Published in Book Reviews, Issue 2 (March/April 2018), Reviews, Volume 26

Royal Irish Academy
ISBN 9781908997159

By Peter Gahan

It’s about time that Ireland took Bernard Shaw seriously, and Fintan O’Toole in his convincingly argued and highly readable Judging Shaw makes a powerful case for so doing. Like Shaw a political commentator and drama critic (although Shaw was many other things, not least a playwright of global fame), O’Toole judges his fellow Dubliner to be a world historical figure, Olympian even. Not many would have doubted that on his death, aged 94, in 1950, but today Shaw’s sceptical, questioning mode of thinking has become so much part of the intellectual air we breathe, of the culture we imbue, as to have rendered him practically invisible: a victim of his own success as slayer of the idols of Victorian conformity. His once-novel ideas and questioning approach have become ours, though we forget the source. But with the looming return of those idols in an increasingly economically unequal world, O’Toole proposes an urgent reconsideration, stressing especially Shaw’s lifelong crusade against poverty, that primary social and economic ill against which all others pale in comparison because they derive from it.

Indeed, Judging Shaw is 2017’s second book from an Irish author on this subject, following on from this reviewer’s own Bernard Shaw and Beatrice Webb on poverty and equality in the modern world. The subject is pertinent both because the 2008 economic crisis—surprisingly, perhaps—accelerated rather than stalled the rush to inequality, and because Shaw between 1905 and 1914 initiated the modern discourse on equality, pointing to the impossibility of democracy in an unequal society whose major symptom is poverty. The solution, neither charity nor stigmatisation of the poor, lies simply in money, the root of all good for the ever-paradoxical Shaw. His idea of a universal pension for life is today’s universal basic income. And money as ‘stitched in to the fabric of his plays’, O’Toole perceptively notes, is part of what makes Shaw’s drama so radical.

The subtitle—‘The radicalism of GBS’—explains his mission, and he does not shrink from less appealing issues like his subject’s later admiration for dictators, even if Shaw himself countered the accusation of being anti-democratic in 1938:

‘… anyone who has read my work carefully would know that the very opposite is the case. What I am trying to prove is that democracy, as we know it, is a fraud … I am tired of the way in which newspapers continue to make it appear that I am an admirer of dictatorship. All my work shows the truth to be otherwise.’

At the same time, O’Toole effectively skewers such memes (just search the web) as Shaw the advocate of lethal chambers and Shaw the eugenicist (an inevitable problem when reading literally such satirists as Shaw or, as O’Toole points out, his closest Irish antecedent, Swift). Shaw’s eugenics, the opposite of selective breeding by the state, would let nature take its course by creating a class-free society where, instead of one income marrying another, as Shaw put it, no social barriers would prevent any two people from marrying.

As well as puncturing myths, O’Toole highlights important but little-known aspects of Shaw: his practically mystical connection to nature, as evidenced in ecstatic experiences of Killiney Bay as a child and of Skellig Michael as an adult; that ‘Shaw’s writing, especially for his plays, was never casual’; Shaw’s view on the tyranny of the (patriarchal) family and the need for recognition of the rights of children and economic freedom for women; that consenting sexuality between adults has nothing to do with morality; his having nothing to learn from Freud on eros and thanatos, given the argument between Don Juan and the Devil in Man and Superman; the pivotal importance of the Great War for Shaw’s career, when to a chorus of disapproval in the jingoist press he questioned England’s motives and later supported the leaders of the 1916 Irish Rising; similarly, his support of Dublin workers in 1913, when he proposed that they arm themselves against the police (James Connolly, sharing the platform with Shaw, organised the Irish Citizen Army a few weeks later); Shaw as the first writer to engage both educated élites and the first generation of mass paperback readers; and especially Shaw’s radical questioning and sceptical modes of thinking, and pushing ideas to ridiculous conclusions to highlight absurdities.

O’Toole is good on Shaw’s sense of being Irish in London, where he discovered his own Irishness in the differences between him and the natives of the imperial capital, not least in accent. The shabby-genteel Eynesford-Hills, mother, truculent daughter and ineffectual son, attending Mrs Higgins’s at-home in Pygmalion provide a group vignette of the Shaw family in his early London years, with him as the hapless Freddy (no wonder he wanted Freddy, not Higgins, to marry Eliza). More importantly, O’Toole interprets Shaw—by 1916 a world-famous author, including of history plays—writing a defence for Roger Casement as his desire to stage Irish history. Shaw understood history as performance, but Casement preferred to take legal counsel’s cautious advice, which Shaw predicted would be fatal. Nevertheless he drew on the experience for his 1923 play about an analogous anti-English nationalist revolt and subsequent trial, Saint Joan, which won him the Nobel Prize.

O’Toole’s rare understanding of the vagaries of Shaw’s thought and his writing is acute throughout. Contra W.B. Yeats’s nightmare of a sewing machine perpetually smiling induced by what he mistakenly believed to be Shaw’s logical rather than emotional drama, O’Toole explains that Shaw does not even believe in logic. People believe whatever line of reasoning suits them. If you want to go to war, you will find whichever logical reasons for so doing compelling. He places Shaw among Ireland’s greatest orators in the tradition of Sheridan and Burke, and might have added that he was also one of the great lecturers—another side of his many-faceted career to have received practically no critical attention, but whose major historical counterpart as an influencer of the young would be Socrates. For a whole generation, Shaw functioned not only as their Socrates but also, with his dialectically questioning plays, as a Plato (who started out as a dramatist), with the Fabian Society and its impressionable Young Fabians as his Academy. Indeed, as the religiously inclined exemplary playwright of the New Drama at the Court Theatre, he functioned also as a combination of Aristophanes and Euripides writing plays for the religious festivals in Athens. Not the first to judge Shaw as essentially a Greek dramatist, O’Toole provocatively prefers parallels with Sophocles, whose characters live their lives at the whim of the gods, as do Shaw’s at the promptings of the Life Force: Shaw ‘does not shed light; he leaves us in more radiant darkness’. Shaw’s drama, however, despite often surprising tragic undertones as in Heartbreak House, plays out as high comedy rather than tragedy. The best comedy brings a tear as well as a laugh, Shaw insisted.

Most original in Judging Shaw is O’Toole’s analysis of Shaw’s dramaturgy, emphasising Shaw’s belief that theatre can be transformative. He proposes ten rules of Shavian theatre, delineates five types of Shavian laughter, and shows that Shaw fulfils the two requirements of a great dramatist by both incarnating the entire tradition of western theatre (no playwright before Shaw, an outstanding critic, had written with such full knowledge of that history) and breaking with that tradition—a must-read for anyone who ever doubted Shaw’s standing in the theatrical pantheon.
Nevertheless, O’Toole’s declaratory judgment that Shaw developed no late style, and thus wrote no great play after Saint Joan, reveals a blind spot, as the heterogeneous group of nine plays written between 1929 and 1939 provide possibly the clearest modern example. Too True to be Good (1932) and In Good King Charles’s Golden Days (1939) rate among his finest work, while all are prime candidates for the new production approaches that O’Toole advocates. They and their prefaces sometimes make uncomfortable reading, as the aging Shaw’s imagination was never so ‘excited, passionate, fantastical, … that more expected the impossible’, to put it in Yeatsean terms that O’Toole (preferring to quote ‘Circus Animals Desertion’) would deny Shaw; Yeats as one of Shaw’s closest Irish associates is otherwise curiously absent.

A few typos have survived proofreaders (Gounod is consistently misspelled), as have some careless mistakes. Shaw could not have referred to Garret Fitzgerald (born 1926) in his 1914 letter to his mother Mabel, and—except on paper—Shaw was not ‘in love’ with Ellen Terry. Several assertions jar: the absurd old canard that Shaw’s Quintessence of Ibsenism was more about Shaw’s plays than Ibsen’s, when Shaw had not then written a single play; that Germany established his success as a playwright, when American productions were at least as important; that Shaw was anti-modernist, when he was the pre-eminent exemplar in Britain of the first wave of modernism (as Herman Bahr, who coined the term, understood); that Shaw never offered a detailed vision of the transition to a more equal society, when his 1914 Fabian lectures ‘On Redistribution’ did so on lines similar to what actually happened after the Second World War; that Shaw shifted his interest to religion after the Great War, whereas he had already done so in a series of lectures on religion beginning in 1906 in parallel with those on equality.

O’Toole’s intriguing literary conceits, such as Shaw as the literary child of Wilde and Tolstoy, can sometimes become awkward, while his declared thesis of Shaw fabricating his persona as the ‘brand GBS’, described by a previous writer as the Promethean strategies of a pantomime ostrich, has been explored in detail elsewhere. Indeed, his failure to acknowledge both recent and earlier Shaw scholarship (the late John O’Donovan springs to mind) means that what to the casual reader appears novel here should be read rather as belonging with a great deal of other ongoing critical work, not least from Irish writers.

None of this takes away from a literally wonderful book: a pictorial feast of documents and photographs accompanying the text, for which Fintan O’Toole, his collaborator on the visual side, Barry Houlihan, and the RIA press are all to be congratulated. In his introduction, O’Toole proclaims this a short book—disingenuous given its substantial size, but true in that this handsome, and urgent, volume could happily have been much longer.

Peter Gahan is author of Bernard Shaw and Beatrice Webb on poverty and equality in the modern world, 1905–1914 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).


Copyright © 2024 History Publications Ltd, Unit 9, 78 Furze Road, Sandyford, Dublin 18, Ireland | Tel. +353-1-293 3568