Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Clayton Meeker Hamilton (1881–1946)
GEORGE BERNARD SHAW, the celebrated pamphleteer and playwright, was born in Dublin in 1856. He came of a Protestant family of the middle class. His father, a small government official, was an unsuccessful and a rather shiftless man; but his mother was a woman of culture and of character. She was an excellent musician; and, when the fortunes of the family were at their lowest ebb, she supported her husband and her son by teaching music. It was from his mother that Shaw derived his early love for music and for painting and his early interest in science. His formal schooling never proceeded very far; and of this early period of education he has said: “It was the most completely wasted and mischievous part of my life.” During his teens, he left school to earn a pittance in the office of a land-agent. Meanwhile, his mother had moved to London, to improve her prospects in the field of music; and he followed her to London in 1876.  1
  Throughout the subsequent nine years, Shaw lived on next to nothing in a shabby little room, and tried his hand at literary hackwork. According to his own account, the products of his pen in this entire period afforded him a profit of six pounds; and, in order to keep alive, he was obliged to accept a small allowance from his mother. It was in this period of hardship that he adopted the exceedingly abstemious regimen of life that he has ever since maintained. He does not drink, he does not smoke, he does not eat meat; and he supplements his vegetarianism by a habit of early rising and favoring the open air. It might be said, as Stevenson remarked in his essay on Thoreau, that “so many negative superiorities begin to smack a little of the prig.” To any such suggestion, Shaw would probably reply that, in the habit of his life, he is a normal person, and that the vast majority of men, who prefer to eat meat and to smoke and drink occasionally, should be regarded as abnormal.  2
  In the lean years of his apprenticeship, Shaw was particularly interested in theories of social revolution. He became an active member in several societies which were organized to attack the established religion of the time and to support various panaceas of political economy. This interest brought him into contact with several important thinkers, such as Sidney Webb, Edward Carpenter, William Morris, and Henry George. He became a cart-tail orator in Hyde Park and established an incipient reputation as a propagandist. Meanwhile, between 1880 and 1883, he wrote four novels,—‘The Irrational Knot,’ ‘Love Among the Artists,’ ‘The Unsocial Socialist,’ and ‘Cashel Byron’s Profession’; but these novels—though now read with interest—attracted nearly no attention at the time, and earned for the author neither advertisement nor prosperity.  3
  In 1884, the Fabian Society was founded, with the purpose of improving social conditions by encouraging enlightened legislation. Shaw became at once a leading member of this mildly revolutionary organization; and many of his most brilliant essays on economic topics have appeared among its publications. In this aspect of his work, Shaw comes forward frankly as a radical in politics and as a propagandist in the cause of socialism.  4
  In 1885, when Shaw had reached the age of twenty-nine, he became acquainted with William Archer,—a man accomplished as a critic of the drama and notable as the translator and editor of Ibsen. Archer persuaded Shaw to abandon the unremunerative practice of writing novels and to devote his attention to the business of criticism. Before long, Shaw became a public commentator on music and painting and the drama. In a brilliant series of articles, contributed to the Saturday Review and signed with the initials G. B. S., he soon established a new standard in dramatic criticism. He ably seconded the work of Archer in setting up the revolutionary art of Ibsen as a potent influence upon the British drama of the day, and furiously fought against the moribund conventions which, for nearly a century, had impeded the progress of the drama in the English language. As a critic of the current theatre, G. B. S. ranked himself with Archer and with Arthur Bingham Walkley as one of the three leaders in the craft.  5
  It was owing also to the advice and influence of William Archer that Shaw decided to try his hand at writing plays. His first piece, ‘Widower’s Houses,’ completed in 1892, was produced by the Independent Theatre, which had been established by J. T. Grein. The only possible success for such an undertaking was a succès d’estime. This initial play was followed the next year by ‘The Philanderer,’ a playful piece in which the author satirized the cult of the New Woman and the current misconceptions of the message of Ibsen. Shaw’s next play, ‘Mrs. Warren’s Profession,’ which was also composed in 1893, was prohibited by the censor, and was not produced in England, even privately, till 1902.  6
  These three plays, which were subsequently labeled by the author as “unpleasant,” were written at the time when Sir Arthur Pinero and Mr. Henry Arthur Jones, by the production of such pieces as ‘The Second Mrs. Tanqueray’ and ‘The Case of Rebellious Susan,’ were actively occasioning what Mr. Jones has called “the Renaissance of the English Drama.” Shaw, disappointed by the comparative failure of his own plays in the popular and public theatre, decided to make an appeal to the verdict of posterity by publishing the texts of his dramatic compositions.  7
  At that time, the publication of plays, in England and America, was utterly uncustomary; but Shaw invented a new method to impose upon the reader an acceptance of his plays as compositions worthy to be read. He provided each piece with a preface, which, because of his adeptness in the art of criticism, furnished a commentary which even the most casual of readers could not afford to turn his back upon; and, in the minor matter of stage-directions, he supplanted the traditional shorthand of the theatre with elaborate little essays in literary comment which, in themselves, were worthy of remark. By these devices, Shaw succeeded in attracting the attention of the reading public to his published plays. Meanwhile, the more effective and important contributions to “the Renaissance of the English Drama” which were being made by Jones and by Pinero remained unpublished, except in “acting versions” in which the dialogue was printed without preface and punctuated only by stage-directions recorded in the traditional shorthand of the theatre. In consequence of this contrast, the early plays of Shaw were accepted as “literature” by many scholarly and earnest people who, because of their seclusion from the theatre, refused to accept the plays of Pinero and of Jones as epoch-making efforts toward a new art of the drama.  8
  By virtue of a not unnatural reaction, the early acceptance of Shaw’s plays as contributions to the library militated, to some extent, against their acceptance as contributions to the stage. For many years it was assumed that his pieces were too “literary” to be exploited in the popular and public theatre. In England they were acted only at special matinées, under the auspices of semi-private organizations, such as the Stage Society. When Vedrenne and Barker had established a repertory system at the Court Theatre in Sloane Square, Mr. H. Granville-Barker, as actor and as stage-director, did more than any other man in England to bring the plays of Shaw to the attention of the general public. It was Mr. Barker who first acted the parts of Marchbanks in ‘Candida,’ Napoleon in ‘The Man of Destiny,’ Brassbound in ‘Captain Brassbound’s Conversion,’ and other leading characters in the theatre of Shaw; and by his sympathetic stage-direction he did much toward establishing a sort of vogue for the plays of his friend and fellow-dramatist.  9
  But it was in America that Shaw first attained a practical success in the commercial theatre. So early as 1894, Richard Mansfield presented ‘Arms and the Man’ at the Herald Square Theatre in New York; and in 1897 this eminent actor produced ‘The Devil’s Disciple.’ Neither of these plays made any remarkable amount of money; but both pieces were accorded a succès d’estime, and both were sufficiently successful to warrant their retention in the Mansfield repertory. Richard Mansfield also went so far as to begin rehearsals of Shaw’s ‘Candida,’ but he abandoned the project of making a production when he discovered that the part of Marchbanks was not suited to his own equipment as an actor.  10
  In 1903, Mr. Arnold Daly scraped together a few hundred dollars and produced ‘Candida’ for a series of special matinées at the Princess Theatre in New York. The success of the play was instantaneous. The piece soon became a “regular” attraction, and ran for many months as one of the commercial triumphs of the year. Mr. Daly subsequently produced several other plays of Shaw’s and repeated the success that he had made with ‘Candida.’ The commercial triumph of the playwright in America was communicated by contagion to the theatre-world of London; and, ever since 1905, the plays of Bernard Shaw have been eagerly accepted in the English theatre. Meanwhile, however, the dramatic work of Shaw had already been welcomed with enthusiasm on the continent of Europe—especially in Germany. In Germany his reputation, even now, is higher than it is in England or even in America. Some of Shaw’s later plays, ‘Pygmalion’ for instance, have been translated into German and produced in Berlin several months before they have been shown to an English-speaking audience. Of the practical success of Shaw in the popular and public theatre, there is no longer any doubt. Indeed, it may safely be assumed that Shaw has taken in more money at the box-office than any other living English dramatist, except Barrie and Pinero and Henry Arthur Jones.  11
  But, despite his popular success as a public entertainer, Shaw has always considered himself primarily a teacher and only incidentally a playwright. He does not practice the dramatic art for the sake of art, but for the sake of propaganda. His pieces are designed not as plays of plot, nor even as plays of character, but as patterns for the exposition of ideas. His technique, as a playwright, is sufficient to satisfy most of the calls that have been made upon it. In ‘Candida,’ for instance, he has shown that he can easily command the pattern of “the well-made play,” inherited from Eugène Scribe and domesticated in the English theatre by the early plays of Pinero. But Shaw, in certain of his later pieces, like ‘Getting Married’ and ‘Misalliance,’ has deliberately cast aside the pattern of “the well-made play” and written non-dramatic conversations, in order to discuss more easily the ideas which he desired to set before the public. Such a procedure may be criticized in either of two ways. It must, inevitably, be condemned by critics who are interested mainly in the art of the drama; but, on the other hand, it may, very logically, be commended by critics who are interested mainly in the current problems of society.  12
  Shaw himself, in several of his prefaces, and in the Prologue and Epilogue to ‘Fanny’s First Play,’ has extracted considerable amusement from the fact that contemporary critics of the drama have experienced an unusual amount of difficulty in “placing” his dramatic compositions. If he is to be judged merely as a maker of plays—a practitioner of a great art for the sake of art—he must be ranked below Pinero, Jones, and Barrie, and two or three other contemporary English playwrights. But if he is to be judged merely as a propagandist—a sort of cart-tail orator in the public theatre—he must be ranked in a class by himself, in which he has no rival. The drastic disagreement of Shaw’s critics may be ascribed to their failure to distinguish clearly these two methods of approach toward the compositions of an author of unquestioned and undeniable talent.  13
  In the present brief discussion of Shaw’s dramatic compositions, his works will be considered first as plays (from the point of view of the dramatic critic), and secondly as propagandist essays (from the point of view of the student of philosophy). By means of such an absolute dichotomy, it may become possible to “place” the plays of an author who has brilliantly eluded most attempts to pigeonhole his writings and rank them in the catalogue of the contemporary theatre.  14
  As a playwright, Shaw has never been particularly interested in problems of construction. In his earlier pieces, he was satisfied to pour new wine into old bottles. The content of these early plays was new, but the structure was based upon the pattern which Pinero had previously borrowed from T. W. Robertson. In his later plays, Shaw has introduced no notable improvements in technique. At times he has discarded altogether the pattern of “the well-made play”; at other times he has reverted to the loose and easy pattern of the Elizabethan “chronicle-history”: but in such experiments as these, he has merely revolted against the rigors of contemporary dramaturgy without offering any acceptable substitute for the structure which he has attempted to discard. As an architect of plays, Shaw is certainly inferior to Pinero and Jones, and possibly to Galsworthy. He has never made a pattern so remarkable as that of ‘The Thunderbolt’ or ‘Mrs. Dane’s Defense’; and he has never built a structure so self-sustaining and so rigorous as that of ‘Strife.’  15
  As an artist in characterization, Shaw has always been impeded by the fact that his talent is essentially critical instead of creative. The natural habit of his mind is to take the elements of life apart, rather than to put the elements of life together. He is an analyst of life, and not a synthetist. Because of this predestined inclination, he frequently writes essays about characters instead of creating characters that are capable of acting and speaking for themselves. As a creative artist, he must be ranked very far below such a dramatist as J. M. Barrie. Barrie, by a single little line, may make a person live so absolutely that he can continue his existence blithely beyond the limits of the play in which he figures; but Shaw disturbs the absolute existence of his characters by making them deliver analytic comments on themselves which could be written only by the author.  16
  It is in the subsidiary element of dialogue that Shaw most easily asserts a claim to be ranked among the foremost living masters of the dramaturgic art. His written conversation is nearly as witty as that of Oscar Wilde and nearly as humorous as that of Henry Arthur Jones. His dialogue is more spontaneous than that of Pinero; and, at times, it is almost as eloquent as that of Barrie. Shaw is, indeed, a wondrous writer of good talk. Even in a bad play—like ‘Getting Married,’ for example—he holds attention easily by the almost preposterous brilliancy of his command of dialectic. As a builder of plays, Shaw is not remarkable; as a creator of characters, he is comparatively negligible; but as a writer of delightful conversation, he is all but supreme.  17
  The importance of Shaw as a social propagandist is, for many reasons, more difficult to define. For one thing, he is a born dissenter, and has a nimble habit of dancing over to what may be called “the other side” of any subject. Now, this other side may often be the right side; but, perhaps more frequently, it may happen to be the wrong side,—and, in such a case, Shaw’s attitude is interesting only as an indication of an unconventional point of view. For instance, when England entered the great war of 1914 to support the guaranteed neutrality of Belgium, it might have been expected in advance that Shaw would soon assert in public that the treaty of neutralization had always been “a scrap of paper” and that England’s participation in the war had been motivated by less idealistic reasons. He may have been right, he may have been wrong; but the point to be considered is that he deliberately chose to champion the opinion of a very small minority of his fellow-countrymen.  18
  Like Ibsen’s Doctor Stockmann, Shaw invariably prefers to fight upon the losing side of a contention, because he believes that “the strongest man on earth is he who stands most alone.” At all times he tries to be the spokesman of a militant minority. By this procedure, he sometimes happens to appear before the public in the exceedingly ingratiating rôle of a lonely knight-errant for the right; but the conservative majority is by no means always wrong, and, in consequence, this tilter against many windmills is frequently unhorsed.  19
  It is one of Shaw’s chief services to society that he has a habit of scenting out what may conveniently be called “the other half of the truth.” Most of the ideas that have been commonly accepted on the basis of tradition are merely half-truths, after all. Shaw combats them by brushing them away and setting up their opposites. But, in the course of this procedure, he very often errs by surrendering to the manifest temptation of overemphasis. In attacking an accepted half of the truth, he exalts the other half as if it were the whole truth, and thereby dives headlong into the very pit he was attempting to avoid. Thus, it has traditionally and conventionally been assumed that, in the love-chase of the sexes, men pursue women: therefore, in ‘Man and Superman,’ Shaw asserts the opposite,—that women pursue men. The full truth of this matter is, of course, circuitous; both sexes chase each other round a circle, and no observer can determine absolutely which is the pursuer and which is the pursued. In this instance—which may be accepted as a symbol of uncounted others—the only way to arrive at an indication of the utter truth is to take the traditional opinion and the opinion of Shaw and to add them together and then divide by two. An emphatic formulation of the other half of a truth is serviceable as a corrective of conventional opinion, but it cannot be accepted at its face value as a statement of what must absolutely be believed as final.  20
  Early in his career as a propagandist, Shaw discovered that many things in life have always been regarded wrong-side up. To correct this error in the common vision, he decided to turn life topsy-turvy and to make the public look upon the pattern upside down. This insistence on a novel point of view was, in some respects, no less salutary than it was surprising. Many wrongs were righted by this drastic experiment of inducing a sort of handspring in the art of contemplation. But all life cannot by any means be seen exactly by an acrobat who prefers to look upon it while standing on his head.  21
  Another point to be considered is that the mind of Bernard Shaw is almost exclusively intellectual in its machinery. The man appears to be deficient in the apparatus of sensation, and his mind appears to be deficient in the consequent reactions of emotion. He seems to believe that the only mental processes that are of any value are those of the intellect. He seems to disbelieve in any movements of the human mind that are not reasonable.  22
  Man cannot live by intellect alone; but, in the plays of Bernard Shaw, the human race appears to be expected to accept the possibility of doing so. Shaw, for instance, quite obviously disbelieves in the passion of love, because this passion is not reasonable. In the real sense, there are no love-scenes in his plays,—no scenes, at least, in which the synthetic and creative sensation of sex is not dominated and confuted by the analytical and critical intrusion of the cold and reasonable intellect. The comprehension of this dramatist is limited within the little circle of what a man may know by the intellect alone. He lacks the larger knowledge of “what every woman knows.” Even as an abstract thinker, he must be ranked beneath such a man as J. M. Barrie, who knows, ineffably and beyond the possibility of any argument, that the emotions are wiser than the intellect.  23
  In the contemporary theatre, Shaw has attracted much attention as a champion of novel and advanced ideas. He has often chosen to discuss the timeliest of topics. But the trouble with timely topics is that, like the daily newspapers, they are bound to wear a date upon their foreheads; and the trouble with advanced ideas is that they are destined, very soon, to slip behind the times. ‘The Philanderer’ of Shaw is obsolete to-day, because the ideas which it discussed were new in 1893 and now have been forgotten; but ‘The Second Mrs. Tanqueray’ of Pinero is just as new as ever, because the ideas which it discussed in 1893 were already very old. The plays which survive in the theatre are those which give expression to perennial ideas, instead of to ideas which are ephemeral. The invention of a new thought in the theatre can never be regarded as so safe an undertaking as the recognition of an old thought, which has been considered for many centuries as sound. The plays of Bernard Shaw may lose their potency within a score of years, because they were so novel at the time when they were written. A professed disciple of dissent is seldom honored by a generation beyond the period in which he fought against preponderating odds. But, whether or not the plays of Bernard Shaw are destined to survive, in the library or in the theatre, the weighty fact must be recorded that he has made a great impression on his time and has set contemporary critics talking.  24

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