George Bernard Shaw

Francis Neilson

[Chapter Thirty-Six from the book, My Life in Two Worlds,
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 versatile genius."

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 women.

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 bat.

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.