George Bernard Shaw
( Originally Published 1907 )
I ONCE had the duty of presiding at a gathering assembled to hear an address by Mr. Bernard Shaw. " What is the title of your lecture? " I asked. " It hasn't got one," he replied. " Tell them it will be announced at the close." I did so, adding that after-wards he would answer any reasonable questions. " I prefer unreasonable questions," he said in a stage whisper. For forty minutes he poured out a torrent of mingled gibes at his audience, flashes of wit and treasures of good sense. Then he leapt into his coat, seized his umbrella, cut his way through his admirers with good-humoured chaff, suffered the addresses of an old Irish lady who had known him in childhood and was as voluble as himself, and finally fled along Regent Street " like a soul in chase," his tongue flaying all created things, until at a " tube " station he turned on his heel and vanished as if by magic.
It was like the hurry of the wind, keen as a razor, dry and withering as the east. Mind and body alike at the gallop trained down to the last ounce. He is a hurricane on two legs a hurricane of wrath flashing through our jerry-built society. He is the lash laid across the back of his generation. He whips us with the scorpions of his bitter pen, and we are grateful. He flings his withering gibes in our faces and we laugh. He lampoons us in plays and we fight at the pay-box. We love him as Bill Sikes' dog loved that hero because he beats us.
His ascetic nature revolts at our grossness. I once invited him to a dinner to a colleague. He accepted the invitation and came when the dinner was over. He would not sit at meat with men who eat flesh like savages, fuddle their brains with wine, pollute the air with filthy smoke. Lady Randolph Churchill has recorded that when she invited him to dinner he declined to come and " eat dead animals."
What can we look for, he asks, from a society based on such loathsome habits except the muddle we are in — a morass of misery and sweated labour at the bottom sustaining an edifice of competitive commerce as greedy as it is merciless; at the top a nauseous mixture of luxury and flunkeyism. Waste and disorder everywhere: religion an organised hypocrisy; justice based on revenge which we call punishment ; science based on vivisection ; Empire based on violence. God, perchance, is in heaven, but all's wrong with the world. What can a reasonable man do but war with it ? " What are you people crowding here for? " he asked a fashionable audience at an anti-sweating meeting. " To hear me gibe at you, not because you care a rap for the wretched victims of your social system. If you cared for them you would not come here for amusement. You would go outside and burn the palaces of fashion and commerce to the ground."
For he has in an unrivalled degree the gift of being unpleasant. It is a rare gift. Most of us, even the worst of us perhaps, especially the worst of us are full of tenderness for the susceptibilities of others. We cultivate the art of polite falsity, because to give pain to others is so great a pain to ourselves. We are like the Irish driver in John Bull's Other Island—" Sure he'd say whatever was the least trouble to himself and the pleasantest to you." We lack the courage to be unkind. If we stab at all we prefer to do it in the back. Mr. Shaw enjoys giving pain because he knows it does you good. He cuts you up with the scientific serenity of an expert surgeon who loves the knife. He probably never paid a compliment to anyone save Mr. Bernard Shaw in his life. When a well-known Free Trader, now in Parliament, sat down after reading an elaborate paper before the Fabian Society, Mr. Shaw rose, and observed: " We have come to the end of the intolerable tedium inflicted upon us. It is incredible that anyone should have prepared this crude alphabet of the subject, above all for the Fabian Society." There is some-thing to be said for Mr. Shaw's frankness. It clears the air. It tears away the cloak of shams, and confronts us with the naked realities. It does not make him loved; but, then, he would hate to be loved. He rather loves to be feared.
He has spoken of himself somewhere as being " by temperament economically minded and apprehensive to the point of old-maidishness." It is a happy figure. He is like an elderly spinster, with a fierce passion for order and a waspish tongue, coming into a house turned upside down by a crowd of boisterous, irresponsible children. Of these, by far the worst are the English the dull, unimaginative English, full of illusions and incompetence and unctuous humbug, with " the cheerful bumptiousness that money, comfort, and good feeding bring to all healthy people." A nation of Tom Broadbents, made great by coal and iron and the genius of quicker and more imaginative peoples. " The successful Englishman to-day," he says, " when he is not a transplanted Scotchman or Irishman, often turns out on investigation to be, if not an American, an Italian, or a Jew, at least to be depending on the brains, the nervous energy, and the freedom from romantic illusions (often called cynicism) of such foreigners for the management of the sources of his income." But he loves the Englishman, and he will tell you frankly why. He loves him because he is fool enough to make a lot of Bernard Shaw.
We have had no more merciless satirist since his fellow-countryman, Swift, was amongst us. But, unlike Swift, he does not hate men. He is only filled with scorn at their follies, their sentimentalities and superstitions. He has no reverence and no respect for the reverences of others. Religion to him is like a fog in the mind, blurring the vision of realities. " Ecrasez l'Infâme," he would say with Voltaire, and he looks for the age of pure reason, when intellect shall have straightened out all the tangled skein of life, and men, resting secure in their sciences and utilities, shall laugh at the pathetic superstitions of their fathers, and turn with content to the exquisite syllogism of material things that they have put in their place. It is not a new dream. It is a dream as old as the conflict between intellect and emotion. It is based upon the assumption that the human soul has no yearning that cannot be satisfied by the scientific adjustment of our material relationships to the universe, a theory to which the Aristotelian replies that social wrong is only the symbol of spiritual wrong, and that spiritual remedies will alone heal what is ultimately a spiritual malady. Mr. Shaw sees everything sharp and clear, and without atmosphere. He is all daylight; but it is a daylight that does not warm. It is radiant, but chilling. He affects you like those March days when the east wind cuts through the sun-shine like a knife.
And there is another difference between him and Swift. He has none of the great Dean's morbidness. It was said of Swift that he had " the terrible smile." It was the smile that foreshadowed insanity. Mr. Shaw has a smile of sardonic sanity. Max Beerbohm's caricature of him as Mephistopheles, holding his forked tail with one hand, nursing his red beard with the other, is astonishingly true in spirit. As he leaps to his feet, straight and lithe, with that bleak smile upon his lips, you feel that here is a man who sees through all your cherished hypocrisies, and can freeze up all your emotions. He sprays you with acid as if you were an insect, and you curl up.
Like the Fat Boy, he " wants to make your flesh creep, mum." Mrs. Grundy is always present to his mind the symbol of smug self-satisfaction, of ignorant content, of blind superstition, the symbol, in fact, of English society. He had a double motive in shocking her. It appeals to his Puck-like instinct for mischief. He loves to see the look of horror over-spread her features as he smashes her idols. But there is a more serious purpose behind his iconoclasm. He breaks the image in order to restore the reality. Shakespeare is a fetish, and he tells you he is a greater than Shakespeare. The English home is the English-man's boast, and he tells you that it is the source of our selfish exclusiveness, and that no good will be done till it is destroyed. " Pull down the walls," he would say with Plato: " they shelter at best a restricted family feeling; they harbour at the worst avarice, selfishness, and greed. Pull down the walls and let the free air of a common life blow over the place where they have been." Or, as Whitman expresses it :
Unscrew the locks from the doors!
By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms.
He is careless about having a beautiful home: he wants a beautiful city. He is indifferent about his wife's diamonds: he wants to see the charwoman and the sempstress well dressed. If they are not he would send them to prison. For his philosophy comes from " Erewhon," where poverty and illness were the only punishable crimes. " If poor people were given penal servitude instead of sympathy, there would soon be an alteration for the better," he says, with his characteristic extravagance. " The love of money is the root of all evil," we say unctuously as we snatch for more. " Money is the most important thing in the world," he says, and he insists that every one of us shall have '500 a year. " Money represents health, strength, honour, generosity, and beauty, as undeniably as the want of it represents illness, weakness, disgrace, meanness, and ugliness." Flee from sin," says the preacher. " Flee from poverty, which is the root of sin," says Mr. Shaw.
He is a preacher in cap and bells. He calls the crowd together with the jingle of jest, and then preaches his sermon in extravagant satire. He is so terribly in earnest that he cannot be serious. Least of all is he serious about himself. He is himself his own gayest comedy. " I have been hurt to find myself described as a middle-class man," he says. " I am a member of the upper classes. My father was a second cousin to a baronet. That is what gives me self-respect and solidity of standing." His father was an ex-Civil servant in Dublin, who invested his money in flour-milling— and a most surprising failure he made of it." His mother kept the pot boiling by teaching music, and young Shaw earned Ł18 a year as a clerk. At twenty he came to London and passed several years in an atrociously seedy condition. " I haven't a penny in the world," said a beggar to him one night. " Neither have I," said the delightful Shaw, with cheerful comradeship. He lived on his parents, who found it difficult to live on themselves. He is not ashamed: he boasts of it. " I did not throw myself into the struggle for life: I threw my mother into it." He wrote novels which nobody read, scintillated in the Star as a musical critic, helped to found the Fabian Society, wrote plays on the tops of omnibuses, married—" for money," he will tell you with engaging raillery, while his charming wife smiles at his rogueries and became the idol of the intellectuals and the most piquant figure in the English-speaking world.
Riches have poured into his lap from the pay-boxes of every civilised land, and his fame is a part of the common stock of the world, but he is unchanged with it all. He is still the gentleman of fortune, living upon his wits, his sword ever in his hand. He comes into your midst, with the tail of his coat trailing on the floor. What, sir, you will not tread upon the tail of my coat? You will not fight? You have no quarrel, sir? A fig for a quarrel! I will tweak your nose, sir! And what a duellist the fellow is! What irony, what jest, what diabolical self-composure ! His wit is as swift as the lightning, as happy as the song of birds. " Boo ! " roared a voice from the gallery when he came forward, amid thunders of applause, at the close of one of his plays, " Boo." " I agree with you, sir," he said; " but what are we two against so many? " " Mr. Shaw," said a friend who had beguiled him to hear a string quartette from Italy, and, finding him bored, sought to wring a word of praise from him—" Mr. Shaw, these men have been playing together for twelve years." " Twelve years ? " yawned G. B. S. " Surely we've been here longer than that."
Few men have rendered mord conspicuous service to their time. The English stage had become a byword a thing of no more intellectual significance than a skittle-alley. Mr. Shaw has worked a revolution. He has done it with the smallest of dramatic equipment, for he has little imagination, slight instinct for character, and none of the symbolic sense and suggestiveness that make the dramas of Ibsen so vast and cosmic. But he has made the contemporary English drama the vehicle of ideas and has rescued it from contempt. He has brought it into relation with realities and turned it into a medium for permeating society with the philosophy of Mr. Sidney Webb. In a word, he has become a playwright in order to preach his extremely unorthodox sermon, and if he uses extravagances — well, so did Dr. Parker, so does Father Vaughan. He exaggerates in order that you may see the truth to which familiarity and convention have blinded you. He shocks you in order that you may be shocked at yourself. He denounces love because his asceticism revolts from the sensuality that is the desecration of love. He denounces conventional morality because he is so fierce a moralist. He denounces the law because of his passion for justice. He has such an enthusiasm for humanity that he would put the poor in gaol because of their poverty and misery. He would punish the people who have the wickedness to be ill; but he would treat the criminal as we treat invalids. For the sickness of the body is our own wrong, the outrage of natural laws; the sickness of the mind is the wrong imposed on us by a false and vicious social system. In all this topsy-turveyism he is astonishingly sane. I know of no political writing which goes more ruthlessly to the heart of realities than his prefaces to his plays. Take, for example, his treatment of the Irish question. " Home Rule means Rome rule " cry the Protestant Nonconformists. He turns the aphorism inside out. " England in Ireland is the Pope's policeman," he says, and proves it. " Shaw has stated the Irish case once and for all," said John Dillon to me.
He is the tonic of his time, very bitter to the taste, but stimulating. He clears the mind of cant. He clears the atmosphere of fog. He is admirable in small doses; but as a sustained diet I say it with the comfortable knowledge that he is not by he is inferior to Shakespeare. " The professional moralist," it has been said, " is moral by the strength of his antipathies; Shakespeare is moral by the strength of his sympathies." Mr. Shaw is all antipathies. He is " agin " everything, from the government of the universe to the starch in your collars and the blacking on your boots. He has never agreed with anybody or anything. He rests on himself, secure and selfassertive his intellect against the world. You turn from his cold lucidity and magnificent cocksureness to the men who speak not to the intellect alone, but to the heart, who are not merely humanitarians, but human beings, who say with Lowell that they believe more than they can give a reason for, and with Carlyle that all our sciences are nothing beside that great deep sea of nescience on which we float like exhalations that are and then are not. Realities are much; but the mystery that invests being is more. The mind is wonderful, but no less real are the intimations of the soul. Let us have a clear intellect; but it is an arid world that shuts out the intuitions of the heart.
I see the curl on Mr. Bernard Shaw's lips. " Cant," he says. " The cant of these dull-witted English, with their ridiculous illusions and sloppy emotions." Perhaps so. And yet I believe that behind that scornful smile there is a heart as sensitive as any; but a heart which he is ashamed to reveal. He has, perhaps, come nearest to revealing it in that fine saying of his with which one may well close:
" I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community, and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatsoever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no brief candle to me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations."