Friday, October 3, 2014


In a coincidence that has become customary lately, both the International Shaw Society and Shaw's Corner have posted the same Shaw quotation on their Twitter feed. 

It is a bemusing quotation indeed, for what is it that makes people take their children to the theatre and not to church? The reason can be found in the original context of this excerpt, which I reproduce below:

 - Your question “Is the Theatre a power making for righteous­ness?” is as useless as the same question would be about Religion or Gravitation or Government or Music. There are theatres in England in which the entertainment on the stage is simply a device to lure people to the drinking bars which are the real sources of profit to the manager. There are theatres everywhere which deal in nothing but dramatic aphrodisiacs. And there are theatres which deal with more serious representations of life and greater achievements of literary art than any to be found in the grossly overrated bundle of Hebrew literature which you were taught to idolize to the exclusion of your natural literary birthright. Between these extremes lie every possible grade of theatre; and to lump them all as an unreal abstraction called “the theatre” will only land you in confusion. A theatre is a potent engine for working up the passions and the imagination of mankind; and like all such engines it is capable of the noblest recreations or the basest debauchery according to the spirit of its direction. So is a church. A church can do great things by precisely the same arts as those used in the theatre (there is no difference fundamentally, and very little even superficially); but every church is in a state of frightful pecuniary dependence on Pharisees who use it to whitewash the most sordid commercial scoundrelism by external observances; it organizes the sale of salvation at a reasonable figure to these same Pharisees by what it calls charity; it invariably provides occasion for envy and concupiscence by an open exhibition of millinery and personal adornment for both sexes; and it sometimes, under cover of the text that God is love, creates and maintains a pseudo- pious ecstatic communion compared to which the atmosphere of the theatre is prosaically chilly. That is why many people who take their children to the theatre do not send them to church. The moral is, as “pagans like Domitian and Trajan” saw, that both churches and theatres need to be carefully looked after so as to prevent them from abusing their powers for pecuniary profit. - 

This paragraph is part of a longer letter, probably dated c. Jul. 1904, and addressed to William T. Stead.  The full text can be read on pages 424-6 of Dan H. Laurence's edition of Bernard Shaw's Collected Letters (Vol. II).  

One of the main ideas of the passage, the notion that "every church is in a state of frightful pecuniary dependence on Pharisees," also made its way into many other of Shaw's works, particularly the prefaces to his plays - often in quite memorable ways as well. 

For example, in the Preface to Major Barbara, Shaw explains that one of the things the Salvation Army and Barbara discover in the play is that "there is no salvation for them through personal righteousness, but only through the redemption of the whole nation from its vicious, lazy, competitive anarchy." This is yet another sense in which playgoers and Pharisees seem to concur. After all: 

"this discovery has been made by everyone except the Pharisees and (apparently) the professional playgoers, who still wear their Tom Hood shirts and underpay their washerwomen without the slightest misgiving as to the elevation of their private characters, the purity of their private atmospheres, and their right to repudiate as foreign to themselves the coarse depravity of the garret and the slum."

Nicolas Colombel - Christ Expelling the Money-Changers from the Temple

This concept may derive from earlier ideas, perhaps rather more revolutionary and, to some extent, naive. Look, for instance, at the following passage from the Preface to Immaturity (Shaw's first novel). 

"Christ adapted himself so amiably to the fashionable life of his time in his leisure that he was reproached for being a gluttonous man and a winebibber, and for frequenting frivolous and worthless sets. But he did not work where he feasted, nor flatter the Pharisees, nor ask the Romans to buy him with a sinecure. He knew when he was being entertained, well treated, lionized: not an unpleasant adventure for once in a way; and he did not quarrel with the people who were so nice to him. Besides, to sample society is part of a prophet's business: he must sample the governing class above all, because his inborn knowledge of human nature will not explain the anomalies produced in it by Capitalism and Sacerdotalism. But he can never feel at home in it. The born Communist, before he knows what he is, and understands why, is always awkward and unhappy in plutocratic society and in the poorer societies which ape it to the extent of their little means: in short, wherever spiritual values are assessed like Income Tax."

In other words, the "pecuniary dependence" of the present-day churches may have to do with this "sampling of society" and the fact that the real essence of Christianity has not been realized yet - in more ways than one. Perhaps the key to all this may lie in the general misunderstanding as to what "modern communism" actually means. I'll leave you with Shaw's explanation, from the Preface to Androcles and the Lion

"Now let us see what modern experience and modern sociology has to say to the teaching of Jesus as summarized here. First, get rid of your property by throwing it into the common stock. One can hear the Pharisees of Jerusalem and Chorazin and Bethsaida saying, "My good fellow, if you were to divide up the wealth of Judea equally today, before the end of the year you would have rich and poor, poverty and affluence, just as you have today; for there will always be the idle and the industrious, the thrifty and the wasteful, the drunken and the sober; and, as you yourself have very justly observed, the poor we shall have always with us." And we can hear the reply, "Woe unto you, liars and hypocrites; for ye have this very day divided up the wealth of the country yourselves, as must be done every day (for man liveth not otherwise than from hand to mouth, nor can fish and eggs endure for ever); and ye have divided it unjustly; also ye have said that my reproach to you for having the poor always with you was a law unto you that this evil should persist and stink in the nostrils of God to all eternity; wherefore I think that Lazarus will yet see you beside Dives in hell." Modern Capitalism has made short work of the primitive pleas for inequality. The Pharisees themselves have organized communism in capital. Joint stock is the order of the day. An attempt to return to individual properties as the basis of our production would smash civilization more completely than ten revolutions. You cannot get the fields tilled today until the farmer becomes a co-operator. Take the shareholder to his railway, and ask him to point out to you the particular length of rail, the particular seat in the railway carriage, the particular lever in the engine that is his very own and nobody else's; and he will shun you as a madman, very wisely. And if, like Ananias and Sapphira, you try to hold back your little shop or what not from the common stock, represented by the Trust, or Combine, or Kartel, the Trust will presently freeze you out and rope you in and finally strike you dead industrially as thoroughly as St. Peter himself. There is no longer any practical question open as to Communism in production: the struggle today is over the distribution of the product: that is, over the daily dividing-up which is the first necessity of organized society."

Androcles Peruzzi

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