soul. "That is my religion." Major Barbara comes to see that people desperate for bread are not in a position to make fine distinctions about theology. "Spiritual values," asserted Shaw, "do not and cannot exist for hungry, roofless and naked people. Any religion that puts spiritual values before physical necessities is what Marx meant by opium and Nietzsche called a slave morality."
Of all Shaw's plays, his greatest commercial success was Pygmalion (1912), despite the unhappy, unromantic ending, which Beerbohm Tree, who played the male lead, tried to persuade Shaw to change. Pygmalion articulates one of Shaw's theories about language -- that the poor lack social mobility, at least in part, because of their inability to pronounce or use English well. Being almost entirely self-taught, Shaw sympathized with those who tried to teach themselves by reading. He believed that the unphonetic nature of English was a serious obstacle to economic and social advancement. In the preface to Pygmalion, Shaw writes, "No man can teach himself what [English] should sound like from reading it; and it is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman despise him." In Pygmalion, through intensive tutoring in pronunciation, language use, and manners, Professor Henry Higgins transforms Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle into a lady -- and in the course of the transformation, the two develop an intense mutual attraction. Shaw keeps the two determinedly apart at the end of his play, but in the two movies made of Pygmalion and the musical comedy My Fair Lady, the conclusion is revised to unite the lovers.
Though Pygmalion was an enormous success, Shaw soon fell out of favor with the public, on account of his insensitive and unpatriotic antiwar newspaper commentaries called "Common Sense About the War" (1914). As a socialist, Shaw felt no special allegiance to England; he saw the war as merely the crumbling of a corrupt capitalist system he had no wish to repair. Shaw's countrymen, who often had little or no intellectual distance between themselves and the brutalities of war, responded to his flip condescension with contempt, and he became something of a pariah for several years. He would, however, regain his standing, as postwar cynicism became fashionable.
Shaw would go on to write many more plays, including Androcles and the Lion (1913); Heartbreak House (1919), a scornful view of the Bloomsbury circle in the days before World War I that was a critical but not a popular success; Back to Methuselah (1921), a kind of fusion of metaphysics and Darwin, which Shaw considered his Ring cycle; and St. Joan (1923), startling for its sympathetic portrayal of Joan's judges. Shaw's Joan is bloodless and sexless, more pigheaded than ecstatic. T.S. Eliot described Shaw's Joan as "a great middle-class reformer ... [whose] place is little higher than Mrs. Pankhurst's." Whatever its weaknesses, St. Joan captured for Shaw the Nobel Prize in literature in 1925. Shaw donated the prize money to support the translation of Strindberg's drama into English.
After Charlotte died in 1943, Shaw continued to lead an active life on his property at Ayot St. Lawrence in Hertfordshire. (Like most socialists, he had no objection to owning property himself.) He continued to write until very shortly before his death. He had written some sixty-five plays and dozens of pamphlets, on subjects as varied as feminism, marriage, vivisection, the Soviet Union, natural selection, and capital punishment. His ironic wit endowed the language with the adjective Shavian, to refer to such clever observations as "England and America are two countries divided by a common language." While trimming a tree at the age of 94, he fell off a ladder, dying a few days later, on November 2, 1950, from complications. Shaw was cremated, and, at his request, his ashes were mixed with his wife's. His memorial ceremony was not religious, though Sydney Cockerall read, ironically, from The Pilgrim's Progress, a religious allegory most popular among fundamentalist Christians. Among the greatest beneficiaries of Shaw's will was a project to revise the English alphabet to make it more phonetic -- with at least forty letters -- a project that failed utterly.
Shaw's values have either puzzled critics or prompted them to ignore or whitewash his attraction to and ultimate embrace of evil. The Shaw who objected to World War I may, indeed, have been a genuine, if undiplomatic, pacifist: "I regard war as wasteful," he wrote, "demoralizing, unnecessary, and ludicrously and sordidly inglorious in its reality. This is my unconditional opinion. I don't mean war in a bad cause, or war against liberty, or war with any other qualification whatever: I mean war. I recognize no right of the good man to kill the bad man or to govern the bad man."
As the years passed, however, he grew impatient that the world was not turning socialist fast enough to suit him. Shaw came to see value in brutality. As the old saying goes, you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs, and Shaw wanted his omelette. He found a new hero in Oswald Mosley, the founder of the British Union of Fascists. Shaw would describe Mosley admiringly, as "the only striking personality in British politics." He also admired the Italian fascist Mussolini and, even more, the communist Stalin. Shaw visited Stalin in Moscow, in 1931, and found nothing disconcerting about Stalin's mass murders: "Our question is not to kill or not to kill, but to select the right people to kill ... [T]he essential difference between the Russian liquidator with his pistol (or whatever his humane killer may be) and the British hangman is that they do not operate on the same sort of person." The playwright famous for inventing Shavian irony would, without irony, recommend Joseph Stalin for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Some readers rationalize Shaw's attraction to fascism and communism -- two philosophies he knew to be responsible for the murderous oppression of millions of people -- as a puzzling aberration, or, yet more bizarrely, as evidence of his determination to believe in human perfectability. This attraction is, however, fully consistent with Shaw's cold-blooded calculus in human relationships. His relationships with women consisted mainly of intellectual masturbation. His marriage to Charlotte was a marriage in name only. His friendships were more political alliances than true friendships -- as Wilde quipped, "Mr. Bernard Shaw has no enemies, but is intensely disliked by all his friends."
Individual human beings were of no consequence to Shaw -- he sympathized with men only in the aggregate -- and he found human passions uncompelling. He spent his last half-century nearly celibate and without the pleasures of a slice of roast beef, a glass of cognac, or even a good cigar. Worse, he possessed an unrelenting and unquiet passion to convert others to his joyless, jackbooted asceticism. As Benjamin de Casseres observed, "Shaw is a Puritan who missed the Mayflower by minutes." Shaw's writing is amusing but brittle. It is far more brittle than that of Oscar Wilde, who, for all his shortcomings, at least had a heart to be broken.
Indeed, everything about Shaw himself and Shavian drama is cold, sterile, calculated. It is brilliant; it is clever; it contains some truth; but there is no heart to it, and what flame burns is an icy one. What limits Shaw as both man and artist is his unwillingness to acknowledge the difference between idea and flesh; to see that people, in both art and life, are meant to be more than mere mouthpieces for ideology. In his vanity, he refused to recognize fascism and communism as evil, or to acknowledge that he was a fool for being deluded by them. Shaw's political pontificating transformed the literary giant into a Lilliputian, whose socialism mutated, unapologetically, into a worship of murder, of force in its most raw and ugly form.
Shaw's plays should, then, be read because they pose important questions in an interesting way. His life should be read as a cautionary tale, illustrating the unintended consequences of playing with grand plans to order others' lives. But Shaw must be read in the context of Shaw. As one is delighted by the sparkling wit and charmed by characters engaged in adolescent rebellion against a world that does not live up to their expectations and desires, one must remain mindful that the hand which created Major Barbara penned, with equal fervor, defenses of Stalin's vilest practices. Had Shaw set out to be merely a playwright who wished to amuse, we could hold him to a lower standard; but he considered his plays a means of seducing others to his ideology, which, like himself, ends in sterile darkness.
For Shaw, it was all about his being the only way. Everything was simple to him: One only need do what he believed correct. Like a socialist version of Ross Perot, he evinced a blustery self-confidence that was self-indulgent and intellectually dishonest. While Perot embraced simpleminded "common sense," Shaw went to the opposite extreme, proclaiming intellectuals as the true masters of mankind and setting himself up as the foremost intellectual. It is indeed curious that a man who hated his father would come to see himself as a father figure to all mankind.
Laurie Morrow is the host of True North With Laurie Morrow, heard weekdays on WKDR 1390 AM, in Burlington, Vermont.