Collected Letters

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

Dan H. Laurence, an actor and a director as well as a dramatic scholar, has devoted forty years to chronicling and editing George Bernard Shaw’s plays, prefaces, essays on music, and letters. This volume of Shaw’s selected correspondence is the third in a projected quartet, following the Collected Letters, 1874-1897 (1965) and Collected Letters, 1898-1910 (1973). Collected is not, however, to be confused with complete: The three volumes contain about nineteen hundred letters and postcards; all four will include about twenty-five hundred; yet Shaw’s total production of correspondence in his astonishingly energetic life was approximately 250,000, or an average of nine for each of his days over his Methuselah-length life. Laurence deserves both commiseration for the Herculean task he has undertaken and grateful commendation for having accomplished it to date with tactful erudition and illuminative clarity. He joins a small gallery of distinguished scholar-critics who have focused their careers on one major author: Leslie Marchand on Lord Byron, Leon Edel on Henry James, Frederick Pottle on James Boswell, Richard Ellmann on James Joyce, Francis Steegmuller on Gustave Flaubert.

Shaw is probably the most versatile of major writers: not only a playwright, director, and novelist, but also a critic of music and the fine arts as well as drama; a Socialist reformer of radical temperament; a preacher of a neo-Lamarckian evolutionary religion that he called the “Life Force”; an extraordinarily successful lecturer on virtually any topic; a superb polemicist and publicist; in short, the supreme commentator on public issues during the first half of the twentieth century. The range of subjects he tackles in this fifteen-year span includes love, grief, marriage, warfare, the Irish question, Anglo-German relations; political strategy, tactics, and prophecy; the directing, casting, and acting of his plays; business negotiations with publishers and editors; advice on enunciation, punctuation, singing, painting, bathing, eating, drinking, education, prose style, and excessive sexual vitality (abstain, or seduce the charwoman); reasons for avoiding cuts in William Shakespeare’s plays and reviews when one is enraged; boxing, psychic research, Antarctic explorers, airplanes, “motor cars,” and Zionism.

Shaw knew very well that occasionally his insatiable interest in everything and everyone would cause him to offend people by prying into their private affairs. Thus, when he found himself dissatisfied with his old friend Robert Loraine’s artificially brilliant performance in Arms and the Man, he asked him bluntly: “Was it morphia?” Loraine resented Shaw’s suspicions, and Shaw was quick to admit his sometimes irritating intrusiveness:What is so very exasperating about me in spite of my amiable qualities, is not that I am an egotistical and ridiculous author. Consider it a moment, and you will admit that an author’s vanity would make you laugh quite good-humouredly. What infuriates people is my incorrigible habit of constituting myself, uninvited, their solicitor, their doctor, and their spiritual director without the smallest delicacy. I have no right whatever to concern myself with your personal habits or your private welfare; but you see I do. I treat every one sympathetically as an invalid, injudicious in diet, politically foolish, probably intemperate, more or less mendacious and dishonest; and, however friendly my disposition and cheerful my way of putting it, they don’t like it. I can’t help it. After all, you cannot reasonably expect a playwright to mind his own business. Other people are his business. And his infernal meddlesomeness is sometimes useful. So be as charitable as you can.

This paragraph tells the reader much about Shaw’s tone and temperament. He was often dogmatic, cocksure, provocative, tactless, and rude. Yet his nature was essentially benign and sympathetic, genial and congenial, jocular and high-spirited; and his wit and charm often disarmed opponents who might otherwise have become his enemies.

Shaw’s good nature and bravado enable him to retain the reader’s fondness during the course of this correspondence despite displays of self-conceit, complacency, and unmitigated arrogance. Thus he tells one biographer:I never had the least consciousness of my destiny until [a colleague’s] remark made me suddenly aware that I was assuming, without knowing it, that I was to be a “great” man. Well, you fool, I was right. So all’s well that ends well.

When Shaw’s health broke down seriously—though temporarily—at the age of thirty-eight, he recalls, “I hadhad an impression that 38 to 40 was a dangerous age for a man of genius, and that I should possibly die like Mozart, Schiller and Mendelssohn at that crisis.” Shaw begins one letter to H. G. Wells by flatly announcing, “I am all right about Russia. The longer I live the more I see that I am never wrong about anything, and that all the pains I have so humbly taken to verify my notions have only wasted my time.” Historically, Shaw turned out to be almost wholly wrong in his uncritical admiration of the Soviet Union—as well as in many other judgments—but one forgives him his hubris because, in our age of anxiety, one cannot but admire his exuberant self-confidence and panache.

The aforementioned characteristics got Shaw into serious trouble during World War I, which became his climacteric. Basic to Shaw’s temperament was an attitude of moral relativism applied with cool rationalism: Every person is right from his point of view; every “villain” has his points of honor; every “hero” has his points of dishonor; no act is absolutely virtuous or wicked. This ethic served Shaw well in such dramas as Man and Superman (pb. 1903, pr. 1905), The Doctor’s Dilemma (pr. 1906, pb. 1911), and Saint Joan (pr. 1923, pb. 1924). It served him ill in the hysteria of flag-waving that engulfed Great Britain as well as every other combatant during the Great War.

During the first months of the war, Shaw wrote a thirty-five thousand-word pamphlet, whose title echoes Thomas Paine’s: Common Sense About the War; it was published on November 14, 1914, as a supplement to the New Statesman. In it, he charged that the war had been fomented by fanatic militarists in England as well as Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He supported victory for the Allied side but insisted that “the word after the fight must be sans rancunefor without peace between France, Germany, and England, there can be no peace in the world.” Shaw discharged his most mockingly barbed arrows on the policies and character of Great Britain’s foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, whom he called a devious-minded, diabolic Junker.

Virtually all Britons were outraged by Shaw’s document. They had previously admired or tolerated him as a clever, amusing, playful chap. Now they discovered that he could also be passionate, earnest, and reasonable in opposing the frenzy of patriotism that possessed them. Inevitably, they mistook his hatred of war for hatred of Great Britain, and they vilified him...

(The entire section is 2960 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

Booklist. LXXXI, April 15, 1985, p. 1153.

Library Journal. CX, May 1, 1985, p. 57.

The New Republic. CXCIII, July 15, 1985, p. 45.

The New York Review of Books. XXXII, August 15, 1985, p. 3.

The New York Times Book Review. XC, June 30, 1985, p. 1.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVII, March 15, 1985, p. 106.

Smithsonian. XVI, August, 1985, p. 132.

Time. CXXVI, July 15, 1985, p. 72.

Times Literary Supplement. May 31, 1985, p. 595.