H.M. Hyndman

Further Reminiscences

Chapter IX
Bernard Shaw and the Fabian Society

EXACTLY the date when I first met Bernard Shaw – the George prefix has long since disappeared – I cannot determine. But I know that at that time he was as yet quite unappreciated by the public, though his opinion of himself, and for that small blame to him, was even more exalted than it is today. “Every man has a right to be conceited until he has been successful.” It is possible that Shaw has carried on his self-idolatry, if I am to judge by the Henderson biography, beyond the canonical limit. If so, it does not matter: if not, who cares? I remember very well, however, that, quite early in our acquaintance, I came to the conclusion – this was in the early eighties, bear in mind, before even “Corno di Bassetto” had sounded its shrill personal trump in the Star – that Shaw possessed a great literary faculty. Not only did I perceive this, but with my usual imprudence I boldly proclaimed it aloud. Nay, I went so far as to declare, after I had read his Unsocial Socialist and Cashel Byron’s Profession, with his contributions to Justice and To-day, that he had many of the qualities of a Heine! How I was chaffed and laughed at by Shaw’s particular friends for saying this. Yet now, nearly thirty years later, I suppose nobody would challenge the correctness of that estimate.

I did not say, observe, that Shaw possesses all the qualities of Heine; for he has neither the pathos nor the poetry which distinguish the great German writer. But he undoubtedly exhibits that brilliant satirist’s strange power of turning to you, without effort, the seamy side of any subject which he has been dealing with just before from a more pleasing point of view; and it is quite certain that Heine himself never displayed that combined power of dramatic satire and epigrammatic sarcasm on the society of the day which has rendered Shaw one of the most effective dissolvent influences of our epoch. At the period I speak of, Shaw was not understood or accepted for what he undoubtedly was. And as, to his credit be it said, Nothing would induce him to write below the high literary level which he had set up for himself, he was hard put to it to make both ends meet. Even when he had obtained an outlet and was writing for journals that were said to pay their contributors well, this determination of Shaw’s never to be contented with anything lower than the best he could do, rendered this sort of work by no means a lucrative occupation for him.

I thought if there was one man in London who would understand Shaw and would see the value of his writing it would be Frederick Greenwood. I gave Shaw, therefore, a letter of introduction to my old friend, feeling confident that, so far as journalism of a high class was concerned, Shaw would find an appreciative and congenial opening in the St. James’s Gazette, which Greenwood was then editing. Nothing came of this. What happened I do not precisely know. But I was much surprised, for there was no more acute judge of exceptional literary talent than Greenwood, and Shaw had certainly plenty to say and could say it well.

Years afterwards, when Greenwood was staying with us at Brasted, I asked him, casually, as we walked up and down the lawn together, whether he remembered my letter about Shaw, and how it was that Shaw never wrote for the St. James’s. “The fact is, Hyndman, Shaw is quite unhuman, and I never could stand that.” I did not pursue the matter much farther at the time; but I believe what really upset Greenwood, though why it should have done so, as a matter of Shaw’s writing, I do not know, was the indifference displayed by one of the characters in a novel of Shaw’s to the death of his wife. But the fact remains that Shaw, with all his brilliancy and industry, could not obtain in journalism that reward of a reasonable competence which men of far inferior attainments have got without great difficulty. I suppose if a man will persist in tearing up articles which were quite good enough, because he felt he could make them better, as Shaw did when writing for the Saturday Review, his literary conscience becomes a very hard taskmaster from the pecuniary point of view; especially when the writer himself is running counter to many of the most cherished prejudices of middle-class mankind, and even taking a malicious pleasure in outraging their tenderest susceptibilities.

Certain it is nobody can truthfully say that Shaw has at any period of his career spoken or written down to his public. He has forced his; public to accept him almost at his own valuation. Even his jokes and paradoxes were at first by no means appreciated: they were undoubtedly caviare to the general. We Socialists also were downright angry with him because he would bring what, at that stage of dour conviction on the part of a fanatical propagandist few, we regarded as sheer buffoonery, into the very Holy of holies of our great material religion. Nor can it be denied even now that, with a fair proportion of that diabolic love of mischief which he shares with his able fellow-countryman, Tim Healy, he took a direct personal delight in playing the malignant imp in the movement, and used to boast that he had set back Socialism in Great Britain fully twenty years, by his calculating adoption of spurious economics and advocacy of jocose politics as sound and sober efforts to improve society.

With that wholly irresponsible freakery as one of his chief charms, Shaw was never weary of irritating others by attacks which, though temporarily disagreeable, he thought they would regard with as little seriousness as he did himself. In particular, he rejoiced in outraging, purely as a matter of personal enjoyment, as he has since frequently admitted, the most deep-rooted beliefs of the Social-Democratic Federation. In the course of one of these fits of genial malignity he danced with all the pugnacious vivacity of his Donnybrook Fair ancestry on the sensitive toes of Herbert Burrows, as more recently he has gratified the same hereditary disposition to provocation and cudgelry by trailing his coat over the most cherished materialist convictions of Robert Blatchford. The result in both cases was as amusing, as perhaps it has been surprising, to the lookers-on. For, undoubtedly, Shaw got very much the worst of these encounters, which masters of persiflage not unfrequently do when they encounter men who are so intemperate and untunable as to believe in something earnestly and to mean just what they say.

Thus it came about that when Shaw delivered an address on Ibsen, which he made an excuse for travestying Ibsen as a pleasing little side-issue of a joke, and also for elaborately misrepresenting, with much tongue-rolling enjoyment, all the theories and aspirations of the International Socialist Party, amid the vigorous cheers of the members of the Fabian Society, he aroused awkward criticism. Unluckily, for him, that is to say, Burrows took this for once seriously, and dealt with Shaw and his methods in an article entitled Socialism of the Sty, which has not even yet been forgotten or lost its appropriateness. The laudation of individual self-interest pure and simple, without any regard or consideration for others, the recommendation to look only at the lower side of all human life for personal gratification, was dealt with as it deserved.

But Shaw, though very angry at the time on account of this merciless castigation, was not the sort of man to be permanently deprived of his amusement by the temporary uneasiness thus engendered. He is still at it and will continue at it, in my opinion, to his dying day. Yet, at that very time, Shaw was visiting all the Radical Clubs of London and delivering Socialist addresses, under anything but encouraging conditions, when certainly he had nothing whatever to gain personally by so doing, and was helping to produce that feeling of disgust with Liberal theories and methods the full effect of which we are only just beginning to experience a quarter of a century or so later. It is this early work of Shaw’s in our movement, and his persistent backing of unpopular but important causes outside of actual Socialism, which I like to remember, when I also recall some of the far less meritorious actions which he has favoured us with, just by way of contributing to his own cynical amusement.

That is the difficulty with Shaw. He is the poser-in-chief of our period. What his real opinions are at any particular moment nobody can say but himself, and ninety-nine times out of a hundred he does not tell you. When talking alone and seriously with an intimate friend on some important subject he can, as might be imagined, express himself as ably, forcibly, and simply as any man living. But give him even a small audience and artificiality of the most artificial type begins at once. He must coruscate, be brilliant, shine out so as to eclipse all else, no matter how much he has to force his intellectual machinery in order to produce the desired effect. In this respect he is not unlike Meredith, who also was never able to resist the temptation of straining for effect, when it was wholly unnecessary for him thus to impress his intellectual brilliancy upon the men around him.

But Shaw carries this farther than Meredith ever did. At times you would think, to hear what he says, that Shaw imagined himself to be superior to Shakespeare, Sophocles, Molière, Karl Marx, Isaiah, Swift, and St. Paul all rolled into one. Of course, he does not imagine anything of the kind. At bottom he knows his own limitations far better than any of his critics. But it suits his saturnine humour and sardonic wit to convince people he is an Admirable Crichton and a good deal more; just as it amused Byron to persuade one of his victims that mustard was the best possible condiment for gooseberry fool. I shall never forget when an eminent Italian writer lunched with him at Adelphi Terrace, how Shaw, in the presence of Mrs. Shaw, my wife, and myself, set to work to give this able foreigner the impression that his opinion of himself was all that I have suggested above. My friend believed he was in earnest and thought him mad. I myself was more than half taken in at the time, well as I knew Shaw’s propensities for this sort of eccentricity, and only afterwards when we were sitting quietly at home did I feel satisfied that the whole thing was an elaborate joke.

No wonder that Shaw now has some trouble to get himself taken seriously, notwithstanding the fact that he rarely fails to risk all his well-earned popularity by publicly backing any cause which he seems to be right, no matter how much it may run against public opinion of the moment. Thus, speaking in perfect seriousness at the Kensington Town Hall not long ago, the audience began to laugh when he got up, and to Shaw’s great, or at any rate well-assumed, indignation, went on laughing till he sat down, though there was not a single joke or paradox in his whole address. A man in this country who has once obtained credit for being witty or amusing is accepted as full of fun at all times and on all questions, and Shaw having attained platform fame at first by his jokes, his admirers cannot believe that he is not always fooling for them to the top of his bent.

But there is a subject upon which Shaw is specially oracular. That is music. Some foreigners go so far as to say that he alone induced the people of this country to listen to Wagner, and that but for Shaw that great composer would never have had full recognition in this island. Many years before Shaw was heard of as an authority on music, a well-known French amateur said to me:

“You English have not fully accepted Wagner yet, but when you do you will push idolatry of him to extreme lengths. I see it coming. You run your predilections in everything to death. Dry champagne is good, and you understand champagne. But dry champagne with every dish and all through dinner is a gastronomic abomination. Yet that is what you are coming to. So it will be with Wagner. You will swallow him whole, will admire the deadly dull and absurd parts of his operas as much as you do the really fine portions of his stage-play, and, quite probably, will declare that those who do not care for, or are so presumptuous as to deride, long episodes of his unmusical droning, are incapable of understanding the highest form of orchestration and musical art. Worse than that, you will belittle everybody else in order to maintain a factitious supremacy for the composer who but yesterday you would not listen to.”

All this has come about, as M. St. Quentin predicted. Not only is Wagner today for all musical English people by far the greatest master of music who ever lived, but those composers whom he did not like, or chanced to envy, have no merit of any sort or kind. The Huguenots, perhaps Scribe’s masterpiece in the way of libretto, is poor stuff, and Meyerbeer’s music is quite contemptible, because Wagner was very jealous of the Jew composer and sneered at the great septet in that opera. Such uncritical criticism as this, like the denunciation of Italian melody, is simply foolish. True artists know better. The overture to William Tell is none the less a delightful piece of music because Wagner’s own overtures and preludes are on a higher plane. When Weber went to Beethoven and asked him to touch up his overture to Euryanthe, “ Let it alone,” was the reply of the greater genius, “the thing is good.” Just so. Because the Eumenides is a terrific tragedy of the greatest period of drama, it does not follow that the Birds is not a perfect specimen of poetical burlesque. The Contes d’Hoffmann, by one of the men whom Wagner virulently contemned, is living on side by side with Tristan und Isolde. Ysaye is the greatest violinist I ever heard play. But Ernst could draw tears by the perfection of his smaller art.

Shaw, of course, knows all this every bit as well as I do. If I were to tell him that he himself had some of the Aristophanic wit but lacked the Aristophanic poesy, he would admit, in private, he felt flattered at such appreciation. He is no fool. Outside he would claim infinite superiority over the famous Greek dramatist. That is his way. But having taken up Wagner just on the rise he helped to produce precisely that excess of admiration for his favourite which my French acquaintance satirised beforehand. One day we were walking together when Shaw burst forth about Wagner. He took it for granted, as more suo he has done ever since, that I knew nothing about the composer, his works, or music generally, for that matter.

His verbal panegyric of that day has appeared in print since then more than once. I listened – yes, I did, I listened – with silent attention. What he said was very good. I agreed with nearly all of it except the usual exaggerated belittlement of every other musician, without which no genuine Wagnerian seems to have fulfilled his mission. It was pointed out to me in much detail and with no lack of sarcasm how utterly incapable I, who knew nothing of Wagner, must be of understanding the nobler contrasts and harmonies of orchestration, how much I lost by this incapacity to rise to the level of the highest combination of the aesthetic and the intellectual in the world of sound. As to the Italian school, that was a thing of the past. I ventured to hint that Mozart’s Don Giovanni, though written by a Viennese, was really of the old Italian school in its highest perfection, and that I would rather hear Don Giovanni – such were my philistine and reactionary proclivities – than the Meistersingers any day.

That made but a momentary break in the torrent of exposition. Yet as Shaw overwhelmed me with his eloquence and swept me away with his fervour, there would, do all that I could, slip into my mind, and act as a sort of jarring accompaniment to this symphony of enthusiasm, Albert Wolff’s account of his visit to Bayreuth when the Ring was given for the first time in all its orbicular completeness. How silly those silly old dragons and monsters, with their stage properties, did appear as I read of them in Wolff’s admirable French, how hopelessly wearisome the long periods of grunting and groaning from the orchestra, in semi-darkness with little or nothing on the stage, did present themselves, quite fresh in the Figaro of that day, when Villemessant still walked the earth and inspired his contributors to rise to the very Empyrean of brilliant journalism. I was even imprudent enough to laugh quietly at this ill-timed reminiscence of bright French criticism, which contrasted so strangely with the equally admirable English eulogy that Shaw was pouring forth in praise of the colossal composer.

That settled it. He began afresh. Then I knew what real objurgation meant. All the marvellous Hibernian facility of diction, all the unlimited Shavian choice of vituperative words seemed to be concentrated in one scathing flood of contemptuous denunciation against myself. It swept me along, it tumbled me about, it stripped me of all raiment, denuded me of any self-respect, and landed me a battered and forlorn creature – to my great surprise, walking apparently whole and in my right mind, by Shaw’s side along the Thames Embankment. Finding that I was not quite obliterated, that I lived and moved and had my being, and that Shaw was out of breath, I ventured to utter a few still small words myself. “But, my dear Shaw,” I said, “I know Wagner’s music intimately well, and I was playing his overtures in the orchestra before you were breeched.” It was quite true; but of course he did not believe it, and so we parted at the door of the house he had come to call at.

Not long ago, in dealing faithfully with my shortcomings in type, he took my ignorance of Wagner for granted all over again. Why not? What has accuracy to do with humour? Just the same in literature. I told him once I knew Butler who wrote Erewhon very well, and considered that the merit of his works had never received anything near the credit due to them, and how, talking the matter over with an intimate friend of Butler’s, Sir William Marriott, we neither of us could understand why it was that he had made so little impression on the literary world of his time. I spoke rather strongly about this. Shaw went off and read Butler. He thereupon discovered him, as he had previously discovered Wagner. Nobody knew anything about him before. These are the delightful eccentricities of our friend which tend to make life really worth living.

But now I come to the Fabian Society. This, of course, is serious history. Whatever the humour of some of its members may be, none can deny that the Fabian is a serious society – serious and dull. It has had, so it says, immense influence: of that all Fabians are persuaded, even when they do not feel quite so sure. One thing it certainly has done. It has carefully perverted a number of promising young University men from the paths of scientific Socialism and real co-operation with the mass of the workers, to a permanent occupation of an upper chamber furnished, where superior persons discuss social problems and propound doctrinaire solutions with little or no direct reference to the actual facts of life. The function of the Fabian Society has been to prepare politicians and their supporters for just such an irresponsible, tyrannical, and half-educated bureaucracy as, to do them justice, somewhat to the alarm even of Fabians themselves, is now being dumped upon the community, without any mandate from the constituencies or any reference to the mass of the voters, by the Liberal Party. That this was not the intention of the founders I am quite willing to believe. You never go so far as when you don’t know where you are going. A Frankenstein of corruption and tyranny hatched out by Lloyd George was not quite the ideal creation of early Fabianism.

Most of the older prominent men and women of the Fabian Society were, in the first instance, members of the Social-Democratic Federation, and learnt their first lessons in Socialism from that body, as has been very handsomely acknowledged by Hubert Bland, one of the few Fabians who has no taint of priggery; and has been perhaps a little maliciously but none the less truly and nicely stated by Mr. Robert Donald of the Daily Chronicle. Some of our Fabians, even thirty years afterwards, do not at all like that fact to be recalled to their memory; and it is certain that, from the point of view of genuine revolutionary Socialism, Social-Democrats have little reason to be proud of the work of the society which was an offshoot from their body. Not that the Fabians have not done any good work. One at least of the Fabian Essays, a booklet which appeared quite early in its history, that by William Clarke, was very good; and all of them, while rather commonplace to those who had studied Socialism in earnest, were well suited to the ordinary well-to-do man in search of half-knowledge and eager to be convinced that the favourite English vice of compromise might have full outlet in Socialism as in other fields of inquiry and thought. There can be no doubt that the book as a whole, being admirably adapted to the intelligence of the superficial, rising just far enough above them to give the impression that they were thinking and learning something important as they read, prepared the way for more serious study later, notwithstanding, or perhaps even by reason of, its economic and historic errors.

Much better work was done by some of the summaries of statistics and pamphlets produced. There was always, of course, the tone of highfalutin superiority in the letterpress; but that did not affect the usefulness or impair the accuracy of the figures. Moreover, however deeply we may regret that so much industry as Webb has displayed, and such a power as he possesses of inducing Cabinet Ministers to believe he is profound; that Shaw’s telling paradoxes and Eland’s excellent journalism should have been devoted to the maintenance of what is at best a half-way house with very poor liquor – it is undeniable that these men have gone on for all these long years with no personal advantage gained for themselves by their propaganda and no great success achieved by their organisation. It is quite certain, for instance, that if Webb – whose whole texture of mind and conception of life is in entire opposition to my own – had chosen to give up his unremunerated municipal work and his devotion to his books, he would long since have been an eminent member of the House of Commons, and probably a Cabinet Minister. And the same is true of others. I do not know that this is any great compliment to their intelligence as the House of Commons and Cabinets go today; but it is certainly a tribute to their honesty of purpose and devotion to a cause which, to my mind, had little or nothing in it.

It was a long time before I understood why the Fabians went away from us and adopted a theory and a programme which the oldest among them, I should have thought, must have known to be weak and inconclusive, to say the least of it. Discussing the matter one day, however, with Mr. Swan Sonnenschein, the publisher, I expressed to him my difficulty in apprehending why they had thus gone off upon this inconclusive mission. “It seems quite incredible to me,” I said, “that they cannot see that Marx’s analyses is perfectly correct, and that the only permanent basis of a powerful national and international Socialist Party must be thoroughly sound economics and history. I don’t like to accuse them of intellectual dishonesty ―”

”I do,” was the reply. “That is just what is the matter with them. They saw that if they accepted Marx’s teachings they merely followed the Continentals and you English Social-Democrats in the footsteps of a great genius, by whom they would, so they thought, be overshadowed. Now there could be no fear of that sort about Professor Jevons. He could never overshadow anybody. It was as much as he could do to obstruct a portion of the light himself. With Jevons’s fallacies elaborated and made still more erroneous by assiduous cultivation, abundant epigram, and a fair share of paradox, they could persuade the world and themselves that they were all geniuses together. They have succeeded to a considerable extent with the incompetent, and that after all is as much as they could expect. If they had remained with you, they would have had to be satisfied with Socialist recognition only – apart from their purely literary work – and that was not good enough for them.”

I believed then that Mr. Sonnenschein had hit upon the true explanation, and I accepted it as adequate for the time. But not very long afterwards I was walking with Webb, and turned from the Embankment up Savoy Hill. We were discussing economics the social labour theory of value, to be accurate. There was a fine horse tugging with great effort a cartload of gravel up to the Strand. Quoth Webb: “You talk about labour! What is that horse doing but labouring? It is working, working hard, and working for social purposes too. It is just as much embodying social labour in the product, or adding value to it by the transport, as any human beings could do who pulled the same mass of gravel up to the place where it will be applied to social use.” Needless to add, I pointed out that the horse was simply acting as a machine oats and hay providing fuel for him as coal and oil did for a machine of iron or steel; that also if human beings are employed for services in the way of labour which might be more cheaply and better performed by a horse or a machine, the labour-value embodied by them in the product only represents in exchange what the same work could be done for by horses and machines under human control. But Webb did not see it; probably does not see it now. So I modified my view of Sonnenschein’s explanation of Fabian calculation and dexterity in a sense which protected their honesty at the expense of their intelligence.

Years later I had two experiences myself which led me to give the Fabians, at any rate, the benefit of the doubt – led me to believe, that is to say, that they may really think in all good faith that supply and demand, final utility, and the rest of it are the measures of value in exchange. First, for my sins, which I honestly believed to be few and long since expiated, I agreed to address what is called the “Fabian Nursery” on Karl Marx’s theories. It was not precisely an interesting or interested gathering I rose to. They knew it all, or at any rate looked as if they did, beforehand. I had never yet seen youthful wisdom so efficiently embodied in the flesh. This was the coming generation, land what they did not know was clearly not worth knowing. I got through my tale of bricks, having done as much justice to my old master as I could in the space of an hour – a sort of pemmican palaver, digestible even if compressed, I hoped.

Criticism followed. The first to rise was a young man of about twenty-two, who had cultivated an air of aesthetic boredom and elegant inanity to a pitch quite creditable to him. “I never read any of Marx,” said he, “but” and thereupon followed a tirade of such utter fatuity that I looked round for his pap-bottle. The next speaker was younger still; he had “read Marx many years ago, but really had forgotten all about it.” A nursery indeed!

Then I went down to Cambridge to address the Fabian Society there. A nice set of young undergraduates who, however, confessed themselves that they had never taken the trouble to master the theories upon which the whole international Socialist movement is based. They too patronised Marx, talked of him as “not up to date,” and tried to impress me with the vast superiority of some unknown gods of political economy. But when pressed to name for me even one of these divinities of sociologic renown they failed ingloriously to produce their champion of the new epoch. In my address I made some fun of Fabianism and all its cunctating inefficiency, which, I am bound to say, was very well received. But sunk in the Jevonian bog I found them, and up to the neck in the final utility morass I left them, though I did send them down my lectures thereafter to help them to clear themselves from the slimy grip of cultured incapacity.

All the which leads me to believe still more strongly that Mr. Swan Sonnenschein was, in a sense, a little too hard upon the aboriginal Fabians, and that, though the desire for emancipation from Marx was not wholly unalloyed with the hope of easier personal distinction, they did imagine that Lord Lauderdale, as transfigured in Jevons, was the long-sought economic prophet of the centuries. They did.

Political Economy is the dull science, I admit, yet I have contrived to get some fun out of it at various times. Never more than when I challenged all and sundry of the believers in the Jevonian faith in the fulness of its fatuity, professors and Fabians, students and sciolists, lecturers, authors, and pamphleteers, to meet me face to face and to compass my final intellectual overthrow at the National Liberal Club – to which, of course, I did not belong. It was my friend, Mr. J.H. Levy, formerly hon. secretary of the Economic Circle of that Club (for which I prepared my paper on The Final Futility of Final Utility), who gave me the grateful opportunity for thus flouting my foes.

Dear, dear, what a terrible destruction did await me, to be sure, when that great and terrible day of my address should come! I was threatened with dire woe, menaced with desperate disaster. Wicksteed and Webb, Shaw, Graham Wallas, and Foxwell – one or all of them would walk triumphant over my bruised and battered carcase. Not only the pupil Hyndman but his master Marx should then be sent forth on his final journey to the wastepaper basket of intellectual back numbers. And yet I slept comfortably at proper times in my bed, and no nightmare of victorious economists on the rampage disturbed my well-earned repose.

Unluckily – I protested against it, but Levy would do it – a copy of my paper was sent to all who were thought likely to attack me, including those named above and a few more. That followed which I had sadly foreseen but could not obviate. Not one of them turned up to effect my immolation. As there are still some Jevonian stragglers left, especially at our seats of ancient – very ancient – learning, and his theories at times reappear among the ignorant, I do not think it out of place to express the opinion that my address on his nonsense clears Jevons out of the path of progress for all who read it and for all time, now, henceforth, and for ever. Such is my genial conviction.

And this brings me back to Bernard Shaw, not so much in his attractive character of Jevonian straggler from the past into a new and more intelligent world of thought, though even in that capacity he is worthy of attention, as an amusing, if confused, survival of a benighted period, but as undoubtedly the man who of late years has chiefly saved the English stage from the reproach of being wholly divorced from modern interests and awakening social intelligence. Shaw as Fabian, Shaw as economist, Shaw as pamphleteer, Shaw as novelist, Shaw as speaker, Shaw as paradoxist, Shaw as journalist, Shaw as musical and dramatic critic, Shaw as faddist, Shaw as jokist, Shaw as revolutionist, is all of it pretty much the same old Shaw, whose extreme cleverness and surprising superficiality used frequently to enliven, and not unfrequently to bore, those who enjoyed the pleasure of his acquaintance and friendship in the earlier days of his interesting development, partly touched upon above.

But Shaw as dramatist is, of course, another man and another matter altogether. He is not Shaw “translated” but Shaw transformed. Necessarily Shaw the writer of plays evolved from Shaw the writer of novels. That was inevitable. He began at that end in his characterisation. Though characters cannot walk straight from a novel on to the stage without undergoing considerable change in the transfer, and scenes which are acceptable when read by the fireside often become impossible when acted, it is, I judge, unavoidable that a student of society, of persons, of manners, who begins by writing stories to be read about the people whom he depicts, or exaggerates, or satirises, or uses as puppets ventriloquised into expressing his own thoughts, should, in the first instance at any rate, regard the stage itself from the reading point of view. He looks at his plots and his personages, that is to say, not from the front of the house but from behind the scenes. He is more inclined to listen to what the actors say than to note what they do. So long as the words are well and intelligently uttered and the tone of voice is sympathetic, or dramatic, or satirical, so long as laughter follows in the right places and the audience is intellectually pleased or amusingly puzzled, the author, if not too self-critical, feels that he has achieved his end. He has brought his intellect to bear upon the public from a new platform and has enforced his truths, or his paradoxes, upon his fellow-humans with fresh vigour and from a quarter as unintended at the beginning by himself as it was unexpected by them.

That is why the novelist or author rarely makes a good dramatist. He either wants to get all his story at once on the boards with its asides, and reflections, and musings, and psychologic interplay; to give, with all the biting force of a Paul Louis Courier pamphlet, the processes of intellectual vivisection which no abbreviated scheme of words, however perfect the acting, can by any possibility convey when recited in the theatre; or he contents himself with merely clever farce and paradox which would produce almost as much effect if recited from a well-regulated talking machine – the last, of course, being an abandonment of the presumed attempt to use the stage as a medium of serious intellectual expression. To this Shaw has never condescended. Even his farces have had an undertone of genuine satire.

It seems to me, however, dealing as I am with Bernard Shaw as undoubtedly one of the effective intellectual forces of his time, that he is quite right in saying that he is not at all indebted to Ibsen. I have always considered Ibsen one of the most overrated men of our day. His plays bore me to death. They seem to me not only extremely artificial but miserably dull. I simply cannot stand his “ Sandford and Merton “ dialogue and his platitudinous plots. The Master Builder went near to be the death of me. If it had not been for Miss Robins’s marvellous display of bright and intelligent acting, my wife would have had to call in four stalwart scene-shifters to carry me out.

Why this portentous purveyor of commonplace should have been log-rolled into being considered a genius is a constant source of wonder even to a case-hardened old cynic like myself. It is very well to say that the Choruses of the Greek tragedies give vent to a series of silly utterances which serve only to throw into higher relief the terror of the scenes between which they are interspersed. That is true. But the plays of Sophocles and Æschylus, thank Heaven, are not all Chorus; while the use which Aristophanes made of the Chorus took it up to a height both of thought and of diction such as no dramatist from his day to ours has even so much as attempted to emulate. No, Shaw owes nothing to Ibsen, for there is nothing to owe, and it is little short of a literary outrage to bring the names of the great Greeks into the same paragraph with the prosy Norwegian stageman. But the hallucinated Ibsenite fanatics have done this thing, and I wish Shaw would tell them what he thinks of them in that connection.

On the other hand, as Shaw truly says, “ a man can no more be completely original than a tree can grow out of the air.” He himself may owe his impulse towards stagecraft and the dramatisation of psychologic incidents to Charles Lever and Samuel Butler. He says he does. I will not say he does not; because nobody can possibly know the truth of this but himself. But it is a very far cry from A Day’s Ride: A Life’s Romance, or Erewhon, and the Way of All Flesh, to Major Barbara and Mrs. Warren’s Profession. To me it seems certain that, as I have said before, Shaw is indebted for his immediate literary impetus and turn towards the stage-play to another countryman of his own, of higher intellectual faculties and sadder failure of due appreciation than either of the authors he names.

Oscar Wilde was writing at his best and urging his unavailing protest against the society which pampered and spoilt him, but which at bottom he despised, when Shaw first entered upon London life. It is almost incredible that Oscar’s essays and novels and dramas should not have had an effect upon the mind and the conceptions of a man like Shaw. The Soul of Man Under Socialism and Dorian Grey strike a deeper note than Shaw himself has ever yet struck; while though Oscar’s plays are not at all of equal merit, their perfection of literary form must have appealed strongly to Shaw, whose intolerance of slovenliness in his own writing is obvious in everything he publishes.

But, after all, what does it matter? Not an atom more than whether Shaw’s own product in the world of letters will live, will influence others, smaller or bigger than himself, or will be forgotten, as the special form of society which he deals with fades into the long ago. Their chance of survival, however, is, I think, good. Who could have believed who saw them at the time when they were freshly produced that a comedy and a farce so completely artificial and redolent of the day before yesterday as The School for Scandal and She Stoops to Conquer would even now hold their own. Wit and humour, coupled with a telling plot, keeps even the oldest of dramatic raiment from decay. But then, on the other hand, I take it I am one of the very few left who still read with enjoyment the delightful comedies and extravaganzas of Meilhac and Halévy or recall with never-wearying appreciation the exquisite art of Madame Chaumont. I wonder whether Shaw ever saw her play Madame Attend Monsieur? The worthy successors of Molière are scarcely remembered today. [1]

The first plays by Shaw which I saw were Widower’s Houses and Arms and the Man. The former had all the drawbacks of being based upon a novel, and Shaw was still in what I may call his behind-the-scenes period. Much of it was very good talk and there an end. Arms and the Man was better talk; a sort of intellectual farce which deserved the success it achieved, and achieves still over a far wider circle as the Chocolate Soldier. Nobody who had any appreciation whatever of satire and wit and paradox could help laughing; though there was really no sound bottom to the thing, and half the people who heard it and enjoyed it could not in the least make out what the author was driving at. A shorthand writer should have been told off to take down the remarks of the occupants of the stalls as they issued from the theatre. They would have been as funny as the play itself.

My own opinion is that Shaw saw the defects of his piece quite as clearly as anybody. In fact, when he made his famous jest at the end, I believe he half meant it in earnest. It will be remembered that the tale went round that when the audience applauded vigorously and the author was called for, Bernard Shaw duly appeared, to be greeted by a volley of cheers from all except one exacting critic in the gallery, who hissed as heartily as the great majority applauded. Shaw looked up and said, “I quite agree with you, sir, but what are we two among so many?” I should not be at all surprised to learn from Shaw himself that his own matured judgment of his production was not far removed from that of the hisser among the gods. Nay, it is even possible that in order to make his joke, and thus in a roundabout way to put his view upon record, he sent that obnoxious minority of one up into the gallery himself. I suppose I do not myself differ from the majority of those who have seen it in regarding Arms and the Man as a brilliant satirical skit staged for its literary epigrams rather I than for its characterisation or its dramatic value. If I asked Shaw, he would probably tell me with due solemnity that deep tragedy underlies its apparent trifling and mirthful paradox.

But I should imagine the very last place Shaw expected popular appreciation of his dramatic faculty would come from is America. Up to the production of Candida in New York, Shaw’s plays had been no more than a succès d’estime. There was certainly no run upon them of any kind. And as all the world now knows, that production of Candida was a pure accident, and the result achieved a startling surprise to those who made the venture and regarded it as an almost hopeless risk. For the play at once became a popular as well as a literary success. Not only so, but the intellectual well-to-do began thereafter to enjoy the farcical travesty of its most cherished sentiments and the scathing mockery of its highest ideals. A shorter, more telling, and less didactic form of theatrical preachery than Sardou’s Famille Benoîton captured that singular class of persons among the English-speaking peoples, who are educated just sufficiently well to know a little of everything and nothing thoroughly, and have a liking for wit and humour which deals superficially with some of the serious problems of life, without disclosing the fact that below the surface upon which the author so amusingly glides these same problems are being discussed in quite a different temper. That they do not want to know. They instinctively feel that satire, however trenchant, is not in the least dangerous, and that Shaw’s stage Socialism will never really threaten their pockets or menace their lives. They can therefore afford to laugh at, and even to admire, literary stagecraft which gives them a new sensation of temporary dissatisfaction (for others) with things as they are.

But I am not engaged upon an investigation of our mephistophelèan Beaumarchais [2] and modernised Ecclesiastes as a literary exercitation. What interests me most, knowing him so well, is the relation which Shaw the dramatic author bears to Shaw the Socialist essayist and agitator. That, I say, does interest me. In my opinion this is best to be discerned in the prefaces to Major Barbara and Mrs. Warren’s Profession, and the plays so named which are appended thereunto. Take Major Barbara. “Money,” saith the sanctified instructor, “is the root of all evil.” “Fiddlesticks!” replies our modern prophet of the playhouse, “money is the root of all good.” A pleasing paradox to those who choose to take it so. But it is much more than that. It is, as put in the Major Barbara preface, a very remarkable indication of the strange limitations of the writer’s own intelligence. Shaw has never at any period of his career been able to clear his mind of a most superstitious subservience to the money fetish. His Socialist ideals for the whole community proceed adoringly upwards to a big balance at the bank for all. His conception of the social millennium is that everybody should have an income of £1,000 a year. Even his views as to the uplifting of the workers reach no further than a vast elevation of wages for worthy persons who are somehow to work in a sublimated competitive atmosphere. Wealth, apart from money, seems inconceivable to Shaw. He actually quotes my old friend Cobden Sanderson’s brilliant joke of “Universal Pensions for Life” as if it might be embodied in a serious proposal.

But “this is only Shaw’s fun.” Is it? Is it not rather the inevitable fate of the revolutionary in ethics and in property-holding, in religion and in sexualogy, who will persist in neglecting the fundamental truths of economics? Poverty is a curse. Yet is it the indispensable foundation of modern civilised capitalist society. Upon it are built up in successive stories the whole miserable edifice of crime, ignorance, disease, police, army, prisons, executions, millionaires, aristocrats, capitalists, and the like. “The reserve army of the unemployed,” as Shaw says, is a necessity for the elasticity of capitalism. Do away with it, therefore, by securing to every one enough money to live upon, cries he. He believes this can be “done easily enough.” This though every existing institution is on the side of the rich; and the Churches and the Salvation Army itself, in which Major Barbara “holds a commission as an officer,” are suffered to exist only on condition that they preach “submission to the State as at present capitalistically organised.” He hates the whole system quite genuinely from bottom to top, and he really believes, in and out of his prefaces and plays, that he is a genuine revolutionist.

I thought he was myself, when he first took to Socialism. But the working class – whom, I say again, I believe he really wishes, in his unhumanly cynical way, to relieve from the horrors which afflict their daily life and corrupt the whole body politic and economic – saw the truth at one glance more clearly than I did by years of watching and study. They regarded Shaw then, and they look upon him now, as a self-deceived reactionary in practical life and a well-meaning farceur on the platform, in the library, and on the stage.

He does not convey to them the impression of sincerity. His Lazarus Shirley, whose honesty lands him in the lowest depths of misery, seems to them no more likely to emancipate himself from poverty under existing conditions by putting money which he cannot get, honestly or dishonestly, in his purse; than Andrew Undershaft, his Dives, could have become a millionaire and money-worshipper unless social and economic circumstances had aided him. It is not a case of one Lazarus against one Dives, but of a mob of disinherited, uneducated, and unorganised Lazaruses against a few Dives, holders of the means of making wealth, who consequently control all the other social powers which Shaw would willingly disrupt.

Major Barbara, therefore, when, abandoning her hysterical and silly Salvation Army “self-sacrifice,” she goes over with her etiolated lover to the Armament-making Gin-distilling camp of Unterschaft-Bolger & Co., because they have got money and the means of making more – she, having been convinced that without money nothing can be done – when the pretty, attractive, courageous Barbara, I say, thus decides to use her father’s means merely to improve existing conditions for the workers immediately around her, she obviously gives way on the whole case. Money has won all along the line. Of course Shaw intends that it should, as in real life it does.

But the revolutionary moral in all this is not easy to discover. Nobody can make a revolution by himself or herself, and there is nothing very subversive in the discovery that if every one had plenty of money in a society based upon competitive exchange for gold and payment of wages – an infinitely greater impossibility than the realisation of Socialism itself – there would be no poverty and no property-crime. And yet Shaw believes himself to be, I have no doubt, as thorough a revolutionary when he declaims against the existence of a class war, and does his utmost to foist upon Great Britain the domination of an irremovable and irresponsible bureaucracy, as when he writes:

“Here am I, for instance, by class a respectable man, by common sense a hater of waste and disorder, by constitution legally minded to the verge of pedantry, and by temperament apprehensive and economically disposed to the limit of old-maidishness; yet I am, and have always been, and shall now always be, a revolutionary writer, because our laws make law impossible; our liberties destroy all freedom; our property is organised robbery; our morality is an impudent hypocrisy; our wisdom is administered by inexperienced or malexperienced dupes, our power wielded by cowards and weaklings, and our honour false in all its points. I am an enemy of the existing order for good reasons.”

Doubtless. But this is not revolutionary writing all the same. It is merely clever, but somehow rather soulless denunciatory rhetoric. It has all been done, and, saving Shaw’s presence, very much better done, before.

Here is a passage from the play itself, however, which shows a very much clearer appreciation of the facts around us and is really far more revolutionary in the deductions which any thinking man must draw from the scathing irony of its bold statement of fact than pages of such attacks as those which I have given above:

UNDERSHAFT. All religious organisations exist by selling themselves to the rich.

CUSINS. Not the Army. That is the Church of the poor.

UNDERSHAFT. All the more reason for buying it.

CUSINS. I don’t think you quite know what the Army does for the poor.

UNDERSHAFT. Oh yes I do. It draws their teeth: that is enough for me – as a man of business ―

CUSINS. Nonsense! It makes them sober ―

UNDERSHAFT. I prefer sober workmen. The profits are larger.

CUSINS. ― honest ―

UNDERSHAFT. Honest workmen are the most economical.

CUSINS. ― attached to their homes ―

UNDERSHAFT. So much the better: they will put up with anything sooner than change their shop.

CUSINS. ― happy ―

UNDERSHAFT. An invaluable safeguard against revolution.

CUSINS. ― unselfish ―

UNDERSHAFT. Indifferent to their own interests, which suits me exactly.

CUSINS. ― with their thoughts on heavenly things ―

UNDERSHAFT [rising]. And not on Trade Unionism nor Socialism. Excellent.

CUSINS [revolted]. You really are an infernal old rascal.

UNDERSHAFT [indicating Peter Shirley, who has just come from the shelter and strolled dejectedly down the yard between them]. And this is an honest man!

This is telling enough, and Shaw might and could as easily make Undershaft show the crowded House how every attempt at improving the existing social system which does not tend directly to lessen the strain of competition for subsistence must turn to the advantage of the employer. It certainly is very remarkable that the writer, who records what Undershaft recognises and proclaims so clearly, is and always has been in practice not a revolutionary, as he asserts he is in his writings, but a palliativist of the more reactionary type.

But there is no explaining Shaw’s self-contradictions. He is not continuous either in thought or in expression. The latter part of Major Barbara also, like the concluding act of John Bull’s Other Island, drifts off into semi-farcical diatribe, though incidentally it smartly exposes the philanthropic methods of the enlightened wage-slave owner, who understands, as Crassus in his day understood, that well-fed and well-educated human property are always the most valuable. My own grandfather was equally sagacious, and sucked out no small advantage from his well-kept and well-educated “niggers.” It is not the Legrees but the St. Clairs who make the biggest fortunes, and do the most to prolong the existence of a baleful system, either in chattelslavery or wage-slavery. Shaw sees that. What he does not see is that impatient denunciation of social wrongs and breeches-pocket endeavours to obtain an income for all are not revolutionary at this time of day.

Mrs. Warren’s Profession has achieved a notoriety much in excess of its merit as a piece, because of the unpleasantness of its subject and the foolish action of the Censor in preventing its performance. The play itself is not nearly so good as Shaw could easily have made it. Throughout it reads to me as if he were a little afraid of what he was doing, and that Shaw the man of convention and everyday decencies were holding back the Shaw of biting satire and real social morality. But it is a bold thing to have attempted anyhow. The fact that he should have brought the successful owner of international houses of ill-fame on to the stage in company with her own highly educated, refined, and modest but not silly daughter of doubtful parentage, and should have introduced us to Mrs. Warren’s associate and partner in a sober and serious manner, stands permanently to his credit. There is no joking in Mrs. Warren’s Profession. The action all the time is treading hard upon the heels of tragedy, but the author too obviously lets “I dare not” wait upon “I would.” There is no need for the apology in the preface. Mrs. Norton put all Shaw says about the plots of well-known dramas and operas, which the Censor and the public gladly accept and applaud, in crushing reply to similar criticism to that which he has to face, before he was born. There are a few telling additional illustrations, but the main argument remains precisely the same.

Whether the piece is tabooed or not is a matter of indifference as a question of art. Mrs. Warren in no way oversteps the limit of propriety, except in hints of what the whole world well knows is going on behind the curtain of our prudery all day and every day. Virtue and Christian property marriage are and always have been based upon prostitution. A much greater writer than Shaw told the believing and the unbelieving that more than a thousand years ago. Aufer meretrices et confunde omnia libidinibus. Sacrifice a sensible percentage of your most charming womanhood to unbridled lust, or see your own families and the whole of society overwhelmed with sexual gratification.

The famous Bishop of Hippo knew well, personally, whereof he spoke. His authority on such matters is quite unimpeachable. And now our modern St. Bernard of austere personal chastity comes forward gingerly to repeat to us in the twentieth century what the roystering but reclaimed St. Augustine thus brutally shouted at our ancestors in the tenth. I say “gingerly,” because Shaw, quite unnecessarily, makes Mrs. Warren a coarse as well as an unscrupulous person, thus giving Vivie her daughter a direct personal reason for resenting the smell of the gold obtained from the exercise of such an unseemly profession. Mrs. Warren is not old and is spoken of as “handsome.” Why should she be vulgar and betray her real vocation, except for the purpose of allowing the audience and the reader to feel that Vivie has good grounds for abandoning a mother who is apt to break out in this shockingly uncultured way, apart from the disinclination to share any longer in the profits of a trade which had supplied her with her education?

Come, Shaw, admit that you might as well have shown us a Mrs. Warren sparkling, vivacious, well-mannered, and charming, as have revealed her to us a person of a much lower grade? Why, too, not defend her action wholly as well as partially? Born into squalid surroundings, she took her way out along the lines of your favourite “least resistance.” My belief is Mrs. Warren, divested of the unsocial vice of mispronunciation, with or without Vivie, will pass the rest of her life in the odour of well-preserved sanctity and will die respected by all who knew her. That will be after Sir George Crofts and she have sold out their “hotels” to a pious member of the aristocracy at a very high valuation.

My personal relations with Shaw of late years have been fitful but interesting. He kindly came more than once up to Burnley to speak for me when I was contesting that borough unsuccessfully. On one occasion he told the audience so many good things about myself that I felt that I, even I, should like to put in just a few touches of the redeeming vices, which I know myself, in all modesty, to possess. But the Burnley people, though they would not vote for me in sufficient numbers to introduce me as a disturbing factor into that national seat of organised humbug, the House of Commons, were convinced beforehand of all the good in relation to myself which Shaw so charmingly depicted, and applauded his eulogies to the echo.

I am bound to say, however, he was careful to supply promptly an antidote to this ointment of sweet savour, wherewith he anointed me in Lancashire, by going off the very next day to put much the same cosmetic over the illustrious John Burns at Battersea. We may be quite sure Burns felt that Shaw did not say half enough in laudation of himself, however excessive the praise may have sounded to people with the ordinary dimension of ear. But there is Shaw on record in print at Burnley with respect to the writer of these lines. I shall call him in as an unprejudiced witness to character if Peter challenges me when I stand at the wicket. After this speech about myself to which I refer, Shaw and I passed a very pleasant evening together at the Bull. It commenced by my watching him with concealed and silent horror supply his waste of tissue by eating only the white of fried eggs. Since a well-known cricketer excused himself to me, years before, for having dropped an easy catch, on the ground that he had supped on oysters and hot port wine and water the previous night, I do not think my natural sense of the fitting and the congruous in matters gastronomic had received such a shock. Yet Shaw apparently felt none the worse for it. We actually discussed Shakespeare to a late hour of the night, and Shaw’s observations on the great Elizabethan displayed none of that patronising condescension which at times he thinks it well to don for public edification.

But à propos of that albuminous repast of his, what a pity it is that Shaw should have stunted the natural growth of his mind and racked his intellect to fiddle-strings by his confoundedly inappropriate diet. Why has Shaw no pathos? How is it he is destitute of poesy? What makes his humour comparatively thin? Why do his dramas tend to peter out at their latter end? I say it with all confidence and certitude: because his food is not suited to our damnable climate, and his drink does him no good. In Sicily, or Tasmania, at Santa Barbara, Cape Town or Copiapó these vegetarian vagaries may be pardonable, though I should be sorry to try them on myself even there. But in England and in London, to say nothing of Ireland and Dublin, they are a sheer tempting of Providence to reduce a man to his lowest possible common denominator.

Take Shaw now and feed him up for a season on fine flesh dishes artfully combined and carefully cooked, turn a highly skilled French chef on to him in every department of his glorious art, prescribe for him stout, black-jack, or, better still, the highest class of Burgundy of the Romance Conti variety, born in a good year, and Shaw would be raised forthwith to the nth power of intellectual attainment. His strong human sympathies, no longer half-soured by albuminous indigestion, would bring the tears to our eyes and tend them gently as they coursed down our cheeks. Lyrics of exquisite form and infinite fancy would literally ripple out of him, while his blank verse and his rhymed couplets would be the joy of all mankind. As to his humour, Mercutio, whom Shakespeare killed, as he himself confessed, in order to prevent Mercutio from killing him, would be a mere lay figure by the side of the irrepressible funsters Shaw should furnish forth for us. His plays too would then work steadily up to a convincing and even delightful artistic close, unless he should think it well now and again to give us a coda to his dramatic symphony worthy to rank with the fifth act of The Merchant of Venice. But it is of no use talking. In this case “forcible feeding” is not legally admissible, and Shaw himself is such a fanatic on provender that I am convinced that if he could make sure of having Nebuchadnezzar his stomach, he would, like that potentate, go out to grass. The possibilities of Bernard Shaw as meat-eater and alcoholist must therefore be left permanently to our imagination for depictment, and their realisation can only be achieved in his next – what am I saying? – vegetable incarnation!

There is no doubt about one thing Shaw has achieved. He has made a great impression upon young men of ability and young women too. They appreciate him to so high a degree, on account of his literary skill, that they attribute to him qualities of which, to my mind, he is wholly destitute; and some of them positively resent criticism of his plays, as evidence of lack of power to understand him at all. It is always the play which you have not seen, or have not carefully read, that contains, according to them, all those special touches that in the others you consider lacking. So, not to fail in doing justice to a brilliant fellow-Socialist, I have read or seen them all. The last recommended to me as a perfect microcosm of deep thought allied to delightful satire and charming humour was Man and Superman.

I had read the play with its preface, and the very smart jeux d’esprit appended to it, years ago; but I thought it possible that in the easy-going atmosphere of an old country house and garden I might have omitted to take note of subtle hints of vast profundity that would quicken my intelligence, or have overlooked delicate flashes of poesy that would delight my soul. So I re-read it with close attention. I confess, here and now, that the higher parts of my being are quite unmoved. The whole thing, from start to finish, is burlesque. I have chuckled at witty turns of phrase or audacious paradoxes. I have even laughed here and there at ludicrous situations and funny repartee. But the burlesquerie, the Shawesquerie, the inimitable unreality of the whole comedy forced itself in upon me all the time. Do what I would, I could not lose sight of the hands of the marionette-manipulator behind the scenes, as his puppets danced to his twitches at the wires, or shut out from my mental vision his mouth in its various expressions, as he cynically ventriloquised his characters as the mood was on him.

By far the most telling scene in the play, to my thinking, is that in which all the friends and family take it for granted that Mrs. Malone Hector, née Violet Whitefield, has given birth to a child out of wedlock, because she does not disclose the name of her husband, assumed to be her paramour, and wears a wedding-ring which they have not seen put on her finger in a church, in a chapel, or even at the registry office. Jack Tanner’s remarks on the subject, though he, like the rest, is convinced of Violet’s unchastity, without a tittle of evidence, and his warm congratulations to the thoroughly conventional Violet on having had the pluck to present the world with a baby after the independent fashion so universally decried, are in the spirit of the highest of high comedy. Violet’s furious indignation at the misinterpretation put upon her quite proper if secretive conduct by the whole lot of them bursts out most tellingly after Jack’s enthusiastic championship of her as a devotee of free love. And the shamefacedness of the entire set towards Violet when they discover that all their pet little fetishes have been duly bowed down to, is as true to nature as it is laughable in the play.

On the other hand, the scenes between this same Tanner and Ann strike me, for the most part, as by no means excellent fooling. Tanner says some very good things indeed, but they are too obviously led up to, and to me this deliberate artificiality becomes wearisome and the long stageplay and longer speeches a bit of a bore. Don Juan is merely Tanner’s other self in a better climate than ours. But he puts the truth which Socialists have been proclaiming, ever since Socialism was, very well ; namely, that only by clothing even material motives with an ideal raiment can the best of courage and conduct be got out of men. The preachments are all sound. “It is not death that matters, but the fear of death. It is not killing and dying that degrades us, but base living and accepting the wages and profits of degradation. Better ten dead men than one live slave or his master. Men shall yet rise up, father against son and brother against brother, and kill one another for the great Catholic idea of abolishing slavery.” All the which we do verily believe. And to men and women who have never thought out even the most superficial of the facts around them it comes as a revelation : none the less revealing because it is disclosed in set phrases from the stage. Nor are the short essays on the function of woman and her creation of, influence upon and subordination to man, though partially contradicted in the mundane portion of the play, by any means devoid of thought-provoking acuteness “in this place,” where, “instead of killing time we have to kill eternity.” For my part, however, I shall not take Shaw’s plays below with me for that purpose. But as they are increasingly popular they are beyond question doing invaluable destructive work up here.

And so back to burlesque. Why not? But why claim for it more? If Shaw can get his paradoxical dynamite, carefully placed and ready for immediate explosion, into the machinery of modern slave-driving society, by this means more readily than by any other, we can all conscientiously applaud, and, if we like, go our way before the edifice comes toppling down from this and other causes. That surely is enough. There is no need to discover more in all his clever destructiveness than the author has given us. The unreality of the speech-makers in Man and Superman is part of the show ; for it is inconceivable that Shaw could not have made his puppets more natural flesh-and-blood-carrying humans had he chosen to do so. He did not so choose, and therefore he has given us a witty diatribe-developing address, with Spain, Hell, and London in attendance, instead of a powerful comedy of real life and manners, equally witty and much more dramatic, which I believe he is quite capable of producing. Whether he will thus rise to the level which some of his less judicious admirers already claim for him, is, of course, more than I can say.

The last time I saw Shaw was when he was so good-natured as to propose my health at the banquet which the men who had worked with me for just upon a generation gave me at the Café Monico on my seventieth birthday. All of us had fought Shaw vigorously for many years, and some present would never forgive him for having, as they believed, done as much as any one to prevent the consolidation of a really powerful and united Socialist Party in Great Britain. But that night we were all at one, and Shaw helped to keep us together by the portion of his speech in which he abjured I hope finally that advocacy of bureaucratic domination which had seemed to us so wholly irreconcilable with any reasonable idea of a co-operative Commonwealth. What he said on this point surprised as much as it pleased all present. That Shaw should cease to change his attitude or to vary his frame of mind and join earnestly and continuously in a determined effort to use the inevitable social evolution towards a conscious transformation into an organised Social-Democracy is too much to hope for. But that he will always be a perturbing and thought-provoking element in our existing society is quite certain, for in that respect he cannot help himself.

I have devoted more space to Shaw, apart from the Fabian Society, than I originally intended, because it is quite clear that Shaw is still living and producing an effect, while his Society is obviously moribund and its theories of life and action are as dead as Queen Anne. Shaw as a playwright and satirist, in short, is doing good work of the destructive kind. Shaw as a Fabian (with him, Webb and others) is an obstructionist and reactioner of the most conservative variety. No man has done more in our day to whittle away the ideals of clever young men, and to let down the enthusiasm of earnest strivers towards the new development, than Shaw. Mere epigram is the curse of oratory, and mere paradox is the poison of high endeavour. When to his paradox and his brilliant turning of the seamy side to his audience he superadds an absolutely false conception of economics, he is, in spite of all his really humane sympathies, a hindrance to the social revolution which he himself admits to be inevitable.

Though he has emancipated his mind from the crude ethics and still cruder art of the modern bourgeoisie, as set forth in the holy of holies of successful capitalism, he has never grasped the bedrock truths of historic and economic growth, and the fetishism of money still obsesses his soul. He cannot think outside the limits of hard cash and I high wages. This is a very serious disqualification indeed for any man who poses as a teacher and an organiser, at a period when the successful novelist and the playwright is supposed to possess, without study, all the qualifications of the man of science, the statesman, and the philosopher. Shaw is the brilliant spokesman of a transition period, and it would be easy to admire him unreservedly in that capacity if he himself and his followers would only refrain from claiming for him a vast deal more.


1. “Once upon a time” I was a dramatic critic myself, though nobody knew it, at any rate for several months. Some day, perhaps, I may recall the episode and its incidents. I was then a member of the Garrick Club, and, as my criticisms made a bit of a stir, it used to amuse me to hear the comments and the guesses as to who the delinquent might be. This was not easy to find out, so long as a very few kept their own counsel, seeing that I went when I thought fit, paid for my own place, and sent my articles direct to the editor. If any reader of this note ever saw Irving in Othello or Madge Robertson (Mrs. Kendall) in Nos Intimes (”Peril”), he will understand where the fun came in! Laugh? Oh, Lord!

2. In the printed version of the book this is “Beaumarchis”. (Note by MIA)

Last updated on 1.11.2007