"The statesman who has no other object than to make you vote for his party at the next election may be starting you on an incline at the foot of which lies war, or revolution, or a smallpox epidemic, or five years off your lifetime."
The quotation, as Lizzie rightly notes, belongs to a 1911 piece. Specifically, to the Preface to Three Plays by Brieux, a book containing the English translation of three works by French playwright Eugène Brieux. The book was published by Brentano and contained two different versions of Maternity - one of them translated by Charlotte Shaw, and the other by John Pollock. Together with the two versions of Maternity, the volume also included The Three Daughters of M. Dupont (trans. by St. John Hankin) and Damaged Goods (trans. by John Pollock).
What seems odd about this quotation - at least when taken out of context - is that one may get the impression that Shaw is yet again grinding the axe of Fabian socialism and political reformation. Although that is partially the case, for Shaw never wrote a single line "for art's sake," the expanded context clarifies that Shaw is, by and large, trying to illustrate how the true dramatist, the man of genius, has a moral obligation to "interpret life." In other words, those who have got it must exert their "power of accurate observation" in order to educate, rather than "amuse themselves or their audiences."
I reproduce the whole paragraph below for the amusement (and enlightenment) of my readers, in an attempt to "pick out the significant incidents from the chaos of daily happenings, and arrange them so that their relation to one another becomes significant."
"But the great dramatist has something better to do than to amuse either himself or his audience. He has to interpret life. This sounds a mere pious phrase of literary criticism; but a moment's consideration will discover its meaning and its exactitude. Life as it appears to us in our daily experience is an unintelligible chaos of happenings. You pass Othello in the bazaar in Aleppo, lago on the jetty in Cyprus, and Desdemona in the nave of St. Mark's in Venice without the slightest clue to their relations to one another. The man you see stepping into a chemist's shop to buy the means of committing murder or suicide, may, for all you know, want nothing but a liver pill or a toothbrush. The statesman who has no other object than to make you vote for his party at the next election, may be starting you on an incline at the foot of which lies war, or revolution, or a smallpox epidemic, or five years off your lifetime. The horrible murder of a whole family by the father who finishes by killing himself, or the driving of a young girl on to the streets, may be the result of your discharging an employee in a fit of temper a month before. To attempt to understand life from merely looking on at it as it happens in the streets is as hopeless as trying to understand public questions by studying snapshots of public demonstrations. If we possessed a series of cinematographs of all the executions during the Reign of Terror, they might be exhibited a thousand times without enlightening the audiences in the least as to the meaning of the Revolution: Robespierre would perish as "un monsieur" and Marie Antoinette as "une femme." Life as it occurs is senseless: a policeman may watch it and work in it for thirty years in the streets and courts of Paris without learning as much of it or from it as a child or a nun may learn from a single play by Brieux. For it is the business of Brieux to pick out the significant incidents from the chaos of daily happenings, and arrange them so that their relation to one another becomes significant, thus changing us from bewildered spectators of a monstrous confusion to men intelligently conscious of the world and its destinies. This is the highest function that man can perform — the greatest work he can set his hand to; and this is why the great dramatists of the world, from Euripides and Aristophanes to Shakespear and Moliere, and from them to Ibsen and Brieux, take that majestic and pontifical rank which seems so strangely above all the reasonable pretensions of mere strolling actors and theatrical authors."