Tuesday, January 27, 2015


A few days ago I discovered an article - whose author is a professor at the Erasmus School of Economics - on when Nobel Prize laureates in literature had peaked in their production. That is to say, "When did Nobel Prize Laureates in Literature Make Their Best Work?" The idea is simple - like most good ones - you take all the Nobel laureates in literature and determine how old they were (and how far into their life span) when they produced their finest work. The tables in the article speak for themselves, so I am not going to reproduce - let alone interpret - their data. What I found puzzling, though, is how one is supposed to determine what the best work of an author is. It may be obvious in a few odd instances, but not so much in the case of Shaw. To add fuel to the fire, the play that is taken as Shaw´s milestone to determine his peak productivity is Arms and the Man.  

Arnold Daly 002

So I took matters into my own hands and created a little survey (available here, and still accepting responses) to share among the Shavians I could forward the form to. The final results will be published in a few days

This, of course, led me to think about whether Shaw himself had ever said anything as to which play was his best. After all, this is a blog for Shaw quotations. Well, as usual, Shaw had something to say about that, too. Apart from other statements that were modalized in ways that are open to interpretation, I think three specific passages stand out among the rest. 

First, in a letter to Ellen Terry (dated May 28, 1897) he writes that Mrs Warren's Profession is "much my best play; but it makes my blood run cold: I can hardly bear the most appalling bits of it. Ah, when I wrote that, I had some nerve." Admittedly, the letter was sent long before he had written many of the other masterpieces of drama that can arguably be measured against Mrs Warren's Profession

Also, in an inscription to Frank Harris under a list of six of his plays (Heartbreak House, Great Catherine, O’Flaherty VC, The Inca of Perusalem, Augustus Does His Bit, and Annajanska), he highlights Heartbreak House and notes that it was "rightly spotted by the infallible eye of Frank Harris as My Best Play." This anecdote is quoted in the Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 2001 , and duly annotated, as usual, by John R, Pfeiffer in the "Continuing Checklist of Shaviana" (SHAW 23)

Finally, my favourite. As many of you probably remember, the preface to Shakes Versus Shav begins with the words: "This in all actuarial probability is my last play and the climax of my eminence, such as it is." Regardless of the obviously comic tone of the whole piece, it is interesting to note how little an author cares about posterity when he realizes that he is losing control over what his works mean and how they are represented

Wednesday, January 21, 2015


I have just finished reading a very interesting article, especially for people who are into distant reading, data mining, computational linguistics, and digital text forensics - you know, all those things that allow us to play with computers at work and still get away with it. 

The article reports on a recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,which suggests that "the most accurate predictions of which movies the U.S. Library of Congress will deem 'culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant' are not the views of critics or fans but a simple algorithm applied to a database." The conclusion to all this is that the more "connections" a movie has (and, I guess, any work of art, for that matter), the more likely it is to go down in the records as "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." 


By connections, the scientists responsible for this study mean "films, television episodes and other works that allude to an earlier movie." In other words, when we hear "may the force be with you" quoted in a TV series episode, or we see lightsabers in different sci-fi movies, we are witnessing some of the things that turned Star Wars into a worldwide acclaimed classic. 

Regardless of the mathematics behind this algorithm, and the computer power needed to test it, we can certainly draw a parallelism between movies and drama - especially Bernard Shaw's plays. If the amount of quotations, allusions, recreations, and adaptations of Shaw's works is any indication of future status, we may rest assured that he will remain in the canon for years to come. 

Few authors figure more prominently in any dictionary of quotations; many of his plays have been adapted into movies or musicals (from My Fair Lady to The Chocolate Soldier); and he has coined words and phrases that have become part of the English lexicon. There are people who have even had to set up a blog to discriminate between quotations that are Shaw's and those that are apocryphal. Although, to be fair, sometimes someone else does the job for me

I hope you have enjoyed this little reflection for a change. As someone said once: "the golden rule is that there are no golden rules." 

Well, so long!

Wednesday, January 14, 2015


I have recently come across a novel by Daniel D. Victor, entiled The Final Page of Baker Street. As all my readers have already guessed, the protagonist of the story is someone called Sherlock Holmes, although the storry is narrated through the eyes of some Dr. Watson. 

Despite the chronological overlap between Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Bernard Shaw, and the popularity of Sherlock Holmes in Shaw's lifetime, these are no reasons to mention Victor's novel here. 

Sherlock Holmes statue at Meiringen2
There is a passage in the novel, however, that drew my attention because of the people mentioned in it and because of the quotation it referred to. The passage reads as follows: 

"I chuckled in sympathy. "Didn't Oscar Wilde have something to say about the shame of wasting youth on the young?"
"I believe you'll find that most people attribute the sentiment to Bernard Shaw," Holmes said. 

Well, I have to admit that - as usual - the astute detective is right. Before I even tried to search for this quotation in my database - to no avail - I found that The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs contains an entry for "youth is wasted on the young." Perhaps the most interesting thing it says is that "on no evident basis, the saying is commonly attributed to Shaw."

This is a misconception that seems to have spread into the collective imagination of Shavians as well. For example, on page 47 of The Independent Shavian 36.1-2 (1998), the section "Society Activities" reads: 

"On Friday evening of March 27 the Bernard Shaw Society celebrated the birthday of Dan H. Laurence, the pre-eminent Shaw scholar end editor. The place was the American Irish Historical Society and the birthday cake bore the slogan: “Youth is Wasted on the Young.” Our distinguished celebrant favored the guests with a talk entitled “Shaking the Family Tree: The Shaws and Gurleys of Dublin.”"

In principle, this does not mean any preconception about who coined that saying - although we can all read between the lines. In a more conspicuous claim, "The Continuing Checklist of Shaviana" published in SHAW 31 (2001) contains the following entry: 

"Ryan, Nicholas. “Land Where the Kids Rule.” Review of Wasted on the Young (2010), film screened in Sydney, Australia, directed by Ben C. Lucas, and taken from the pronouncement of Shaw: “Youth is wasted on the young.” Camdenadvertiser.com.au. 9 March 2011."

However, I have been able to find no connection whatsoever between these words and Bernard Shaw. Better informed opinions, welcome. 

The Ambassadors, by Hans Holbein the Younger
Once this question has been settled, I suggest you return to two of our favourite fictional characters, Sherlock Holmes and Corno di Bassetto (Shaw's alter ego as a music critic) in Stanley Weintraub's engrossing article in the Times Literary Supplement (available only by subscription). 

Thursday, January 8, 2015


After the recent terrorist attack against the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, many people have shown their support for the victims and the freedom of speech they stood for on Twitter. The hashtag chosen for the occasion is #JeSuisCharlie. Many of the messages of condolence and support have included famous quotations in defense of free speech, and against censorship and violence. Among these, you guessed it, Shaw is a favourite choice with words like these: 

I would like to offer readers a chance to source this quotation when they use it in social media. In July 1909, a Joint-Select Committee held several hearings to discuss the issue of the censorship of plays in Britain. Bernard Shaw prepared a written memorandum to be read before the Committee - published privately under the title The Statement of the Evidence in Chief of George Bernard Shaw before the Joint-Committee on Stage Plays (Censorship and Theatre Licensing).  Although Shaw was not allowed to read this text at the hearing, nor was the memorandum included in the evidence presented before the Committee, the text survived and it has been recently digitized by the Internet Archive

The relevant section of the memorandum here begins on page 15 under the heading "The Limits to Toleration." In it, Shaw argues that there must be certain limits to what we tolerate in the name of liberty. For example, 

"though we tolerate, and rightly tolerate, the propaganda of Anarchism as a political theory which embraces all that is valuable in the doctrine of Laisser-Faire and the method of Free Trade as well as all that is shocking in the views of Bakounine, we clearly cannot, or at all events will not, tolerate assassination of rulers on the ground that it is "propaganda by deed'' or sociological experiment."

Then, Shaw goes on to dismantle - in a classic example of reductio ad absurdum - some of the arguments in favor of censorship. For, if "assassination is the extreme form of censorship," a play "inciting to such an assassination" must be banned. Therefore, Julius Caesar, a play that "unquestionably vindicates and ennobles a conspirator" should not be licensed. 

And now, the grand finale (original spelling): 

"The very people who would have scouted the notion of prohibiting the performances of Julius Caesar at His Majesty's Theatre in London last year, might now entertain very seriously a proposal to exclude Indians from them, and to suppress the play completely in Calcutta and Dublin; for if the assassin of Caesar was a hero, why not the assassins of Lord Frederick Cavendish, Presidents Lincoln and McKinley, and Sir Curzon Wyllie? Here is a strong case for some constitutional means of preventing the performance of a play. True, it is an equally strong case for preventing the circulation of the Bible, which was always in the hands of our regicides; but as the Roman Catholic Church does not hesitate to accept that consequence of the censorial principle, it does not invalidate the argument."

It seems to me that if people read Shaw more, there would be fewer individuals willing to kill for religious ideals. 

Libertatea presei, Nikipercea, 1859

As an addendum to this post, it was brought to my attention - thanks to a generous reminder by Bernard Dukore, perhaps the greatest authority on Shaw quotations - that this memorandum on censorship was later used by Shaw to write the preface to The Shewing-Up of Blanco Posnet. The quotation is also found there. 

Monday, January 5, 2015


A few days ago, on the occasion of the Winter Solstice, our friends from ShawChicago posted the following Shaw quotation on their facebook timeline

Although, at first, I thought this was beyond Shaw's tolerance of lyrical mannerisms, I was clearly wrong. Then, again, Shaw wrote these words when he was only 27. They belong to his fifth and last novel, An Unsocial Socialist

"Nessus carrying off Dejanira was nothing to this! Whew! Well, my darling, are you glad to see me?"
"But me no buts, unless you wish me to vanish again and for ever. Wretch that I am, I have longed for you unspeakably more than once since I ran away from you. You didn't care, of course?"
"I did. I did, indeed. Why did you leave me, Sidney?"
"Lest a worse thing might befall. Come, don't let us waste in explanations the few minutes we have left. Give me a kiss." 
"Then you are going to leave me again. Oh, Sidney ---"
"Never mind to-morrow, Hetty. Be like the sun and the meadow, which are not in the least concerned about the coming winter. Why do you stare at that cursed canal, blindly dragging its load of filth from place to place until it pitches it into the sea—just as a crowded street pitches its load into the cemetery? Stare at ME, and give me a kiss."

This rapturous exchange is very unbecoming of later Shaw, and must be taken as part of that learning process that Shaw descibed as "brute practice with the pen," just as "a laborer digs or a carpenter planes." Let us rejoice in the fruit born by that practice, and excuse the path taken - with the occasional gem of truth, as usual. After all, just to borrow Churchill's insightful definition of Shaw

"Mr. Bernard Shaw is rather like a volcano; there are large clouds of highly inflammable gas. There are here and there brilliant electrical flashes; there are huge volumes of scalding water, and mud and ashes cast up in all directions. Among the mud and ashes of extravagance and nonsense there is from time to time a piece of pure gold cut up, ready smelted from the central fires of truth. I do not myself dislike this volcano. It is not a very large volcano, though in a constant state of eruption."

Johan Christian Claussen Dahl 001