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...
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