Duncan Campbell Scott

Addresses‚ Essays‚ and Reviews




George Bernard Shaw

 

SHAW, GEORGE BERNARD (1856), British critic and dramatist, born in Dublin.  In 1876 he went to London, where he engaged in newspaper work, and soon took an active interest in socialistic agitation, becoming in 1884 a member of the Fabian society.  He contributed tracts on socialism to its publications and edited Fabian Essays (1889).  Meanwhile, between 1880 and 1883, Shaw published four novels, The Irrational Knot, Love Among the Artists, Cashel Byron’s Profession, and An Unsocial Socialist.  His weekly articles on musical subjects in the London Star (1889-90) and in the World (1890-4) attracted attention by their vigor and their independence of judgement; these were followed by dramatic criticisms, equally uninfluenced by accepted standards, in the Saturday Review (1895-8).  In 1891 he published The Quintessence of Ibsenism, in which he developed the thesis that the principle underlying practically all of Ibsen’s work is the harmfulness of traditional ideals.  In The Perfect Wagnerite (1898), Shaw set forth in detail the astonishing interpretation of the Ring of the Nibelungen as being the symbolized expression of social revolution.  His plays, Pleasant and Unpleasant (2 vols), appeared in 1898.  The pleasant plays comprise You Never Can Tell, Arms and the Man, Candida, and the one-act piece, The Man of Destiny; the unpleasant plays, Widowers’ Houses, The Philanderer, and Mrs. Warren’s Profession.  Other plays followed: Three plays for Puritans (1900), comprising The Devil’s Disciple, Caesar and Cleopatra, and Captain Brassbound’s Conversion; The Admirable Bashville (1901); Man and Superman (1903); How She Lied to Her Husband (1904); and John Bull’s Other Island (1905).  These plays, though for the most part slow to win popularity in England, finally aroused vigorous discussion, both in that country and in the United States, particularly upon the production in New York of Candida in 1903, and, in 1905, of Mrs. [page 216] Warren’s Profession, which was withdrawn after a single performance.  The plays abound in wit and irony and in effective dramatic situations, and, though ignoring the traditions both of the theatre and of literature, they are successful as pieces of stage-craft.  As to their content, the critics are divided, some holding that Shaw is merely an incorrigible jester, and others that he is what his delightful prefaces claim him to be, an earnest social reformer.
     It is quite impossible to consider Shaw merely as a playwright, he has chosen the dramatic form to float his ideas because he considers it the best possible form, but his mind overflows the form and irrigates the surrounding desert of conventionalities.
     The spirit of dramatic craftsman is satisfied with his excellent mortises and joints and artistic patterns, with his well made play in fact—his box will contain just what he puts into it and no more and no less.  There is not a grain of dust outside it.
     These playwrights give you an evening’s amusement or they give you a problem play to discuss, they make the problem and they give the solution and they are responsible for both.  Shaw says

You have your nicely buttered little problem and are content with its nicely buttered little solution.  I have to face a larger problem and find a larger solution; and since on my scale the butter runs short I must serve the bread of life dry.

     Shaw’s problem and his problem play is the whole of life, the meaning of life, the improvement of social conditions, the liberation of the spirit of man, the substitution of moral passion for the smug conventionalities.  This is indeed a larger problem and we are satisfied to have the bread of life dry if the butter has run short—thankful for the latent salt in it—thankful to get it at all.
     In giving us the bread of life Shaw has exceeded the bounds of his chosen art and has set out his dramas with copious and illuminating prefaces[,] with note-books and elaborate and penetrating stage directions.
     The play is sufficient unto itself, as well constructed as needs be and full of illusion, often full of profound stagecraft—but Shaw’s mind goes outside it and flies along bearing it up as an eagle might carry a quarry in its talons.
     This quality of vehemence, of intellectual passion of being ever present in his drama and superior to it is what one realizes in [page 217] Shaw’s work.  It is the quality which gives one this storehouse of aphorisms and maxims which one can plunder at will.
     The Victorian dramatists can be searched by the Customs Officers on suspicion of smuggling one quotable phrase into their plays and they come through the ordeal perfectly innocent.
     But Shaw shocks the prude, astonishes the parson, runs before the social reformer, advises the alienist, refutes the doctor and anticipates the man of science and gives the modern girl the sentiment her heart beats for.
     We cannot talk of this mind force as a playwright only but as a critic of life, insatiable in his sympathies, inordinate in his power of portrayal.
     How are we to account for Shaw’s turn for the theatre.  A social reformer has all the paraphernalia of his class, a soap-box on which to stand or the platform of the convention, or the columns of the newspaper, or the seat in Parliament, but Shaw has deserted these or turned away from them for art, the special art of the theatre.  He has told us why—

I am convinced that fine art is the subtlest, the most seductive, the most effective means of moral propagandism in the world, excepting only the example of personal conduct; and I waive even this exception in favour of the art of the stage, because it works by exhibiting examples of personal conduct made intelligible and moving to crowds of unobservant unreflecting people to whom real life means nothing.

     Here on the very threshold of our subject is a key to its inner meaning.  This mind with which we are dealing desires not altogether to give us pleasure, not to win a position for itself by exploiting its talents to flatter and condone, not to apologize for our sins and errors, but to carry on a moral propaganda.  It seized upon art, the art of the stage, because it is the most effective means of moral propaganda—not even excepting the power of personal conduct.
     It is plain from this that Shaw’s cry will not be Art for Art’s sake.  He values Art, but only the art that springs naturally from wholesome activities of human life and interprets faithfully and nobly what is vital.  For the schools of little self-admirers making pretty things from impure motives he has no sympathy.  He thus declares himself— [page 218]

I have, I think, always been a Puritan in my attitude towards Art.  I am as fond of fine music and handsome building as Milton was, or Cromwell, or Bunyan; but if I found that they were becoming the instruments of a systematic idolatry of sensuousness, I would hold it good statesmanship to blow every cathedral in the world to pieces with dynamite, organ and all, without the least heed to the screams of the art critics and cultured voluptuaries.  And when I see that the nineteenth century has crowned the idolatry of Art with the deification of Love, so that every poet is supposed to have pierced to the holy of holies when he has announced that Love is the Supreme, or the Enough, or the All.  I feel that Art was safer in the hands of the most fanatical of Cromwell’s major-generals than it will be if ever it gets into mine.  The pleasures of the senses I can sympathize with and share; but the substitution of sensuous ecstasy for intellectual activity and honesty is the very devil.

     This work of the dramatist is the highest that man can set his hand to.  In his preface to the plays of the famous Frenchman Brieux Shaw writes—

Life as it occurs is senseless: a policeman may watch it and work in it for thirty years in the streets and courts of Paris without learning as much of it or from it as a child or a nun may learn from a single play by Brieux.  For it is the business of Brieux to pick out the significant incidents from the chaos of daily happenings, and arrange them so that their relation to one another becomes significant, thus changing us from bewildered spectators of a monstrous confusion to men intelligently conscious of the world and its destinies.  This is the highest function that man can perform—the greatest work he can set his hand to; and this is why the great dramatists of the world, from Euripides and Aristophanes to Shakespeare and Molière, and from them to Ibsen and Brieux, take that majestic and pontifical rank which seems so strangely above all the reasonable pretensions of mere strolling actors and theatrical authors.

     To this very high and noble conviction as to the power of the drama Shaw brings his own individuality and eclectic philosophy, he absorbs scientific facts and sociological experimentalism, he is in the van of the freshest political science, continental opinion is familiar to him, he is in truth the child of his age.
     Let no one think that Shaw stands alone as a sort of entertainer to make the British public merry.  He is an exemplar and one mouthpiece of the British revolution which is now slowly evolving, manifest [page 219] in many ways in the woman’s suffrage movement, industrial strife, the clamorous demand for more equal distribution of wealth in lands and wages; a revolution which will not be complete in our time but which will leave the face of society changed.
     Shaw is a skirmisher in this peaceful revolution, far in advance of the main body of the army but still conscious of it, making brilliant reconnoitres and coming into touch with the enemy in hand to hand encounters.  But behind him is the army of people who have the new economic ideals and new desires to make society better and the conditions of life more equitable.
     He has chosen to dramatize this spirit of challenge and unrest, to ask our conventional morality to give an account of itself, to show us the life force at work busy producing the Superman, to reduce to absurdity some of our cherished institutions.  He sees morality as something fluid.  Shakespeare says “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”  Shaw echoes him—

Morality means custom; and it is custom that tyrannizes over most people’s minds.

     Whatever is contrary to established manners and customs is immoral.  An immoral act or doctrine is not necessarily a sinful one: on the contrary, every advance in thought and conduct is by definition immoral until it has converted the majority.  For this reason it is of the most enormous importance that immorality should be protected jealously against the attacks of those who have no standard except the standard of custom, and who regard any attack on custom—that is, on morals—as an attack on society, on religion, and on virtue.
     In this characteristic dialogue between Ann and Tanner in Man and Superman, Shaw draws the passion for morality up to its proper height—

TANNER.  The change that came to me at thirteen was the birth in me of moral passion; and I declare that according to my experience moral passion is the only real passion.
ANN.  All passions ought to be moral, Jack.
TANNER.  Ought!  Do you think that anything is strong enough to impose oughts on a passion except a stronger passion still?
ANN.  Our moral sense controls passion, Jack.  Don’t be stupid.
TANNER.  Our moral sense!  And is that not a passion?  Is the devil to [page 220] have all the passions as well as all the good tunes?  If it were not a passion—if it were not the mightiest of the passions, all other passions would sweep it away like a leaf before a hurricane.  It is the birth of that passion that turns a child into a man.

     But Shaw with all his certainty as to the true position of morals is well aware of the serious nature to the conventional of attacks upon their citadel.  He remarks—

Those who have felt earthquakes assure us that there is no terror like the terror of the earth swaying under the feet that have always depended on it as the one immovable thing in the world.  That is just how the ordinary respectable man feels when some man of genius rocks the moral ground beneath him by denying the validity of a convention.

 

Ideals and Happiness


But if we are to give ourselves up to so disturbing a moralist, to one so daring and so ruthless as regards the conventions, one who shames us by often laying bare the petty and selfish grounds of human action, one who shows us that our so-called advancement is largely material, it would be well to ask what the guide has to offer us, what are his own basic convictions, what are his aims and inclinations and ideals, we will not destroy thinkers and liberators like Shaw by throwing stones at them or by scoffing.  He says himself—

Any fool can scoff.  The serious matter is which side you scoff at.  Scoffing at pretentious dufferdom is a public duty: scoffing at an advancing torchbearer is a deadly sin.

     But there will be scoffers who can perhaps be nothing else; they would in Shaw’s case love to point their moral by proving our critic one given up to the results of his bad passions, ruined by them, reeling through this model society of ours an example, warning young ladies and gentlemen to behave themselves.
     Unfortunately our critic is self-restrained, and temperate and reserves himself for his life work with a sense of its sacredness worthy of an earlier age of faith.  His ideal is well expressed in two sentences— [page 221]

You cannot believe in honor until you have achieved it.  Better keep yourself clean and bright: you are the window through which you must see the world.

     Achievement of honour would seem then to be one of his ideals.  His own window has been kept marvelously clean and bright to judge by his pictures of the world.  He frankly touches on two of his habits as follows—

I have a professional reason for not drinking alcohol.  The work I have to do depends for its quality on a very keen self-criticism.  Anything that makes me easily pleased with myself instantly reduces the quality of my work.  Instead of following up and writing down about two percent of the ideas that occur to me on any subject, I put down ten percent or even more if I go to work under the comfortable and self-indulgent influence of a narcotic.
     I have not eaten meat for twenty-seven years.  The results are before the public.

     These results whether traceable entirely to the subsistence of vegetables or no, are audacious and stimulating.
     The question that each student of Shaw must decide for himself is whether he is to do him the justice of taking him seriously and criticizing his own utterance or laughing and appraising him by the sayings of his enemies.  Just the other day Mrs. Clement Shorter was using Shaw to point the moral and adorn the tale, and she passed him off with a laugh.
     Mr. Bernard Shaw is a very lucky man.  He is endowed with a very nimble wit and big intelligence.  He has frequently told us so, and I have no doubt will again.  He has a loud voice that travels over the world and tells us all about the mistakes of heaven and earth and bishops and priests and marriages and dog-killing and meat-eating and about martyrdom, and he can give us a very good—oh, very good indeed—imitation of a lion.
     He says to us, when we are inclined to laugh too much at him, “don’t laugh,” but somehow we still in our stupidity and good humor continue to laugh, for when we cease to laugh Mr. Bernard Shaw will cease to be.
     This was the end and sum of the whole story.  Let us hear Shaw on human life and the pursuit of happiness. [page 222]

     Humanity is neither a commercial nor a political speculation, but a condition of noble life.

     Cleopatra.  When I was foolish, I did what I liked, except when Flatateeta beat me; and even then I cheated her and did it by stealth.  Now that Caesar has made me wise, it is no use my liking or disliking: I do what must be done, and have no time to attend to myself. That is not happiness; but it is greatness.

     You must never say that the knowledge of how to live without happiness is happiness.  A tee-totaller might as well preach that the knowledge of how to practise total abstinence is the truest drunkenness.  Happiness is not the object of life: life has no object: it is an end in itself; and courage consists in the readiness to sacrifice happiness for an intenser quality of life.

MORELL.  Man can climb to the highest summits; but he cannot dwell there long.
MARCHBANKS.  It’s false: there can he dwell for ever, and there only.  It’s in the other moments that he can find no rest, no sense of the silent glory of life.  Where would you have me spend my moments, if not on the summits?

     Are not these noble aspirations, are they not typically Shavian, when we or some of us stop laughing at Shaw will these ideals cease to be?
     I have called these extracts peculiarly Shavian because they evince the high standard of morals and of public service which Shaw has set for himself.  He does not say even his smartest things “to fill up the time while waiting for a boat” as Walt Whitman phrases it, but his evangel is always present even when he beats the big drum, blows his own trumpet, or turns a handspring.  He attracts your notice by his unusual posture but when he lands on his feet he calls your attention to the awful prevalency of poverty, the greatest of all crimes, to the injustice of the factory act or some desperate current cant of meanness or sordidness upon which society is sliding along.
     I am much struck by the following confession of Shaw’s as to his kinship with certain writers.  He says—

Bunyan, Blake, Hogarth and Turner (these four apart and above all the English classics), Goethe, Shelley, Schopenhauer, Wagner, Ibsen, [page 223] Morris, Tolstoy and Nietzsche are among the writers whose peculiar sense of the world I recognize as more or less akin to my own.

     The peculiar quality of these artist-philosophers (as he calls them) is that they identified themselves with the purpose of the world as they understood it.  Shaw feels that he so identifies himself and he is eager and untiring in his endeavour to further the purpose of the world as he sees it.

This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.

     This consciousness of high purpose separates Shaw from the school of Victorian Dramatists his contemporaries.  The best of them, Pinero for instance, is engaged in his higher moments, in such plays as The Notorious Mrs. Ebbsmith and The Second Mrs. Tanquerey, in showing by a crafty story the suffering which may come to an individual when in conflict with society.  He accepts society just as it is and to be sure he would be an the side of improving it, but all you get from such a play as The Second Mrs. Tanquerey is the distinct impression that society being constituted as at present, it will be safer for you if you are a bachelor, not to marry a lady with a past.
     The effect of the artful tragedy which he unfolds on the youngest person in the play is merely to make her remark that she wished she had been kinder to her stepmother.  This is all very well but there is no other individual in Pinero’s play who rises to any height of resolve, who is actuated by a single fine impulse, whose character is in advance of the sordid surroundings of the immediate day and hour.
     His play may be called essentially immoral and compared with Shaw’s play Mrs. Warren’s Profession or even Hindle Wakes by the lamented Stanley Houghton or The Madras House by Granville Barker, or Justice by John Golsworthy in which actual life is philosophied for us, in which moral standards are challenged, in which society not as exemplified by individuals, but by conventions and laws is put into the pillory.
     The distinction is plain but it will become plainer still if I use an illustration. [page 224]
     When The Nortorious Mrs. Ebbsmith was acted in London and the sandwich men were carrying the name of the play through the streets and the notices of the playhouse were in the columns of the papers, the body of a woman was found in the Thames.  She had drowned herself.  Her name was Mrs. Ebbsmith.  She was quite unknown to Pinero when he plotted his drama but her married life had been unfortunate and after seeing the play, she thought her case had been made public and she drowned herself in an access [sic] of despair.
     Some of us will say that the occurrence was singular and regrettable, that it shows how close to the type were the dramatist’s puppets, and of course no responsibility rested on Pinero, that the woman was weakminded and so forth.
     But the incident was not imaginary, it really happened and it is symptomatic of the evil of that sort of drama.  A good many of us might commit suicide if we were weakminded enough to so closely identify ourselves with types of characters in the problem plays today and yesterday with their nicely buttered solutions.
     But can we imagine any of the class of persons depicted in Mrs. Warren’s Profession committing suicide after seeing that drama, or can we think of an unmarried mother destroying herself after sitting through The Madras House, or of the prototype of one of the characters in Brieux’ Damaged Goods throwing herself into the Seine after a perusal of this astonishing play.
     The essential contrast between the two schools is identical with the difference which exists between the mechanic and the machine he has made, and the parent and his child.
     The problem playwright is concerned chiefly with asserting his problem, the solution, if he bothers with it at all, embarrasses him.  The playwrights who are also artist-philosophers, conceive their works in passion, the solution precedes or at least is implied in the problem itself and with varying degrees of success, but even with this sort of ecstasy for humanity and for freedom the drama unfolds itself.
     In such plays as The Second Mrs. Tanquerey life is as hard as iron, bound by laws inflexible and pitiless.  In the plays of Shaw and those who have been inspired by him, life is shown to be iron but you are convinced that those iron laws which bind life were once fluid and can again be fused and run into new and finer forms.  Hope plays like a lambent halo around and over such work and the [page 225] prison house of society is shot through with gleams of heaven’s light and lightnings.
     Now I am not asking you to adopt Shaw’s moral philosophy or his social doctrines but I say that you should not scoff at them until you are quite sure that you understand them.  Your very membership in the Drama League shows that you are a little freer than your neighbour who thinks the door of the playhouse, the portal of another region, and there are a good many thousands of that class who are actually your neighbours.
     When you joined this association you did not agree to be interested in the parlor drama or in farce comedy, or in comic operas alone, but you enrolled yourself amongst those who are interested in the improvement of the drama in its development as a voice to pronounce modern thought, to help it realize the life which we are now living in all its complexity to shake it free of the combine which would degrade and strangle it, and finally to cooperate and enlight, and bring joy into life.
     It is no wonder that to some of us at all times and to fewer of us sometimes Shaw is a shocking person.  To come freshly with our morals made up and stereotyped on the new world of Shaw’s ideas is a perilous chance; it is no wonder that some of us come back as the early navigators did with most astonishing tales of the strange men and beasts we saw in the new land.
     If you are not of the advanced elect who take to social rebellion and novel conception of life as fearlessly as a duck takes to water, you require a long and painful training to follow such a writer as Shaw.
     He is an original in the artistic sense, in his presentation of this theme, in the startling way in which he brings out contrasts, but his matter is for the most part derived from other and may be greater minds, or his thought is a development of root-ideas gathered from widely separated sources, from all languages and from all times.
     It is not possible to understand Shaw at all unless you consider his as part of a movement.  He would be abnormal and unaccountable if he stood by himself as a single phenomenon.  It is only necessary to get into the stream of modern thought to appreciate Shaw at his true worth, he is the champion of ideals and impulses as yet hardly in their perceptible effect which will succeed in a thousand or more years in dragging humanity out of its present phase into the next era. [page 226]
     What is the purpose of the world as Bernard Shaw sees it?  We have observed that he does not consider the pursuit of happiness as a life purpose worthy of attention nor does he consider that human nature has advanced very greatly since mediaeval times.  The confusion between material progress and moral progress becomes evident the very moment one begins to discuss these questions with an advocate for the present social system.  Shaw puts this very neatly—

Steam locomotion is possible without a nation of Stephensons, although national Christianity is impossible without a nation of Christs.  But does any man seriously believe that the chauffeur who drives a motor car from Paris to Berlin is a more highly evolved man that the charioteer of Achilles, or that a modern Prime Minister is a more enlightened ruler than Caesar because he rides a tricycle, writes his dispatches by the electric light, and instructs his stockbroker through the telephone.

     There is nothing upon which Shaw is so clear as this difference between morals and matter, between the physical and moral world.  Those of you who have read Bergson will have a glimmering of the reason why our growing knowledge of the physical laws of the universe is so readily confused with human progress.  Our inventions might as well have been made in any age of the world’s history and under any moral code, there is no connection between the evolution of the telephone and the doctrine of justification by faith.
     The quality of the western mind, inquisitive and restless has had more to do with the tunnelling of mountains and flying over them in monoplanes than the current system of morals.  Shaw exclaims on this point—

Until there is an England in which every man is a Cromwell, a France in which every man is a Napoleon, a Rome in which every man is a Caesar, a Germany in which every man is a Luther plus a Goethe, the world will be no more improved than a Brixton villa is improved by the pyramid of Cheops.  The production of such nations is the only real change possible to us.
     The majority of men at present in Europe have no business to be alive; and no serious progress will be made until we address ourselves earnestly and scientifically to the task of producing trustworthy human material for society. [page 227]

     I think we have in these last sentences very plainly the purpose of the world as Shaw sees it and his kinship to the other artist philosophers who were bent on expressing the purpose of the world as they saw it, comes out very clearly.  The purpose of the world as he sees it is to improve society not by rebellion against it, but by its reform and reorganization.  Just hear him on this point—

     I do not approve of private property in land, and I regard the appropriation of the ground rent of London by the present ground landlords as grossly inequitable; but were I asked on that account to finance a burglary in the Duke of Westmister’s house, I should refuse.  I am constantly teaching people that they must reform society before they can reform themselves, and that individual sallies of rebellion are useless and suicidal.

     I think it becomes clear too why Shaw is so emphatic in rating as the greatest of all crimes the crimes of society against its individual members.  These are the crimes against which he moralizes which he would destroy.  Hear him on poverty, a character in one of his plays cries out—

Poverty.  The worst of crimes.  All the other crimes are virtues beside it: all the other dishonors are chivalry itself by comparison.  Poverty blights whole cities; spreads horrible pestilences; strikes dead the very souls of all who come in sight, sound or smell of it.  What you call crime is nothing: a murder here and a theft there, a blow now and a curst then: what do they matter?  They are only the accidents and illnesses of life: there are not fifty genuine professional criminals in London.  But there are millions of poor people, abject people, dirty people, ill fed, ill clothed people.  They poison us morally and physically: they kill the happiness of society: they force us to do away with our own liberties and to organize unnatural cruelties for fear they should rise against us and drag us down into their abyss.  Only fools fear crime: we all fear poverty.

     On this one point, the crime of poverty and its remedy, I will ask you to listen to another pronouncement of our reformer—.

I am not bound to keep my temper with an imposture so outrageous, so abjectly sycophantic, as the pretence that the existing inequalities of income correspond to and are produced by moral and physical inferiorities and superiorities—that Barnato was five million times as [page 228] great and good a man as William Blake, and committed suicide because he lost two-fifths of his superiority; that the life of Lord Anglesey has been on a far higher plane than that of John Ruskin; that Mademoiselle Liane de Pougy has been raised by her successful sugar speculation to moral heights never attained by Florence Nightingale; and that an arrangement to establish economic equality between them by duly adjusted pensions would be impossible.  I say that no sane person can be expected to treat such impudent follies with patience, much less with respect.
    The evil resulting from the existing unequal distribution of wealth is so enormous, so incalculably greater than any other evil, actual or conceivable, on the face of the earth, that it is our first duty to alter it into an equal distribution.
    It seems to me that this is far clearer thinking than the mental operations of that school who thought poverty personal crime, the fault of the poor, who kept himself poor on purpose to receive charity because he was too lazy to work.

     So the worst of our crimes are social crimes and the highest mission of the thinker is to evolve social progress.  With one of his bright flashes of wit Shaw says—

History, as far as we are capable of history (which is not saying much as yet), shews that all changes from crudity of social organization to complexity, and from mechanical agencies in government to living ones, seem anarchic at first sight.  No doubt it is natural to a snail to think that any evolution which threatens to do away with shells will result in general death from exposure.  Nevertheless, the most elaborately housed beings today are born not only without houses on their backs but without even fur or feathers to clothe them.
    The point to seize is that social progress takes effect through the replacement of old institutions by new ones; and since every institution involves the recognition of the duty of conforming to it, progress must involve the repudiation of an established duty at every step.  If the English women had not repudiated the duty of absolute submission to their husbands, and defied public opinion as to the limits set by modesty to their education, they would never have gained the protection of the Married Women’s Property Act or the power to qualify themselves as medical practitioners.  There is nothing new, then, in the defiance of duty by the reformer: every step of progress means a duty repudiated and a scripture torn up. [page 229]

     I am letting Shaw speak for himself at such length throughout this paper because I wish to bring together and unfold the tremendous underlying passion and earnestness of his character and by this means alone to combat the idea that he is a shallow jester.  I am quite unmovable in my own conviction on this point and I remain so no matter what instances you may bring to notice of overstrained statements and unwise intrusions.  No one can speak for Shaw better than he speaks for himself.
     We have seen then I think pretty clearly what his idea of the purpose of life is and now to close this part of the subject and pass on to something else, we will allow our author to speak of what he calls the Life Force which impels him to these exertions—

When, in addressing an ordinary religious audience, I have occasion to speak of the force which the call the Will of God, and which I myself have called the Life Force, I use the term which is familiar and intelligible to them.  The force in question is as obvious a reality to me as magnetism or gravitation; and I had very much rather be misunderstood as accepting some of its legendary associations than as denying or reckoning without its existence.  But as a matter of fact, my references to it are always accompanied by other observations which could not possibly be taken as proceeding from an ordinary Evangelical.  I hope to define my views on this subject more precisely in a book entirely devoted to them; but should anything prevent me from accomplishing this design, the third Act of Man and Superman will remain on record as a statement of my creed.

     In that third act of Man and Superman and in the mouth of Don Juan will be found the essential creed of Shaw; for the brilliant wit and the unsparing satire on bemused human-nature which the scene contains, it must be read in full, but I have extracted three speeches form the dialogue which will gather up the threads of this part of the subject and reinforce what I have been saying about Shaw’s view of the purpose of life and his share in its accomplishment.

I suggest to you that the reason why we go on striving to understand life better instead of confining ourselves to mere pleasure hunting, is that the mysterious force behind us—I will call it the Life Force—is itself in desperate need of an organ of intelligent consciousness; and that the human mind is its most elaborate experiment in the evolution of such an organ. [page 230]

Don Juan.  Just as Life, after ages of struggle, evolved that wonderful bodily organ the eye, so that the living organism could see where it was going and what was coming to help or threaten it, and thus avoid a thousand dangers that formerly slew it, so it is evolving to-day a mind’s eye that shall see, not the physical world, but the purpose of Life, and thereby enable the individual to work for that purpose instead of thwarting and baffling it by setting up shortsighted personal aims as at present.

     I tell you that as long as I can conceive something better than myself I cannot be easy unless I am striving to bring it into existence or clearing the way for it.  That is the law of my life.  That is the working within me of Life’s incessant aspiration to higher organization, wider, deeper, intenser self-consciousness, and clearer self-understanding.  

     In all these extracts I have been reading I think you will observe the brilliant quality of the thought and diction, the restless play of wit and fancy, but most of these passages were chosen to bring forth the underlying motive of Shaw’s work.  The work of the critic must not fail at this point.  Our author has some of the defects of his qualities and the antithesis of all this hard and unsparing wit is the infrequency of humour.  In hardly any of the plays is there a humorous character, the nearest approach to it is the incomparable intellectual in You Can Never Tell, and he is in himself too superhumanly intellectual to be a humorous character, but he leaves the impression of geniality which is one effect of humour.
     Perhaps I am thinking too much of the peculiar quality which we associate with English humour, the quality which leads us to say that after all the world isn’t such a bad place.
     You may recall that in the list of author which Shaw recognizes as in his company, there is no humorist, they are all grimly in earnest.  This lack of humour goes hand in hand with the want of tenderness.  There are no passages of tenderness in all Shaw’s work, no love-scenes, no exalted outcries of passion.  Where we have the approaches to these climaxes we face the mocking undercurrent—that love is only a means of nature to an end.
     This is a purpose in Shaw who does not wish us to laugh at humanity with a tear in the eye—the tear of self-pity or condonement.  We may laugh, but with the violent ha he of the horse that goeth into battle. [page 231]
     Again he appears to reverence nothing and in fact he makes a point of his irreverence.

To ask me to be reverent, with whatever moving appeals to good taste, is like asking me to hang from a tree by my tail.  In me nature has discarded the tail, having higher uses for me than hanging on trees upside down.  She has also discarded the bump of veneration, having nobler attitudes for me than kneeling and grovelling.  I have achieved at least one of the characteristics of the Superman: the upright posture of the soul; and I am as proud of it as the first monkey who achieved the upright posture of the body, and so felt himself a stage nearer the Supermonkey, man.

     In some respects I find that Shaw is not unlike Heine the German poet.  Heine was also a satirist, bent on social progress and the improvement of the people, but these terms meant not the same things in his day.  He had a like mordant wit and he shocked all the stupid people in Europe by his so-called profanities, just as Shaw does, but there is a great gulf between them and I am bringing them in just here because Heine has what Shaw lacks and by quotation I think I can illustrate how much we lose in Shaw when he does not give us humour.
     Heine had humour and tenderness and reverence for the right things and he softened his brilliant satire by touches that gave it shadow and depth.  Heine writes—“The Englishman loves liberty like his lawful wife, the Frenchman loves her like his mistress, the German loves her like his old grandmother—.”
     This sounds like Bernard Shaw—and even further Heine goes on—“and yet after all, no one can tell how things may turn out.  The grumpy Englishman in an ill temper with his wife is capable of some day putting a rope around her neck and taking her to be sold at Southfield.  The inconstant Frenchman may become unfaithful to his adored mistress and be seen fluttering about the Palais Royal after another—.”
     So far this is in the style of Shaw but now comes something of which Shaw would not be capable, a divine, humorous, discerning, affectionate touch.  “But the German will never quite abandon his old grandmother; he will always keep for her a nook by the chimney corner, when she can tell her fairy stories to the listening children—.” [page 232]
     You will search in vain for any national sentiment in Shaw’s work that is too mixed in with sentimentalism with false commercial ideas and tradesmen’s subterfuges of all kinds.  He has a deep contempt for the ideals of the British tradesman and scores him unmercifully.
     In Widowers’ Houses and Fanny’s First Play, we see them living in all their sordid meanness.  He puts into Napoleon’s mouth in The Man of Destiny the summing up of all the English failings and scores the nation through the lips of a Frenchman.

     Napoleon.  No Englishman is too low to have scruples: no Englishman is high enough to be free from their tyranny.  But every Englishman is born with a certain miraculous power that makes him master of the world.  When he wants a thing, he never tells himself that he wants it.  He waits patiently until there comes into his mind, no one knows how, a burning conviction that it is his moral and religious duty to conquer those who have got the thing he wants.  Then he becomes irresistible.  Like the aristocrat, he does what pleases him and grabs what he covets: like the shopkeeper, he pursues his purpose with the industry and steadfastness that come from a strong religious conviction and deep sense of moral responsibility.  He is never at a loss for an effective and moral attitude.  As the great champion of freedom and national independence, he conquers and annexes half the world and calls it Colonization.  When he wants a new market for his adulterated Manchester goods, he sends a missionary to teach the native the Gospel of Peace.  The natives kill the missionary: he flies to arms in defence of Christianity; fights for it; conquers for it; and takes the market as a reward from heaven.  In defence of his island shores, he puts a chaplain on board his ship; nails a flag with a cross on it to his top-gallant mast; and sails to the ends of the earth, sinking burning and destroying all who dispute the empire of the seas with him.  He boasts that a slave is free the moment his foot touches British soil; and he sells the children of his poor at six years of age to work under the lash in his factories for sixteen hours a day.  He makes two revolutions, and then declares war on our one in the name of law and order.  There is nothing so bad or so good that you will not find an Englishman doing it; but you will never find an Englishman in the wrong.  He does everything on principle.  He fights you on patriotic principles; he robs you on business principles; he enslaves you on imperial principles; he bullies you on manly principles, he supports his king on loyal principles and cuts of his king’s head on republican principles.  His watchword is always Duty; and he never forgets that the nation which lets its duty get on the opposite side to its interest is lost. [page 233]

In saying that Shaw has no tenderness one would not expect him to show much reverence for women, and of reverence of the stock variety he has in truth but little.  He can say a bitter thing like—

    Women begin to be socially tolerable at thirty, and improve until the deepening of their consciousness is checked by the decay of their faculties.  But they begin to be pretty much earlier than thirty, and are indeed sometimes at their best in that respect long before their chattering is, apart from the illusions of sex, to be preferred in serious moments to the silent sympathy of an intelligent pet animal.

     And he can also say an imaginative thing like this—

     A woman like Candida has divine insight: she loves our souls, and not our follies and vanities and illusions, or our collars and coats, or any other of the rags and tatters we are rolled up in.

     But between the two extremes I don’t think women ever had a better friend than Bernard Shaw.  How natural his women and girls are—how delightfully inconsequent when they should be and how terribly truth-dealing.  What a creature is Vivie in Mrs. Warren’s Profession.  We leave her alone at the end of this play with a feeling of respect which says that there is no man in the world worthy of such a woman.  Lydia in Cashel Byron’s Professions is the equal of any woman George Meredith ever drew, and the whole troop of them from the greatest to the least, from the aforesaid Lydia to the Little Street Walker in Fanny’s First Play, are deep and charming and instinct with life.
     Shaw’s weapons of satire have always been at the service of women in their fight for opportunity and greater freedom in life, whether they ask for the vote or reasonable laws for their protection.  Could the problem be brought out more forcibly by ten thousand words than it is in these few sentences—

    If we have come to think that the nursery and the kitchen are the natural sphere of a woman, we have done so exactly as English children come to think that a cage is the natural sphere of a parrot—because they have never seen one anywhere else.  No doubt there are Philistine parrots who agree with their owners that it is better to be in a cage than out, so long as there is plenty of hempseed and Indian corn there.  There may even be idealist parrots who persuade themselves that the mission of a parrot is to minister to the happiness of a [page 234] private family by whistling and saying “Pretty Polly,” and that it is in the sacrifice of its liberty to this altruistic pursuit that a true parrot finds the supreme satisfaction of its soul.  I will not go so far as to affirm that there are theological parrots who are convinced that imprisonment is the will of God because it is unpleasant; but I am confident that there are rationalist parrots who can demonstrate that it would be a cruel kindness to let a parrot out to fall a prey tocats, or at least to forget its accomplishments and coarsen its naturally delicate fibres in an unprotected struggle for existence.  Still, the only parrot a free-souled person can sympathize with is the one that insists on being let out as the first condition of its making itself agreeable.  A selfish bird, you may say: one which puts its own gratification before that of the family which is so fond of it—before even the greatest happiness of the greatest number: on that, in aping the independent spirit of man, has unparroted itself and become a creature that has neither the home-loving nature of a bird nor the strength and enterprise of a mastiff.  All the same, you respect that parrot in spite of your conclusive reasoning; and if it persists, you will have either to let it out or kill it.

     In considering drama it is a most engaging pursuit to endeavor to trace the dramatist’s own voice and personality among the many characters into which he breathes life.  If a dramatist has a conscious purpose, some one of the persons of the play is chosen to be the announcer of his ideas.  If he is creating a work of art merely, his own predilections and views of life will come out in a hundred small phrases or situations.  If the dramatist is working unconsciously telling a story, unfolding a plot, he manages to express what is essentially himself in various ways.  Writing of the truth, or right and wrong as they appear in a dramatic work, Bernard Shaw says—

The persons of my plays are all right from their several points of view; and their points of view are, for the dramatic moment, mine also.  This may puzzle the people who believe that there is such a thing as an absolutely right point of view, usually their own.  It may seem to them that nobody who doubts this can be in a state of grace.  However that may be, it is certainly true that nobody who agrees with them can possibly be a dramatist, or indeed anything else that turns upon a knowledge of mankind.  Hence it has been pointed out that Shakespeare has no conscience.  Neither have I, in that sense. [page 235]

     The dramatist must not be held bound to the opinions of his characters yet there may be traced in all the great dramatists accents, phrases, whole speeches sometimes, and even characters which seem to flow from the inner fount of personality.  We feel that the essential Shakespeare dwells more in such characters as Hamlet of Jacques Biron, Anthony or Troilus, than in Othello or Brutus, Macbeth has more of Shakespeare than Iago though both are capable of crimes, and it is often in his weakest characters or in the weakest moment of his strongest character that Shakespeare’s voice seems most natural.
     In expressing the agonies of wounded humanity Shakespeare’s voice is so sharp in its intensity that we feel that behind all the myriad shifts of the stories he tells that his own story was most bitter to him.

      Injurious time now, with a robber’s haste,
      Crams his rich thievery up, he knows not how:
      As many farewells as be stars in heaven,
      With distinct breath and consign’d kisses to them,
      He fumbles up into a loose adieu;
      And scants us with a single famish’d kiss,
      Distasted with the salt of broken tears.

     In moments in Browning who in all his poems is the dramatist, we feel the essential spirit of the man who was the most chivalrous noble of his age.  The end of “Pompilia” in The Ring and the Book.

      “So, let him wait God’s instant men call years;
      Meantime hold hard by truth and his great soul,
      Do out the duty!  Through such souls alone
      God stooping shows sufficient of His light
      For us i’ the dark to rise by.  And I rise—.”

Or his sentence in “The Pope”

                                                                     Pray
      “Lead us into no such temptations, Lord”
      Yea, but, O Thou whose servants are the bold,
      Lead such temptations by the head and hair,
      Reluctant dragons, up to who dares fight,
      That so he may do battle and have praise! [page 236]

     Which portion of The Ring and the Book is dramatic utterance sustained at the loftiest level in our language.
     We hear in such phrases the manly spirit of Browning speaking.  It is so with lesser men and Shaw dramatizes himself in Tanner and Don Juan.

Do you suppose heaven is like earth, where people persuade themselves that what is done can be undone by repentance; that what is spoken can be unspoken by withdrawing it; that what is true can be annihilated by a general agreement to give it the lie?  No: Heaven is the home of the masters of reality.
     When a man wants to murder a tiger he calls it sport: when the tiger wants to murder him he calls it ferocity.  The distinction between Crime and Justice is no greater.

     This is the last quotation I shall make from Bernard Shaw and I am sure you will all regret it and wish me to bring my address to a conclusion as speedily as possible.
     I would like to say a few words about Shaw’s influence upon contemporary dramatists.  I think it has been very considerable although he cannot be said to have founded a school.  His peculiarities are hardly imitable for they are bound up with his convictions very closely and if it could be said that he had founded a school, we would find that school to be a band of playwrights bent on social reform.
     He has influenced the younger playwrights more strongly I think than the Irish School, although the aims of that school are sounder dramatically than Shaw’s aims.  The Dramas of Synge are likely to bear the test of time much better than the plays of Shaw because they deal with human emotions which must for yet many ages rule human life and influence conduct, and our descendants may one hundred years from now be looking at the acted Drama of Synge and only reading with a certain curiosity the dustcovered plays of Shaw.
     Shaw has proved that there can be a play without constant action and that talk alone if it be bright enough or deep enough will bury the interest.  By showing this he has released the stage from some of its traditions and has encouraged a freer treatment of dialogue.  He has shown too that the combinations by which interest and surprise are evoked are endless and that they exist in our life as we live it. [page 237]
     Such plays as Arms and the Man and The Devil’s Disciple, gave the cue for such plays as The Pilgrim, Hindle Wakes and The Madras House; all dissimilar in theme and treatment and again all quite different from Shaw’s plays, but yet referable to them as the original impulse of form and content.
     Just here I feel constrained to say a word in praise of Stanley Houghton who died the other day upon the threshold of his career.  He had not written many plays but those he had written and particularly Hindle Wakes showed very remarkable dramatic power.  He was a true dramatist and the play I have just named is a model of terse dialogue, instinct with the life of the story and derived from the characters and the situations in which they find themselves.
     Then too in choice of subject I think Shaw has helped to influence his contemporaries.  He of course derives from Ibsen and his early “unpleasant” plays so far as the subjects concerned are closely derivative but such plays as Strife and Justice are referable to the challenge which Shaw has given to society and his demand for social progress.
     Shaw began his career as a member of the Fabian Society and as a Socialist.  I don’t know whether the Society exists now and I don’t know whether Shaw could at present call himself a socialist in the old sense, but public opinion has grown towards socialism to such a degree that many of the demands of the Fabians [are] now on the Statute Book or in a fair way to get there.
     We certainly expect far more from the drama than we did in the palmy days of Jones and Pinero and both results are traceable to the organized attack of the Fabians and to the spirited innovations and inventions of Bernard Shaw.
     Lately they have produced for the first time in America in New York Shaw’s early play The Philanderer.  They found the theme of the play outworn already although it was advanced satire in 1893 when it was written.  This is the penalty of dealing with the latest phase of the ever-changing whims of society.  But mark what a competent critic writes about this play.

Mr. Shaws’s favourite contention, used in what our ancestors used to call “the love-chase,” the woman is more often the pursuer than the pursued, has been made so familiar by the wide acceptance of his later and weightier comedy Man and Superman, that to find this theme discussed in The Philanderer strikes the contemporary audience as the iteration of a commonplace. [page 238]

Here is an instance of an advanced idea that has lost its emphasis by becoming commonly accepted—.

     Now making all due allowance for New York as Ottawa should do, and accepting this statement with the qualifications which this city must necessarily apply to the opinions of London, Paris and New York, it is certainly arresting.  We might have to accept it as a typical exaggeration of the New York press, just as a benighted New Yorker might choose as a typical example of our local interests the following item which I read not long ago in one of our papers.  “The water was let into the canal yesterday and the blasts from the boat-whistles caused a great deal of comment of Sparks Street”: however if one of Shaw’s ideas has been adopted and now a commonplace, a stock-idea in New York, why not another idea and another, until all the Shavian ideas have been adopted—in New York.
     I hazarded a moment ago the forecast that Synge would outlast Shaw as acted drama and with this result Shaw would, I think, be perfectly content.  He wants to influence the present and not to be revered by the future.  The reverence of the future to him, he would wish to be expressed in the conditions under which these dramas of Synge or Shakespeare or the living dramatists of a hundred or a thousand years, will be produced.
     Let us imagine them given in a free theatre, by actors who are themselves free from the present shackles of the profession, for audiences who are united in a society where poverty as we know it does not exist.
     There are no starving children, where cant and hypocrisy has yielded a little to reason and laughter, where men’s lives are cleaner and where by the side of the men the women are their enfranchised companions and co-workers, the bearers of the children of the State, honoured in equal responsibility and courage, unfettered in their ambitions by the scruples and falsenesses of long ago.
     If the spirit of Bernard Shaw could visit and brood over such a scene it would make little difference to him if there were no applause for his plays, and if the rose garlands of the actors were not ensured to them by the actions and words of his characters or if the laurel crowned bust in the foyer was not carved in his features.
     He would go out with the crowd into the sunlight or into the night air and if he found the people a little higher in the strenuous [page 239] upward effort of humanity to the summits, if he found society even a little improved, he would be content with good reason, for he could say—was not I also in that far off time a valiant fighter in the battle for the liberation of humanity. [page 240]

 

[back to Index / Next]