Judging Shaw review: It’s a Shavian world– we just live in it
Fintan O’Toole explores Shaw’s socialism and his pervasive influence on the way we think today, and David Clare looks at Shaw’s Irish outlook
George Bernard Shaw in the garden of his country home in Ayot St Lawrence, Hertfordshire, in 1946. Photograph: Keystone/Getty Images
Judging Shaw By Fintan O’Toole (Royal Irish Academy , 358pp, €30)
Bernard Shaw’s Irish Outlook by David Clare (Palgrave Macmillan, 207pp, £19.50)
The central conundrum in Fintan O’Toole’s Judging Shaw, the fourth book in the Royal Irish Academy’s excellent and very attractively presented “Judging” series, is how George Bernard Shaw, a “vastly influential” intellectual in his lifetime and, until the 1960s, the most widely read socialist in the English language, can appear so marginal now. The explanation O’Toole provides in his timely, erudite and highly entertaining exploration of an extraordinary life is that we live in a Shavian world, one in which Shaw’s ideology is so pervasive as to be practically invisible. It’s not a question of what Shaw taught us to think but how he taught us to think: with a “sturdy Shavian scepticism” that questions all truth but never strays into condescension, cynicism or despair. To neglect him in a world increasingly labelled post-truth is to risk drifting back to fabricated Victorian values that perpetuate inequality by attributing it to concocted differences and perceived personal failings. As O’Toole reminds us, Shaw’s “greatest political impulse is to de-moralise poverty”.
In November 1950, an editorial in the New Statesman, marking the death of a man who had helped found that magazine, declared: “GBS was so big that we all have our private Shaws.” The Shaw O’Toole grew up with is “the working-class hero”, admired by his father as an ally, a “big, sharp, shiny pin pricking the pretension of church and state, of bosses and bishops”. His assessment comes from a place of admiration. Yet he is clear-eyed and scrupulously even-handed when investigating Shaw’s “deplorable” failings: his inexcusable failure to recognise the true nature of Fascism, Nazism and Stalinism, and his unsettling engagement with ideas associated with eugenics; O’Toole cites the influence of Swift to argue that, in using extreme language, Shaw was attempting to expose the absurdity of the latter.
There is a marvellous fluidity to Shaw. Employing an insightful familiarity with works that were “always to hand” from childhood, O’Toole illustrates how Shaw “politicised the theatre but he also dramatised public discourse”. Nowhere is this more evident than in his spurned offer to save Roger Casement by scripting his defence, a bold reversal intended to flip treason to patriotism against overwhelming odds. His response to Casement’s hanging, and the uprising of 1916, is Saint Joan (1923), his last great play, in O’Toole’s opinion.
Shaw developed a fluid identity too. An unsatisfactory childhood, albeit one steeped in music, literature and art, made him, by his own assessment, “nervous and self-conscious to a heartbreaking degree”. Since he spilled over with opinions on every topic, he invented a brand he could physically occupy, “the omniscient GBS”, the product, O’Toole suggests, of an unlikely marriage between Wilde and Tolstoy. O’Toole credits Shaw with the “alchemist’s ability to turn the lead of unpleasant experience into the gold of self-proclaimed genius”. GBS, literary colossus, prophet and global celebrity, straddled “both the satanic and the saintly”. Yet, as Shaw grew serious, his creature became his captor, “perhaps a monster he was doomed to pursue”.
In England, Shaw was “intensely aware of his foreignness”. His “relentless social activism”, O’Toole suggests, was motivated in part by his desire to “make an England fit for himself to live in”. For years, he involved himself in the mind-numbing minutiae of local government, and he composed the stirring, idiosyncratic manifesto of the nascent socialist movement. His audacious harnessing of “reverse snobbery” turned him into “an Irishman full of instinctive pity for those of my fellow creatures who are only English”. Yet, although he wrote two plays for an Abbey audience – John Bull’s Other Island and O’Flaherty VC – he stood apart from the Celtic Revival, and he held his countrymen to account, insisting the success of an independent Ireland could only be judged by the wellbeing of her citizens. Ultimately, he alienated the Irish government by petitioning for the allied forces to be given access to Irish ports.
O’Toole makes it clear that Shaw’s motivation was to end hostilities. He hated militaristic jingoism and was terrified by the allure of mass violence in an era when “the technology of annihilation had evolved much faster than the human capacity to control it”. In 1914, in an act O’Toole considers “by far the bravest thing Shaw ever did”, he invoked his outsider status to write “Common Sense About the War” for the New Statesman, pointing out that both governments were equally belligerent and both nations equally duped. In response, his books were withdrawn and newspapers urged their readers to boycott his plays. Yet, as war took its toll, a certain sympathy with his position emerged, and playful GBS was replaced by GBS the visionary.
Arguing that Shaw has more in common with Dylan and Bowie than Gladstone and Trollope, O’Toole advises theatre producers to resist the “temptation to treat the plays as costume dramas” and to focus instead on the “clarity and vitality of his prose”. He elevates Shaw’s ability to confound expectations, his strong, self-directed women, conduits of the Life Force, and the comfort inherent in his unwavering optimism; Back to Methuselah, his ambitious five-cycle response to the horrors of war, postulates that, were we to live long enough, we might become sufficiently evolved to control the forces we have unleashed. As O’Toole points out so astutely in this uplifting book: “We find ourselves in a time when provocation, showmanship, the contrary spirit, are divorced from serious thought, from a sense of common humanity and from a commitment to genuinely free thought. GBS brought them together.”
Although David Clare does not include it in Bernard Shaw’s Irish Outlook, a letter Shaw wrote to George Egerton, who was of the Irish diaspora, after she sent him her play His Wife’s Family, may help explain his decision to set just three of his plays in Ireland, and populate one, Tragedy of an Elderly Gentleman, with no Irish people whatsoever. “On the London stage at present there is no actor-manager with a turn for Irish parts,” he wrote. “In fact, it is very hard to get Irish parts played at all with any sort of genuineness.” He counselled Egerton: “You might just as well have written your comedy for a whole cast of baboons as for this whole cast of Irish people (Shaw claimed to have received a “promising play” in which “the heroine was a female baboon”).
Clare makes a compelling case for his assertion that, although Shaw’s reputation is as a writer of English society plays, he was steadfast in engaging with Irish issues and championing Irish superiority. This he embodied in proud, “fact-facing” Irish characters – Larry Doyle in John Bull’s Other Island and Hector Malone in Man and Superman – and non-Irish characters who operate as surrogates: the diasporic Henry Higgins in Pygmalion, Joan of Arc in Saint Joan, and Napoleon Bonaparte in The Man of Destiny. Shaw recognised flaws in the Irish character too, a narrow nationalism and a tendency to derision, both of which could be cured by spending time beyond Ireland’s shores.
In his final, most ambitious chapter, Clare presents Shaw as a “pivotal figure in the history of the Irish use of the stage Englishman”, documenting his influence on Haines in Ulysses, Gerald Lesworth in Bowen’s The Last September, Leslie Williams in Behan’s The Hostage, and so on. Although Shaw was determined to “show the Englishman his own absurdities”, his stage Englishman, exemplified by sentimental hypocrite Tom Broadbent in John Bull’s Other Island, is far more nuanced than the crass stage Irishman presented by English writers. This perspective, along with Clare’s persuasive positioning of Shaw as a Revival writer who “maintained a strong Irish outlook throughout his life”, makes his book a fascinating and important addition to Shavian scholarship.
Eleanor Fitzsimons is a writer, researcher, contributor to The Shavian, and author of Wilde’s Women: How Oscar Wilde was Shaped by the Women He Knew. She is working on a biography of E Nesbit in which Shaw looms large