Monday, December 15, 2014


A few days ago, Shaw Festival posted a quotation - allegedly by Shaw - on their facebook timeline. You can view the original post by clicking on the image below.

It did not sound very Shavian to me, but I searched for this literal quotation in my database - to no avail. Neither could I find any word combination that may have plausibly originated the claim that Bernard Shaw ever said something vaguely similar. While it is impossible for me to determine with absolute certainty whether these words were originally Shaw's (better informed opinions, welcome), it is quite suspicious that they can be found in another person's literary work. 

Specifically, Gloria Anzaldúa's Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza reads thusly on p. 101, while discussing the possible course of actions for Chicanos living in an alien, dominant culture: 

"Or perhaps we will decide to disengage from the dominant culture, write it off altogether as a lost cause, and cross the border into a wholly new and separate territory. Or we might go another route. The possibilities are numerous once we decide to act and not react."

To my knowledge, Anzaldúa has never suggested any intellectual indebtedness to Bernard Shaw, and it is unlikely that she was influenced by his works and/or philosophy at all. I think we can safely put this quotation in the apocryphal folder for good. 

Friday, December 12, 2014


I turned on the radio instinctively as I got in the car after a very long day. The news bulletin caught my attention: there is going to be an Alvin Langdon Coburn Exhibition at the Mapfre Foundation Museum in Madrid. "Well," I thought, "I have an excuse to go there on yet another weekend getaway and visit the exhibition, browse piles of secondhand books at Cuesta de Moyano, and admire the great masters of painting at El Prado

Although I knew Coburn had photographed Shaw on several occasions during the 1900s, I was surprised to hear towards the end of the report that Shaw regarded Coburn as "the best photographer in the world". Did Shaw really say that?

Alvin Langdon Coburn-Shaw

You can bet your last dollar he did. In a letter to Archibald Henderson (29th July 1907), included in the Bernard Shaw Collected Letters 1898-1910 (p. 704), Shaw is happy to learn that Henderson also likes Coburn's work: 

"I am glad you liked Coburn. He is a specially white youth, and, on the whole, the best photographer in the world."

Shaw then moves on to explain what he means by "on the whole," since other renowned photographers of the time were also exceedingly talented, but only at employing specific techniques or motifs. 

It is also worth mentioning that in this letter there is a brief mention of the controversy over Coburn's Le Penseur, a real-life recreation of Rodin's eponymous sculpture, with Shaw as the nude model

"He is quite right in saying that he could do no better with the Roding than he has already done. You see, that was what he meant to do; and if you dont like it (says Master Alvin) there is always the trade photographer to fall back on."

If you want to know more about the relationship between Shaw and Coburn, I suggest you take a look at the letters they exchanged. For example, you'll be able to see how knowledgeable Shaw was on photography, judging by the amount of technical details he is familiar with (Bernard Shaw Collected Letters 1898-1910, pp. 435-6). Of course, this is not news for most of my readers, especially those with whom I shared the unforgettable experience of hearing about Shaw: Man and Cameraman, a really exciting project for the digitation of Shaw's photographic collection. 

I know today's post is not one of those pithy and/or controversial quotations that Shaw used to spice his writing with, but I think it was worth it. What do you think? 

Tuesday, December 9, 2014


A few days ago, our friends from Shaw Chicago posted a nice Shaw quotation along with a picture of Mary Michell, of whom I have a most pleasant recollection playing Mrs. Whitefield in last year's production of Man and Superman

The quotation, as some of you may already know, is from Shaw's famous essay The Quintessence of Ibsenism. The problem, as usual, with Shaw's words, is that they are often quoted out of context - a circumstance that allows for virtually infinite interpretations. In this case, for instance, the example of the liar is more of a secondary statement within a broader parallelism than Shaw's main point. Let me explain. 

The Quintessence of Ibsenism, among other things, is Shaw's way of championing Ibsen as an innovator in drama - a pioneer, if you will. Thus, Shaw fittingly initiates his discussion by exemplifying the two basic types of "Pioneers" one can find in life, namely: 
  1. The second [pioneer], whose eyes are in the back of his head, is the man who declares that it is wrong to do something that no one has hitherto seen any harm in.
  2. "The first [pioneer], whose eyes are very longsighted and in the usual place, is the man who declares that it is right to do something hitherto regarded as infamous."

Of course, Shaw argues, "the second is treated with great respect by the army. They give him testimonials; name him the Good Man; and hate him like the devil" while the first pioneer "is stoned and shrieked at by the whole army. They call him all manner of opprobrious names; grudge him his bare bread and water; and secretly adore him as their savior from utter despair."

In view of this, Shaw suggests that these things happen because society has a guilty conscience. Thus, it is a lot easier to move it to see evil in something innocuous than to see good in something that has always been regarded as taboo. In Shaw's own words: 

"Just as the liar’s punishment is, not in the least that he is not believed, but that he cannot believe any one else; so a guilty society can more easily be persuaded that any apparently innocent act is guilty than that any apparently guilty act is innocent."

Henrik Ibsen portrait

Wednesday, December 3, 2014


We all know that Bernard Shaw was, if not dowright pacifist, at least someone who would apply "common sense" to war. His opinions, however, would normally be quite ahead of his time, to the extent that - most other people lagging behind his foresight - he would seeminly contradict himself and "stand on his head." 

This is basically the origin of today's quotation. After the end of WWI, when everybody had become sick to their back teeth of bloodshed and warmongery, "disarmament" became a "popular cry" even in the United States. Shaw, paradoxically, followed the classical maxim of "si vis pacem para bellum" and claimed that "arming is one of the things you should do without saying anything about it." While following this train of thought, Shaw attacks those who cried "above all, more shells" while they thought that "war with Germany was unthinkable." Well, 

"All wars are unthinkable; but they occur nevertheless."

These are the opening arguments of an article entitled "The Limitation Conference: After You, Sir," publised in The Nation and the Athenaeum (Nov. 19th, 1921). In it, Shaw discusses the opening sessions of the Washington Naval Conference in the wake of the Great War. 

Shaw's conclusions are clear - and witty as ever: 

"What is the moral of all this? Simply that the disarmament items in the agenda of the conference do not matter a scrap. If the Powers have any sense or any capacity for learning from experience they will spare their taxpayers by disbanding their armies; countermanding their orders for battle ships and singing peace on earth and good will toward men at the top of their voices. Their submarines and airships will all be commercial ones; their explosive factories will merely be dye works; their gas plants will supply chemicals for ordinary Industrial purposes; their working drawings of the latest magazine rifle will hide securely in a pigeon-hole. And the next war will be just as likely to occur and be much the same when it does occur as if the Powers, were visibly armed to the teeth."

The full text of the article is available via the Proquest Periodicals Archive Online Database, or freely available as a computer-generated text (some typos, of course) of a summary in the Cincinnati Enquirer, HERE.

US political leaders at arms conference