George Bernard Shaw
[Chapter Thirty-Six from the book, My Life in Two
published by C.C. Nelson Publishing Co., 1953]
Recently I came across a portrait of George Bernard Shaw. It was one
of the finest productions of its kind I have ever seen. Every
lineament of his features seemed to be chiseled finely, and there
lurked in the eyes the ironical gleam of a whimsical skeptic. As I
regarded it, there came to mind the figure of Dionysius, and my
thoughts went back to the nineties, when Shaw had the audacity to
write an article for an American paper entitled "Why I am a
Genius." This was shortly after the production in New York of his
play, Arms and the Man (1894), which met with great success.
It was a pity that Nietzsche was passing slowly and painfully away
when Shaw came upon the scene, for Fried-rich would undoubtedly have
recognized in him something of the Dionysian humor and abandon of
thought. In his youth he must have been not unlike the figure of the
satyr at Pompeii, for when he was lithe and nimble, it would not have
been difficult to make him up for that dancing fawn.
Another piece of sculpture which reminds me of Shaw is the admirable
copy in bronze of the Silenus, which is in the museum at Naples. The
curator gave permission to Cuccilotti to cast it for me. Again that
photograph of Shaw, taken in his eighty-second year, comes to my mind,
and I think of Silenus, the brooding god, dreaming perhaps of his
triumphs, a little sad that life peters out slowly, like the last
flickering flame on the hearth.
When I reached London in 1897, Shaw was dramatic critic for the Saturday
Review. At that time he was deep in the study of Henry George's
Progress and Poverty. He has attributed his interest in
fundamental economics to this work, although nowhere in his writing
does he reveal an understanding of George's definitions of economic
terms. He gave it up because it would take too long to put the
theories of George into practice, and he confesses that he turned to
Karl Marx's Das Kapital because it would accomplish the same
end in a shorter time.
The success that came to Richard Mansfield in producing Arms and
the Man and The Devil's Disciple caused some of the
American theatrical managers to wonder if the author of these plays
would be a "money-maker." It was in the spring of 1898,
during the run of The Adventure of Lady Ursula at the Duke of
York's Theatre, that Charles Frohman came on the stage and drew me
into the property room where we carried on a chat in whispers.
"What do you think of this fellow Shaw?"
"A great deal. He has a lot to say."
"Do you think he'll ever write a play for a long run?"
"Yes, if he sticks to the sample he gave us in the first two
acts of The Devils Disciple."
Frohman had not seen any of Shaw's plays, and he left me wondering
what was really in his mind. A season or two later he produced a short
play of his, which was not a success. I think that was the only one
with which he had any connection.
Years afterwards, I spoke to Granville-Barker about the successful
season at the Court Theatre in London, and asked him if he thought
Shaw's fame was established. He agreed that it was, for he was blessed
with an excellent company, which interpreted the works with a sure
Shavian touch; and I think Granville-Barker as an actor and stage
manager was a tremendous asset to Shaw.
When I read the sad news of the passing of George Bernard Shaw, a
flood of memories came to my mind. For one who lived and wrote in an
atmosphere of controversy and change, it was fitting that he should
die in the quiet of a Home Counties village. He was ninety-four and
had lived a full life. Entirely apart from the merit of his work, his
industry was a stupendous achievement, and no one had a higher
appreciation of its worth than he had. He did not hesitate to link
himself with Shakespeare. Shavian modesty deterred him from binding
himself to Sophocles.
But what work of his is universal, in the sense of Philoctetes
or Electro? Which of his plays is equal in dramatic grandeur
to Lear or Macbeth? No one can answer these questions and,
toward the end, when he refused the Order of Merit, he was conscious
that time alone would decide the problem.
Is it possible, or even probable, that the subject of his plays will
stand up over the years? Those that he wrote in the last half of his
life of activity dealt almost exclusively with present-day affairs.
And in these, many of the characters are merely mechanical dummies
that are wound up to speak what Shaw was thinking. In evaluating him
and his work, I cannot imagine a student of the future recognizing the
name of a Shaw character in the way one does Hamlet, Macbeth, lago, or
Edmund when one thinks of Shakespeare. Characterization was not his
forte, nor indeed were the women female, in the universal sense. They
had no power of reaching the realm of the tragic, such as we find in
Regan, Lady Macbeth, or Queen Margaret, the wife of Henry VI.
There is nothing to remember of tenderness and love in Shaw's
heroines, such as there is in Juliet, Cordelia, Imogen, and Rosalind.
Will plays that deal specifically with political and social matters of
the moment be of any significance in the quick-changing world of ideas
of the future? As Michelangelo remarked, it is a matter to be decided
by those who throng the piazza.
In re-reading my reminiscences, I find the names of certain
associates in the work I undertook, which bring back to my mind what
they thought of me. I wonder whether or not I have been too modest in
telling my story. I never had the courage to call myself a genius, or
even to think about the matter, but there were many who did consider
me one. I remember a note from Marie Brema, received during the
rehearsals of Much Ado About Nothing, in which she said, "You
are the greatest genius I have met upon the stage, for you are not
only able to show us what should be done, but you seem to suit your
instruction to fit our personalities. Sir Charles agrees with me."
Olive Fremstad, always prejudiced in my favor, thought I was highly
gifted. From the time I wrote stories for Jim Huneker's column in The
Musical Courier to the last days of my association with him, he
said that I was a "glutton for knowledge" and <4a
Similar tributes were paid by Sidney Waddington, George Douglas
Brown, Henry Arthur Jones, Hall Caine, and many less well-known people
who assisted me in my work. Here, in America, there were many who
thought of me in the same way. Of course, Charles Frohman and Charles
Dillingham knew my work and did not hesitate to tell me, after the
production of a play, that I had done well. There were also others,
who spoke flatteringly of my achievements.
Julia Marlowe and Frances Hodgson Burnett wrote laudatory notes about
my work at rehearsals, which they witnessed. Of course, Seidl was
prejudiced, for in his case there was a strong sentimental bond.
It is now in my old age, while I am looking through notes and
letters, that I seem to realize why these complimentary expressions
passed so lightly through my mind, when they were presented. I was far
too busy to let them register. Indeed, for years I could think of
nothing but the plethora of work each day and each week. At one time,
I was busy with three plays-rehearsing Tristan and Isolde in
English at the Lyceum Theatre; producing a farcical comedy at. the
Vaudeville for Seymour Hicks; and preparing for the final dress
rehearsal of a play at the Duke of York's. Charles Wyndham asked me, "Neilson,
when do you get any sleep?"
Certainly for six nights of the week I got little more than five
hours, for often enough when I reached home at Bedford Park, I was
busy on a novel or a play of my own.
But was I a genius? I was not aware, at any time, that I was doing
anything extraordinary. I had no academic qualifications, and if I
had, they would have been of little use to me in the tasks I
undertook. To do something a little better than one's predecessor does
not seem to me to merit the term "genius." I have always
held it in such high esteem that only Shakespeare, Marlowe, Milton,
Byrd, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Faraday, Clerk-Maxwell and such giants
were worthy of the distinction. Thank God, I was never burdened with
the notion that anything I did could not be done as well by others.
Yet, Shaw was a genius in knowing how, for a whole generation, to
make of himself the most talked-about man of the British Empire. He
came to shock and knew how to do it. Sometimes he caused offense to
many, but that did not disturb him much, for he was soon off to
manufacture another literary or theatrical bomb that would keep the
world of letters talking about him.
One accomplishment, which is only too often overlooked in dealing
with workmen like Shaw, was his mastery of stage technique, as
manifested in the printed editions of his plays. Perhaps only the
student who has passed much of his life upon the stage and has
assisted in many productions knows how to value this unusual gift. For
one who was not an actor (nor, so far as I know, even a super), he
reveals in the stage direction of every one of his pieces that he knew
the essential movements of each character, its peculiar traits of
mind, speech, and gesture (indeed, even grimace). And all this
indicates that he must have been a keen observer of his fellow men and
245 Yet, no matter what tributes we may pay to him, we have to admit
he wove his own legend. It was not made for him; there were no
disciples of his who were competent to make it. His life was an
achievement, and he was responsible for the whole of it. Neither he
nor his work can be discounted by meticulous analysis. It stands as
the unique performance of an individual who did everything off his own
A few months after the outbreak of the First World War, The New
Statesman published one of his articles, entitled Common Sense
About the War. It was the greatest critical explosive that had
been detonated since Dr. Arbuthnot wrote John Bull and Swift
penned The Tale of a Tub. I own one of the few copies in
existence of that extraordinary rebuke he dealt to the militarists of
Great Britain. I cannot refrain from quoting a passage that might be
forgotten by his disciples:
What is a Junker? Is it a German
officer of twenty-three, with offensive manners, and a habit of
cutting down innocent civilians with his sabre? Sometimes; but not
at all exclusively that or anything like that. Let us resort to the
dictionary. I turn to the Encyclofadisches Worterbucb of
Muret Sanders. Excuse its quaint German-English.
Funter - Young nobleman, younker, lording, country squire, country
gentleman, squirearch. Funterberrfdraft -- squirearchy, landocracy.
Funterleben -- life of a country gentleman, (figuratively) a
jolly life. Funterwirtfdraft -- country party. Funterwirtfdraft --
doings of the country party.
Thus we see that the Junker is by no means peculiar to Prussia. We
may claim to produce the article in a perfection that may well make
Germany despair of ever surpassing us in that line. Sir Edward Grey
is a Junker from his topmost hair to the tips of his toes; and Sir
Edward is a charming man, incapable of cutting down even an
Opposition front bencher, or of telling a German he intends to have
him shot. Lord Cromer is a Junker. Mr. Win-ston Churchill is an odd
and not disagreeable compound of Junker and Yankee: his frank
anti-German pugnacity is enormously more popular than the moral
babble (Milton's phrase) of his sanctimonious colleagues. He is a
bumptious and jolly Junker, just as Lord Curzon is an uppish Junker.
I need not string out the list. In these islands the Junker is
literally all over the shop.
It is very difficult for anyone who is not either a Junker or a
successful barrister to get into an English Cabinet, no matter which
party is in power, or to avoid resigning when we strike up the drum.
The Foreign Office is a Junker Club. Our governing classes are
overwhelmingly Junker: all who are not Junkers are riff-raff whose
only claim to their position is the possession of ability of some
sort: mostly ability to make money. And, of course, the Kaiser is a
Junker, though less true-blue than the Crown Prince, and much less
autocratic than Sir Edward Grey, who, without consulting us, sends
us to war by a word to an ambassador and pledges all our wealth to
his foreign allies by a stroke of his pen.
The indomitable courage of the man enabled him to survive the
bitterest criticism, and he throve on opposition. Indeed, it may be
said his opponents polished his armor and sharpened his sword.