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Home Uncategorized Judging Fintan Judging Shaw

Judging Fintan Judging Shaw

Anthony Roche
Judging Shaw, by Fintan O’Toole, Royal Irish Academy, 358 pp, €30, ISBN 978-1908997159 Some years ago, the Royal Irish Academy began a series of lavishly illustrated critical monographs on important figures in twentieth century Irish history. The first three published were on former taoisigh: Eamon de Valera, Seán Lemass and WT Cosgrave. This, on George Bernard Shaw, is the first on a literary figure. The RIA approached Fintan O’Toole to write the present volume. They must have been struck, as I am, by the parallels between author and subject. Shaw was recently described by Brad Kent as “easily the world’s most well-known Irish public intellectual of the first half of the twentieth century”. The same could be said of O’Toole in relation to the past thirty years, not just for his prominent position as our leading public intellectual but for the world stage he also commands. In 2017 alone, O’Toole was awarded the European Press Prize and the Orwell Prize for Journalism, and holds honorary doctorates from several Irish universities. Shaw was, until recently, the only person to hold both an Academy Award (for the screenplay of Pygmalion in 1938) and the Nobel Prize for Literature. (O’Toole points out that, since last year, Bob Dylan can now make a similar claim.) Both speak and write with unshakable confidence and authority on a wide range of social and political issues; but both are also particularly acute theatre critics. Indeed, both began as theatre critics (and Shaw on music also) before venturing more completely into public affairs; it could be argued that Shaw’s plays are the logical extensions of the pitiless criticism he directed at the lamentable state of late nineteenth century theatre in England. Shaw was a committed socialist all his life; O’Toole’s politics might best be described as left-leaning. There are other books on Shaw and there will be more; but none will be more Shavian than this one. Fintan O’Toole remarks early on that his book is not a biography; he points to “Michael Holroyd’s magisterial four-volume Bernard Shaw and AM Gibbs’s wonderfully lucid Bernard Shaw: a life”. Clearly, his book has drawn on and benefited from their biographical researches. But the first full chapter, “The Invention of GBS”, valuably follows a biographical line as it tracks Shaw’s complicated family relations. The parallel with Joyce is striking. As O’Toole points out, both ambitious writers came from families that were going down in the world;…

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