Eric (Russell) Bentley John Mason Brown

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John Mason Brown

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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As no one (including Mr. Shaw) has managed to do before him, Mr. Bentley has succeeded [in "Bernard Shaw"] in collecting all the various Shaws and pulling them together into a single character. Perhaps he has oversimplified. Perhaps he has been too arbitrary in denying Mr. Shaw most of his seeming inconsistencies and pointing out what has always been radiantly consistent about his rebel's work. Even so, all of us (including Mr. Shaw) stand in Mr. Bentley's debt. (p. 22)

Mr. Bentley's volume is a serious critical study. Indeed, it is so unflaggingly cerebral that it drove a colleague of mine, a most knowing but human fellow, to confess that it gave him "the willies." But, though Shavian in the sharpness of its thinking, it is strangely un-Shavian in the lack of gaiety of its spirit. If its tone is polemical, Mr. Bentley's defense is that his subject is our greatest contemporary polemicist.

To Mr. Bentley, Mr. Shaw is one of the world's liveliest and most unsettled problems. To the settling of this problem Mr. Bentley brings his genuine intellectuality, his extensive knowledge of Shaw, his vigorous opinions, and his excellent perceptions. The trivia he leaves to lesser men. He is out after bigger, more elusive game. His concern is not what Shaw thinks but to what end does he think; not what plays he has written but what kind of plays and what sort of an artist we have in Shaw; not the facts of his life but what is the nature and upshot of his career.

Mr. Bentley combats the idea that Shaw's works represent "a chaos of clear opinions." His point—and a point he makes admirably—is that Shaw's "clear opinions" do not seem chaotic if we consider them in their historical context and see the contradictions as a synthesis of different political traditions. "Shaw," says Mr. Bentley, "should always be taken to mean something even if he cannot always be taken to mean simply what he says. He can always be taken seriously; he cannot always be taken literally."

It was Shaw who insisted that his economic studies have played as important a part in the writing of his plays as a knowledge of anatomy does in the works of Michelangelo. Mr. Bentley takes him at his word. After a foreword (not a preface) in which he quotes the verdicts passed on Shaw over the years by critics ranging from Leon Daudet and Winston Churchill to Auden, T. S. Eliot, and Harold Laski, he plunges straight into Shaw's political economy. He next turns to what he calls Shaw's vital economy. Then, and only then, after having placed him in relation to Marx, discussed his Fabianism, analyzed his socialism, cleared him of flirting with fascism, and discussed his attitude toward life, religion, property, medicine, and man, does Mr. Bentley come to Shaw's plays.

Interesting as are his introductory chapters and illuminating as is his rather joyless treatment of Shaw as a dramatist, Mr. Bentley is, I think, at his best—and an excellent best it is—in his final chapter. It is here that he deals with Shaw's failure as both artist and philosopher to convince his audiences.

Mr. Bentley realizes that in his time Shaw has reached a larger number of people than Marx, Darwin, or Freud reached directly. But, though he has won the world's admiration, he has won few converts. "I have produced no permanent impression," Mr. Shaw once said, "because nobody has ever believed me." (pp. 22-4)

Beneath the jester, the propagandist, the economist, and the philosopher, however, there has always been Shaw the artist. Notwithstanding his pretended contempt for the tribe, Shaw has been a superior artist—in spite of himself. That is his ultimate strength. That is the guarantee of his lasting greatness. That is the final paradox of his paradoxical career. As Mr. Bentley puts it, "by not saving the world [Shaw] saved his drama as art, and, therefore, as teaching." (p. 24)

John Mason Brown, "Mr. Shaw Almost Synthesized," in The Saturday Review of Literature (copyright © 1948, copyright renewed © 1976, by Saturday Review Magazine Co.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXI, No. 6, February 7, 1948, pp. 22-4.