Bernard Shaw: A Life 
by A.M. Gibbs.
Florida, 554 pp., £30.50, December 2005, 0 8130 2859 0
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As anyone who has directed a remake of King Kong knows, revisiting classics is a perilous business. However much you claim to stand on the shoulders of the mighty beast, you still risk ending up, like Fay Wray, squeezed in its paw. A.M. Gibbs spends most of the introduction to Bernard Shaw: A Life justifying his decision to return to a very well-ploughed furrow. But by citing no less than four previous biographies by the end of page two, he is being consciously naive. He knows perfectly well he will be judged principally against Michael Holroyd, whose multi-volume Shaw is one of the longest, most detailed, comprehensive and highly praised biographies of the 20th century.

Gibbs’s major charge against Holroyd is that he allowed himself to be taken in by Shaw’s description of a miserable, shabby-genteel Dublin childhood, with an alcoholic father and a mother who was ‘simply not a wife or mother at all’. Holroyd’s thesis is that a consequent fear of emotion, passion and grief led Shaw to construct the witty, winking GBS carapace which he wore for the rest of his life. In Gibbs’s view, Shaw exaggerated both the privations of his childhood and the inadequacy of his parents. On the basis of previously ignored letters, he finds Shaw’s father to be ‘amiable, sweet-natured’ and keenly interested in his son’s early work; while to explain Shaw’s career ‘in terms of a search for the maternal love supposedly missing in his childhood is’, he argues, ‘to load the tenuous evidence with more weight than it can reasonably bear’.

In short, Shaw’s childhood was more normal (and nicer) than he cared to admit, and the adult more normal (and nicer) than he or his previous biographers have been inclined to acknowledge. Far from constructing a carapace in order to conceal his real feelings, Gibbs’s Shaw is a man whose ‘sensitivity, warmth and friendliness of feeling’ celebrate and exemplify ‘the intelligent heart’.

This thesis forms the spine of Gibbs’s biography, and is seen most clearly in his treatment of Shaw’s sexuality and the influence of Shaw’s lovers, friends, family and self on his work. Shaw claimed that his active sex life began at the age of 29 and ended 14 years later; for Holroyd, the chaos of Shaw’s early affairs, the celibacy of his marriage and the wild romantic agonies of his later attachments (usually to actresses, and most dramatically to Mrs Patrick Campbell, the original Eliza Doolittle) confirmed Shaw’s conviction that ‘the quantity of love that an ordinary person can stand without serious damage is about ten minutes in 50 years.’ For Gibbs, however, Shaw’s love life is both more extensive (he cites a previously unpublished letter confirming that the 70-year-old Shaw consummated his adulterous relationship with the 30-year-old American actress Molly Tompkins by the shores of Lake Maggiore) and more prosaic than this quotation suggests. His concern with the physical detail of Shaw’s relationships implies that Shaw was in a state of denial about their importance. By contrast, Michael Holroyd accepts that Shaw’s sexual passions existed, but argues that they were complemented with others. He quotes Shaw as saying that he ‘never refused or broke an engagement to speak on socialism to pass a gallant evening’ (or anything else: Stella Campbell didn’t believe Shaw ‘ever had a thoroughly frivolous afternoon’). That Shaw was nonetheless able to make room for romance when necessary is demonstrated in a letter to his second lover, Florence Farr, which begins with a protestation that ‘you are my best and dearest love, the regenerator of my heart, the holiest joy of my soul, my treasure, my salvation, my rest, my reward, my darling youngest child, my secret glimpse of heaven,’ and ends with the observation that ‘Wednesday is the nearest evening that shews blank in my diary.’

Gibbs admires the idea that, generally, politics should come before passion, but he doesn’t quite believe it (ignoring Shaw’s stern admonition to the ‘sex-obsessed biographer’ to pay no attention to the ‘sex histories’ of his or her subject). More generally, Gibbs’s ambition to expose Shaw as a closet normal contrasts with Holroyd’s fascination with Shaw’s eccentricities (and those of his circle and his time). So for Holroyd, the principle interest of the Fabian summer schools which Shaw assiduously attended lay in the solemn radicalism of their daily routine, from the morning Swedish drill and ‘experimental breakfasts’ through to tugs of war, convivial country dancing and 11 p.m. lights out. While for Gibbs, they’re all about flirtations with Fabian flappers.

Unsurprisingly, his belief that Shaw’s personal life and passions are a more secure clue to his life than his convictions leads Gibbs to spend much time teasing out the autobiographical elements in the plays. Shaw himself insisted that ‘if a man is a deep writer all his works are confessions,’ and no one denies that Shaw’s first two lovers turn up, pretty unadorned, in his early play The Philanderer, or that the playwright is a regular member of his casts of characters throughout his career. But to claim that Shaw is both the central characters in John Bull’s Other Island, and three of the major figures in Heartbreak House, is to stretch the notion of the factual original beyond snapping point. Further, the autobiographical model obscures other particularities of the Shavian dramatis personae. There is, after all, one rather obvious device linking all those rentier socialists, puritan philanderers, self-reliant heroines, forward servants, undeserving mendicants, unrepentant burglars, canny capitalists and transparent fakes. Shaw claimed that his procedure was ‘to imagine characters and let them rip’, which is true only in the sense that his dramaturgical method is his method of character construction writ large.

Shaw’s own view of his method as a playwright is contained in The Quintessence of Ibsenism, initially written as a paper for the Fabian Society but much revised over the years. Shaw argues that Ibsen’s great innovation as a playwright was the discussion: while pre-Ibsenite (and by implication pre-Shavian) plays consisted of exposition, situation and unravelling, Shaw argues, ‘now you have exposition, situation and discussion; and the discussion is the test of the playwright.’

This argument seems a little dubious when applied to Ibsen (if the final argument between Nora and Torvald in A Doll’s House is a ‘discussion’, the term applies to every non-violent climactic scene in dramatic literature). But much more important, it implies that the discussion as a dramatic element is distinct from the traditional dramaturgical tools of emplotment, that somehow all the storytelling stops for the discussion to take place. And this misunderstanding of Ibsen’s and indeed his own art leads Shaw into an even more suspect idea: that great drama is an escape from and not a development of pulp drama (so that, for example, ‘Shakespear survives by what he has in common with Ibsen, and not by what he has in common with Webster’). In polemical theatre, this misconception leads to the notion that the sugar of entertainment can somehow be sucked off the pill of propaganda (or, as T.S. Eliot put it, ‘if the audience gets its striptease it will swallow the poetry’). It is doubly surprising that Shaw claimed to think this, since at the time he wrote The Quintessence he was about to embark on a series of plays which certainly contain lots of discussion, but in which the political message is expressed through the manipulation of existing popular theatrical genres.

Late in his career, Shaw lumped together his early work as a kind of sleight of hand: ‘I tried slum-landlordism, doctrinaire free love (pseudo-Ibsenism), prostitution, militarism, marriage, history, current politics, natural Christianity, national and individual character, paradoxes of conventional society, husband-hunting, questions of conscience, professional delusions and impostures, all worked into a series of comedies of manners in the classic fashion.’ In his prefaces, Shaw made a distinction between his first three, socially propagandist ‘Plays Unpleasant’ (intended ‘to induce people to vote on the progressive side at the next county council elections’) and the four ‘Plays Pleasant’ (concerned with ‘romantic follies and with the struggles of individuals against those follies’). He was right to make a distinction between the best Play Unpleasant, Mrs Warren’s Profession (in which the heroine defies both dramatic convention and dramatic expectation by refusing both marriage and reconciliation with her brothel-keeping mother) and Plays Pleasant like Arms and the Man and Candida, in which the formal conventions of romantic comedy are not denied so much as subverted, mostly by women making unlikely marital choices (as they do in much of the subsequent canon). Similarly, in the American Revolutionary War play The Devil’s Disciple, the conventions of melodrama are upended, when the anti-hero behaves heroically and the priest he saves spurns the cloth to join the revolutionary militia. Almost every Shaw play ends up with someone doing something definite, defiant and unexpected, while others watch, shaking with bafflement or spluttering with outrage.

Sometimes, as in Arms and the Man and Pygmalion, the double-coding works seamlessly, the romantic plot and its subversion fully expressing Shaw’s action. Often, as in Major Barbara and Heartbreak House, the romantic plot echoes or counterpoints the main action. On occasion, the two ingredients fail to emulsify. The main body of Man and Superman, for example, is a reasonably conventional girl-chases-and-gets-guy story, while Shaw’s argument is largely contained in a seldom performed interlude (forming the third of the play’s four acts) entitled ‘Don Juan in Hell’, and a supplementary ‘Revolutionist’s Handbook’, supposedly written by the play’s central character. Although the main text contains many of Shaw’s stock character types (including a particularly sassy servant), it is the appendices which present Shaw’s arguments for evolutionary development most effectively.

The failure of Man and Superman fully to integrate form and content supports those who argue (as Shaw himself put it) that his ‘plays were not plays’, and that, therefore, he should cease his ‘vain efforts to enter a profession for which nature had utterly unfitted me’. But Man and Superman provides little comfort for those whose argument can be summed up as ‘great prefaces, pity about the plays’. Its disparate sections expose Shaw’s dramatic strategy with particular clarity. Echoing Wilde’s A Few Maxims for the Instruction of the Over-Educated (and indeed his Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young, on which he was challenged during his first trial), John Tanner’s ‘Maxims of Revolutionists’ are essentially paradoxical aphorisms, as so many of Shaw’s characters are paradoxical aphorisms embodied, and as ‘Don Juan in Hell’ (in which an eternally pleasurable hell bores Juan to tears, while a contemplative heaven drives the Commendatore to distraction) is essentially a paradoxical aphorism writ large. It is paradox rather than polemic that links Shaw’s characters with his dramaturgy.

His early collaborator William Archer saw Shaw’s ‘craving for the unexpected, for the startling, for the paradoxical’ as his great flaw. For Holroyd, putting on the ‘spectacles of paradox’ was one of the means by which Shaw turned the wounds of a loveless childhood inside out. For Gibbs, his belief that the best ideas begin as jokes was ‘the essence of his genius’ (as Father Keegan puts it in John Bull’s Other Island: ‘Every jest is an earnest in the womb of time’). If this is so, it’s because paradox allowed Shaw in his plays to address topics he couldn’t have addressed as effectively in any other way. Creating characters who defy their conventional roles (unheroic heroes, independent heroines, harmless villains) and plots which fail to fulfil his audiences’ expectations, Shaw was able to address the contradictions and difficulties that all thinking socialists come up against, but rarely feel able to articulate.

The first is the gap between what people believe and the way they live. Shaw takes this on board directly in the many plays (including Widowers’ Houses, Mrs Warren’s Profession and Major Barbara) in which the protagonists discover or confront the fact that they are living off immoral earnings (in these cases, slum landlordism, prostitution and the arms trade), and – in all cases – find surprising ways of dealing with it. He also addresses it in plays like Man and Superman, in which the central character proudly proclaims himself to be a member of the ‘Idle Rich Class’, despite writing a manual for revolution. Shaw himself wasn’t short of a bob or two, as Gibbs points out (though he also notes that Shaw was a model employer); he admitted that he was ‘the sort of man who devotes his life to the salvation of humanity in the abstract, and can’t bear to give a penny to a starving widow’. Knowing that Shaw would later deny that anyone at all was starving in Stalin’s Soviet Union, Holroyd dismisses Shaw’s opinions as providing, all too often, no more than ‘a formula for absorbing his own needs into a universal pattern’, an accusation that Shaw himself accepts (with his usual insouciance) when he admits that ‘a man has his beliefs: his arguments are only his excuse for them … Our attention to our temperamental convictions produces complete oversight as to all the facts that tell against us.’

He could have added that this is not only his opinion, but also one of his great subjects. Looking in on himself allowed Shaw, again and again, not just to express opinions but to anatomise the opinionated. This is perhaps clearest when he moves from political to professional subjects: both The Philanderer and The Doctor’s Dilemma include medical men for whom the disease is much more important than the diseased. The first act of the latter play, in which a parade of doctors argue forcefully (and entertainingly) for their particular theory of everything, appears initially to be no more than a tour de force of Shavian argument-making; but every single theory pays off in the plotting of the subsequent acts, as the least aggressively opinionated doctor has to choose which of two extremely ill patients to save, his choice apparently based on philanthropy but in fact based on lust. Similarly, in Pygmalion, a typically opinionated Shavian protagonist seeks to prove a point by re-creating a human being, thereby providing her with the weapons to outgrow him.

The second difficulty Shaw confronts is the fear that, as currently constituted, the masses aren’t up to the tasks history has set them. The contradiction is expressed in John Tanner’s ‘Revolutionist’s Handbook’ by the maxim: ‘Democracy substitutes election by the incompetent many for appointment by the corrupt few.’ That John Tanner is the central character of a play called Man and Superman gives weight to the idea that Shaw’s promotion of theoretical Men of Steel contributed to his later affection for Stalin. Gibbs is quaintly apologetic for Shaw’s later political leanings: ‘It is, of course, well known that many Western intellectuals – including such leading literary figures as George Orwell, Kingsley Amis and Iris Murdoch – were strongly attracted to Communism.’ Holroyd is exasperated by Shaw’s delusions and alarmed by where they take him: ‘Our question is not to kill or not to kill,’ he quotes Shaw as writing in 1932, ‘but how to select the right people to kill.’ But he also notes how many of Shaw’s later misjudgments were informed by his earlier good calls. Shaw was in a Fabian minority in opposing the Boer War, and an even tinier (and extremely unpopular) minority in opposing the Great War. In the meantime, he was on the right side of issues as various as female suffrage, Irish Home Rule and the abolition of theatre censorship.

Shaw’s failure to make headway even on the last of those causes made, as he put it, ‘an end for me of the claim of the majority to be taken seriously’, laying the foundation of his subsequent flirtation with Italian Fascism and full-blown dalliance with Soviet Communism. Once again, while Shaw the Polemicist praises Stalinist Russia as a paradise of plenty, his character John Tanner ruefully admits that ‘revolutions have never lightened the burden of tyranny; they have only shifted it to another shoulder.’ And Shaw the Playwright feels able not only to address the problem, in plays like The Apple Cart (in which a hereditary monarch turns out to be a more effective and progressive ruler than an elected cabinet in thrall to corporate greed), but to suggest a solution. That Shaw’s evolutionary alternative to the top-down, nanny-knows-best socialism of the Fabian mainstream has (for us) dangerously Nietzschean overtones shouldn’t blind us to the fact that, by extolling and dramatising socialism’s emancipatory and transformative ambitions (in characters as various as Vivie Warren, Eliza Doolittle and St Joan), he was not only addressing the cultural limitations (as he saw them) of the oppressed majority, but anticipating the political concerns that found expression, in the years after his death, in the New Left, feminism and the politics of liberation.

One of those concerns was with prefigurement, the idea that socialists should pay attention to the kind of society they want to bring about. As Holroyd argues, ‘Shaw’s pessimism had grown from his experience of contemporary history; his optimism was increasingly tied to a visionary future in which the action of human will has broken the cyclical pattern of behaviour’ (most notably in his five-part cycle Back to Methuselah, the last section of which is set in the year 31,920). The importance of the future to Shaw is expressed in one of his best epigrams: ‘The true view is that the future determines the present. If you take a ticket to Milford Haven you will do so not because you were in Swansea yesterday but because you want to be in Milford Haven tomorrow.’ The underlying profundity of this remark is a reminder that, while Shaw’s ideas may have begun as jokes, they didn’t end there. In his Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism, Shaw advocated wages for housework, a slogan which (along with Black Power) was to express a political truth in utopian form more than forty years later. The paradox of Shaw’s visionary utopianism is that the deformations of Stalinism both implied and resulted from a rejection of individual emancipation as a socialist goal.

There is something awkwardly ingenuous in Gibbs’s insistence that ‘the beginnings of the socialist movement in England should not be judged by the later manifestations of socialism internationally, which were often accompanied by even worse forms of oppression than those the movement was designed to oppose’ – as if anyone would. But the sense that Gibbs has come to these matters fresh leads him to spot and articulate some important if simple truths, one of which is that his subject dedicated his life to a cause mightier than himself (‘rather than, say, happiness’), and another is that he didn’t have to. A little more grandly, Desmond MacCarthy described Back to Methuselah as ‘the work of an artist who has asked himself, with far greater seriousness and courage than all but a few, what is the least he must believe and hope for if he is to feel life is worth living’. That is not the way a political theorist would pose the question, but it is the way a playwright can answer it.

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