Bernard Shaw. Vol. II: The Pursuit of Power 
by Michael Holroyd.
Chatto, 422 pp., £18, September 1989, 0 7011 3350 3
Show More
Show More

Having followed Shaw on a largely unsuccessful pursuit of love in Volume I, Mr Holroyd in his second instalment sets him off on what turns out to be an equally frustrated pursuit of power. It may seem curious that we are being asked to regard a man of such dazzling achievement as repeatedly failing in his aims, and at this stage we can only speculate about what he will be pursuing and not catching up with in Volume III. However that may be, Mr Holroyd regards the quest for power as his subject’s principal activity and ‘growing obsession’ during what might be thought, and is so named by the blurb, his prime, from 1898 to 1918 – that is, from his early forties to his early sixties.

These were certainly strenuous years. Cleopatra’s rebuke to Antony, when he was amazed at the speed of Octavius’s approach – ‘celerity is never more admired/ Than by the negligent’ – should hang in pokerwork over our desks, or flash onto our computer screens when we Quit, but even writers not habitually lazy are right to be astounded by the work the great ones get through, the more so when they do it without giving up everything else.

Shaw’s way was to take more things on rather than give anything up. He read a lot, was out in the evenings, and had many passionate avocations: motor-cars, cameras, religion, music, actresses, travel. But it is an important part of Holroyd’s argument that Shaw sacrificed one notable avocation, or kindly satisfaction – namely, sex. At the beginning of this volume we find the hero newly married, but sick. A suspiciously long series of accidents and illnesses postponed consummation for so long that abstinence became the very basis of the union, and so it remained. Holroyd has a good deal to say about the relation between Shaw’s negative marital practice and his abundantly positive theory, which had of course to allow for occasional sex. In fact, he was in his way extremely interested in sex, not only, as it were, philosophically, as in Man and Superman and other plays, but in the ludic side of it in real life. He thought society rather than he was in an absurd muddle about it. And it seems that he himself found more enjoyment in writing self-sending-up love-letters, supplemented by occasional moments of teasing dalliance with actresses and other devotees, than in doing what others would regard as the real thing.

It is touching, therefore, that Love, outlawed by his metabiological programmes, had its revenge, striking him down, with Murdochian violence, when he contemplated the attractions of Mrs Patrick Campbell. He had flirted with other actresses, but did not carry the pursuit to its end; with Stella, his first Liza, he committed himself, but this pursuit also failed and she slipped from his grasp. Despite his theoretical contempt for ‘romantic’ love, he seems to have been quite badly hurt. And in a way it is a comfort to know that, at any rate once, love made him weep his pints like you and me.

It isn’t altogether surprising that he suffered: despite his protective buffoonery, his affectations of ruthlessness, there is plenty of evidence of tenderness in the man. He could feel the pain of others, even if it had been caused by their own folly, and that can be done only from personal experience Towards the end of this volume there is a touching account of Lillah McCarthy’s suffering when she was abandoned by her husband, Harley Granville Barker, who had fallen in love with an American heiress. McCarthy was a successful and beautiful actress, which must have been a help to one so circumstanced, but she also had the rare benefit of sympathy and advice from J.M. Barrie and, more effectively, Shaw: ‘Look up, dear, look up to the heavens,’ said Shaw, using language that would surely have surprised his audiences. ‘There is more to life than this. Much more.’ There was. In rather more typical vein he enlarged upon the positive advantages to her of letting Barker go. She did so, and before long was married to somebody else, who infuriated the second Mrs Barker by getting a knighthood, thus making her rival a real lady.

Holroyd’s attention to the patterns of Shaw’s sexual behaviour and its putative early causes may be inordinate. He likes to find reflections of them everywhere, and he naturally makes much of the story of Stella, the illness during which Shaw wooed her, her prompting in him very uncharacteristic behaviour (he didn’t, contrary to his custom, show his wife her letters) and her final romantic slipping away. He puts it all together from various sources, some accessible, some not to be revealed till Volume IV. (It seems right, if now futile, to renew the complaints uttered on the appearance of the first volume. True, there are many pages where detailed references would not make much difference, for Holroyd is often talking about familiar matters – for instance discussing the plots of plays – but even here he often adds new information without specifying sources.)

Although it is about power-seeking, this volume somehow lacks power; it hasn’t the élan of its predecessor, perhaps because there was such a tremendous amount to get in. Shaw was hyperactive in the theatre, the Fabian Society, and local government; heavily engaged in the Irish Question, writing a colossal number of letters (his correspondents included Yeats, with whom, despite their antithetical temperaments, he did theatre business, Henry James, another unkindred spirit, Tolstoy another, Strindberg another, and, nearer home, Gilbert Murray and the lecherous, contentious and extremely able Wells). He worked heroically to keep the Court Theatre going, to overthrow the stage censorship, to educate the public in all ethical, civic and artistic affairs. He feuded with Irving, debated with Chesterton. He bought, drove and crashed dangerous motor-cars, was passionately well informed about the latest cameras.* Music absorbed much attention; travel, whether ordained by his wife to get him away from an actress, or simply to cure fatigue or illness, took up a deal of time. And there was endless business, not only other people’s but his own, for he was his own agent and a good one. Finally there was fame, which he greatly enjoyed but which led him into even more activity and took up even more time.

For although in the early days of his marriage Shaw was poor, indeed dependent on his wife, by 1905 or so he was very well-off and famous. He was even said to stand energetically. He stood or sat for Rodin, with Rilke in attendance (he took Rilke’s photo), and for Epstein, and was a favourite subject of Beerbohm’s caricatures: a public figure, a source of fun and sometimes ridicule, as well as of paradoxical wisdom. Of course he was vain, and hardly joking when he spoke of his plays being performed at some future Shavian Bayreuth; such vanity was necessary to an amazing and indefatigable performance. But somehow the dynamism doesn’t come through in this book, perhaps because of its deeper preoccupation with repression and psychic conflict.

It was his Common Sense about the War that brought Shaw for the first time obloquy: all the common sense was lost on a war-feverish public, and the advice to the soldiers of both sides to shoot their officers and go home was not taken in good part. It was a brave gesture, but it overreached, and at 60 there was perhaps a hint of failure or at any rate of a new sobriety in Shaw. Rebecca West wrote of his performance in a wartime speech: ‘The passing of middle age has wiped the aggressive strangeness from his face, by mitigating with silver the redness of his hair and the irate thrust of his eyebrows, and has revealed a predominant quality of noble and unhysteric sensitiveness ...’ This is a quality that Holroyd does catch, lurking amid the rhodomontade and in those serious jokes. He finds it in the plays, along with many projections of youthful experience, half-buried self-portraits, and distorted versions of distinguished contemporaries. In Getting Married for instance. Shaw is said to be more or less manifestly commenting on his own marriage. This way of talking about the plays tends to make them disappear into their author.

An important part of Holroyd’s job was to give life to Shaw’s friends and associates. Archer is here, and Wells, a very good likeness, waspish, lewd and funny – apart from Beatrice Webb he was Shaw’s shrewdest critic, crediting him with a ‘flimsy acquisitive sort of mind’, and describing the Life Force as a phrase embodying ‘an almost encyclopaedic philosophical and biological ignorance’. He also castigated the Fabian habit of giggling rather than acting, maintaining that it arose from attempts to ape Shaw’s manner, and complained that it made of the serious business of achieving socialism ‘an idiotic middle-class joke’. The Webbs, Beatrice beautiful and intellectually terrifying, admiring but deploring Shaw and not very fond of Charlotte, are adequately present. The talented, self-absorbed Barker, sometimes assumed to be Shaw’s admired natural son, has particular importance because of their collaboration at the Court, where, over three years, 701 out of 988 performances were of Shaw plays.

Meanwhile he wrote, always carefully but often very fast, many full-length works (Caesar and Cleopatra, The Devil’s Disciple, Captain Brassbound’s Conversion, Major Barbara etc) and many lesser pieces. They were all intended to change the views and behaviour of society in important ways, not least in its economic arrangements. Inveterately an economist he calculated at the time of Major Barbara that in a period of rising middle-class standards a million were living on Poor Relief, and London had 150,000 paupers, of whom, according to General Booth, 1500 were sleeping rough and living ‘below the standard of a London cabhorse’. But altering the Condition of England was even harder than liberating women or removing the hand of the Lord Chamberlain from the theatre, another campaign that failed.

Shaw argued that it was the Lord Chamberlain’s fault that the theatre was pornographic, with its suggestive off-stage sex; he wanted to get rid of this officially enforced ‘idolatry of sensuousness’ and replace it with honest intellect. One of his problems was that while always speaking on the right side he usually managed to make it difficult for anybody else, though perfectly bien-pensant, to endorse his particular arguments, and that may be one reason why the Lord Chamberlain hung on till 1968, his demise celebrated by Oh, Calcutta!, a work on which one would have valued Shaw’s opinion.

Holroyd argues that it was his political as well as his sexual ‘neutering’ that drove him to his later ‘philosophy of violence’; he felt as useless as his mother had said he was, and this sense of failure was ‘the true misery of his life’. It was his very brilliance that, by causing him to fail in many of his projects, brought him to this pass. Yet at this point anyway he seems to have done nothing, even in becoming a very rich socialist, that might have given him a bad conscience. People were divided, as he himself was, between the view that he was a very serious man whose deepest desire it was by all available means to change the world, and the opinion that he was a man fatally flawed by egotism, an incorrigible poseur. Erica Cotterill, a strange young adherent with whom he flirted and corresponded for years, told him he was a child acting as a man: ‘can’t you feel that everything of every kind that comes from you, work speeches plays letters ... comes at its root from a pose or attitude of some kind?’ She is shrewd, and yet this was his way of being serious.

It is strongly implied that the price of all his efforts, and the cause of their relative failure, was what must look, to a Wells or a Frank Harris, and to many a modern eye, a vacuous or at any rate stunted emotional life. But to others, and to himself, it may not have seemed so at the time. It was doubtless in the circumstances unreasonable of Charlotte to be jealous of the actresses and the girls who offered themselves to the great man as agents of the Life Force, and she and her husband evidently did have their bad times, but they thought and said they had a good marriage, and Shaw was not the first or last to remark that every marriage is different.

Holroyd seems to me to write best not when speculating about hidden disabilities but when being cheerfully catty – for example, about Charlotte, or about Shaw’s sister Lucy and his strange mother, who was glad to learn from ouija-board conversations with friends who had passed over that her son’s success ‘doesn’t count for anything up here’. He has an eye for such oddities, and had any amount of them to write about.

There are a few slips and oddities of another sort. Macbeth’s genius wasn’t rebuked by Octavius Caesar’s but by Banquo’s. Georg Brandes wasn’t a Dutch but a Danish critic. Euripides wrote no zodiacal play called Iphigenia in Taurus (pages 243, 411). Shaw is unlikely to have seen at Bayreuth a Ring that included Parsifal. On page 352 the sentence ‘And with Democracy there is no hope of peace’ should probably read ‘without Democracy ...’ You never know with Shaw, but it makes more sense in the context. When the third volume has dealt with the remaining 32 years of the sage’s life, that informative final volume will offer the author an opportunity to pick up a few dropped stitches.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences