Shaw in 1925, when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature


It was astounding that I had forgotten George Bernard Shaw, in writing about classic British prose writers of the 20th century, and my surprise is compounded by the fact that two extremely erudite friends from whom I had invited suggestions had not recommended him either. One of them did suggest that he was an insufferable old bore but, though I can understand the comment, that is not the whole story, and his achievements were certainly considerable.  

It is possible that in my memory he, or at least his most influential work, belonged to an earlier period, given that both ‘Plays Pleasant’ and ‘Plays Unpleasant’ had been published in 1898, but the essence of a play is production, and only three of the seven plays in the two volumes were produced in the 1890s. Indeed ‘Mrs Warren’s Profession’, recognizably the least pleasant of them since it dealt with prostitution, was publicly produced only in 1925, though it had a private performance in 1902.  

The plays that Shaw perhaps saw as his most important, ‘Man and Superman’ and ‘Major Barbara’, were published early in the century, while his most popular plays, ‘Pygmalion’ and ‘Androcles and the Lion’ came out in 1912. Shaw was by then well into his fifties, but he was still to write ‘St Joan’, which turned the story of the brave woman soldier on its head, and also ‘The Millionairess’, when he was 80. This was turned into a memorable film with Peter Sellers a couple of decades later, when also ‘Pygmalion’was transformed into ‘My Fair Lady’.  

Shaw was dead by then, but his arrogant assertion that he was greater than Shakespeare , if not really credited by anyone, held sway to the extent that he was considered to be as close behind as any English language playwright could get. I remember one of those immensely energetic British Council troupes of the sixties, before the arts world became too precious to produce more than one play during a tour, doing ‘Misalliance’, along with ‘The Tempest’ I believe (and, unless I am hopelessly confused, ‘The Birthday Party’ too). It was a most enjoyable performance, and I remember enjoying my reading of the play then too, with its startling conclusion to the First Act, if I remember aright, when the mysterious aviator turns out to be a woman.  

I then equipped myself with a Collected Edition, and set myself to read through it. Soon enough however, which had not happened with Shakespeare, I gave up, and I fear there are still plenty of Shaw plays that I have not read. And I have never since felt any desire to see any production, though I think I went dutifully to a local production of ‘Arms and the Man’, which was on and off a prescribed text for our students.  

But, dated though he now seems to be, there was much that Shaw had to offer. He championed Ibsen, when that worthy was transforming the stage through turning drama into a portrait of real life, rather than fantasy, and one that discussed actual social problems. Shaw characteristically took the principle further and, where Ibsen for instance had discussed the belittling of women in marriage, Shaw dealt with prostitution. Indeed, in ‘Widower’s Houses’, he dealt with what is perhaps a worse social evil, given the deliberate suffering inflicted for profit, the rapaciousness of landlords.  

He deserves credit then for having made the theatre serious, waking it from the long sleep it had been plunged into when Britain’s first Prime Minister (unquestionably an Executive One too), introduced draconian censorship, in order to deal, as Shaw put it in the Preface to ‘Plays Unpleasant’, with Henry Fielding’s attempt through drama to expose and destroy ‘parliamentary corruption, then at its height’. Following Walpole’s gagging of the stage, Fielding ‘driven out of the trade of Moliere and Aristophanes, took to that of Cervantes; and since then the English novel has been one of the glories of literature, whilst the English drama has been its disgrace’.  

That sentence suggests something of Shaw’s impressive prose style and some of the Prefaces to his plays are well worth reading, to understand the task he set himself. However brevity was never the soul of his wit, so it was probably a good thing that in the end the main work of his life was in a form that necessarily had limits. Within that framework, he certainly knew to entertain, both through witty dialogue and through plotting that commands attention.  

And his work is full of ideas that are still of interest. ‘Pygmalion’ for instance deals with the social implications of speech, a topic we are familiar with as we strive to encourage the speaking of Sri Lankan English. ‘Arms and the Man’, and in a different way ‘Saint Joan’, deal with the destructive romanticization of war, which has now been taken to greater excesses by terrorist recruiters. ‘Candida’ deals with a marriage preserved through appreciation of weakness, ‘Major Barbara’ with the self indulgence of those who claim to be doing good works.  

Shaw’s prose then is splendid, his themes still interesting. And yet, there is a sense in which his writing is limited, so that more often than not one feels depressed at his conclusions. This is not always the case, but often his determination to be totally realistic verges on the unpleasantly cynical.  

Underlying this is a condition that has been characterized (I think by E C Bentley) as Heroic Vitalism, the emotional response of highly gifted men to a situation in which they see far less able people in more dominant positions. Nietzsche who developed the concept of the Superman, beyond morality, is perhaps the most obvious example of the type, but it has been used also of the writers Thomas Carlyle and D H Lawrence (and also Wagner), in addition to Shaw. They end up celebrating a strong man, who is seen as not subject to ordinary human restraints, in the case of Carlyle Thomas Cromwell, in the cases of Shaw and Lawrence imaginary characters who seem totally callous about others in their relentless assertion of will.  

I feel something of this sort about Andrew Undershaft in ‘Major Barbara’, the arms manufacturer who argues his idealistic Salvation Army daughter and her intellectual boyfriend into joining his business. Given Shaw’s sense of humour the process is not heavy handed, but still one feels in the end that the Undershaft cynicism is ruthless and in the end destructive of people as well as values.  

But perhaps one is merely being romantic. My feeling that Alan Jay Lerner provided a better ending to his story in ‘My Fair Lady’, by sending Eliza back to Professor Higgins, can be seen as sentimental, Shaw being much more realistic in claiming that she would have married Freddie and that the marriage would have ended up in disaster. In short, one must accept that the Shaw view of the world is probably much more in accordance with the actual springs of human motivation. But, as Alfred Nobel might have said, given his prescription that his Prize should be awarded for uplifting work, what is absolutely true to life does not necessarily make great literature – though I do not regret that those who were in charge of awarding his Prize decided that Shaw did deserve it.  

Source: Island Online 19 August 2010