Bernard Shaw

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2059

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.

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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 power have no significant bearing on the regime’s worth once it is in charge. Rather, “some of the things Mussolini has done . . . go further in the direction of Socialism than the English Labor Party could yet venture if they were in power.” Shaw hails Mussolini as a farsighted, responsible socialist, and even excuses the Italian aggression against Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) in 1936:In the conflict between Danakil savage and civilized Italian you must, as a civilized man, be on the Italian side. In the face of the scalp hunting North American Indian . . . and the testicle hunting Danakil, European civilization must stand solid.

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After the 1938 Munich Conference, Shaw finally admitted, in his last significant word on Mussolini, “Musso let me down completely by going anti-Semite on me.”

Sadly, Shaw’s infatuation with Hitler was to last longer. In the 1930’s Shaw considered him a messianic man of action, hailing Hitler’s repudiation of the Treaty of Versailles and withdrawal from the League of Nations, welcoming the annexation of Austria in 1938, applauding Hitler as late as March, 1940, for having lifted Germany out of the gutter and made it the most dreaded power in Europe. In many letters to his Jewish-born European agent, Siegfried Trebitsch, Shaw puts the most favorable interpretations possible on Hitler’s domestic policies, even calls him a great statesman—only his anti-Semitism is “stark raving nonsense: he is mad on that subject.”

To his credit, Shaw was one of the earliest English commentators to denounce Hitler’s Judophobia. Performances of his plays in Germany were consequently often interrupted by Nazi shouts of “Jew Shaw!” Yet in September, 1945, having read about the deaths of forty thousand prisoners in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, Shaw is capable of this appalling response:Belsen was obviously produced by the incompetence and breakdown of the military command. The concentration camps are always left to the refuse of officers’ messes, for whom the job of feeding and sanitating the deluge of prisoners is too much. The result is always the same more or less.

Shaw’s misunderstanding of Stalin’s conduct was, if possible, even more naïve. The Soviet Union consistently had Shaw’s virtually uncritical and often-enthusiastic allegiance. Though himself never a member of the Communist Party, he flatly declares, in 1934, “There is no public man in England more completely committed to Communism, and in particular to the support of the Russian system, than I.” His head was turned for the rest of his life by his visit to the Soviet Union in the summer of 1931. In Moscow, thousands of residents welcomed him at the railway station with shouts of “Hail Shaw”; he was wildly cheered everywhere he went; his seventy-fifth birthday, on July 26, was celebrated by adulatory speeches from Soviet commissars; Stalin granted him a two-and-a-half-hour interview. Buoyed by his visit, Shaw advised his lifelong friend, the wealthy capitalist Nancy Astor, to “preach The Revolution.” He remained infatuated with Stalin to his dying day, ignoring reports of the gulags and ranking him the world’s ablest statesman, with “Roosevelt second, and the rest nowhere.”

How is one to account for such blindness to the evils of despotism, such worship of strong leaders, no matter how cruel? The explanation most Shavian scholars adopt is his incurably Victorian disposition. After all, Shaw was already forty-four when the nineteenth century expired; his mental landscape had long been charted. He therefore misread modern dictators as essentially elitist and paternalistic fathers to their folk—peers of William Ewart Gladstone, Benjamin Disraeli, and Queen Victoria herself. A minority of Shavians are less kind, regarding his worship of political ruthlessness as the transfer to the arena of statecraft of the intolerant dogmatism and occasional terrorism he practiced in his literary and theatrical crafts.

The same Victorianism that misled Shaw in politics also led him honorably to a life of fair dealing, decency, good humor, kindness, and generosity. This collection demonstrates as much. Shaw may have been a public misanthrope, but privately, like his fellow Irish writer Jonathan Swift, he found it impossible to hate the Johns, Peters, Thomases, and others who often plagued him. He advises one correspondent that the world’s real problem is not to unite people in superficial and temporary love, but “to hammer it into them that their dislikes do not give them the smallest right to be unjust or uncivil to [one another].”

Amazingly, Shaw suffered many fools, if not always gladly. He was consistently generous to the editor/biographer Frank Harris, even though Harris filled his biography of Shaw with falsehoods and offended the puritanical Mrs. Shaw with his scatological, also largely invented autobiography. He forgave G. S. Viereck’s publication of two “interviews” which never occurred, then granted him one, only to be forced to disclaim its publication as a grotesque misrepresentation. He permitted two would-be literary executors, John Wardrop and Fritz Loewenstein, privileged use of his papers, which both abused. He supported two distant aunts and provided for the education of several children only remotely related to him. When Beatrice Webb’s illness and the depressed state of the market drained the Webbs’ finances, Shaw in 1934 instructed his banker to pay one thousand pounds—at that time a princely sum—into Sidney Webb’s account. He permitted publication of his romantic correspondence with the actress Ellen Terry, so her daughter could establish a memorial institute with the profits.

One sequence of letters is particularly appealing. It is addressed to Sister Margaret McLachlan, later Dame Laurentia, who became the abbess of Stanbrook Abbey. In 1931 he sent her a four-thousand-word description of his tour of the Holy Land. In 1933 the devout nun and the cheerful atheist sparred about a Voltairean story Shaw had written in 1932, eventually published as The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God. She urged him to scrap the work as profane; he half-decided to heed her, then changed his mind, had it issued, and charmingly asked her to pray for his heathen soul. They debated their religious views in letters which movingly exhibit their warm friendship despite their differing sentiments. In 1934 he misconceived the message on a souvenir card celebrating her gold jubilee as a nun as a notice of her death, wrote a poignant letter of condolence to the ladies of her order, was informed by Dame Laurentia that she remained among the living, and replied:Laurentia! Alive!! Well!!!!! Is this a way to trifle with a man’s most sacred feelings? I cannot express myself. I renounce all the beliefs I have left. I thought you were in heaven, happy and blessed. And you were only laughing at me. It is your revenge for that Black Girl. Oh, Laurentia, Laurentia, Laurentia, how could you. I weep tears of blood. Poor Brother Bernard

Shaw was deeply devoted to his wife, Charlotte. In 1939 she contracted osteitis deformans, commonly called Paget’s disease, which badly crippled her until she died in September, 1943. In a letter to H. G. Wells, Shaw wondrously describes how, a day or so before her death, “her furrows and wrinkles smoothed out. Forty years fell off her like a garment. She had thirty hours of happiness and heaven.”

Between 1944 and 1950 Shaw kept remarkably busy despite his ripe age, contributing more than four hundred articles, messages, letters, and self-drafted interviews to newspapers and periodicals, as well as maintaining a strenuous correspondence. On September 10, 1950, he lost his balance while gardening, tumbled, and fractured his left thigh. When nurses tried to wash him twice in one day, he admonished them, “Too much washing is not good for antiques.” He developed a kidney problem, for which he had surgery on September 21. On November 1, he serenely announced, “I am going to die.” The next day he did. His ashes, mingled with his wife’s, were consigned to the garden of his home in Ayot St. Lawrence, which is owned by England’s National Trust and therefore open to the public.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 53

Booklist. LXXXIV, May 1, 1988, p. 1472.

The Christian Science Monitor. July 20, 1988, p. 17.

Library Journal. CXIII, May 1, 1988, p. 81.

Los Angeles Times. June 16, 1988, V, p. 20.

The New Republic. CXCIX, August 8, 1988, p. 30.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIII, June 19, 1988, p. 12.

The Observer. June 5, 1988, p. 42.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIII, April 1, 1988, p. 68.

Smithsonian. XIX, September, 1988, p. 172.

Time. CXXXI, June 6, 1988, p. 87.

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