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.)

In his dramaturgy, this Shavian principle has a further and more technical aspect, a rhetorical one. There is not perhaps a name for it in Classical rhetoric, but it can be defined as saying in your own person what ought, by rights, to be said by somebody else. This, with innumerable variations, as when Doolittle expounds the philosophy of being one of the ‘undeserving poor’, or when the Burglar in Heartbreak House points out the black social and religious consequences of not handing him over to the police, seems to be almost the basis of Shavian comedy, and is his own equivalent to the Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt. He found hints for it, at least as a verbal device, in some of his contemporaries. It is important in Wilde; and it is the unobtrusive source of some good jokes in Pinero – as when Lady Twomley, in The Cabinet Minister, tells her daughter, ‘Imogen, there is nothing for you but this marriage or contemptible, cleanly poverty,’ or when the apopleptic colonel in The Magistrate exclaims to the policeman who is rough-handling him: ‘Do you know I’m a short-necked man, Sir?’ I suppose one may also think of it as a throwback to the Morality play, in which the Sins, including hypocrisy, were allowed to blow the gaff on their own proclivities. Shaw, however, exploited the principle far more systematically than any predecessor; and, as his Letters are constantly reminding us, it was also a principle or device that he worked very hard in his own life. The Shavian trick of self-praise is the most obvious instance. But it also has a close inverse relationship to his habit of stealing his adversaries’ clothes: for instance, utterly refusing to quarrel with them, and ingeniously explaining to them that their claim to dislike him is a pitiable delusion and pretence.

The ‘good humour’ system, the ‘saying yourself what ought by rights to be said by another’ system, and the clothes-stealing system, may be seen all to be part of the same plan. The leading project in his behaviour as a polemicist, and equally as a friend, benefactor or lover, is to be quite outrageously rude, as rude as it is possible to be, and yet not cause offence. He aims in life for the same perilous liberty as, in a letter to the young actor Esmé Percy (15 March 1913), he ascribes to certain of the roles in his plays – ‘those very dangerous parts of mine, which consist of saying things which are unpardonable if uttered by unprivileged persons’.

The present batch of letters is dominated by the First World War and by Shaw’s ‘Common Sense about the War’. This was published by the Webbs as a Supplement to the New Statesman, on 14 November 1914, when the country was in its first intense state of shock and hysterical patriotism, and it provoked a storm of outrage and abuse. This was plainly Shaw’s intention, or at least a risk he was ready to take, and he was for once not playing the game of ‘privileged’ and harmless insult, or at least not entirely so: though indeed it was not the insults and the calling of Lord Grey and his colleagues by the name of ‘Junkers’ that caused offence, so much as the mere implication that it was a time for coolness and common sense. How far Shaw’s ‘common sense’ was, in detail, actually sensible is debatable; on the whole I would call it so. There must be some psychological manoeuvre, some repression of aggressive instincts, which lies behind that still-cherished myth of the ‘cloudless sky’, the carefree and halcyon summer, out of which the 1914-18 war supposedly dropped. How else shall we explain the forgetting of so many years of noisy jingoism? Thus it was to the credit of Shaw, at this crucial moment, to have so even-handedly berated the Britons and the Germans as ‘these two incorrigibly pugnacious and inveterately snobbish peoples, who have snarled at one another for forty years with bristling hair and grinning fangs, and are now rolling over with their teeth in one another’s throats’. His objection to Czarist Russia as an ally was, again, an obvious point but a cogent one. And his ‘bad-taste’ spelling-out of the meaning of ‘smashing the Hun for all time’ by pointing out the way in which this could actually be achieved – i.e. by killing 75 per cent of the women in Germany under 60 – seems well-calculated. One would not risk such a rhetorical flourish now, after the Nazi experience, but for his 1914 readers it was a safe reductio ad absurdum and he could fairly say ‘it is trifling to pretend that we are capable of any such villainy.’

As things turned out, Shaw’s ‘good humour’ system succeeded even in the case of ‘Common Sense about the War’. It caused him to be ostracised by a few people, and his plays came under an unofficial ban – though this might have happened anyway. But he was not prevented from addressing crowded public meetings with his views on the war, and the expected riots turned into no more than a little mild heckling. On a more personal level, his system can be seen working hilariously. When the Secretary of the Dramatists’ Club wrote to suggest, in view of the objection of several members to his views on the war, that he should ‘absent himself’ for the moment from their luncheons, he replied pointing out how hopelessly ineffectual and unbusinesslike was their effort to squeeze him out. ‘As usual,’ he sighed with affected weariness, ‘I suppose I shall have to teach them how to do it’: and he proceeded, with infuriating mildness, to give them a lesson on the proper way to expel him. He then wrote to Henry Arthur Jones, saying he hoped he was not one of the ‘several members’ who had wanted him excluded. Jones replied that he was and that Shaw seemed to him to have ‘kicked and defamed his mother when she was on a sickbed’, at which Shaw bounced back with riotous insouciance: ‘Sick mother be damned, you recreant: Germany has not a dog’s chance against her, and never had from the beginning.’

We can dismiss the idea that Shaw’s system for deflecting wrath was a rationalisation of its opposite and that he was inwardly seething with suppressed aggression. Still, there is no doubt a price has to be paid for living by system (monastic experience might have something to tell us about this), and Blanche Patch’s evidence is relevant here. She admired him but did not love him and was often enraged by him. He was consistently courteous to her but exceedingly distant and never bestowed a word of praise (on some tacit principle that one should not expect praise for merely doing one’s job). Above all, she, like most mortals, had her moods, whereas he was, to an inhuman degree, always exactly the same. When she once lost her temper, provoked by his treating her as a mere typist when she rightly regarded herself as his personal secretary, he responded with astonishment and some anger but also with extreme generosity, instantly penning her a blazing eulogy or ‘testimonial’. Nevertheless he did not change his ways. Blanche Patch, for her part, considered that he was a man ‘at peace with himself’.

Another major topic in the present Letters is his love-affair with Mrs Patrick Campbell in 1912-13, and here his style strikes me as less effective. The clowning in his letters is funny enough – only Shaw could have written to his romantic beloved: ‘You turned a cold cheek to me, and, with a most wonderful pursing of your lips and eyes and wrinkling of your neck and pouting of your bosom like a pigeon, made yourself exactly like a pork chop.’ Admittedly, too, his letters were meant to help her through a serious illness, following an accident. Nevertheless the ‘beautiful’ extravagances ring false, and, as she felt herself, the egocentricity is crazy, and irritating. His style – or ‘impressive levity’, to use his own phrase about Oscar Wilde – depends on a tension between clowning and strong unstated feeling, and in this cooked-up romance we can never be sure if anything genuine is involved.

No such doubts extend to Shaw’s friendship towards Mrs Pat, and his letter of rage and commiseration on the death of her son, in France, is admirable and most touching.

Never saw it or heard about it until your letter came. It is no use: I cant be sympathetic: these things simply make me furious. I want to swear. I do swear. Killed just because people are blasted fools. A chaplain, too, to say nice things about it. It is not his business to say nice things about it, but to shout that ‘the voice of thy son’s blood crieth unto God from the ground’ ...

  No use going on like this, Stella. Wait for a week; and then I shall be very clever and broad-minded again, and have forgotten all about it. I shall be quite as nice as the chaplain.

  Oh damn, damn, damn, damn, damn, damn, damn, damn, DAMN.

  And oh, dear, dear, dear, dear, dear, dearest.

Throughout the letters Shaw is impressive and inspiring on the subjects of illness and death. ‘I do not encourage illness,’ he wrote to Mrs Pat, and if nothing else, his love-letters were plainly therapeutic. ‘You shall be torn out of bed and shaken into rude health,’ he tells her, ‘or else I will get into the bed myself and we shall perish together scandalously.’ As for death, he insisted that it was ‘a splendid thing – a warfare accomplished, a beginning all over again, a triumph’. It was also a comedy. He told his biographer T.D. O’Bolger: ‘My father found ... something in a funeral, and even in a death, which tickled his sense of humour, and this characteristic I have inherited.’ This wonderful letter, in which he describes his mother’s cremation and how he returned to observe the sorting of the ashes, has been rightly praised. I also enjoyed his letter to St John Ervine in response to the news that Ervine had lost a leg. He told Ervine it reminded him of the time in 1898-9 when he himself had been on crutches and dragging a useless limb about. ‘Now do those eighteen months stand out in my memory as a period of disablement and wretchedness? Not in the least ... I found that I could do without my leg just as easily as without eyes in the back of my head.’ Ervine, moreover, would be in a stronger position than himself. ‘I had to feed and nurse the useless leg. You will have all the energy you have hitherto spent on it to invest in the rest of your frame.’ Ervine will be better-off without his leg, it is what has been holding him back in his profession. ‘For a man in your profession two legs are an extravagance: the Huns were nearer the mark when they attempted (as I gather from your wife) to knock off your head ... The more the case is gone into the more it appears that you are an exceptionally happy and fortunate man, relieved of a limb to which you owed none of your fame, and which indeed was the cause of your conscription; for without it you would not have been accepted for service.’