Well, was he?

A.N. Wilson

  • Bernard Shaw: The Ascent of the Superman by Sally Peters
    Yale, 328 pp, £18.95, April 1996, ISBN 0 300 06097 1

What do we make of Shaw, the most ephemeral Great Man of early 20th-century literature? Naturally, he received the Nobel Prize, and he made himself very rich twice over, partly by writing perky, harmless plays, partly by marrying money. His outstanding virtue as a man was that he could be immensely kind: he was generous to spongers and – a big plus on anyone’s marksheet because it was so rare – was prepared to stick up for Wilde at the time of Oscar’s fall from grace. As a youngish and middle-aged man, he devoted hours of his time to the largely unrewarding work of a councillor in the St Pancras Ward of London. Thanks to Shaw, the first ladies’ lavatory in England was constructed at the top of Parkway in Camden Town. The campaign to build the loo was in its way an archetypally Shavian act of philanthropy, provoking gratifying howls from Tory shopkeepers and local residents who believed that such a provision offended against public decency. Nowadays, the (increasingly elderly?) fans who clamber from their charabancs for matinée productions of Major Barbara or The Doctor’s Dilemma have more cause to be grateful to GBS than they know. After all, thanks to the existence of public lavatories for women, the fans can settle back for two or three hours of facile paradox and wholly unmemorable epigram, safe in the knowledge that they can be in all senses ‘comfortable’.

It is no accident mat Shaw continues to survive, if that is the right word, at respectable theatres in Chichester, Malvern and Shaftesbury Avenue. This supposedly dangerous socialist with his red beard, carefully-maintained Irish accent and equally carefully-nurtured anti-bourgeois views was always the political equivalent of a flirt. His claim, made in the 1880s, that ‘I was a coward until Marx made a communist of me’ sounds stirring enough. On 13 November 1887 the 31-year-old Shaw took part in the famous, and illegal, demonstration for free speech which came to be known as Bloody Sunday. The march set out from Clerkenwell Green, Annie Besant and Shaw being among the many who carried banners. Annie Besant, Eleanor Marx and the other leftist intellectuals remained for the duration of the demo, which was interrupted not merely by the police but also by Scots Guards with bayonets fixed. Shaw commended the bravery of the women on the march, and mocked the cowardice of the men. Annie Besant was the ‘heroine’ of the day, he told a meeting later that evening. He cynically and cheerfully admitted later that he had ‘skedaddled and never drew rein’ at the first hint of fisticuffs. He quoted with appreciation R.B. Cunninghame Graham, who said that Shaw was ‘the first man to run away from Trafalgar Square on Bloody Sunday’. (Cunninghame Graham went to prison as a result of the riot.) This is all of a piece with Shaw, once the youthful Fenian, having not the smallest desire to live either in the Irish Free State or the Irish Republic. Similarly, his gerontic adulation of Stalin and Hitler seems prefigured by his remark in 1908: ‘if there is to be any shooting, the Fabian intends to be at the state end of the gun.’

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