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; hence Shaw’s description of himself as “a downstart”. When the child was taken for a walk by his father, he whispered to his mother on his return: “‘Mamma: I think Papa’s drunk.’ She turned away with impatient disgust and said: ‘When is he ever anything else?’ I have never believed in anything since; then the scoffer began.” His father’s habitual drunkenness certainly propelled Shaw into a lifetime as a teetotaller. But the emotional trauma it must have caused is covered up by the act of scoffing. This is a striking early example of Shaw’s escaping from emotional pain through verbal humour, through resorting to comedy. O’Toole points to the contrast with Eliza’s description of her father’s drinking in Pygmalion (1914): that, “and his relationship with her mother, exactly reverses George Carr Shaw’s miserable drinking and Bessie Shaw’s attitude to it: ‘When he was out of work, my mother used to give him fourpence and tell him to go out and not come back until he’d drunk himself cheerful and loving-like’.” But Mrs Doolittle is an offstage character. The dominant onstage mother in Pygmalion, whom O’Toole doesn’t mention, is Mrs Higgins, Henry’s mother and the only woman in his life to whom the confirmed bachelor has any closeness. I would have liked more on Bessie Shaw, to whom the young “Sonny” would appear to have turned as the dominant parent and whose interest in music would so influence her son as he grew up. But O’Toole gives a terrific account of George John Vandaleur Lee, the extraordinary singing teacher who moved into the Shaw household in what became a ménage à trois. (Shaw came to detest the name “George” and would always publish in later life as “Bernard Shaw”.) Lee was the surrogate father Shaw was seeking – cultured, elegant, confident – and in his teaching methods a model for Henry Higgins. In switching fathers in this way, Shaw has begun an act of complex self-fashioning which gives O’Toole’s chapter its title and leads to the greatest theatrical part Shaw ever invented: himself, or, as he came to describe the public man who was to take on the world with supreme wit and confidence, GBS.
Although O’Toole doesn’t make the parallel, the similarity in the decisions of Oscar Wilde and Bernard Shaw to relocate from Ireland to England is quite striking. Both men left fathers behind them in Dublin who were to die a few years later. And though both young writers present their going to England as an act of self-assertion, a declaration of independence, Shaw’s mother travelled to England shortly before her son and Wilde’s mother arrived shortly after hers. When Oscar Wilde does show up in Judging Shaw, in the chapter entitled “Revolt into Style: GBS versus England”, his complex relationship with Shaw is expertly delineated by O’Toole. One of the first signs of Shaw’s social progress in London was an invitation to attend one of Lady Wilde’s weekly salons, at which her son “came and spoke to me with an evident intention of being specially kind to me”. One of the very few who responded positively to Shaw’s first play, the Ibsenite Widowers’ Houses (1892), was Wilde, who wrote and said that between them they would found “a great Celtic school” of playwrights in London. The influence was not all one way. As O’Toole writes: “according to Robert Ross, it was hearing GBS speak on [socialism] that inspired Oscar to write his political essay, ‘The soul of man under socialism’”. In terms of evading Wilde’s fate, Shaw was not to encounter the hostility of English public opinion until the First World War. In the shorter term, he balanced the levity of Wilde with the seriousness of Tolstoy. As O’Toole puts it: “It is the combination of Wildean paradoxes and provocations with Tolstoy’s moral seriousness that made for Shaw’s distinctive fusion of the comic and the didactic. He was both a Wilde-like show-off and a Tolstoy-style sage.” As he advanced into the twentieth century, there was rather less of the Wildean dandy and more of the Tolstoyan sage, not all of it to Shaw’s advantage.
The chapter on Shaw versus England is followed and complemented by a chapter on Shaw versus Ireland. O’Toole has already covered Shaw’s first nineteen years there and one assumes he would have picked up the narrative in 1904 and Shaw’s submission of his Irish play, John Bull’s Other Island, to Yeats and Gregory for their new national theatre. Instead, he begins midway through Shaw’s life with the Easter Rising of 1916 and what O’Toole says “might have been his most important play”. The reference is to a dramatic monologue written for Roger Casement, then on trial “for the capital crime of high treason for trying to import arms from Germany to Ireland as part of the Easter Rising”. Unlike such other famous speeches from the dock in the history of Irish nationalism as Robert Emmet’s, Shaw has designed Casement’s speech to be delivered before the verdict, not after. In it, Shaw’s Casement argues that “I am neither an Englishman nor a traitor: I am an Irishman, captured in a fair attempt to achieve the independence of my country.” When he wrote Common Sense about the War in 1914, Shaw prefaced his controversial comments about English jingoism by declaring: “I shall retain my Irish capacity for criticising England with something of the detachment of the foreigner.” With the lines he wrote for Casement (which were never in fact delivered), Shaw nailed his colours to the mast as far as his own nationality was concerned. The chapter on Ireland pays only fleeting attention to the forty-four year relationship between Shaw and Yeats, which was often quite spiky and relied on the mediation of Lady Gregory (who goes virtually unmentioned here) for equanimity to prevail. Shaw’s “most important play” is not the Casement dramatic monologue (scarcely a play, although an important public document) but John Bull’s Other Island. The latter merits only passing mention until the end of the chapter when O’Toole finally delivers on it with characteristic brilliance and insight:
John Bull’s Other Island is superbly prescient of the nature of the Irish society that will emerge after independence: the contempt of the new farming class for the landless Patsy Farrell; the commanding authority of the Catholic church over mere politicians; the emergence of a new Catholic ruling class; the rise of a “greedy and oppressive” Catholic bourgeoisie; the commodification of the Irish landscape; the consigning of the unwanted parts of the population to emigration or institutionalisation.
Chapter 4 is a substantial one on Shaw and the theatre. O’Toole begins by quoting the following critique of Shaw’s plays from “a famous drama critic”: “There will be nothing but talk, talk, talk, talk, talk – Shaw talk. The characters will seem to be simply a row of Shaws, all arguing with one another on totally uninteresting subjects. […] The whole thing will be hideous, indescribable – an eternity of brain-racking dullness.” Anyone who knows their Shaw will recognise that he himself wrote this critique, expressing, as O’Toole puts it, “more wittily than any of his enemies could the perception of his plays as essentially streams of verbosity emanating from the mouths […] of Shavian puppets”. Rather than countering Shaw’s critique, O’Toole goes along with it, but has to enter so many qualifications and emendations that he might have been better to go his own way, as he does once the first few pages have been got through. A particularly original line of approach is his perception that Shaw is “a Greek dramatist” though “without the violence and without the tragedy” in which the characters are moved by invisible forces. And although Shaw’s plays are almost all comedies, “the most common emotion in them is anguish”. By seeing the plays as a succession of scenes, O’Toole does not, it seems to me, give sufficient weight to how they move and develop across their three acts (rather than seeing them as static). He finishes the chapter by viewing the three-way dialectic of the Irishman Larry Doyle, the Englishman Tom Broadbent and the visionary mystic Peter Keegan in John Bull. But Larry Doyle’s lines are cited throughout Judging Shaw as if they uncomplicatedly represented the author’s views about Ireland. This may be true in Act One of the play, where Larry gives voice to his complex emotional views about Ireland just before he returns home for his first visit in many years. But by the end of the play, Doyle is most fully seen as a dramatic character rather than just as Shaw’s mouthpiece when he and Broadbent, with their plans to buy up and exploit Roscullen, are placed in critical perspective by Peter Keegan: “Standing here between you, the Englishman, so clever in your foolishness, and this Irishman, so foolish in his cleverness, I cannot in my ignorance be sure which of you is the more deeply damned.”
The last three chapters of the book tackle Shaw on social issues and are all superbly argued. O’Toole rises to the three subjects with unrivalled rhetorical force: poverty, eugenics and most disturbing of all, the extent to which Shaw approved of dictators like Stalin and Mussolini in the 1920s and 1930s. The most straightforwardly effective is the chapter on poverty, where Shaw’s lifelong detestation of it can only be applauded and where there is a renewed contemporary relevance in Western societies where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. The chapter on poverty benefits also from a concentration on only two plays: Pygmalion, where Alfred Doolittle puts in a word on behalf of “the undeserving poor” – “I don’t need less than a deserving man: I need more”, and the preface to Major Barbara, which contain some of Shaw’s major statements on the subject: “The first duty of every citizen is to insist on having money on reasonable terms; and this demand is not complied with by giving four men three shillings each for ten or twelve hours’ drudgery and one man a thousand pounds for nothing.” Of all the cant surrounding poverty which Shaw sets out to demolish, none is more relevant or iconoclastic than that surrounding prostitution: “The word prostitute should either not be used at all, or else applied impartially to all persons who do things for money that they would not do if they had any other assured means of livelihood. […] the throwing of a hard word such as prostitution does not help the persons thus vituperated out of their difficulty.” In his coverage of the Jack the Ripper murders, Shaw ironically commended the murderer for having been more effective in drawing attention to the appalling conditions in which these young women were forced to operate than any number of completely ineffectual committees and reports.
The next chapter has most to say about Shaw and eugenics. Earlier this year, Peter Gahan conducted a valuable analysis of the topic in his Bernard Shaw and Beatrice Webb on Poverty and Equality in the Modern World, 1905-1914, convincingly demonstrating that Shaw is consistently “sceptical about the racial undertones” of eugenics. O’Toole draws on the evidence of the plays that have marriage plots to show how Shaw lets the Life Force have its will in the mating of his couples and concludes: “The Life Force can’t be directed by a putative committee of eugenic experts – it moves in its own mysterious ways.” Shaw was all too conscious of how his reading of Nietzsche and use of the term “Superman” might be taken as proto-fascist propaganda and countered it as follows:
It is assumed that Nietzsche gained his European reputation by a senseless glorification of selfish bullying as the rule of life, just as it is assumed, on the strength of the single word Superman (Ubermensch) borrowed by me from Nietzsche, that I look for the salvation of society to the despotism of a single Napoleonic Superman, in spite of my careful demonstration of the folly of that outworn infatuation.
And he has the Devil in Don Juan in Hell issue the following warning: “Beware of the pursuit of the Superman: it leads to an indiscriminate contempt for the human.” But this warning was written in 1903. As O’Toole is to argue in his book’s powerful final chapter, “the new version of GBS, aging, impatient and increasingly defined as a visionary” paid less heed to his own earlier warning as the years went by.
Most card-carrying Shavians steer clear of discussing Shaw’s final decades, and with good reason. It is then that he starts cuddling up to dictators, of which there was no shortage at the time. O’Toole puts his finger on the problem when he writes: “The great seer failed to see the true nature of fascism, Nazism and Stalinism; [he] wanted to believe that the totalitarian regimes of Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin were rough harbingers of real progress and true democracy.” The person who most recognised the change in GBS was his close friend and fellow Fabian, Beatrice Webb. In an extraordinary passage from her diary of October 1st, 1927 which O’Toole discusses in detail (and which is reproduced among the book’s photographs), she notes and disapproves of his admiration for Mussolini, blaming his “new enthusiasm on his intellectual isolation and weakness for flattery”. As only someone who knew Shaw long and well could write: “this naive faith in a Superman before whose energy and genius all must bow down is not a new feature in the Shaw mentality. What is new and deplorable is the absence of any kind of sympathetic appreciation of the agony that the best and wisest Italians are today going through.” Webb also noted that for the first time in all of their many conversations over the decades Shaw “gabbled”. She sees his critical faculties being blunted by his reception in Italy: “GBS [was] fortified in his admiration of Mussolini by spending 8 weeks and £600 in a luxurious hotel at Stresa, in continuous and flattering interviews with flattering officials.” O’Toole notes a similar flattering reception when Shaw visited Russia in July 1931 (the occasion of his seventy-fifth birthday): “he was greeted on arrival by ‘a brass band, a military guard of honour […] and a horde of welcoming Russians estimated in the thousands’”. He was accompanied by Nancy Astor, who “seems at one point to have asked Stalin why he had slaughtered so many Russians – there is some evidence that Shaw himself prompted her to ask the question. But he seems to have been satisfied with Stalin’s bland assurance that ‘the need for dealing with political prisoners drastically would soon cease’.”
The decades of working for a socialist revolution that Shaw put in with Beatrice and Sidney Webb and the Fabians operated on a principle of gradualism: slow, patient committee work, consultations with the government, and so on. But Shaw in old age would appear to have lost faith in the gradualist, consensual approach and to have looked impatiently for exceptional leaders to impose order from above. The fact that someone as immersed in German culture as Shaw might have been soft on Hitler, and the fact that he consistently condemned Nazi antisemitism, are both mitigating factors; but in the end his admiration for the Nazi regime is no less shocking than the other two. His 1936 play Geneva is clearer than any of his polemical prose statements that “Nazi policy is not just the persecution of the Jews but their extermination”. A Jewish character in Geneva warns that “my oppressor [is] attempting to exterminate a section of the human race”. The play, as so often with drama, knows more and sees further than that limited individual, the playwright. All along, Shaw argued that Hitler would not “plunge Europe into a general war”. In a letter to the New Statesman of July 5th, 1941, headlined “My mistake”, Shaw admitted he had been utterly wrong (as O’Toole rightly notes, an admission without precedent in “the long annals of Shavian salvoes”). It was too little too late, but it was something.
Judging Shaw is an exhilarating read. Fintan O’Toole has ranged impressively over the many plays and their prefaces, the letters, music and theatre criticism, political speeches and articles, to find the quotations from Shaw’s own prose relevant to his arguments. He makes particularly good use of material from the Shaw Annual, such as two unpublished letters to Eamon de Valera in 1946. O’Toole refers to the writing of Nelson O’Ceallaigh Ritschel and David Clare as part of a recent move to develop the case for Shaw as an Irish writer. O’Toole’s own book, published as it is under the auspices of the Royal Irish Academy, will add significantly to that movement. The best photographs illustrate points in the text, like the Beatrice Webb diary. A few more photos of Irish actors in Shaw’s plays (a young, bright-eyed Cyril Cusack from a 1937 Abbey Theatre production of Arms and the Man is the sole representative) would not have gone amiss. The book is a brilliant Shavian polemic and a considerable achievement. Shaw may never again occupy the position of global influence he enjoyed on his death in 1950. But Fintan O’Toole persuades us that GBS still has radical and pertinent insights to offer into the glaring inequities of life in the twenty-first century.
Anthony Roche is professor emeritus in the School of English, Drama and Film at University College Dublin. His publications include Brian Friel: Theatre and Politics (2011) and The Irish Dramatic Revival 1899-1939 (2015), which includes a chapter on “Shaw and the Revival: The Absent Presence”.