(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

One of the most relentlessly prolific writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, George Bernard Shaw habitually wrote prefaces, introductions, and forewords to his and others’ works, sometimes to explain them, sometimes to argue points not fully covered in them, and sometimes to demolish criticism leveled at them. He also revised these prefaces over time, adding newer topical references to older works, deleting material he thought outdated, and at times exaggerating or misrepresenting events and opinions to suit his argument. The editors of The Complete Prefaces: Volume I, 1889-1913, have followed Shaw’s testamentary wishes by using the last printed versions of texts he authorized in his lifetime, although they have also restored some deleted passages, clearly indicating them as such. In addition, the editors have included judiciously chosen annotations to Shaw’s more obscure allusions and references without cluttering the text with them.

Of the many kinds of prefaces in the volume, the editors identify three principal types in their introduction. They illustrate their categorization with detailed analyses of selected examples of Shaw’s rhetorical, epistolary, and argumentatively journalistic modes of writing. In whatever mode, Shaw’s prefaces appear to be living words, records of conversations that evolve in the course of his conversing on paper. Thus, he occasionally contradicts or undercuts himself, as if looking for another opening in the fray, taking another tack. He also appears to change his mind, at times savoring the witty phrase that does not quite convey his meaning but approximates it well enough in a nearly poetic vein.

The rhetorical Shaw is a lecturer in print, relying on an audience, engaging that audience, asking questions that may at first appear merely rhetorical but turn out to be precisely the sort of question an intelligent person might ask about the issues at hand. Moreover, his commands and exhortations to the audience, in which he asks them to direct their attention to something, to consider a point, to do their homework and read this or that commission report, are truly requests for cooperative, active listening and reading. He appears to work his audience adeptly, positing their anti-intellectual counterparts throughout London and the realm and allowing his hearers and readers to feel immensely superior to those unenlightened by him. Shaw is a propagandist, seeking to change minds, win approval, and prompt his readers to assert their own power to effect social change. This fits nicely with his own socialist agenda in his plays and essays, the gradualist strategy expressed in the motto of the Fabian Society: “Educate, Agitate, Organize.” Shaw writes and seems to speak to the reader, then, as an educator who is interested in stirring up his audience, in provoking their indignation, and in organizing them into an effective band bent upon political reform. As the editors note, the prefaces to Mrs. Warren’s Profession (1902) and Major Barbara (1907) are two among many examples of Shaw’s highly rhetorical work.

The epistolary Shaw, in such prefaces as Major Barbara’s “First Aid to Critics,” John Bull’s Other Island’s “Preface for Politicians” (1907), andMan and Superman’s “Epistle Dedicatory” (1903), is a familiar, avuncular correspondent who addresses his readers personally, informally, cajolingly. Here Shaw takes his reader by the arm or elbow and converses with him or her as they walk together toward or from the theater. He creates an instant intimacy, at times confessionally, intimating that he has his own doubts about his work, his projects, his agendas in the plays. In some respects, Shaw distances himself from his work in the prefaces, almost looking for encouragement from the reader, occasionally...

(The entire section is 1572 words.)