Bernard Shaw, 1950-1991

by Michael Holroyd
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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1872

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.

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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 void. The three residuary legatees were therefore entitled to come into their inheritance. Hence the British Museum, the Royal Academy, and Ireland’s National Gallery each received one third of the estate—after legal expenses and annuities for servants had been paid.

Smoker and an ally, spelling reformer James Pitman, teamed up to publicize their protests against this decision in the media, and to threaten a legal appeal. The public trustee approved a consolation price for their interests by funding a competition for a new phonetic alphabet. It attracted 467 valid entries by the end of 1958. Four of these were declared “semi-winners,” and their devisers were each awarded £125. The public trustee also authorized the 1962 publication of fifty thousand copies of Androcles and the Lion in parallel texts; it sold poorly. Unfortunately or otherwise, the public at large could not have cared less about alphabet reform.

The British Museum has benefited hugely from Shaw’s estate, particularly through the posthumous windfall from the musical adaptation of Shaw’s phonetic romance Pygmalion (1912). My Fair Ladyopened on Broadway in March, 1956, and did not close its run there for six and a half years, “by which time $55,000,000 had already been made from performances round the world, plus another $10,000,000 from recordings and film rights.” Holroyd worries about how the British Museum has spent Shaw’s millions, with the institution’s trustees free to disburse them as they wished. They have determined not to make public disclosure of the annual amount and disposal of money from the Shaw estate, fearing that such revelations would cause Treasury officials to scant the museum’s governmental grants.

The British Museum’s secrecy may well be practical, considering what happened to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA). The RADA forced the resignation of its principal, John Fernald, who was highly regarded artistically but lacked financial acumen. The academy then acquired a larger building, but the Treasury canceled its grant to RADA in 1967, 50 that only the income from Shaw’s will is enabling it to operate. As for the National Gallery of Ireland, it chose to publicize its acquisitions funded from the Shaw estate, including an excellent piece by Nicolas Poussin, some fine Italian Baroque paintings, and some creditable Irish pictures. Holroyd concludes that Shaw would have been pleased by the gallery’s use of his money.

He takes care to point out Shaw’s considerable private benefactions, during his lifetime, to such organizations as the Actors’ Orphanage, the Royal Literary Fund, the National Flood Distress Fund, Zionist appeals, Stratford’s Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, and many, many more. Publicly, however, Shaw played the scrooge. “It is useless to ask him for money: he has none to spare,” read a card he composed in 1949. Dan H. Laurence, a leading Shaw scholar, calls him “probably the most charitable professional man of his generation.” The public, however, ascribed Shaw’s reason for not providing his trust with his money to sheer meanness, and did not realize that he simply wanted to stretch his funds as far as possible so as to benefit an enormous number of individuals and institutions.

On March 17, 1951, the distinguished actress Dame Edith Evans declared “Shaw’s Corner” at Ayot St. Lawrence open to the public. So little did the residents of the village where Shaw had lived for a generation welcome their worldwide fame that they organized raiding parties to uproot thirty Automobile Association direction signs. The National Trust was placed in charge of Shaw’s home, and many Shavians expected its trust curator to be Fritz Loewenstein. He had been Shaw’s bibliographer and ardent admirer, and he campaigned openly for the position. He never got it. Lady Astor disliked his unctuousness; Shaw’s former secretary, Blanche Patch, could not stand his undue servility; and his Jewishness probably did not endear him to the locals. In the end, Loewenstein was poorly treated by the Shaw estate’s public trustee, who refused to honor Shaw’s wish in his will that Loewenstein be “consulted and employed” in all matters involving Shaw’s posthumous literary interests. Bitterly, in 1955 Loewenstein took himself and his family back to Germany, where, as a refugee from the Hitler regime, he was entitled to a modest compensation by the state.

Holroyd adroitly steers a tactful path through the reefs and shoals of Shaw scholarship and criticism. He salutes Dan H. Laurence for his towering contribution of scrupulously editing four volumes of Shaw’sCollected Letters (1965, 1972, 1985, and 1988) and producing a comprehensive two-volume bibliography in 1983. In the 1980’s the number of books about Shaw rose to more than three hundred, including Stanley Weintraub’s two-volume, annotated edition of The Diaries (launched in 1986), Bernard E Dukore’s The Collected Screenplays of Bernard Shaw (1980), A. M. Gibbs’s Shaw: Interviews and Recollections (1990), and Dan H. Laurence and James Rambeau’sAgitations: [Shaw’s] Letters to the Press, 1875-1950 (1985).

Among critical studies Holroyd singles out two: Eric Bentley’s incisiveBernard Shaw (1947; second edition, 1967), and Raymond Williams’Drama from Ibsen to Eliot (1952; revised as Drama from Ibsen to Brecht, 1968). He notes Williams’ doubt that Shaw’s work would survive the twentieth century. Holroyd discusses an extraordinary discovery by the American researcher B. C. Rosset: Contrary to Shaw’s recollection that his mother had waited one or two years before following her music master and possible lover; Vandeleur Lee, from Dublin to London, Rosset found that Mrs. Shaw had followed Lee to London only a few days after his departure, on her twenty-first wedding anniversary. Since Rosset had quoted GBS without having received permission from the Shaw estate, however, his book was withdrawn from publication by England’s Society of Authors; Rosset died soon after this disappointment.

Holroyd ends his essay on Shaw’s posthumous fortunes and misfortunes by rehearsing the history of his own biographical relationship to the master. In 1970 the Shaw estate decided to commission an authorized biography and turned to the thirty-four- year-old Holroyd, who “had no experience of politics or theatre, no academic qualifications, and no record of having worked on Shaw.” Busy with research for his biography of the painter August John (1974), Holroyd did not begin his Shavian explorations until 1975. He found himself “encumbered with help,” since “there is a Shaw distribution throughout the world.” He has attempted to uncover Shaw’s “concealed humanity” behind his panache of heterodox opinions, and he insists that “under the play of his paradoxes… moves a current of passion It is this that I have sought to navigate.” On the strength of his performance in this four-volume voyage, Michael Holroyd has proved one of the most discerning pilots among contemporary biographers.

Sources for Further Study

Boston Globe
. April 18, 1993, p.42.

Choice. XXXI, September, 1993, p.117.

London Review of Books. XIV, November 5, 1992, p.8.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVIII, April 18, 1993, p.22.

San Francisco Chronicle. June 6, 1993, p. REV7.

The Spectator. CCLXVIII, May 9, 1992, p.27.

The Times Literary Supplement. May 8, 1992, p.32.

Washington Times. June 20, 1993, p. B7.

World Literature Today. LXVII, Spring, 1993, p.391.

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