Monday, December 15, 2014


A few days ago, Shaw Festival posted a quotation - allegedly by Shaw - on their facebook timeline. You can view the original post by clicking on the image below.

It did not sound very Shavian to me, but I searched for this literal quotation in my database - to no avail. Neither could I find any word combination that may have plausibly originated the claim that Bernard Shaw ever said something vaguely similar. While it is impossible for me to determine with absolute certainty whether these words were originally Shaw's (better informed opinions, welcome), it is quite suspicious that they can be found in another person's literary work. 

Specifically, Gloria Anzaldúa's Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza reads thusly on p. 101, while discussing the possible course of actions for Chicanos living in an alien, dominant culture: 

"Or perhaps we will decide to disengage from the dominant culture, write it off altogether as a lost cause, and cross the border into a wholly new and separate territory. Or we might go another route. The possibilities are numerous once we decide to act and not react."

To my knowledge, Anzaldúa has never suggested any intellectual indebtedness to Bernard Shaw, and it is unlikely that she was influenced by his works and/or philosophy at all. I think we can safely put this quotation in the apocryphal folder for good. 

Friday, December 12, 2014


I turned on the radio instinctively as I got in the car after a very long day. The news bulletin caught my attention: there is going to be an Alvin Langdon Coburn Exhibition at the Mapfre Foundation Museum in Madrid. "Well," I thought, "I have an excuse to go there on yet another weekend getaway and visit the exhibition, browse piles of secondhand books at Cuesta de Moyano, and admire the great masters of painting at El Prado

Although I knew Coburn had photographed Shaw on several occasions during the 1900s, I was surprised to hear towards the end of the report that Shaw regarded Coburn as "the best photographer in the world". Did Shaw really say that?

Alvin Langdon Coburn-Shaw

You can bet your last dollar he did. In a letter to Archibald Henderson (29th July 1907), included in the Bernard Shaw Collected Letters 1898-1910 (p. 704), Shaw is happy to learn that Henderson also likes Coburn's work: 

"I am glad you liked Coburn. He is a specially white youth, and, on the whole, the best photographer in the world."

Shaw then moves on to explain what he means by "on the whole," since other renowned photographers of the time were also exceedingly talented, but only at employing specific techniques or motifs. 

It is also worth mentioning that in this letter there is a brief mention of the controversy over Coburn's Le Penseur, a real-life recreation of Rodin's eponymous sculpture, with Shaw as the nude model

"He is quite right in saying that he could do no better with the Roding than he has already done. You see, that was what he meant to do; and if you dont like it (says Master Alvin) there is always the trade photographer to fall back on."

If you want to know more about the relationship between Shaw and Coburn, I suggest you take a look at the letters they exchanged. For example, you'll be able to see how knowledgeable Shaw was on photography, judging by the amount of technical details he is familiar with (Bernard Shaw Collected Letters 1898-1910, pp. 435-6). Of course, this is not news for most of my readers, especially those with whom I shared the unforgettable experience of hearing about Shaw: Man and Cameraman, a really exciting project for the digitation of Shaw's photographic collection. 

I know today's post is not one of those pithy and/or controversial quotations that Shaw used to spice his writing with, but I think it was worth it. What do you think? 

Tuesday, December 9, 2014


A few days ago, our friends from Shaw Chicago posted a nice Shaw quotation along with a picture of Mary Michell, of whom I have a most pleasant recollection playing Mrs. Whitefield in last year's production of Man and Superman

The quotation, as some of you may already know, is from Shaw's famous essay The Quintessence of Ibsenism. The problem, as usual, with Shaw's words, is that they are often quoted out of context - a circumstance that allows for virtually infinite interpretations. In this case, for instance, the example of the liar is more of a secondary statement within a broader parallelism than Shaw's main point. Let me explain. 

The Quintessence of Ibsenism, among other things, is Shaw's way of championing Ibsen as an innovator in drama - a pioneer, if you will. Thus, Shaw fittingly initiates his discussion by exemplifying the two basic types of "Pioneers" one can find in life, namely: 
  1. The second [pioneer], whose eyes are in the back of his head, is the man who declares that it is wrong to do something that no one has hitherto seen any harm in.
  2. "The first [pioneer], whose eyes are very longsighted and in the usual place, is the man who declares that it is right to do something hitherto regarded as infamous."

Of course, Shaw argues, "the second is treated with great respect by the army. They give him testimonials; name him the Good Man; and hate him like the devil" while the first pioneer "is stoned and shrieked at by the whole army. They call him all manner of opprobrious names; grudge him his bare bread and water; and secretly adore him as their savior from utter despair."

In view of this, Shaw suggests that these things happen because society has a guilty conscience. Thus, it is a lot easier to move it to see evil in something innocuous than to see good in something that has always been regarded as taboo. In Shaw's own words: 

"Just as the liar’s punishment is, not in the least that he is not believed, but that he cannot believe any one else; so a guilty society can more easily be persuaded that any apparently innocent act is guilty than that any apparently guilty act is innocent."

Henrik Ibsen portrait

Wednesday, December 3, 2014


We all know that Bernard Shaw was, if not dowright pacifist, at least someone who would apply "common sense" to war. His opinions, however, would normally be quite ahead of his time, to the extent that - most other people lagging behind his foresight - he would seeminly contradict himself and "stand on his head." 

This is basically the origin of today's quotation. After the end of WWI, when everybody had become sick to their back teeth of bloodshed and warmongery, "disarmament" became a "popular cry" even in the United States. Shaw, paradoxically, followed the classical maxim of "si vis pacem para bellum" and claimed that "arming is one of the things you should do without saying anything about it." While following this train of thought, Shaw attacks those who cried "above all, more shells" while they thought that "war with Germany was unthinkable." Well, 

"All wars are unthinkable; but they occur nevertheless."

These are the opening arguments of an article entitled "The Limitation Conference: After You, Sir," publised in The Nation and the Athenaeum (Nov. 19th, 1921). In it, Shaw discusses the opening sessions of the Washington Naval Conference in the wake of the Great War. 

Shaw's conclusions are clear - and witty as ever: 

"What is the moral of all this? Simply that the disarmament items in the agenda of the conference do not matter a scrap. If the Powers have any sense or any capacity for learning from experience they will spare their taxpayers by disbanding their armies; countermanding their orders for battle ships and singing peace on earth and good will toward men at the top of their voices. Their submarines and airships will all be commercial ones; their explosive factories will merely be dye works; their gas plants will supply chemicals for ordinary Industrial purposes; their working drawings of the latest magazine rifle will hide securely in a pigeon-hole. And the next war will be just as likely to occur and be much the same when it does occur as if the Powers, were visibly armed to the teeth."

The full text of the article is available via the Proquest Periodicals Archive Online Database, or freely available as a computer-generated text (some typos, of course) of a summary in the Cincinnati Enquirer, HERE.

US political leaders at arms conference

Friday, November 21, 2014


Although this quotation floods the Internet every so often, it is hard to find a single site that sources it. Well, that's what bloggers who like to procrastinate are for. The main reason this quotation has never been properly sourced is that, most likely, it is apocryphal. To begin with, there is not a single occurrence of this quotation in my whole digitized database (the complete plays, novels, and prefaces, plus over 250 books and essays on Shaw). In addition, this very quotation has been attributed to a number of people, including Abraham Lincoln, Cyrus S. Ching, Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain, and a few others. The closest one can get to a proper source is a secondary citation of a couple of newspaper articles I have not been able to read

Given that it is very likely that Shaw did not coin - or ever say, for that matter - this expression, I am going to include here a few of the most amusing things Shaw did say about pigs and/or using the word pig. Well, it's something!

From Our Theatres in theNineties (Vol. II, p. 18): "The most pigheaded Englishman has a much stronger objection to be crushed or killed by institutions and conventions, however sacred or even respectable, than a Russian peasant or a Chinaman. If he commits a sin, he either tells a lie and sticks to it, or else demands "a broadening of thought" which will bring his sin within the limits of the allowable." 

John Bull's Other Island is the Shaw play in which the word "pig" is used most often; typically because the opening scene of Act IV contains the famous 'pig story'. Here are Nora's own words: 

DORAN. There was Patsy Farrll in the back sate wi dhe pig between his knees, n me bould English boyoh in front at the machinery, n Larry Doyle in the road startin the injine wid a bed winch. At the first puff of it the pig lep out of its skin and bled Patsy's nose wi dhe ring in its snout. [Roars of laughter: Keegan glares at them]. Before Broadbint knew hwere he was, the pig was up his back and over into his lap; and bedad the poor baste did credit to Corny's thrainin of it; for it put in the fourth speed wid its right crubeen as if it was enthered for the Gordn Bennett.
NORA [reproachfully]. And Larry in front of it and all! It's nothn to laugh at, Mr Doran.
DORAN. Bedad, Miss Reilly, Larry cleared six yards backwards at wan jump if he cleared an inch; and he'd a cleared seven if Doolan's granmother hadn't cotch him in her apern widhout intindin to. [Immense merriment].
AUNT JUDY, Ah, for shame, Barney! the poor old woman! An she was hurt before, too, when she slipped on the stairs.
DORAN. Bedad, ma'am, she's hurt behind now; for Larry bouled her over like a skittle. [General delight at this typical stroke of Irish Rabelaisianism].
NORA. It's well the lad wasn't killed.
DORAN. Faith it wasn't o Larry we were thinkin jus dhen, wi dhe pig takin the main sthreet o Rosscullen on market day at a mile a minnit. Dh ony thing Broadbint could get at wi dhe pig in front of him was a fut brake; n the pig's tail was undher dhat; so that whin he thought he was putn non the brake he was ony squeezin the life out o the pig's tail. The more he put the brake on the more the pig squealed n the fasther he dhruv.

Finally, from a letter to Mrs. Richard Mansfield (Bernard Shaw Collected Letters, Vol. II, p. 130-133), here is Shaw's vicarious reprimand to Elbert Hubbard for his poor editing and typesetting skills: 

"The fact is, the creature does not know the ABC of good printing. I gave him so precise an account of his ignorance in that letter that he has made some attempt to correct those which admitted of correction by mechanical instruction. For instance, he now aims at having his margins right instead of not knowing anything about them. He no longer sticks two or three fly leaves of dirty brown felt at the end, under the impression that they are “esthetic” because they are ugly and silly. He has discarded his sham “Kelmscott Capitals,” the design of which would have disgraced a learned pig, and substituted colored sham Chinese ones which are much less offensive. But in the essentials of printing he is as hopeless as ever."

Cochon Corse-du-Sud

I know the post was kind of muddy, so I hope you liked it! 

Thursday, November 20, 2014


A couple of days ago Oxford World's Classics posted a tweet in which they quoted Shaw. Here it is: 

These words are part of a 1894 letter to aspiring drama critic Reginald Golding Bright (Bernard Shaw Collected Letters, Vol. I, pp. 460-1) in which Shaw advises him to "give up detesting everything appertaining to Oscar Wilde or to anyone else." Then, he goes on to write the words above, together with an interesting commentary on critical opinions: 

"The critic’s first duty is to admit, with absolute respect, the right of every man to his own style. Wilde’s wit and his fine literary workmanship are points of great value. There is always a vulgar cry both for and against every man or woman of any distinction; and from such cries you cannot keep your mind too clear if you wish to attain distinction yourself. You know the sort of thing I mean: you have heard it about Whistler, Sarah Grand, Ibsen, Wagner—everybody who has a touch of genius. Excuse this scrap of sermon: I would not intrude it upon you if I did not know by experience the great difficulty of forming and holding to a genuine original opinion of public men on their own merits when so many fools are chattering about them in all directions."

It is interesting to note how Shaw once again praises Wilde and defends him from harsh criticism. As you may remember, other entries in this blog have touched on the Shaw-Wilde relationship, particularly on their seemingly conflicting aesthetic views. That is why I never grow tired of finding examples like these. Shaw's words are true in abstrac terms, but the fact that they were originally meant to advise critics on how to approach Wilde's works makes them especially meaningful. 

Keller cartoon from The Wasp of San Francisco depicting Oscar Wilde on the occasion of his visit there in 1882.

Thursday, November 13, 2014


The environmental website One Green Planet recently published a list of quotations on animal rights and against animal cruelty. Unsurprisinly, the list includes a quotation by Bernard Shaw

"The worst sin towards our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them."

This quotation, taken from act II of The Devil's Disciple is not, however, directly related to animals, but rather to fellow human beings at large. Below is the larger context, a conversation between Judith and Anderson:  

 JUDITH. But Richard said— 

ANDERSON (goodhumoredly cutting her short). Pooh! Richard said! He said what he thought would frighten you and frighten me, my dear. He said what perhaps (God forgive him!) he would like to believe. It's a terrible thing to think of what death must mean for a man like that. I felt that I must warn him. I left a message for him.
JUDITH (querulously). What message?
ANDERSON. Only that I should be glad to see him for a moment on a matter of importance to himself; and that if he would look in here when he was passing he would be welcome.
JUDITH (aghast). You asked that man to come here!
JUDITH (sinking on the seat and clasping her hands). I hope he won't come! Oh, I pray that he may not come!
ANDERSON. Why? Don't you want him to be warned?
JUDITH. He must know his danger. Oh, Tony, is it wrong to hate a blasphemer and a villain? I do hate him! I can't get him out of my mind: I know he will bring harm with him. He insulted you: he insulted me: he insulted his mother.
ANDERSON (quaintly). Well, dear, let's forgive him; and then it won't matter.
JUDITH. Oh, I know it's wrong to hate anybody; but—
ANDERSON (going over to her with humorous tenderness). Come, dear, you're not so wicked as you think. The worst sin towards our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them: that's the essence of inhumanity. After all, my dear, if you watch people carefully, you'll be surprised to find how like hate is to love. 

This quotation, of course, brings to mind two of the most popular topics of discussion among Shavians. The first, Shaw's concern for animal rights - including his vegetarianism - is often summarized in his famous words, reproduced in Hesketh Pearson's Bernard Shaw: A Biography

"My will con­tains directions for my funeral, which will be followed not by mourning coaches, but by herds of oxen, sheep, swine, flocks of poultry, and a small travelling aquarium of live fish, all wearing white scarves in honour of the man who perished rather than eat his fellow-creatures. It will be, with the excep­tion of the procession into Noah's Ark, the most remarkable thing of the kind ever seen." 

The second idea, that of indifference being one of the worst feelings we can hold for others, even worse than hatred, is frequently found in Shaw's writings. For example, the preface to Heartbreak House reads: 

"It is difficult to say whether indifference and neglect are worse than false doctrine."

As usual, then, Shaw's words are multifaceted and hardly ever a straightforward message, but we must not be indifferent to them - lest we become indifferent to our fellow inhabitants of this planet we call Earth. 

Thursday, November 6, 2014


Legend has it that in 1949, when Buoyant Billions was being rehearsed at Malvern, Shaw sent Sir Winston Churchill a card with two complimentary tickets for the opening night. The card allegedly read something like: 

Here's two tickets to my new play. Bring a friend - if you have one. 

On a similar note, Churchill is often quoted as having replied with another witty card: 

Cannot attend opening night. Will come to second night - if there is one. 

This apocryphal anecdote thrives on the Internet, and has made its way onto the twitter feed of prominent online personalities, such as reputed demographer Conrad Hackett, who posted a picture of what some claim were the original cards or wires: 

Not only do active online professinals (Hackett has over 72,000 followers) quote this postal conversation as if it had actually happened, but even Shaw scholars include the above exchange in their research publications - albeit with the necessary caveat.  For example, Vivian Elliot in her Dear Mr Shaw: Selections from Bernard Shaw's Postbag (Bloomsbury, 1987) remarks that (p. 234)

"If the story is authentic, Winston Churchill (like his mother before) bettered Shaw in repartee on at least one occasion. When Shaw invited Churchill to the first night of his new play Buoyant Billions in 1949, enclosing two tickets, 'one for yourself and one foryour friend - if you have one,' Churchill replied thanking Mr Shaw and saying that he could not attend the first night... but would be delighted to come on the second - 'if you have one.'"

Others have also taken this anecdote with a grain of salt and researched the long-standing tradition of different versions of this funny exchange. 

As usual, the proof of the pudding is in Shaw's own words (at least until someone unearths the actual cards that would prove Shaw a liar). In a letter to Derek Tatham, dated 16th September 1949, and quoted in Volume IV of Bernard Shaw Collected Letters (p. 856), Shaw responds to the journalist who intended to use this story and asked if the playwright "had any objections." Shaw flatly replied: 

"The above is not only a flat lie but a political libel which may possibly damage me. Publish it at your peril, whether in assertion or contradiction."

In fact, Churchill scholars also agree that the above quotation is, in fact, apocryphal. Erica L. Chenoweth, in her All the World's a Stage: Churchill and the Theatre has also found evidence that Churchill himself denied these mock-insults. 

Well, so much for this amusing quotation. But fear not, my dear friends, there will be many more to source and analyze in my next post - if there is one. 

Back to the wall

Wednesday, November 5, 2014


Shaw's Corner Twitter feed recently incorporated a Shaw quotation that had been posted by Vintage Books. The quotation reads as follows: 

The source of the quotation is quite easy to find. Towards the end of "As Far As Thought Can Reach," the fifth and last part of Back to Methuselah, the She-Ancient supports Ecrasia's impression that art brings happiness to one's life. 

ECRASIA. You have no right to say that I am not sincere. I have found a happiness in art that real life has never given me. I am intensely in earnest about art. There is a magic and mystery in art that you know nothing of.
THE SHE-ANCIENT. Yes, child: art is the magic mirror you make to reflect your invisible dreams in visible pictures. You use a glass mirror to see your face: you use works of art to see your soul.

The first time one reads this quotation (at least the bit quoted by Vintage Books), you may have the impression that both Ecrasia and the She-Ancient support a view of art that is not in consonance with Shaw's personal ideas. Nothing new there. After all, why would all Shaw characters think like "the master of puppets"?

However, I must admit that I have omitted some of the She-Ancient's words. Specifically, her final sentence suggests that art as a medium to experience life - and the Life Force - must be superseded by more direct means in order to achieve the ultimate stage in the realization of human beings. 

THE SHE-ANCIENT. [...] But we who are older use neither glass mirrors nor works of art. We have a direct sense of life. When you gain that you will put aside your mirrors and statues, your toys and your dolls.

Thus, these words should perhaps be understood along the lines of the many other instances of Shavian contempt for "art for art's sake". Among these, two oft-quoted passages stand out. The first, from the Epistle Dedicatory to Man and Superman, summarizes Shaw's views on the necessary didacticism of art (and drama): 

"No doubt I must recognize, as even the Ancient Mariner did, that I must tell my story entertainingly if I am to hold the wedding guest spellbound in spite of the siren sounds of the loud bassoon. But 'for art’s sake' alone I would not face the toil of writing a single sentence."

Shaw, Belloc e Chesterton

The other example is from Caesar and Cleopatra, where Apollodorus is the quintessential example (comically distorted, in this case) of the aesthete whose motto is "art for art's sake."

SENTINEL. So you are the carpet merchant
APOLLODORUS (hurt). My friend: I am a patrician.
SENTINEL. A patrician! A patrician keeping a shop instead of following arms!
APOLLODORUS. I do not keep a shop. Mine is a temple of the arts. I am a worshipper of beauty. My calling is to choose beautiful things for beautiful Queens. My motto is Art for Art's sake.
SENTINEL. That is not the password.
APOLLODORUS. It is a universal password.

Even in the preface to one of his latest plays (Farfetched Fables), Shaw could not help but insist on this idea that "the Shavian idiosyncrasy...disgusts the Art for Art's Sake Faction."

It is not difficult to trace this neglect for this idea of art to the seemingly antithetical views that Shaw and Oscar Wilde held in this respect. Indeed, this notion seems to have caught on among critics, because the Introduction to Arms and the Man (written by some mysterious "M.") includes a clear definition of Shavian poetics with special reference to the "Art for Art's sake" controversy: 

"There never was an author who showed less predilection for a specific medium by which to accomplish his results. He recognized, early in his days, many things awry in the world and he assumed the task of mundane reformation with a confident spirit. It seems such a small job at twenty to set the times aright. He began as an Essayist, but who reads essays now-a-days?—he then turned novelist with no better success, for no one would read such preposterous stuff as he chose to emit. He only succeeded in proving that absolutely rational men and women—although he has created few of the latter—can be most extremely disagreeable to our conventional way of thinking.
As a last resort, he turned to the stage, not that he cared for the dramatic art, for no man seems to care less about "Art for Art's sake," being in this a perfect foil to his brilliant compatriot and contemporary, Wilde. He cast his theories in dramatic forms merely because no other course except silence or physical revolt was open to him."

Of course, as was always the case with Shaw, his approach to aestheticism and the theory of literary art is far more complex than these lines can possibly express, even summarily. Others have tried their hand at that, luckily for me. Be that as it may, and regardless of your personal philosophical preferences, we may as well sit back and enjoy good drama, whether for art's sake, for world betterment, or simply for fun. This is something the a Monty Python Flying Circus gag does exceedingly well. 

Wednesday, October 29, 2014


These words can be read on the plaque erected on the wall of Torca Cottage, on Dalkey Hill. This house was the residence where Bernard Shaw spent much of his childhood - his parents forming a peculiar ménage-à-trois with George Vandeleur Lee

The quotation, however, is not from one of Shaw's plays or novels, but from a letter written a few months before this plaque was made. Already in his nineties, Shaw had become an object of culture in himself and arguably, the man of the century. Thus, in April 1947 John G. Fitzgerald, secretary of the Dalkey Development and Protection Association, suggested that a new park adjoining Killiney Hill be named after the playwright. Shaw wrote a letter to Mr. Fitzgerald indicating that "it must not be called Bernard Shaw Hill" because "not only would that be a clumsy ugly title, but out of the question because the men of Ireland are mortal and temporal and her hills are eternal." With the sole exception of the use of "and" instead of "but," there is no question that this is the source of the quotation on the plaque. 

The full text of this letter can be read on pages 793-4 of the fourth volume of Bernard Shaw Collected Letters (1926-1950)

Friday, October 24, 2014


Although - as a member of a Philology Department - I know a few people who are living proof that the above quotation is less than accurate, it is hard to tell to what extent Shaw's words are true - especially because there is no definition of what "fully capable" means. What I can tell you, though, is that these words can be found in Maxims for Revolutionists, a sort of annexe to The Revolutionist's Handbook and Pocket Companion. This, in turn, is an addendum to Man and Superman, as many of you already know. 

Shaw's interest in foreign languages was rather limited, with the exception of the translation of his plays. Whether because of the incompetence of many of his translators or because he wanted to oversee everything concerning the publication of his works, Shaw exchanged a number of letters over specific words, phrases or passages in translation. His Collected Letters contain many examples of these, particularly with the Hamons (Augustin and Henriette), his French translators, and with Siegfried Trebitsch, the German one. 

On a more personal note, however, Shaw was quite aware of his lack of ability for foreign languages, as he conceded on a number of occasions. Perhaps one of the most oft-quoted anecdotes in this respect is recounted in his letter to Dino Grandi, Italian ambassador to Britain at the time, who had invited the Shaws to dine. (Bernard Shaw Collected Letters Vol. IV, p. 371-2) Shaw politely declined the invitation, partially on the grounds of what had happened the last time: 

"Your lady graciously came and spoke to me. I lost my head completely and tried to speak in Italian (which I cannot speak). The result was a stammering in very bad French (I am the worst of linguistis - not like you, who speak English better than any Englishman). It was evident to the Signora Grande that I was very drunk; and the conversation ended abruptly before I recovered my presence of mind."

Despite these shortcomings, Shaw was regarded by some as a very good speaker of a few foreign languages - although for reasons beyond his actual mastery of any of them. As Archibald Henderson puts it in his Bernard Shaw: A Critical Biography (p. 492):

"[Shaw] speaks no language but his own, and reads no foreign language, save French, with ease. I remember hearing someone ask Rodin whether Shaw really spoke French. "Ah! no!" replied Rodin, with his genial smile and a faint twinkle of the eyes; "Monsieur Shaw does not speak French. But somehow or other, by the very violence of his manner and gesticulation, he succeeds in imposing his meaning upon you!" Shaw is fond of relating the incident which laid the foundation for his reputation as an Italian scholar. “Once I was in Milan with a party of English folk. We were dining at the railway restaurant, and our waiter spoke no language other than his own. When the moment came to pay and rush for the train, we were unable to make him understand that we wanted not one bill, but twenty-four separate ones. My friends insisted that I must know Italian, so to act as interpreter, I racked my memory for chips from the language of Dante, but in vain. All of a sudden, a line from The Huguenots flashed to my brain: Ognuno per se / per tutti il ciel (‘Every man for himself / and heaven for all) I declaimed it with triumphant success. The army of waiters was doubled up with laughter, and my fame as an Italian scholar has been on the increase ever since.”

At any rate, nobody can blame Shaw for trying to pass as a great linguist. As he himself acknowledged in a note he wrote on the occasion of the premiere of The Devil's Disciple at the Raimund Theatre, Vienna (the manuscript is transcribed and annotated in The Annual of Bernard Shaw Studies, Vol. 20, pages 247-252): 

"Like all really able men I am congenitally incapable of acquiring foreign languages; but I have been so steeped in German music, and consequently in German poetry, all my life (having indeed learned more of my art as a writer for the stage from Mozart than from Shakespear, Molière or any literary dramatist) that I cannot help believing that I know German. I sometimes speak it; and my German friends are all agreed that nobody else in Europe speaks it in quite the same manner."

"Shaw and Foreign Languages and Literature." Sounds like something someone should write a book on. 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014


A couple of days ago, Lizzie Dunford, assistant house steward at Shaw's Corner and avid blogger, posted an interesting quotation by Shaw on her Facebook timeline: 

"The statesman who has no other object than to make you vote for his party at the next election may be starting you on an incline at the foot of which lies war, or revolution, or a smallpox epidemic, or five years off your lifetime." 

The quotation, as Lizzie rightly notes, belongs to a 1911 piece. Specifically, to the Preface to Three Plays by Brieux, a book containing the English translation of three works by French playwright Eugène Brieux. The book was published by Brentano and contained two different versions of Maternity - one of them translated by Charlotte Shaw, and the other by John Pollock. Together with the two versions of Maternity, the volume also included The Three Daughters of M. Dupont (trans. by St. John Hankin) and Damaged Goods (trans. by John Pollock). 

What seems odd about this quotation - at least when taken out of context - is that one may get the impression that Shaw is yet again grinding the axe of Fabian socialism and political reformation. Although that is partially the case, for Shaw never wrote a single line "for art's sake," the expanded context clarifies that Shaw is, by and large, trying to illustrate how the true dramatist, the man of genius, has a moral obligation to "interpret life." In other words, those who have got it must exert their "power of accurate observation" in order to educate, rather than "amuse themselves or their audiences." 

I reproduce the whole paragraph below for the amusement (and enlightenment) of my readers, in an attempt to "pick out the significant incidents from the chaos of daily happenings, and arrange them so that their relation to one another becomes significant." 

"But the great dramatist has something better to do than to amuse either himself or his audience. He has to interpret life. This sounds a mere pious phrase of literary criticism; but a moment's consideration will discover its meaning and its exactitude. Life as it appears to us in our daily experience is an unintelligible chaos of happenings. You pass Othello in the bazaar in Aleppo, lago on the jetty in Cyprus, and Desdemona in the nave of St. Mark's in Venice without the slightest clue to their relations to one another. The man you see stepping into a chemist's shop to buy the means of committing murder or suicide, may, for all you know, want nothing but a liver pill or a toothbrush. The statesman who has no other object than to make you vote for his party at the next election, may be starting you on an incline at the foot of which lies war, or revolution, or a smallpox epidemic, or five years off your lifetime. The horrible murder of a whole family by the father who finishes by killing himself, or the driving of a young girl on to the streets, may be the result of your discharging an employee in a fit of temper a month before. To attempt to understand life from merely looking on at it as it happens in the streets is as hopeless as trying to understand public questions by studying snapshots of public demonstrations. If we possessed a series of cinematographs of all the executions during the Reign of Terror, they might be exhibited a thousand times without enlightening the audiences in the least as to the meaning of the Revolution: Robespierre would perish as "un monsieur" and Marie Antoinette as "une femme." Life as it occurs is senseless: a policeman may watch it and work in it for thirty years in the streets and courts of Paris without learning as much of it or from it as a child or a nun may learn from a single play by Brieux. For it is the business of Brieux to pick out the significant incidents from the chaos of daily happenings, and arrange them so that their relation to one another becomes significant, thus changing us from bewildered spectators of a monstrous confusion to men intelligently conscious of the world and its destinies. This is the highest function that man can perform — the greatest work he can set his hand to; and this is why the great dramatists of the world, from Euripides and Aristophanes to Shakespear and Moliere, and from them to Ibsen and Brieux, take that majestic and pontifical rank which seems so strangely above all the reasonable pretensions of mere strolling actors and theatrical authors."

Hotung and GBS 1933

Tuesday, October 14, 2014


A few days ago, Richard Dietrich could not find the source for the following lines and asked for a hand: 

"I exhausted rationalism when I got to the end of my second novel at the age of twenty-four, and should have come to a dead stop if I had not proceeded to purely mystical assumptions.  I thus perhaps destroyed my brain, but inspiration filled up the void, and I got on better than ever."

This is an excerpt from a letter to Dame Laurentia McLachlan, dated 23rd December 1924. The letter and the process of locating it as the source of the above words made me think about a tangential aspect of Shaw studies. 

I started thinking about how important redundancy is for research in the humanities, despite being a source of inconsistency in other data sets. In this particular case, the same fragment is reproduced in several different publications, which facilitated my job a great deal. Specifically, one can find references to this letter (or the whole document) in Bernard Shaw Collected Letters (Vol. 3, pages 896-8); in The Nun, the Infidel, and the Superman (pages 93-5); in Berst's "The Poetic Genesis of Shaw's God," in the first issue of the SHAW: The Annual of Bernard Shaw Studies (page 22); and in Leon Hugo's Bernard Shaw's The Black Girl in Search of God: The Story behind the Story (Page 96). After quadruple-checking my results, I did not continue reading the results page but, at any rate, the point is that, had I not digitized any of those books, I still would have been able to track the source indirectly. I guess this is one of the reasons why a broad and eclectic digitized library of Shaw's plays and secondary sources (biographies, criticism, programs of productions) is an invaluable asset for research on Shaw. 

Until time (meaning copyright restrictions) allows me to publish my database and let others access it freely, I like to think that I can do a humble public service for Shavians. So, if you can't find a source, drop me a line (

Friday, October 3, 2014


In a coincidence that has become customary lately, both the International Shaw Society and Shaw's Corner have posted the same Shaw quotation on their Twitter feed. 

It is a bemusing quotation indeed, for what is it that makes people take their children to the theatre and not to church? The reason can be found in the original context of this excerpt, which I reproduce below:

 - Your question “Is the Theatre a power making for righteous­ness?” is as useless as the same question would be about Religion or Gravitation or Government or Music. There are theatres in England in which the entertainment on the stage is simply a device to lure people to the drinking bars which are the real sources of profit to the manager. There are theatres everywhere which deal in nothing but dramatic aphrodisiacs. And there are theatres which deal with more serious representations of life and greater achievements of literary art than any to be found in the grossly overrated bundle of Hebrew literature which you were taught to idolize to the exclusion of your natural literary birthright. Between these extremes lie every possible grade of theatre; and to lump them all as an unreal abstraction called “the theatre” will only land you in confusion. A theatre is a potent engine for working up the passions and the imagination of mankind; and like all such engines it is capable of the noblest recreations or the basest debauchery according to the spirit of its direction. So is a church. A church can do great things by precisely the same arts as those used in the theatre (there is no difference fundamentally, and very little even superficially); but every church is in a state of frightful pecuniary dependence on Pharisees who use it to whitewash the most sordid commercial scoundrelism by external observances; it organizes the sale of salvation at a reasonable figure to these same Pharisees by what it calls charity; it invariably provides occasion for envy and concupiscence by an open exhibition of millinery and personal adornment for both sexes; and it sometimes, under cover of the text that God is love, creates and maintains a pseudo- pious ecstatic communion compared to which the atmosphere of the theatre is prosaically chilly. That is why many people who take their children to the theatre do not send them to church. The moral is, as “pagans like Domitian and Trajan” saw, that both churches and theatres need to be carefully looked after so as to prevent them from abusing their powers for pecuniary profit. - 

This paragraph is part of a longer letter, probably dated c. Jul. 1904, and addressed to William T. Stead.  The full text can be read on pages 424-6 of Dan H. Laurence's edition of Bernard Shaw's Collected Letters (Vol. II).  

One of the main ideas of the passage, the notion that "every church is in a state of frightful pecuniary dependence on Pharisees," also made its way into many other of Shaw's works, particularly the prefaces to his plays - often in quite memorable ways as well. 

For example, in the Preface to Major Barbara, Shaw explains that one of the things the Salvation Army and Barbara discover in the play is that "there is no salvation for them through personal righteousness, but only through the redemption of the whole nation from its vicious, lazy, competitive anarchy." This is yet another sense in which playgoers and Pharisees seem to concur. After all: 

"this discovery has been made by everyone except the Pharisees and (apparently) the professional playgoers, who still wear their Tom Hood shirts and underpay their washerwomen without the slightest misgiving as to the elevation of their private characters, the purity of their private atmospheres, and their right to repudiate as foreign to themselves the coarse depravity of the garret and the slum."

Nicolas Colombel - Christ Expelling the Money-Changers from the Temple

This concept may derive from earlier ideas, perhaps rather more revolutionary and, to some extent, naive. Look, for instance, at the following passage from the Preface to Immaturity (Shaw's first novel). 

"Christ adapted himself so amiably to the fashionable life of his time in his leisure that he was reproached for being a gluttonous man and a winebibber, and for frequenting frivolous and worthless sets. But he did not work where he feasted, nor flatter the Pharisees, nor ask the Romans to buy him with a sinecure. He knew when he was being entertained, well treated, lionized: not an unpleasant adventure for once in a way; and he did not quarrel with the people who were so nice to him. Besides, to sample society is part of a prophet's business: he must sample the governing class above all, because his inborn knowledge of human nature will not explain the anomalies produced in it by Capitalism and Sacerdotalism. But he can never feel at home in it. The born Communist, before he knows what he is, and understands why, is always awkward and unhappy in plutocratic society and in the poorer societies which ape it to the extent of their little means: in short, wherever spiritual values are assessed like Income Tax."

In other words, the "pecuniary dependence" of the present-day churches may have to do with this "sampling of society" and the fact that the real essence of Christianity has not been realized yet - in more ways than one. Perhaps the key to all this may lie in the general misunderstanding as to what "modern communism" actually means. I'll leave you with Shaw's explanation, from the Preface to Androcles and the Lion

"Now let us see what modern experience and modern sociology has to say to the teaching of Jesus as summarized here. First, get rid of your property by throwing it into the common stock. One can hear the Pharisees of Jerusalem and Chorazin and Bethsaida saying, "My good fellow, if you were to divide up the wealth of Judea equally today, before the end of the year you would have rich and poor, poverty and affluence, just as you have today; for there will always be the idle and the industrious, the thrifty and the wasteful, the drunken and the sober; and, as you yourself have very justly observed, the poor we shall have always with us." And we can hear the reply, "Woe unto you, liars and hypocrites; for ye have this very day divided up the wealth of the country yourselves, as must be done every day (for man liveth not otherwise than from hand to mouth, nor can fish and eggs endure for ever); and ye have divided it unjustly; also ye have said that my reproach to you for having the poor always with you was a law unto you that this evil should persist and stink in the nostrils of God to all eternity; wherefore I think that Lazarus will yet see you beside Dives in hell." Modern Capitalism has made short work of the primitive pleas for inequality. The Pharisees themselves have organized communism in capital. Joint stock is the order of the day. An attempt to return to individual properties as the basis of our production would smash civilization more completely than ten revolutions. You cannot get the fields tilled today until the farmer becomes a co-operator. Take the shareholder to his railway, and ask him to point out to you the particular length of rail, the particular seat in the railway carriage, the particular lever in the engine that is his very own and nobody else's; and he will shun you as a madman, very wisely. And if, like Ananias and Sapphira, you try to hold back your little shop or what not from the common stock, represented by the Trust, or Combine, or Kartel, the Trust will presently freeze you out and rope you in and finally strike you dead industrially as thoroughly as St. Peter himself. There is no longer any practical question open as to Communism in production: the struggle today is over the distribution of the product: that is, over the daily dividing-up which is the first necessity of organized society."

Androcles Peruzzi

Monday, September 22, 2014


Shaw is one of the most oft-quoted authors in the Western world - do I really need to remind anybody of this? Sometimes, however, he is not quoted because of his sharp language, his witty choice of words, and his brilliant ideas. On some occasions, the lexicographers of this world choose Shaw to illustrate words one does not come across all that often. That is the case, for example, of the highest authority in English dictionaries: the OED

All the words in the Oxford English Dictionary include a selection of quotations from different authoritative sources that illustrate the meaning and use of each entry. I am going to reproduce a few of the Shaw quotations the OED selected, together with the words they illustrate - especifically in those cases in which Shaw is either allegedly the first person to have used that word, or one of the few people to have put it in print. This includes neologisms of all sorts: new word-combinations, foreign loan-words, creative derivations, and the like. I guess this is as good a way as any to demonstrate how creative Shaw was in all the areas of knowledge he touched on. 

3.3 Comb. actress-manageress (cf. actor-manager). 
   1894 G. B. {Shaw} in W. Archer Theatr. ‘World’ 1893 Pref. p. xxix, The time is ripe for the advent of the actress-manageress.   
2.2 An outlook, attitude, or point of view. 
   1907 G. B. {Shaw} Major Barbara Pref. 148 The Shavian Anschauung was already unequivocally declared.    1922 Internat. Jrnl. Psycho-anal. III. 377 In many respects however they‥are merely ‘points of view’ (Anschauungen).
Worship of the ‘Bard of Avon’, i.e. Shakespeare. (Occas. used of other writers.) So bardolater (-ˈɒlətə(r)) [-olater], a worshipper of the Bard, a Shakespearolater; barˈdolatrous a., tending to or characterized by bardolatry. 
   1901 G. B. {Shaw} Plays for Puritans Pref. p. xxxi, So much for Bardolatry!    1903 ― Man & Superman Ep. Ded. 30 Foolish Bardolaters make a virtue of this after their fashion.    1905 ― in Sat. Rev. 11 Feb. 170/2 The word ‘pity’ does not reach even the third row of the stalls, much less the gaping bardolatrous pit.    1911 Times Lit. Suppl. 9 Nov. 440/3 Playing for the sympathy of the ‘bardolaters’.    1914 G. B. Shaw Dark Lady Pref. 112 The familiar plea of the Bardolatrous ignoramus, that Shakespear's coarseness was part of the manners of his time.
(See quot. 1949); also, one who pretends to be of lower origin than he is. Also attrib. 
   1898 G. B. {Shaw} Sixteen Self-Sketches (1949) viii. 44 My father was an Irish Protestant gentleman of the downstart race of younger sons.    1921 ― Pref. to Immaturity in Prefaces (1934) xxiii. 627/1, I was a downstart and the son of a downstart.    1949 ― Sixteen Self-Sketches ii. 7 The Downstart, as I call the boy-gentleman descended through younger sons from the plutocracy, for whom a university education is beyond his father's income, leaving him by family tradition a gentleman without a gentleman's means or education, and so only a penniless snob.
Enthusiasm for flogging. Hence ˌflagelloˈmaniac n. and a., (one who is) enthusiastically in favour of flogging. 
   1895 G. B. {Shaw} in Daily Chron. 24 Feb. 8/5 Flagellomania has been victorious by seven votes to five on the Industrial Schools Committee.    1899 ― in Humanity May 136/2 The male flagellomaniac—who is sometimes, unfortunately, a judge—craves intensely for the flogging of women.    1908 Humanitarian Sept. 66/2 We are constantly assured by the flagellomaniac section of the Press that crime is ‘stamped out’ by the ‘cat’.    1917 G. B. Shaw in New Republic 6 Jan., Any newspaper can get up a flagellomaniac garotting scare. 

These are just a few (some of my favourites) of the 3080 quotations in 2527 entries that the CD-ROM version of the OED I own retrieves. If you can spare a few hours and want to do your own query, this is how you perform this search in v. 4.0

First, you open the main window and click on "dictionary." 

Then, you go to "advanced search," where you have to type "Shaw" in the first box and select "in quotation author."

Once you hit "start search," something like this will pop up, where you can scroll down the list of words whose definitions are illustrated by a Shaw quotation. 

Clicking on an entry will take you to the definition, where you can search for the relevant part by using the "find in entry" box at the bottom.

If you want to go back to the list of definitions, you just have to click on "results."

To wrap things up, I find it rather ironic that among the 46 dictionaries that Shaw kept at his Ayot St. Lawrence residence, none of them is the Oxford English Dictionary, and only two of them are Oxford dictionaries. Perhaps the sheer size of the print version of the OED was too much for a man who managed to write sixty-odd plays with pen, pencil, a typewriter, and a small rotating hut.

George Bernard Shaw notebook