Sick mother be damned

P.N. Furbank

  • Bernard Shaw’s Collected Letters. Vol. III: 1911-1925 edited by Dan Laurence
    Bodley Head, 989 pp, £25.00, May 1985, ISBN 0 370 30203 6

It is difficult, yet not impossible, to imagine Bernard Shaw at a loss for words. The thing indeed occurred in 1928 at Thomas Hardy’s funeral, when Shaw and Kipling were paired in the procession of mourners but could find nothing whatever to say to each other. Shaw’s own excuse was that it was absurd to have coupled such a tall man with such a very short one. This is very weak, and actually we find the silence quite natural. It is worth pondering why. No doubt Shaw regarded his companion as a madman, and Kipling regarded his as Mephistopheles, but this in itself need not have been a barrier to conventional civilities. The answer lies elsewhere, I suggest, and in their horrified recognition, at this their first and last encounter, of a ghastly kinship between them, as tutors and wooers of the British public over an identical period and carrying identical weight. What comes in here, also, is that, for good or evil, both were eaten up by ‘views’, were the mere fleshly embodiment of a system of opinions, which is a more imprisoning thing than a philosophy.

The term ‘system’ has, for Shaw, an extra application. In his Collected Letters 1911-1925, very finely edited by Dan Laurence, Shaw is quite explicit, and most illuminating, about a curious principle which is exhibited in his plays and also has much bearing on his life. ‘All the characters in all my plays,’ he writes to the producer Augustin Hamon (5 November 1912), ‘must be sympathetic; what so often plays the devil with them on the stage is that the actors try to make butts of them, and imagine that what I am aiming at is personal ridicule and belittlement instead of a higher comedy in which the laugh is at the imperfections of our nature and the inadequacy of our institutions, and is never a personal insult.’ Anyone who has followed Shaw productions over the last few years recognises the truth of this; and the appallingness of one or two of them (especially a Man and Superman at the Savoy, full of ‘period’ jokes) and the success of some others (for instance, a recent Heartbreak House at the Vanbrugh) relate to it quite directly. The governing theory of a Shaw play is that every character should be allowed to make the best of his own case. The unnatural pander Doolittle, the ruthlessly amoral armaments manufacturer Undershaft, present us with nearly irrefragable apologias, which also engage our sympathies. Characters may be put down, in argument or otherwise, but never suffer irreversible defeat or humiliation. By origin, tragedy – and probably comedy also – is a form based on ritual sacrifice and cruelty, and the oddity – maybe even sometimes the weakness – of Shaw’s drama is its total repudiation of cruelty. However earnest his message, he insists upon mediating it through good humour. It is instructive that, in all his secretary Blanche Patch’s life with him, the one outburst of anger on his part occurred when she accused him of malice and teasing. Teasing, he expostulated (meaning, presumably, gratuitous teasing or malice prepense), was the sin he most abhorred. (One of the many things that would have offended him in Kipling, one imagines, was Kipling’s relish, or pretended relish, for unkind practical jokes.)

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