Bernard Shaw, 1950-1991 Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In three previous volumes, Michael Holroyd chronicled and analyzed in fluent, lucid, and often witty language the career of one of the most productive, elusive, and long-lived writers in the history of literature. The first book, subtitled The Search for Love (1988), took George Bernard Shaw from his 1856 birth to 1898; the second, The Pursuit of Power(1989), to 1918; the third, The Lure of Fantasy (1991), to his death in1950. This fourth tome is a pendant tracing the posthumous career of the considerable Shavian fortune and offering an often humorous sketch of the characters, places, and institutions associated with Shaw’s name. It also includes four appendices: the full text of Bernard Shaw’s will (fourteen pages) and of Charlotte’s (nine pages), a record of principal purchases from the Shaw Fund by Ireland’s National Gallery, and a list of the films made from Shaw’s works (eighteen, from 1921 through 1968). Then follow the source notes for all four of Holroyd’s texts, since he had decided to delay publication of all his references to his final volume, so as to avail himself and readers of the latest scholarship. Finally, a fifty-two-page cumulative index concludes the monumental enterprise.

When Bernard Shaw’s will was published in March, 1951, the gross value of his estate amounted to £367,233, equivalent to between $12.5 million and $13 million in 1993 purchasing power. Holroyd emphasizes that the will’s promulgation coincided with a time, for the British, of severe austerity. Hence, when a Shaw Memorial Fund was launched that same spring to subsidize young authors, dramatists, and musicians as well as to promote the presentation of Shaw’s plays at festivals, it fell embarrassingly short of its goal of £250,000. By 1990 it had reached but £416—a total disaster. Instead, persuaded by such influential luminaries as lady Nancy Astor, Rebecca West, and T. S. Eliot, the government decided to break Shaw’s trust, particularly since most of his money had been marked for the creation of two private trusts, the first of which would support a statistical inquiry to determine how much time and money English speakers and writers could save by using Shaw’s proposed simplified alphabet, while the second would transliterate his play Androcles and the Lion (1912) into such a phonetic alphabet, publishing a bialphabetic edition with the traditional alphabet on one side and Shaw’s “alfabet” on the other. Shaw hoped that the resulting dissemination and publicity would eventually persuade the English-using world to adopt his orthography, whose written signs would be as simple as its spoken sounds.

Also contested by the government was Charlotte Shaw’s will, which bequeathed £94,000 (more than $3 million) to bring masterpieces of fine art within the reach of all classes in Ireland, to teach the Irish people the secrets of self-control, elocution, oratory, and deportment, and to endow a chair at an Irish university for instruction in all these arts. The Chancery Division of the High Court in London declared Charlotte’s testamentary wishes valid, but the money has been distributed in esoteric ways, such as planting village halls in rural Irish communities. No university chair has as yet been established to teach social skills and ethical conduct.

Bernard Shaw’s will was hotly contested in Chancery Court. Holroyd provides a dexterous and dramatic description of such eccentric court watchers as Barbara Smoker, who had no paying job but always kept herself busy, this time as secretary of the Phonetic Alphabet Association and assistant secretary of the Shaw Society. She was aghast to discover that the attorney general with the Dickensian name of Baulkwill, acting as public trustee of Shaw’s will, “knew nothing of Jesperson and Zamenhof, or even the difference between inflected and agglutinated language!” She therefore slipped into the bulging briefcase of the attorney general’s counsel a daily avalanche of linguistic lore. The leading opponent of the government’s authorization of the will’s bequests for alphabet reform was Sir Charles Russell, representing two residuary legatees: the British Museum and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. He concluded his argument by asking the presiding judge whether a line from Androcles and the Lion, “Did um get an awful thorn into urn’s tootsum wootsum?” could be efficiently phonetically transliterated. Justice Harman apparently decided it could not, for he ruled that Shaw’s will had created no valid charitable trust and was therefore...

(The entire section is 1872 words.)