Tuesday, July 22, 2014


If one is looking for romantic love in drama, perhaps Shaw's plays are not the best place to look for it. In fact, Shaw seems to have a personal definition of love that does not fit most people's idea of it - to the extent that we can find quite a few examples in which Shaw refers to this human feeling as "what people call love." Let us look into a few of these, beginning with the plays and prefaces: 

In the preface to Getting Married (I guess it was to be expected), Shaw starts off by taking a completely unconventional stance on love and its social implications:

"It would be far better for everyone, as well as far honester, if young people were taught that what they call love is an appetite which, like all other appetites, is destroyed for the moment by its gratification; that no profession, promise, or proposal made under its influence should bind anybody; and that its great natural purpose so completely transcends the personal interests of any individual or even of any ten generations of individuals that it should be held to be an act of prostitution and even a sort of blasphemy to attempt to turn it to account by exacting a personal return for its gratification, whether by process of law or not."

Picture of George Bernard Shaw & Archibald Henderson

This notion that love is beyond our understanding can be complemented by Secondborn's words in Buoyant Billions, where in addition we are told that love is not as universally human as we may think: 

SECONDBORN. La Rochefoucauld told you two centuries ago that though the appetite we call love is in everybody's mouth very few have ever experienced it. God is not Love: Love is not Enough: the appetite for more truth, more knowledge, for measurement and precision, is far more universal: even the dullest fools have some glimmer of it.

After all, as King Charles puts it, what others call love is nothing but a burdensome habit that one ends up growing over. 

CHARLES. Do you suppose I have learnt nothing about women and what you call love in that time? You still have love affairs: I have none. However, I am not reproaching you: I am congratulating you on being still young and green enough to come all the way from Holland for a night in London.

By the way, you might want to have a look at the study guide for Good King Charles created by the Shaw Festival, although this particular play did not get the type of reviews one would have expected

Some of these views on love found their way into Shaw's personal correspondence, as one can gauge from the following two excerpts. The first, from a letter to Ellen Terry dated Nov. 1900, tells us a great deal about the playwright's perception of what love means. 

"I know what it is to be loved. Good Heavens! You are a thousand times right to keep me out of reach of your petticoats: what people call love is impossible except as a joke (and even then one of the two is sure to turn serious) between two strangers meeting accidentally at an inn or in a forest path. Why, I dare not for my life’s happiness make love to my own wife. A delusion, Ellen, all this love romance: that way madness lies."

The second, in turn, (from a letter to Henri Logeman dated Aug. 1923) provides the intersection between love in Shaw's private life and the way he presented it in his plays. Again, very telling. 

"In Methuselah it is assumed that what we call love is a childish crudity, and that the most enduring and enthralling passion is intellectual passion. That is no doubt very puzzling, and even revolting and dismaying, to people who have no intellectual interests, and get through life on their appetites; but it should present no difficulty to any serious critic."

As is usually the case with Shaw, we are left pondering what the real Life Force is. 

Thursday, July 17, 2014


The official Facebook page of Shaw's Corner has recently updated its cover photo. It includes the above quotation together with the dates for the forthcoming performances of Heartbreak House on the now mythic lawn. 

The quotation, however, does not belong to that play but to John Bull's Other Island. It is part of a longer conversation between Doyle and Broadbent in which, as on several other occasions in the play, the characters discuss the Irish spirit. Specifically, Doyle tries to explain why he would never tell Nora what he feels for her, lest he ends up "spoiling the charm."

DOYLE. [...] You don't know what Irish pride is. England may have knocked a good deal of it out of me; but she's never been in England; and if I had to choose between wounding that delicacy in her and hitting her in the face, I'd hit her in the face without a moment's hesitation.
BROADBENT [who has been nursing his knee and reflecting, apparently rather agreeably]. You know, all this sounds rather interesting. There's the Irish charm about it. That's the worst of you: the Irish charm doesn't exist for you.
DOYLE. Oh yes it does. But it's the charm of a dream. Live in contact with dreams and you will get something of their charm: live in contact with facts and you will get something of their brutality. I wish I could find a country to live in where the facts were not brutal and the dreams not unreal.

John Speed, map of Ireland

This is perhaps one of the many seeming paradoxes of being Irish - Shaw being perhaps the most paradoxical of all Irish men. As Doyle once again succintly remarks a little earlier in the play, in another example of Shavian wisdom,  

BROADBENT. What! Here you are, belonging to a nation with the strongest patriotism! the most inveterate homing instinct in the world! and you pretend you'd rather go anywhere than back to Ireland. You don't suppose I believe you, do you? In your heart—
DOYLE. Never mind my heart: an Irishman's heart is nothing but his imagination. [...]

Dreams, charms and imagination - on the one hand; facts, thoughts, and brutality - on the other. The Irish side of the parallelism is obvious, as Doyle's 'soliloquy' reminds us: "Oh, the dreaming! the dreaming! the torturing, heartscalding, never satisfying dreaming, dreaming, dreaming, dreaming!"

It doesn't get any more Shavian than this, don't you think? 

George Bernard Shaw signature

Friday, July 11, 2014


Some of the most popular (and reliable) facebook and/or twitter feeds that will provide you with interesting Shaw quotations are The Shaw Chicago Theater Company, Shaw's Corner, and the International Shaw Society. You'll find direct links to their social network profiles on their web sites, so you can have your daily fix of Shavian wisdom at mouse cord's length. 
Swedish acting couple Olof and Frida Winnerstrand on stage 1908, as Valentine and Gloria, in George Bernard Shaw's play "Man kan aldrig veta" ("You Never Can Tell") at Vasateatern (the Vasa Theatre) in Stockholm.
Of course, these sites usually include manageable bits of Shavian witticisms as a way to encourage viewers and potential visitors/audiences to get involved in the enthralling world of Shaw's life and works. For the most part, however, little or no mention is made as to the original source of the quotations they post. Well, that's what friends are for. 

For example, Shaw Chicago latest post on facebook reads as follows: 

"Silence is the most perfect expression of scorn."

Although the idea is expressed with Shaw's usual pithy syntax, its precise meaning could be completely different had it been written as a part of a personal letter, in a piece of musical criticism, or - as the case has it here - as part of dramatic dialogue. 

In this case, in the fifth part of Back to Methuselah ("As Far As Thought Can Reach"), we witness how Arjillax and Ecrasia have a heated argument over who is capable of modelling the finest sculptures, which seems to come to an end when Arjillax describes the supremacy of his artistic creation

ARJILLAX. Skilful! You high-nosed idiot, I could turn such things out by the score with my eyes bandaged and one hand tied behind me. But what use would they be? They would bore me; and they would bore you if you had any sense. Go in and look at my busts. Look at them again and yet again until you receive the full impression of the intensity of mind that is stamped on them; and then go back to the pretty-pretty confectionery you call sculpture, and see whether you can endure its vapid emptiness.

...before asking for silence so that he can proceed to discuss a much more important matter: 

ARJILLAX. Listen to me, all of you; and do you, Ecrasia, be silent if you are capable of silence.

Ecrasia, however, refuses to accept Arjillax's notions on their respective artistic prowess, and utters the now famous

ECRASIA. Silence is the most perfect expression of scorn. Scorn! That is what I feel for your revolting busts.
George Bernard O'Neill Sshh
Another George Bernard (O'Neill) also showed interest in the aesthetic importance of silence. 

Thursday, July 10, 2014


George Bernard Shaw taking his sun bath cure at Madeira, 1925

In no particular order:

Anything like a holiday is out of the question for me. Must I endure in addition the insults of a publisher for whom I am preparing, with unheard-of toil, a gigantic triumph? Read “Mrs Warren”; and then blush for your impatience if you can.’
(Collected Letters Vol. II Aug 26 1897, to Richards.)

EPIFANIA. When had you last a holiday?
THE WOMAN. Me! A holiday! We cant afford holidays. I had one on Armistice Day, eighteen years ago.
EPIFANIA. Then it cost a world war and the slaughter of twenty millions of your fellow creatures to give you one holiday in your lifetime. I can do better for you than that.
(The Millionairess)

There are twenty-four concerts this week. Consequently I give myself a holiday; for if anyone asks me what I thought of this or that performance, I reply “How can I possibly be in twenty-four places at the same time?
(Music in London as Heard by Corno di Bassetto. 1 March 1889) 

HYPATIA.  At last.  Oh, if I might only have a holiday in an asylum for the dumb.  How I envy the animals!  They cant talk.

There are many more, but I think this is more than enough. We all need a holiday. Enjoy your summer!

Wednesday, July 2, 2014


When the Serpent assures Eve in the first part of Back to Methuselah that "Death is not an unhappy thing when you have learnt how to conquer it," we are puzzled by the implications these words have. For Shaw, at least at that time, death is nothing but a necessary incident in evolution that allows species to survive by avoiding overpopulation. However, that does not mean that we cannot conquer death. As the Serpent puts it, 

THE SERPENT. The serpent never dies. Some day you shall see me come out of this beautiful skin, a new snake with a new and lovelier skin. That is birth. 

A doctor, straddled by a skeleton, holds a full purse in his Wellcome V0011676

But the words that triggered this post are to be found in the Preface to Misalliance ("A Treatise on Parents and Children"). Shaw's train of thought to arrive at this conclusion is quite straightforward: If you follow the teachings of Judeochristianity, "if you wish to live for ever you must be wicked enough to be irretrievably damned, since the saved are no longer what they were, and in hell alone do people retain their sinful nature: that is to say, their individuality."

Wenceslas Hollar - Death's arrest

That is why "Death is for many of us the gate of hell; but we are inside on the way out, not outside on the way in. Therefore let us give up telling one another idle stories, and rejoice in death as we rejoice in birth; for without death we cannot be born again; and the man who does not wish to be born again and born better is fit only to represent the City of London in Parliament, or perhaps the university of Oxford."

I particularly enjoy the last bit, don't you?