Wednesday, May 28, 2014


Richard Dietrich, treasurer and webmaster of the ISS, asked me a few weeks ago about whether Shaw had ever said the following words: 

"The English are not very spiritual people, so they invented cricket to give them some idea of eternity."

Although we all know Bernard Shaw was very interested in all sorts of methods to keep healthy and fit - including his passion for certain sports, such as boxing - he did not hold many other sports and games in high esteem. Cricket seems to be one of the latter. 

As for the alleged quotation, it is true that Shaw always saw some sort of connection between religion and cricket. For instance, in the introduction to the second volume of Dan H. Laurence's Bernard Shaw: Collected Letters, the editor mentions a letter to The Times in which Shaw 

on the subject of political electioneering by the Church, argued that, although it was quite Protestant and independent and proper, still, regarded as elec­tioneering, “it is not cricket.”

Similarly, on a more serious note, as we can read in the preface to Back to Methuselah, cricket is the equivalent of Marx's opium of the people, in the sense that it is one of the various activities and interests that kept the British people "[in]capable of serious reflection on the nature and attributes of God" or "on Darwin's discoveries." In his own words, 

"I have pointed out elsewhere that the British nation does not consist of atheists and Plymouth Brothers; and I am not now going to pretend that it ever consisted of Darwinians and Lamarckians. The average citizen is irreligious and unscientific: you talk to him about cricket and golf, market prices and party politics, not about evolution and relativity, transubstantiation and predestination."

Curiously enough, Back to Methuselah also deserved cricke-like consideration for some critics. As James Agate recounts in My Theatre Talks (1933)

"Mr. Will Rogers, the new American humorist, has said that Back to Methuselah is like a test match: nobody can finish it."

Even Shaw himself resorted to cricket metaphors to describe his crafting of dramatic conversation. Thus, in a letter to his German translator, Siegfried Trebitsch (p.36), he states that

"Half the art of dialogue consists in the echoing of words—the tossing back & forwards of phrases from one actor to another like a cricket ball."

However (there's always a however, isn't there?), the quotation that Richard Dietrich looks for - and which, incidentally, has been published unsourced as a Shaw one-liner in The Shavian 10 (3) - is nowhere to be found. At any rate, it is suspiciously similar to the words used by Lord Mancroft in his biography Bees in Some Bonnets (1979) p. 185. Specifically, Lord Mancroft says that cricket is

"a game which the English, not being a spiritual people, have invented in order to give themselves some conception of eternity"

It may still be possible to discover that Lord Mancroft was actually quoting Shaw, but he does not cite him in the book. In fact, several reputed dictionaries of quotations attribute these words to Mancroft's book. I hope I can update this post one day with a Shavian source, but for now the quotation must remain Mancroft's. 

Colne Cricket Club, 1910

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