Judging Shaw 
by Fintan O’Toole.
Royal Irish Academy, 381 pp., £28, October 2017, 978 1 908997 15 9
Show More
Show More

It is​ no surprise that Irish studies has become something of a heavy industry in academia. Ireland is a small nation – ‘an afterthought of Europe’, as James Joyce put it – and marginality is much in vogue at the moment. Yet it is also home to a magnificent body of literature, much of it written with wonderful convenience in the world’s premier language, and so easily accessible from Tokyo to Bogotá. Being colonised by the British has its advantages. Postcolonialism is also much in fashion in universities, and most of Ireland ticks that box too. The war which recently afflicted the six counties still under British rule (the ‘sick counties’, Flann O’Brien called them) also brought the world’s attention to bear on the island as a whole. Devastated in the 19th century by a famine in which British bungling and indifference played a considerable part, a sizeable segment of the Irish population was scattered to the four corners of the earth, another reason Irishness is an international phenomenon. There is also the fact that the Irish were put on earth for other people to feel romantic about. We are all Irish in the eyes of God.

Nowhere is this shift from margin to centre more striking than in the career of George Bernard Shaw. Born in Dublin in 1856 into a decayed branch of the Protestant Ascendancy, the son of a drunken petty official and a mother from the minor gentry, Shaw was in his own word a ‘downstart’. In this superbly perceptive study, Fintan O’Toole sees his teetotalism as a reaction to his father’s drinking, just as his manic work rate may have been a riposte to his father’s fecklessness. On one estimate he wrote at least a quarter of a million letters and postcards. Joyce, also the child of a bibulous father, was something of a downstart too; but at least he belonged to the majority Catholic population, whereas Shaw was an internal exile from the outset. In fact he was an insider/outsider twice over, a peripheral Protestant at home washed up in alien London with only his wits and verbal dexterity to hawk. As such, he joined an honourable lineage of Irish licensed jesters from Oliver Goldsmith to Brendan Behan (Terry Wogan and Graham Norton are minor offshoots), men who punctured English pomposity and found moral earnestness irresistibly comic, yet whose capacity to amuse rendered them more or less acceptable.

It was a perilous role to play, as Shaw’s friend and admirer Oscar Wilde was to discover. Both Irishmen used wit and epigram to capture the contradictions of the English establishment in an endless flow of paradox which entertained as well as unsettled. With characteristic impudence, Shaw praised Jack the Ripper for calling attention to the dire social conditions of the East End. He and Wilde displayed the ingrained perversity of the colonial subject, the urge to be both a contrarian and an agreeably exotic house guest of the metropolitan nation. The Irish émigré is sufficiently au fait with English conventions to manipulate them even more deftly than the natives themselves, yet sufficiently estranged from them to be aware of their arbitrariness and occasional obtuseness. It is from this tension that so much British stage comedy by Irish writers has arisen. If Shaw scoffed at Oirishness and the Celtic Twilight, he was also intensely aware of his foreignness in the English capital. Even so, he neither suppressed his Irish origin like Wilde nor played it up like Brendan Behan, who once declared that he was a drinker with a writing problem.

A man who could whistle a number of works by Handel, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven from end to end, Shaw started out in London as a music critic. He was already engaged in the project of turning the obscure Bernard Shaw into the legendary GBS, a coinage of his own. The epithet ‘Shavian’ was another of his inventions. O’Toole sees him as one of the first people on the planet to understand how to transform himself into a global brand. The tall, gaunt, puckish, red-bearded figure in a Jaeger woollen suit and knickerbockers was to become as much of a global icon as Mickey Mouse. He was the image of an Edwardian loony lefty. Vegetarianism was part of the package: ‘A mind the calibre of mine,’ he remarked, ‘cannot derive its nutriment from cows.’ Like today’s superstars, Shaw understood that life was every bit as much a performance as art, and as a man who called himself both a charlatan and a humbug he was never quite sure how serious he was intending to be. When the Irish rebel Roger Casement was about to go on trial for the capital crime of high treason for his part in the Easter Rising of 1916, Shaw wrote a speech for him to read out in court in his own defence. The intention was that Casement, as O’Toole writes, ‘would literally perform to save his life’. Casement didn’t use the script, and was hanged by the British. Shaw was convinced he could have escaped the gallows had he played the role Shaw had created for him.

Shaw was both joker and sage – the offspring, O’Toole suggests, of a marriage between Wilde and Tolstoy, a writer he revered. He was a compulsive self-publicist, but it was never without a generous dash of self-irony. ‘I find myself while still in middle life,’ he observed, ‘almost as legendary a person as the Flying Dutchman.’ This volume, rich in photos and reproductions, shows him sitting on a rock adopting the pose of Rodin’s Thinker, a loincloth around his waist. ‘Like Dylan or Bowie,’ O’Toole remarks, ‘he was one of the great masters of self-invention, a nobody who captured the zeitgeist.’ In fact, Shaw and Bob Dylan are the only two people to have won both an Oscar and a Nobel Prize. Like Wilde, he was his own most precious creation. Churchill called him ‘the greatest living master of letters in the English-speaking world’, while Einstein thought him one of the world’s leading figures both as a writer and a man. At least until the 1960s, he was by far the most widely read socialist thinker in the English language, not least on account of his witty, lucid prose. He himself graciously described his friend Mahatma Gandhi as ‘the second greatest man in the world’, leaving no doubt whom he considered the greatest. When he visited Shanghai in 1933, one local newspaper expressed the hope that Japanese military activity in Manchuria would be suspended because of his visit. If his influence gradually waned, it is partly because he was so typical of his age that when it passed away, his reputation diminished along with it.

His political radicalism began at home. As a child, he saw something of the Dublin slums, which were among the worst in Europe, and a visceral hatred of poverty shaped the rest of his life. He was a self-declared champion of the undeserving poor. He also thought money was the most important thing in the world, but derided what he saw as ‘the Calvinistic bigotry and pedantry of Marxism’. O’Toole sees him as a secular Protestant preacher out to redeem the world, an heir to the great tradition of Dublin Protestant oratory which passes from Burke and Sheridan to Henry Grattan. Like his compatriot Charles Stewart Parnell, he took this reformist rhetoric into the highways and byways, as a street-corner speaker. There was nothing of the armchair socialist about him: he spent six years as a district councillor, serving on a number of committees from electricity and public health to housing and drainage. It’s hard to imagine Yeats on a drainage committee. He was also a member of the committee from which the Labour Party was to emerge.

In some sense he never ceased to be a Fenian, and the cause of Irish independence was never far from his thoughts. He believed that British rule in Ireland was flagrantly illegitimate. He was opposed to political violence, though he dined with the IRA leader Michael Collins three days before his death in an ambush. He also spoke alongside the revolutionary James Connolly in the Albert Hall in 1913, when he insisted that citizens engaged in political protest should form their own force to defend themselves against police brutality. Two weeks later, Connolly announced the formation of the Irish Citizen Army, ostensibly for just this purpose; and since the Citizen Army played a major role in the Easter Rising, it is possible to see Shaw as having helped to engender the event. Though he did not directly approve of the insurrection, he correctly predicted that the execution of its leaders would transform Irish public opinion. Twenty or so years later, he and his wife, Charlotte, were among the first British residents to register for Irish citizenship when it became legally available. The contrast with Joyce and Beckett, whose attitude to their homeland was for the most part curtly dismissive, could not be sharper. Shaw didn’t confine his republican sentiments to Ireland. He also called for the abolition of all European monarchies and the establishment of a British republican party.

Nationalism, he believed, should refuse to be led astray by ‘Hitleresque nonsense about race’. Like most of the leading champions of that cause in Ireland, he was a civic nationalist rather than an ethnic one. Hybridity, not racial purity, was to be the keynote. Talk of reviving Gaelic failed to inspire him; Ireland’s ‘most priceless acquisition’, he insisted, was the English language. He was a vigorous advocate of a self-governing Ireland while being utterly cold-eyed about the place. This presents something of a conundrum to those critics of Irish republicanism for whom objecting to the British presence in the country involves piping up every ten minutes with ‘Danny Boy’. In his play John Bull’s Other Island (1904), which the prime minister of the day, Herbert Asquith, saw five times, Shaw presents a dismally accurate vision of the Free State that would emerge almost twenty years later: the contempt of the new farming class for landless labourers, the political power of the Catholic Church, the rise of a greedy, oppressive Catholic bourgeoisie and the driving of the poor either out of the country or into the workhouses. For both Shaw and Connolly, an anti-colonial revolution unaccompanied by socialist measures could only emancipate you into a new form of servitude.

Shaw was one of the few public figures to stand by his fellow Dubliner Oscar Wilde both before and after his release from prison, and Wilde learned much of his socialism from him. He was also one of the first celebrities to campaign for the repeal of the laws against homosexuality. His play Mrs Warren’s Profession presents a female brothel keeper as exemplary of the hard-working, independent-spirited people that moral reformers habitually contrasted to the indolent poor. O’Toole notes how many strong-minded women are to be found at the centre of his plays. Getting Married champions wages for housework, a feminist demand that was to resurface in the 1970s. He fought for both female suffrage and the rights of children, and detested the institution of marriage. ‘This central horror of dependence of women on men,’ he wrote in the preface to Getting Married, ‘reduces the difference between marriage and prostitution to the difference between trade unionism and unorganised casual labour.’ He also had some rather weird metaphysical reasons for valuing women highly: it was through them that the life force went about its stealthy work, and men were simply instruments it used to promote its unfathomable ends. Not even Andrea Dworkin argued that.

Shaw’s​ attitude to the First World War was typically paradoxical. It had, he insisted, no moral basis whatsoever, but once it was underway Britain had to go ahead and win it. In his view, the British nation was as much in the grip of a landed aristocracy and an aggressive military elite as its German adversaries. Those adversaries should be defeated but not vindictively punished; and in rejecting the Treaty of Versailles on these grounds, he was once again to prove prophetic. The response to this argument was apoplectic. He was, one commentator thundered, an alien bird who fouls not his own nest but the one in which he has taken up abode. ‘The hag Sedition was your mother,’ a fellow playwright, Henry Arthur Jones, wrote in an open letter, ‘and Perversity begot you. Mischief was your midwife, and Misrule your nurse.’ The Irish blow-in was a ‘freakish homunculus, germinated outside of lawful procreation’. It was a peculiarly ornate way of calling him a bastard. Shops and libraries withdrew his books from circulation, and newspapers urged their readers to boycott his plays. As with Wilde, the immigrant who mocked his adopted country but was anxious for its admiration was now thrust into the outer darkness. Feste had become Thersites.

Judging Shaw does not spare us the less palatable aspects of GBS’s politics. He is often accused of being a eugenicist, a charge that was certainly true of Yeats. O’Toole, however, casts doubt on the allegation, reading some of Shaw’s most outrageous comments on the subject as satirical. There is a Swiftian savagery about much of his social commentary, a delight in scandalising his readership which is among other things the revenge of the colonial subject. While Swift speaks ironically of eating children, Shaw writes tongue-in-cheek of hunting them with horses and hounds. When he declares in the preface to Major Barbara that every adult on less than £365 a year should be painlessly put down, only the most dimwitted of his readers would report him to the police for advocating mass murder.

His respectful tributes to Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin, however, were not intended as ironic. It is true that he supported their regimes because he saw them as examples of true democracy, but that simply means he was culpably credulous rather than actively malign. So were a good many other leftists of the time. As a Fabian, Shaw had always looked to the state for social reform, and fascism and Stalinism seemed to him rather more full-blooded versions of this arrangement. Antisemitism, he thought, was simply a detestable appendage to Nazism, not something at its core. Hitler attended a performance of Caesar and Cleopatra in Munich in 1937, and Shaw’s name was not among the 2820 leading figures who were to be arrested once the Germans had invaded Britain. He made a public apology for his Hitlerite illusions during the war. When he visited Moscow in 1931, he was greeted by a brass band, a guard of honour and thousands of Russians shouting ‘Hail Shaw!’ A photograph of Stalin, whom he had come to hero-worship, stood beside his deathbed. One of the shrewdest intellectuals in the country had turned into a useful idiot.

What then of the drama? Judging Shaw makes a valiant attempt to sing its praises, but its apologia is not entirely convincing. One critic wrote of Shavian theatre that there is ‘nothing but talk, talk, talk, talk, talk – Shaw talk. The characters will seem to be simply a row of Shaws, all arguing with one another on totally uninteresting subjects. Shaw in a bishop’s apron will argue with Shaw in a general’s uniform.’ The critic was Shaw himself. But you do not refute a charge simply by pre-empting it, and it is hard not to feel that he is onto something here. His drama can indeed be fatiguingly verbose, and to call attention to its musical qualities, as this study does, is not the most persuasive of defences. It is also a touch disingenuous to counter the charge that the characters are all versions of the playwright himself by claiming that Shaw rejected the idea of difference as elitist. The book’s tactic, in short, is either to try to convert Shaw’s defects into virtues, or to concede the criticisms but seek to mitigate them. There is no reflection on how deeply untouched he was by modernism, and how his work might have benefited from it. Instead, he continued to write stage directions that specify the colour of the maid’s stockings or the exact location of the umbrella stand. There is a common fallacy that artistic realism and left-wing politics have a natural affinity; and though Shaw may not have credited this doctrine, his work is limited by conforming to it. The truth is that some of his plays are very bad indeed, and not even the charitable O’Toole can quite overlook the sheer dreadfulness of a piece like Back to Methuselah.

The emotional anaemia of Shavian drama has often been noted, and this study makes no attempt to deny it. Nor does it conceal the faults of the man himself: cranky, bumptious, intolerably opinionated, relentlessly self-regarding and constitutionally incapable of shutting up. Instead, it touches on all of these flaws while showing just how thoroughly they are thrust into the shade by his moral courage, coruscating wit and remarkable contribution to human welfare. It represents a handsome tribute from one of Ireland’s leading intellectuals to one of his mightiest forebears.

Send Letters To:

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


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 40 No. 13 · 5 July 2018

Terry Eagleton describes the family from which George Bernard Shaw is descended as a ‘decayed branch of the Protestant Ascendancy’ (LRB, 21 June). As a member of that branch, I recognise that it is accurate to say that many members of my father’s family, the Tyrrells, belonged to the Protestant Ascendancy, but I must take issue with that word ‘decayed’. My father, Anthony Tyrrell Hanson, an eminent theologian, was the son of Geraldine Tyrrell (later Lady Hanson), who was, as I understand it, a cousin of Shaw. Geraldine was the daughter of Robert Yelverton Tyrrell, the classical scholar who taught Oscar Wilde at Trinity College Dublin and remained lifelong friends with him. My grandmother corresponded with Shaw on a frequent basis and his work was a huge influence on my father, who insisted we read Shaw’s works as a family on holidays in Ireland. I am just coming to the end of a 34-year career in the NHS and I have two sons and one daughter. I can’t speak for other branches of the family, but this one is flourishing.

Andrew Tyrrell Hanson
Preston, Lancashire

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