(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

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...

(The entire section is 2389 words.)