Monday, June 9, 2014


This has to be one of the few times when I've come across a quotable Shaw line that needs further explanation because it is based on a figurative use of language. Although, in fact, when the line is read in context it becomes crystal clear. 

Once again, we find these words in one of the pieces of criticism compiled under the title London Music in 1888-9 as Heard by Corno di Bassetto. On page 369 (article dated 9 May 1890) we can read how the young Shaw "delights in flattery," especially the flattery by "artists whom I have criticized" who "attach sufficient importance to my opinion to spend a postage stamp in an attempt to humbug me." "Even when there is no mistaking it for sincere admiration." These, for Shaw, are the "wise ones."

So, to sum up, Shaw encourages all corresponding artists to

"Flatter by all means; and remember that you cannot lay it on too thick. The net pleases the bird no less than the bait."

But we should make no mistakes. Right after these words Shaw warns flatterers to "be particularly careful not to discuss artistic points with me; for nothing is easier than to drop some remark that will make me your enemy for life."

This fragment led me to search for other times when Shaw, perhaps later in his life, expressed a similar (or not) opinion on the habit of flattery. Among the many examples one can find, it is interesting to note how he links the concept of flattery on two separate occasions to the playwriting career of Arthur W. Pinero. First, because he believes that sometimes he "conquered the public by the ex­quisite flattery of giving them plays that they really liked, whilst persuading them that such appreciation was only possible from persons of great culture and intellectual acuteness." (Dramatic Opinions and Essays.  Vol. I, p. 50)

Arthur Wing Pinero 01

And also because, as expressed in a letter to William Archer (Bernard Shaw Collected Letters. Vol. II: 1898-1910, p. 361), Shaw thinks the critical habit of not expressing one's real opinion on Pinero's work will likely harm Pinero more than do him any good. Thus, Shaw reminds Archer that "In your letter to me, you say the absolute truth about Pinero; but when you write about him for the public, and for himself (which is the main thing) you will lie like a Trojan about him & lure him down to further Iris abysses" - in total ignorance of the fact, he continues, that "flattery will ruin a man more surely & swiftly than any extremity of abuse."

This should come as no surprise, given that it is only a particular instantiation of a general idea that Shaw had always entertained (Dramatic Opinions and Essays. Vol. II. p. 339): 

"Englishmen are particularly susceptible to this sort of flattery, because intellectual subtlety is not their strong point. In dealing with them you must make them believe that you are appealing to their brains when you are really appealing to their senses and feelings."

I guess all audiences think that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery; or - if we apply to drama the political principles stated in the The Revolutionist's Handbook, one of the addenda to Man and Superman  

"The politician who once had to learn how to flatter Kings has now to learn how to fascinate, amuse, coax, humbug, frighten or otherwise strike the fancy of the electorate."

Revolutionists entering Juarez (LOC)

No comments:

Post a Comment