Dan H. Laurence, an actor and director as well as drama scholar, has devoted twenty-seven years to editing and annotating a quartet of volumes drawing on George Bernard Shaw’s Himalayan range of correspondence, choosing about twenty-five hundred letters and postcards from what may constitute a total production of 250,000. Earlier volumes covered the years from 1874 to 1897 (1965), 1898 to 1910 (1972), and 1911 to 1925 (1985). All have been edited with tactful erudition and illuminative clarity. Laurence deserves grateful admiration for having brilliantly accomplished an enormously taxing enterprise. As in the previous volumes, he has dispensed with conventional footnotes and substituted concisely written headnotes containing an immense amount of background information. Two-thirds of these pieces of correspondence have not been previously published; many others were issued only in extracts. The editor has departed from his practices in the preceding texts in two ways: He has deleted some sensitive passages in deference to Shaw’s testamentary wish and has restored, inside square brackets, occasionally missing words or letters omitted by Shaw’s aging fingers when he handwrote or typed.
On his ninety-third birthday, Shaw wrote a letter to one of his oldest friends, St. John Ervine, which begins: “May I respectfully remind you that when Lincoln was shot . . . my age was 9 years, and my views on the subject so little in demand that I did not take the trouble to form any.” Readers will have difficulty imagining any event or subject subsequent to 1865 on which Shaw failed to form views and express them originally, provocatively, and wittily. He was the supreme commentator on all public (and many private) issues during the first half of the twentieth century. His Methuselah-length life stretched from the last year of the Crimean War to the first year of the Korean War. This final volume of his collected letters covers a span when, with the possible exception of Charlie Chaplin, he may have been the most famous person in the world—certainly the most celebrated author in history, with his comments frequently front-page news.
Shaw was engrossed in virtually everything—except the formation of a Shaw society, whose existence he only gruffly tolerated during his last nine years: “Don’t bother me about it. I am old, deaf, and dotty.” This book shows him becoming seriously interested in the cinema, playing a vigorous role in the filming of his plays Pygmalion, (1913; film 1938), Major Barbara (1905; film 1941), and Caesar and Cleopatra (1901; film 1946), as well as being involved in eventually aborted projects to bring Arms and the Man (1894), The Devil’s Disciple (1897), and Saint Joan (1923) to the screen as well. He saw his once-controversial plays become established classics, although this did not prevent critics from attacking such late dramas as Too True to Be Good (1932), The Simpleton of the Unexpected Isles (1935), Geneva (1938), and Buoyant Billions (1947). Shaw also published a religious/ethical fable, The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God (1932), and two significant texts on politics: The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism (1928) and Everybody’s Political What’s What (1944). The best plays of his final period are generally thought to be The Apple Cart (1929) and The Millionairess (1936).
His energy was often exuberant, never restrained. This collection shows him concerned with some lifelong preoccupations: music, phonetics, shorthand, education, eugenics, domestic and international politics, and as always, the theater. It also reveals his interest in taxation, love, grief, marriage, health, religion, boxing, painting, Albert Einstein’s theories of physics, nudism, homosexuality, beekeeping, and—inevitably—dying and death.
The most dismaying portions of this correspondence deal with Shaw’s attitude toward the twentieth century’s leading dictators, Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, and Joseph Stalin: He admired them. Shaw joined these totalitarians in a deep contempt for parliamentary democracy, regarding it as bumbling and corrupt, with the incompetent few representing the unqualified many. Influenced by the ideas of Plato, Thomas Carlyle, and Friedrich Nietzsche, he preferred a disciplined state ruled by a Man of Destiny, a benignly autocratic master spirit resembling his stage rulers, from Caesar to Magnus to Undershaft to Good King Charles. All of these are powerful, intelligent, aristocratic, and charismatic personages, decisive managers of the public weal, impervious to the caprices of the masses.
With regard to Mussolini, Shaw failed his first moral test by refusing to condemn the 1924 murder of Giacomo Matteoti, secretary-general of Italy’s Socialist Party, after he had denounced the Fascists. In a 1927 letter, Shaw argues that the means a new regime uses to attain...
(The entire section is 2059 words.)