Saturday, August 16, 2014


A few days ago, while I was dozing off in the heat of a summer afternoon, I got a message from ISS treasurer and compulsive emailer Richard Dietrich. In it, he challenged me to find the source for the following oft-quoted "Shawism": 

The first time these words were printed was in an article entitled 'Art and Public Money', published in the Sussex Daily News (7 March 1907). 

This quotation is an all-time favourite among Shavians. For instance, Michael Holroyd used it as the heading for the second part of Chapter XII in his Bernard Shaw: The One-Volume Definitive Edition. It also populates play programmes and biographical summaries. 

So far, this is as straightforward a post as it can be. But I pride in what some call "added value," so I'll give you a little more information on the occasion.

To begin with, the article in the Sussex Daily News was a printed version of a talk Shaw delivered at the prize-giving of the Brighton School of Art, as explained in another article from The Press dated three months later. By the way, it should come as no surprise that the Shaws toured New Zealand a few years later, given the amount of media attention Bernard was getting. 

Apart from the bibliographical record of these words, the first things that strikes the eye is perhaps the negation of the famous Shakespearean line from Macbeth's monologue. Well, apart from the infamous "Better than Shakespear?" controversy, Shaw seems to have some sort of fixation with the "brief candle" metaphor, for he uses it far too often when he "sticks pins into Shakespeare". 

For instance, Sir Ralph Bloomfield Bonington (B.B) is one of the most risible characters in The Doctor's Dilemma, especially because "his speech is a perpetual anthem; and he never tires of the sound of it." His pretentious scholarship when quoting different authors is less than perfect, as in the case when he mixes up a series of Shakespearean lines in a hilarious monologue: 

B. B. Ah, well, perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. Still, de mortuis nil nisi bonum. He died extremely well, remarkably well. He has set us an example: let us endeavor to follow it rather than harp on the weaknesses that have perished with him. I think it is Shakespear whosays that the good that most men do lives after them: the evil lies interredwith their bones. Yes: interred with their bones. Believe me, Paddy, we are all mortal. It is the common lot, Ridgeon. Say what you will, Walpole, Nature's debt must be paid. If tis not to-day, twill be to-morrow.
[Walpole is about to speak, but B. B., suddenly and vehemently proceeding, extinguishes him.]

Nothing to do, of course, with Patrick Stewart's rendering of the same monologue in an acclaimed production of Macbeth:

Similar humorous uses of the "brief candle" can be found in Shake Versus Shav, when the puppet Shakespeare ends the play and Shaw's "glimmering light" by puffing out the candle between them while he quotes himself.

The brief candle was also employed to describe the existence of the "shortlived" in Back to Methuselah. Cain's offspring, who "invented killing and conquest and mastery and the winnowing out of the weak by the strong," are no longer the leaders of mankind. Accordingly, Cain acknowledges his defeat: 

CAIN. There is no place for me on earth any longer. You cannot deny that mine was a splendid game while it lasted. But now! Out, out, brief candle! [He vanishes].

So, where was I? Oh, yes. Life's no brief candle. Well, just in case I'll stop wasting my holiday time on these digressions and hit the pool right away. Have fun!


  1. As an addendum, you can see how this Shaw quotation (in expanded form, and sourced for once) has been used to honor the memory of Justice Rosalie E. Wahl in the latest issue of the William Mitchel Law Review:

  2. Your added value is a sumptuous feast indeed!

    1. As Broadbent puts it in John Bull's Other Island: "What really flatters a man is that you think him worth flattering."

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