Lucy and Todd

Judging Shaw — Fintan O’Toole

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on April 9, 2018 at 9:27 am

Judging Shaw: The Radicalism of GBS

 

GBS was one of history’s great high-wire acts, and it was performed solo and without a safety net,” writes Fintan O’Toole in this entertaining, insightful and wonderfully produced book. For three-quarters of a century, George Bernard Shaw was the most exciting and disturbing voice in English letters. He was the bane of politicians, coxcombs and bad musicians, and loved every minute of it. He was also the most-read socialist thinker of the 20th century, even though no political philosopher has ever quoted him.

Shaw was the first literary “brand” in the era of modern communications. “GBS”, a persona Shaw couldn’t always control and which began eventually to irritate him, was often portrayed as an imp, a devil, a self-anointer – one cartoon shows him with a laurel wreath to which is affixed a tag: “plucked by myself”. He was, and was seen as, a shameless self-promoter, a manipulator, a puppeteer. See the famous Al Hirschfeld drawing in the artwork associated with My Fair Lady: Shaw’s up on a cloud jiggling strings attached to Henry Higgins, who in turn has his own puppet, Liza Doolittle.

Putting aside his vast oeuvre, the plays, pamphlets, articles, books, postcards and letters, and Shaw’s contrarian, acid analyses of just about everything, his greatest achievement may ultimately have been a simple kick in the pants for us all. Go ahead, he said to the world. Read some books and work it out for yourself.

Strange, then, that what defeated Shaw, and almost ruined his career – twice – was politics. Not the play politics of taunting the English for their stuffiness and backwardness. Not the kind of politics that can be made fun of in newspapers and wry drama, but the real, looming disasters of two world wars. He got it wrong both times.

At the outbreak of the First World War he got up on his hind legs and bellowed that for England to fight Germany was nonsense, since the two nations were practically one and the same. He compared the Junkers to the English oligarchy (rightly) and debated whether it might be best for British soldiers to stay at home and start a revolution instead. Reaction was swift. The Establishment turned on him as a crank and a traitor. His books were withdrawn from libraries and bookshops, his membership in professional associations cancelled. For the popular press, always annoyed by him, the gloves were off.

Things were never the same for him, but Shaw, being Shaw, went on to write some of his best polemics in the 1920s: The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism contains a shrewd explanation of How the War Was Paid For that can still make your blood boil.

Then he did it again! At a luncheon in the late 1920s, Beatrice Webb noted that Shaw was “gabbling” about Mussolini, insisting that everyone agree that Il Duce was the best thing since dried macaroni. At this point Webb wrote Shaw off as a political thinker.

Shaw totally failed to notice that the Final Solution was not a sideline to Nazism but the essence of it. He thought he could talk Hitler out of it, one vegetarian to another. Always impatient for change, Shaw supported the dictators until the last possible moment: Hitler’s invasion of the USSR. He apologised to his compatriots. Pretty late. Pretty lame.

O’Toole casts Shaw as a hybrid of Oscar Wilde (his near contemporary and a fellow Dubliner) and Leo Tolstoy: half fanciful gadfly and half bearded dietary sage. After the First World War there wasn’t any of the gadfly left, or at least any market for what the gadfly had to say. And by 1945, Shaw was nearly 90 and his stinger was weak.

Shaw was anything but a sumptuary, excepting with words, but Judging Shaw is sumptuous. It’s full of skilfully chosen pictures, cartoons, reproductions of autograph letters and manuscripts that draw you into Shaw’s time and place.

A commemorative postage stamp issued by the Soviet Union in 1956 gives Shaw that glowing, Lenin-Stalin upward gaze. A photo shows GBS wearing only a loincloth and espadrilles, sitting on an uncomfortable-looking rock in the pose of Rodin’s The Thinker.

The continuing value of Shaw is his insistence that we stop ignoring what we are constantly being told – the “brain-dead megaphone” of politics and media, as George Saunders has it. Or stop swallowing it whole – whichever sin you commit. Get sceptical. And get critical.

TMcE

This review appeared in the Herald on April 7, 2018

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