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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2389

On September 5, 1939, at the beginning of Great Britain’s involvement in World War II, Bernard Shaw wrote to The Times  arguing that all actors, variety artists, musicians, and entertainers should be exempted from national service and continue to perform their important professional services. There were probably few at the...

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On September 5, 1939, at the beginning of Great Britain’s involvement in World War II, Bernard Shaw wrote to The Times arguing that all actors, variety artists, musicians, and entertainers should be exempted from national service and continue to perform their important professional services. There were probably few at the time who thought that this was a reasonable way to contribute to the war effort, but there were also probably few who were much surprised to see such assertions from Bernard Shaw at a great moment of national crisis. Many people, in fact, likely expected something outrageous from Shaw, even if they were not sure of the form it would take, for Bernard Shaw had become a name. The coverage of any important event in national or international affairs (and many an unimportant one) was never complete without a sparkling quote from the sage of Ayot St. Lawrence. Shaw was always quotable, usually controversial, and frequently challenging.

These years of a secure spot in the national and international consciousness are the subject of this final volume on the long and controversial career of George Bernard Shaw. The first volume, Bernard Shaw, 1856-1898: The Search for Love (1988), chronicled his rise from poverty and isolation in Dublin to a measure of dramatic success and involvement with social reform in London. The second volume, Bernard Shaw, 1898-1918: The Pursuit of Power (1989), covered the growing reputation of Shaw as dramatist and stalwart of the Fabian Society up to the tarnishing of his public image by his apparently perverse pronouncements on World War I. The final thirty-two years of his life, however, saw him as an established figure of British national life; his position was secure as a grand old man of letters and a prolific commentator on all aspects of national life. The third volume concludes the story (though a further volume of references is scheduled to follow). The subtitle of volume 3 is intended to evoke a dramatic quality found in most of the plays of these years, in which Shaw resorts to visionary pronouncements and scenes and to a number of nonnaturalistic characters and settings. The reader, however, should not take from the subtitle any idea that Holroyd is suggesting that Shaw lived in some sort of dream world.

Holroyd has clearly mastered his subject; more than fifteen years of research have enabled him to present more facts and details of Shaw than any previous biographer has and probably more than any future work will collect. The three volumes are, in some sense, an “official” biography, Holroyd having been chosen by the legatees of the Shaw estate to provide an assessment of Shaw’s life and work for a new generation of readers. The life has probably been definitively assessed, but anything like a final assessment of Shaw’s work remains to be done. This is not intended as a criticism of Holroyd’s work, but rather as an acknowledgment that relatively little literary or dramatic criticism can be combined with the life of one who lived so long and produced so much. Holroyd does deal with the background and circumstances of Shaw’s works, particularly the plays, as well as touch on the reception of those works. He does attempt to summarize the ideas that Shaw embodies in particular works, which after a time becomes a bit repetitious, because Shaw’s basic ideas changed hardly at all after the late nineteenth century. Holroyd takes some pains to identify sources for characters from the plays with friends and acquaintances of Shaw—especially women. One may quarrel with pronouncements such as that Prola inThe Simpleton of the Unexpected Isles (1935) was inspired by a vision of Stella Campbell’s beauty recollected in tranquility, or that the prime minister’s wife in On The Rocks (1933) derives from Shaw’s mother’s indifference to him. While it is certainly true that Shaw often used his friends as partial models for many characters—as the opposed soldiers in Arms and the Man (1894) were based on R. B. Cunninghame Graham and Sidney Webb, or Private Meek in Too True To Be Good (1932) was based on T. E. Lawrence—Holroyd perhaps a bit too often makes definite ascriptions based on rather thin psychologizing; at the very least, this is one of the places in the book (there are many) where the lack of ready references does leave even the general reader a bit wondering.

As he had in the first two volumes, Holroyd devotes much time and space to Shaw’s relations with women. The interpretation of Shaw as an emotionally frustrated man from his earliest days who expressed his needs indirectly through his voluminous outpouring of prose remains a constant in this work. Notable among those with whom Shaw dallied and sparred (mostly on paper) in this portion of his life are Ellen Terry, Nancy Astor, Blanche Patch, his wife Charlotte, Mrs. Patrick Campbell, Molly Tompkins, the Benedictine nun Dame Laurentia McLachlan, and many others.

One of the new and most fascinating elements of this volume is Shaw’s involvement with the cinema. Shaw was much taken with the new medium and quickly realized its possibilities. He was reluctant to have his plays filmed for the silent screen (though he had many offers), but when sound came to film he was eager to participate. He was personally involved (sometimes too much so, some of the film people thought) in the filming of five of his plays. Other plays of the canon were discussed for the films, and sometimes scenarios were written, but nothing came of the attempts. Shaw understood well that a stage play was a different sort of thing from a film and undertook to supply proper “cinematic” scenes to make his plays more understandable and effective on the screen. Alas, he was always to be disappointed in the final product. The producers, directors, or distributors had their own ideas of what would work; often Shaw’s scenarios were abandoned or altered; the Shavian themes of plays were muddled by farce or sentiment. Yet Shaw kept his faith in the possibilities of the new medium.

Through the whole of this third volume, the dominant note in Shaw’s life emerges: he worked! The reader cannot but be impressed by the sheer quantity of material Shaw produced after the age of sixty. He completed at least ten major plays and a number of slighter dramatic efforts; he wrote at least three major prose works; and he conducted a vast correspondence that ran to hundreds of thousands of letters. He could not bear to be idle; when he was ill or truly needed a rest, his wife, his secretary, his housekeepers, and Nancy Astor would conspire to keep visitors and written work away from him—often unsuccessfully. He was always busy and even on vacations and trips would be writing plays or finishing proofs. Shaw is certainly one of the great letter writers of the past one hundred years; he is witty, fertile, and full of good advice combined with trenchant observations on politics, art, the theater, and life. It is not simply that Shaw did a lot of work, but that he was always working. He enjoyed it and certainly saw what he did or planned to do as a commitment he had made to life. In his own life, he was clearly the best walking recommendation for the Life Force.

Alongside this record of work, one must be impressed with the number of friends Shaw had. These were not only the great and the near-great, but often complete unknowns who would write to Shaw for advice and often receive it, perhaps beginning a lengthy correspondence in which the parties never met face to face. It is no wonder that, with friends and acquaintances such as Nancy Astor, Winston Churchill, the heavyweight boxer Gene Tunney, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Lady Augusta Gregory, hundreds of theatrical folk from producers to actors, Lawrence of Arabia, biographers such as Hesketh Pearson and Archibald Henderson, H. G. Wells, and William Butler Yeats, Shaw came to bestride the first half of the twentieth century. When he traveled, as he frequently did before 1936 (twice going around the world), he acquired more friends and correspondents. He became an international name as well as a British institution. An intriguing facet of Shaw’s intercourse with all these thousands of people was, whatever the tenor of the correspondence, the constant urging for them to do and to achieve. Shaw’s friendships emphasized those who were doers, who created, who led. It is certainly true that Shaw was often not far from considering what certain people, especially politicians and public personages, could do to advance the various causes of social reform that had occupied Shaw since the nineteenth century. The index of this volume pays tribute to this part of the Shaw record; the great majority of index entries is composed of the names of people. The text itself is full of names, many still recognizable and many pretty well forgotten. This great load of names has two effects upon the book. First, it tends to clog the narrative a bit; the necessity of explaining and introducing many of these people sometimes clogs the main story. Second, the necessary concern for all these people and their relations with Shaw tends to veil and hide the real Shaw a bit; the real, private man who lurked behind the public persona of GBS is not always on view. Certainly, part of the reason for this is to be found in Shaw himself, who was sparing of intimate personal revelations and who was almost always aware that he was on public display.

This great accumulation and cultivation of so many friends resulted in a wide variety of opinions about Shaw the man. Many found him hard-hearted and cold-blooded; this was especially true when Shaw was dealing with or commenting on groups or people in some sort of aggregate. On the other hand, many commented on Shaw’s constant concern, his personal charm, his excellent manners, no matter with whom he was dealing. While Shaw could seem unfeeling to many, Holroyd records numerous instances of Shaw’s personal benevolence to individuals, the loaning or outright granting of money for education or a needed operation, often given anonymously, behind the recipient’s back, and always with absolute lack of publicity. Shaw was certainly one who shielded his personal charities, a fact that should be remembered by those who dismiss him as nothing more than a showman and public clown.

In addition to the great roster of friends and the record of productive work, there is a note of sadness in this final volume. Not only does Shaw grow older and more subject to the infirmities of age, but also there is through these years a note of disillusion. Shaw’s faith, essentially a late nineteenth century faith, that his generation could change the world was fading. Shaw has, as the years pass, less and less belief that the Fabian socialism to which he had devoted so much would become the system of the day. In short, people were not listening to the serious messages Shaw used his comic genius to present. As essentially a Victorian, Shaw shared with such as Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, and Matthew Arnold a positive genius for acute analysis of the prevailing ills of society and man, but those Victorians were less successful at providing practical solutions for those ills. Shaw was probably not much different. Shaw’s ideas changed little over the years. While his vehicles were often amusing and insightful, their tenor was the same from play to play and from one prose work to the next. As a result, Shaw came to seem to the newer generations more and more irrelevant; there was a feeling that time had passed him by. To this may be added the common plight of those who are essentially serious comic writers: The audience is so taken with the comedy or the unconventionality or the wit that the serious messages get ignored. It was as if no one was listening any longer, and Shaw had spent a whole very calculated career getting people to listen.

The result in the plays of the period is a darkening vision, a turning from democracy. More and more, Shaw turns away from his traditional short-term solution for mankind—socialism—and toward his long-term solution—Creative Evolution. It is this great admiration for the strength of will that leads Shaw into what many considered to be excessive admiration for the totalitarian leaders of the day, Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin. In the plays, this vision results in an emphasis on those characters who have the will and the energy to act, to accomplish. The plays represent a kind of search by Shaw for leaders; since democracy fails to throw up leaders, then leaders must come forth on their own and take charge—whether the leader be King Magnus or Private Meek. Shaw’s more “fascist” views in this period can certainly be explained and accounted for, but perhaps not so easily excused. It is because of some of these views that Shaw is seen as cold-hearted. Shaw, while never uncontroversial, continued to preach the same message as he had from his earliest public appearances: humankind has fallen in love with ideals, with patriotism, romance, parenthood, and even democracy, and shall never straighten out itself or its society until it comes to a proper understanding of its true natural history. Shaw’s constant concern was to provide this true natural history.

Holroyd’s three volumes are certain to be the standard work on Shaw’s life; they are as long and fascinating as was the career of their subject. Holroyd’s biography, with its emphasis on Shaw’s work and energy, captures the spirit of the man. The book interests and even intrigues, both in its overall accomplishment and in many of its individual parts.

Sources for Further Study

Boston Globe. October 20, 1991, p. 16.

Chicago Tribune. October 27, 1991, XIV, p. 1.

The Economist. CCCXXI, October 26, 1991, p. 113.

Library Journal. CXVI, October 1, 1991, p. 112.

Los Angeles Times. October 10, 1991, p. E12.

New Statesman and Society. IV, September 6, 1991, p. 37.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVI, October 20, 1991, p. 3.

The Spectator. CCLXVII, August 31, 1991, p. 21.

The Times Literary Supplement. September 6, 1991, p. 6.

The Washington Post Book World. XXI, October 6, 1991, p. 1.

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