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The Real Bernard Shaw

ISSUE:  Spring 1927


The supreme difficulty in discovering the real Bernard Shaw is Shaw himself. For forty years he has engaged in a deliberate campaign of artistic camouflage. “The public imagination demands a best man everywhere,” he once remarked; “and if Nature does not supply him the public imagination invents him. The art of humbug is the art of getting invented in this way.” Shaw has never shrunk from the delightful pastime of stimulating the public imagination. The remedy for lack of recognition he early found in sedulous advertisement. In the earliest edition of the English “Who’s Who,” Shaw mentions as his favorite recreation “showing off!” Indeed, he once gaily confessed: “I have advertised myself so well that I find myself, while still in middle life, almost as legendary a person as the Flying Dutchman.”

In England people don’t talk about Bernard Shaw: they talk about “G. B. S.” Early in life Shaw fixed the London public with his glittering eye, and succeeded in mesmerizing that public into accepting a view of him so fantastic and extraordinary as to bear no resemblance to the real man. “G. B. S.” is Bernard Shaw’s prime paradox, a Frankenstein monster of his own creation. With this mannikin as a model, everyone nowadays with any pretension to literary skill has manufactured a little Shaw of his own. The result is that there are countless fantastic portraits of Shaw’s reputation, but no picture of the real man. Shaw is not taken in by the lay figure of his own reputation, “G. B. S.”—as who should say Teddy Bear or Dutch Doll—; because he manufactured that reputation himself. In speaking of this Shavian mannikin, G. B. S., he once remarked: “The whole point of the creature is that he is unique, fantastic, unrepresentative, inimitable, impossible, undesirable on any large scale, utterly unlike anybody that ever existed before, hopelessly unnatural, and void of all real passion.”

I propose to tear off this mask of Shaw’s reputation. Unfortunately, Shaw cannot help us; for he is profoundly sceptical as to the possibility of veracious autobiography. “All autobiographies are deliberate lies,” he honestly confesses. “No man is bad enough to tell the truth about himself during his life-time, involving, as it must, the truth about his family and friends and colleagues. And no man is good enough to tell the truth in a document which he suppresses until there is nobody left alive to contradict him.”

The man I present is the mischievous, Puck-like, gracious, teasing, generous, philosophic, satiric, and profound personality known to me in the personal intimacy of a long, friendly, and thoroughly unceremonious intercourse. I accept as truth itself his provocative confession: “Like all men I play many parts, and none of them is more or less real than the other. . . . I am a soul of infinite worth. I am, in short, not only what I can make out of myself, which varies greatly from hour to hour and emergency to emergency, but what you can see in me.” The questions to be resolved, then, are. what has Bernard Shaw made out of himself; and what can we see in him?


“I am a typical Irishman—my family came from Yorkshire.” Thus speaks Shaw of his nativity, contrary to the fashion of the proverbial Irishman who declares that one ought always to be loyal to his native land whether he was born there or not. Patriotism seems to be wholly missing in the make-up of the man who could ask: “How can I pretend to any particular love for the country I have abandoned, or for the country which has ruined her?” Coming of a family marked by as much ingrained snobbishness as lies perhaps unconfessed in the most of us, a family who “revolved in a sort of impecunious second-cousinship around a baronetcy,” with an unpractical father and an artistic mother, he “grew up wild” in the mystic atmosphere of the Ireland of the Saints. As a lad, church-going was unendurable to one who in after life could say: “To this day my flesh creeps when I recall that genteel suburban Irish Protestant Church, built by Roman Catholic workmen who would have considered themselves forever damned if they had crossed its threshold afterwards. Every separate stone, every pane of glass, every fillet of ornamental ironwork—half dog-collar, half coronet—in that building must have sowed a separate evil passion in my young heart.”

Refuge from the hated tasks of school attendance and church-going he found in the National Gallery of Ireland, which he haunted as a youth. In after years he was wont to affirm that this picture gallery, which only he and the policemen ever visited, had done more for him than the two cathedrals in Dublin so magnificently “restored” out of the profits of the drink trade. He reacted violently against the Moody and Sankey revival; and in a letter to “Public Opinion,” just fifty years ago, protested vehemently against the services of the American revivalists, which he said “were not of a religious, but of a secular, not to say profane character.”

The most lasting effect upon Shaw as a youth was the influence of music. His mother was a beautiful and talented opera singer, particularly successful in the roles of Donizetti’s Lucrezia, Donna Anna in “Don Giovanni,” and Marguerite in “Faust.” In total refutation of Gilbert Chesterton’s notion that Shaw was reared in a “narrow Puritan home,” Shaw has vehemently asserted that, quite to the contrary, as a lad he indulged himself to the full in the licensed orgies and romantic ecstasies of music. “I gained penetrating experiences of Victor Hugo and Schiller from Donizetti, Verdi and Beethoven,” he once confessed ; “of the Bible from Handel, of Goethe from Gounod, of Beaumarchais and Moliere from Mozart, and of Merimee from Bizet, besides finding in Berlioz an unconscious interpreter of Edgar Allan Poe.” Concerning this period of adolescence, when he reacted violently from religious ceremonial and the conventional society of Dublin, and ranged happily in spirit from Vincent Wallace to Meyerbeer, from Mendelssohn to Gounod, he once remarked with acid veracity: “If religion is that which binds men to one another, and irreligion that which sunders, then must I testify that I found the religion of my country in its musical genius, and its irreligion in its churches and drawing-rooms.” The greatest living dramatist was influenced in his art more by Mozart than by Shakespeare; and one of the greatest paradoxes in Bernard Shaw’s career is the vivid contrast between the ruthless realist of the critics’ invention and the arrant romanticist his youth proclaims him to be. “In music,” lyrically exclaims the devotee of Beethoven, Mozart, and Richard Strauss, “you will find the body and reality of that feeling which the mere novelist can only describe to you; there will come home to your senses something in which you can actually experience the candour and gallant impulse of the hero, the grace and trouble of the heroine, and the extracted emotional quintessence of their love.”


This young romantic, inspired by Mendelssohn and Gounod, by Michael Angelo and Mantegna, by Shelley and Poe, in 1876 threw himself recklessly into London. “My destiny was to educate London,” he whimsically confesses twenty years later, “but I had neither studied my pupil nor related my ideas properly to the common stock. What I knew was exactly what the educated Englishman didn’t know; and what he knew I either didn’t know or didn’t believe.” In a series of five novels written between 1879 and 1883, Shaw managed to work off that green sickness of romanticism which he had brought with him from Ireland, and to form vital contacts with the world of modern thought. These remarkable youthful productions, absurdly amateurish, singularly acute yet amazingly inept, all very carefully written, contain many germs of Shaw’s later development. In them he hales to the bar of judgment what he felt to be the “seven deadly sins:” respectability, conventional virtue, filial affection, modesty, sentiment, devotion to women, romance.

In the first letter I ever had from Mr. Shaw, more than twenty-two years ago, he is frankly and, I am confident, veraciously autobiographical.

“I never lived the literary life, or belonged to a literary club; and though I brought all my powers unsparingly to the criticism of the fine arts, I never frequented their social surroundings. My time was fully taken up (when I was not actually writing or attending performances) by public work, in which I was fortunate enough to be associated with a few men of exceptional ability and character. I got the committee habit, the impersonality and imperturbability of the statesman, the constant and unceremonious criticism of men who were at many points much abler and better informed than myself, a great deal of experience which cannot be acquired in conventional grooves, and that ‘behind the scenes’ knowledge of the mechanism of political illusion which seems so cynical to the spectators in front. . . . This training of mine has enabled me to produce an impression of being an extraordinarily clever, original, and brilliant writer, deficient only in feeling, whereas the truth is that though I am in a way a man of genius—otherwise I suppose I would not have sought out and enjoyed my experience, and been simply bored by holidays, luxury and money—yet I am not in the least naturally ‘brilliant’ and not at all ready or clever. If literary men generally were put through the mill I went through and kept out of their stuffy little coteries, where works of art breed in and in until the intellectual and spiritual product becomes hopelessly degenerate, I should have a thousand rivals more brilliant than myself. There is nothing more mischievous than the notion that my works are the mere play of a delightfully clever and whimsical hero of the salons: they are the result of perfectly straightforward drudgery, beginning in the ineptest novel writing juvenility, and persevered in every day for twenty-five years. Anybody can get my skill for the same price; and a good many people could probably get it cheaper.”

As budding artist, Shaw was selfishly absorbed in himself. The genius is willing enough to let someone else pay the piper, secure in the conviction that genius will conquer the world. A precarious doctrine, held by many who in the end prove to be neither geniuses nor successes! During the period of incubating these very peculiar novels, Shaw did not hesitate to let his mother support him: “I was an able-bodied and able-minded young man in the strength of my youth; and my family, then heavily embarrassed, needed my help urgently. That I should have chosen to be a burden to them instead was, according to all the conventions of peasant lad fiction, monstrous. Well, without a blush I embraced the monstrosity. I did not throw myself into the struggle for life: I threw my mother into it. I was not a staff to my father’s old age: I hung onto his coat-tails.” Thus, as he proudly exclaims, he ruthlessly disregarded all the quack duties which in America “lead the peasant lad of fiction to the White House.”


This hour in modern English history marks the dawning of a new day. The young H. M. Hyndman was sitting at the feet of the aged Karl Marx, then living in London, and organizing his plans for resurrecting the ghost of Chartism, which eventually took form in the Social Democratic Federation. William Morris was organizing the tiny little club known as the Hammersmith Socialist Society, composed of men who never dreamed that in their lifetime anything they might say or do would or could exercise any appreciable influence upon the government of England. Among those who addressed them at the Friday evening meetings were Bernard Shaw, Ramsay Macdonald, Sidney Webb, Sidney Olivier, R. B. Haldane, and Arthur Henderson—all, save the first, to become members of the Cabinet, with Macdonald as Prime Minister! In his eagerness to conquer London and to make himself known to the world, Bernard Shaw attended every debating club and hole-and-corner society in London. According to the late E. E. Sparling, long the Secretary to William Morris at the Kelmscott Press, Shaw had cards printed with the legend: “Mr. Bernard Shaw would like to ask a question”; and at the various societies he attended, he would send up one of the cards to the presiding officer, who, after the speaker of the evening had concluded, would read out in a loud, booming voice: “Mr. Bernard Shaw would like to ask a question.” The question then asked would lead to an animated discussion, in which Mr. Shaw took a leading part. In a few months’ time, Mr. Sparling told me, Mr. Shaw was widely known as a witty, clever, and dangerous controversialist. What a colossal fortune and success Shaw might have made in the United States as a publicity agent!

One eventful night, by one of those curious chances which revolutionize a life, Shaw wandered into the old Memorial Hall in Farringdon Street, London. The speaker of the evening was the great American single-taxer, Henry George. “I knew he was an American,” Shaw has related, “because he pronounced ‘necessarily’—a favorite word of his—with the accent on the third syllable instead of the first: because he was deliberately and intentionally oratorical, which is not customary among shy people like the English; because he spoke of Liberty, Justice, Truth, Natural Law, and other strange eighteenth century superstitions; and because he explained with great simplicity and sincerity the views of the Creator, who had gone completely out of fashion in London in the previous decade and had not been heard of there since.” As the result of hearing that speech, Shaw plunged into a course of economic study and at a very early stage of it became a Socialist. Shaw declares that five-sixths of those who were swept into the great Socialist revival of 1883 had been converted by Henry George. In time, Henry George felt bound to attack the Socialism he had himself created; and some of the Socialists whom he had converted became ashamed of their origin. But Bernard Shaw, although he eventually fought hard against the Single Tax propaganda, never denied or belittled the debt of English Socialism to Henry George.

After hearing Henry George’s speech, which “kindled the fire” in his soul, Shaw became, as he once told me, a man “with some business in the world.” The real meaning of his conversion is found in this confession: “It flashed on me then for the first time that the conflict between religion and science, the overthrow of the Bible, the higher education of women, Mill on Liberty, and all the rest of the storm that raged around Darwin, Tyndall, Huxley, Spencer and the rest, on which I had brought up myself intellectually, was a mere middle class business. Suppose it could have produced a nation of Matthew Arnolds and George Eliots! Ah! You may well shudder at the thought. After hearing Henry George, the importance of the economic basis dawned upon me.”

It was at this time that the late William Archer, dramatic critic, caught his first glimpse of Shaw in the Reading Room of the British Museum—”a young man of tawny complexion and attire” studying alternately, if not simultaneously: Karl Marx’s “Das Kapital” and an orchestral score of Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde”! No doubt he was trying to make capital out of his knowledge of music. And not long afterwards, through the influence of Mr. Archer, he became music critic on “The Star,” writing over the signature: “Corno di Bassetto.”

Bernard Shaw took pains to write as irreverently of music and the great composers as Mark Twain wrote of the Old Masters in “Innocents Abroad.” He solemnly fostered the notion that he was ludicrously incompetent. Whenever anyone handed him a sheet of music, he always held it upside down; whenever anyone invited him to try the new grand piano, he always attempted to open it at the wrong end; and whenever the young lady of the house informed him that shewas practising on the ‘cello, he always asked her whether the mouthpiece didn’t cut her lips dreadfully at first!

After serving for a while as art critic and as music critic, he was commandeered by Frank Harris for “The Saturday Review,” in its most brilliant period—the period of Harris, Runciman, and Shaw. Over the signature, “G. B. S.,” Shaw mercilessly ridiculed Pinero, ardently championed Jones, and maliciously goaded the British reading public to desperation by his calculated depreciation of Shakespeare. He called this last “Blaming the Bard;” and even went so far as to entitle, interrogatively, the Preface to his own play, “Caesar and Cleopatra,” “Better than Shakespeare?” How infuriated the British public were to read the words: “Shakespeare’s Caesar is the reductio ad absurdum of the real Julius Caesar; my Caesar is a simple return to nature and to history.” Imagine the uproar created by such bull-baiting as this: “Shakespeare was born a snob, lived a snob and died a snob. His one dream was to get enough money to go back to Stratford, to buy back the property of his bankrupt family, and get back their coat of arms. Do not imagine that Shakespeare was a democratic character. He had no religious belief, and his philosophy was that evil is greater than good. His plays are crowded with kings and nobles, and the members of the lower classes in them are always servants.” Upon one occasion, in answer to an invitation to attend the Stratford Ter-Centenary, he wrote back: “I do not keep my own birthday; and I do not see why I should keep Shakespeare’s.”

As a critic of the arts, whether of painting, music, or drama, Shaw expressed his most labored criticisms with a levity which gave them the air of being the unpremeditated whimsicalities of a man who has perversely taken to criticism for the sake of the jest latent in his own outrageous unfitness for it. “Waggery as a medium is invaluable,” he once explained. “My case is the case of Rabelais over again. When I first began to promulgate my opinions, I found that they appeared extravagant and even insane. In order to get a hearing, it was necessary for me to attain the footing of a privileged lunatic, with the license of a jester. I found that I had only to say with perfect simplicity what I seriously meant just as it struck me, to make everybody laugh. My method is to take the utmost trouble to find the right thing to say, and then say it with the utmost levity. And all the time the real joke is that I am in earnest.” On one occasion he remarked to me: “Mark Twain and I are in precisely the same position. We have to put things in such a way as to make people who would otherwise hang us, believe that we are joking.”


By reason of their unusual technique, rather than of their content, Shaw’s plays have precipitated controversies which have gone round the world. Certainly they remind us strangely of Huxley’s witty description of Herbert Spencer’s idea of a tragedy: “a deduction killed by a fact”! Shaw’s idea of a drama is: emotion killed by ridicule, romance slain by satire. Terse to bareness is his own definition of drama as he practises it: “to stick pins into pigs.” Apposite to all his writing is his remark: “If you do not say a thing in an irritating way you may just as well not say it at all since nobody will trouble themselves about anything that does not trouble them.”

Shaw’s fundamental purpose as a dramatist is a moral purpose. With Shaw to dramatize is to disillusionize. As a lecturer and debater he wants to change the opinions of the audience. The dramatic structure is really that of a debate. On the one side are the conventional types of people; on the other side are the people who express the ideas of the author and come out victorious in the debate. As a mathematician, I should define a drama by Bernard Shaw as a reductio ad absurdum of the ideas of people with whom he does not agree.

Our dictum would be superficial if we did not go much deeper than this. For Shaw frequently exhibits to us deep and poignant conflicts in the wills of those characters with whose ideas he is most sympathetic. His observations on comedy, interpreted in relation to his own plays, are illuminating: “People imagine that actions and feelings are dictated by moral systems, by religious systems, by codes of honor and conventions of conduct which lie outside the real human will. . . . These conventions do not supply them with their .motives. They make very plausible ew post facto excuses for their conduct; but the real motives are deep down in the will itself. And so an infinite comedy arises in everyday life between the real motives and the alleged artificial motives.”

Many of Shaw’s plays, it will be noted, are deficient in “action” in the conventional sense. But the thrill and excitement which fill their lines arise from a clash of mental and spiritual actions, which thrusts itself upward into the garish light of daily life from the depths of the unconscious. For the conventional “action,” so-called, of the conventional, classic drama, Shaw substitutes revolution in the convictions, in the soul-states, of his characters. Deeply significant of Shaw’s faith is his confession: “What really interests cultivated modern people on the stage today is not what we call action, meaning two well-known and rather short-sighted actors pretending to fight a duel without their glasses, or a handsome leading man chasing a beauteous leading lady round the stage with threats, obviously not feasible, of immediate rapine—but stories of lives, discussions of conduct, unveiling of motives, conflict of characters, discovery of pitfalls, laying bare of souls—in short, illumination of life.”

Bernard Shaw is essentially social in his spirit and economic in his outlook. Indeed, he once told me that his economic studies played as important a part in his plays as anatomy does in the work of Michael Angelo. He frankly confesses that his object is to make people uncomfortable—and who would venture to gainsay him? Fortunately he has coated the pill of the reformer with the jam of the artist. In the theatre of Shaw, for all the mental titillation and intellectual buffoonery of the dramatist, “we are not flattered spectators killing an idle hour with an ingenious and amusing entertainment: we are ‘guilty creatures sitting at a play.’”


At the moment I write, the announcement comes that the Nobel Prize for Literature for 1925 has been awarded to Bernard Shaw. At a time when he was virtually unknown, I hailed him as a world genius and began without delay to write his biography. It is a delightful sensation to realize, in one’s own lifetime, the verification of a prophecy once universally flouted as absurd.

Bernard Shaw is a genius of high rank—the full equal of Swift as a pamphleteer, of Voltaire as a wit. On the plane of fantastic comedy, with a philosophic purpose to sanction it, he is the Moliere of our days, who castigates us with the knout of ridicule and the lash of satire. With full allowance for degrees of both latitude and longitude, Shaw is an Irish Ibsen—riant, capricious, irresponsible—yet deeply charged with the ironic consciousness of the twentieth century. In the lists of intellectual combat in advocacy of the principles of Socialism, he has lived a career as variegated and thrilling, as full of color and romance, as the career of any knight errant of the Middle Ages. He has uttered no more deeply self-revelative words than these: “This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of nature, instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances, complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”


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