Thursday, August 21, 2014


A recent facebook update by ShawChicago reminded me of one of my favourite Shaw quotations of all time. 

"The power of accurate observation is commonly called cynicism by those who have not got it."

Be it because I'm a bit of a cynic myself, or because a great deal of what I like about Shaw has to do with what others call "his cynical way of looking at things," the fact is that I've always liked to drop this line here and there. 
Ulica Bernarda Shawa, Dubrovnik
Bernard Shaw Street. Dubrovnik, Croatia. 
However, until today, I had never bothered to look it up and find out a little more about when and where it was written. I must confess I was very surprised. 

This quotation - slightly altered in its original syntax - was first published as part of one of Shaw's pieces of music criticism. Specifically, in an article dated 18 July 1894 about "the production of Der Freischütz and Fidelio at die German Opera," which was included in the third volume of his Music in London (1890-1894).

As you can see from the expanded quotation in context, Shaw was criticizing the ostentation and "tackiness" of certain outdated props:

"To appeal to our extinct sense of the supernatural by means that outrage our heightened sense of the natural is to court ridi­cule. Pasteboard pies and paper flowers are being banished from the stage by the growth of that power of accurate observation which is commonly called cynicism by those who have not got it; and impossible bats and owls must be banished with them. Der Freischütz may be depended on to suggest plenty of phan­tasmagoria without help from out-of-date stage-machinists and property-masters."

Frankly, I am sometimes amazed by how Shaw's ideas and interestes changed or evolved throughout his life, but that uncanny knack for writing wittily and precisely was always with him. Perhaps it has to do with his self-imposed training when he still thought he would become a novelist

Celebrities in Soong Ching-ling's home
Celebrities (including Shaw, unmistakeable) at Soong Ching-ling's home.
As was to be expected, this quotation has made its way into countless books and articles worldwide. For example, in The Cambridge Guide to Theatre (p. 1022) as a means to introduce the topic of food on stage, since "pasteboard pies" were no longer in vogue, according to Shaw. 

Well, one more Shaw quotation sourced, a million more to go. Wait, am I being cynical? 

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