Tuesday, February 24, 2015


A lot of what this blog is about has to do with analyzing Shaw as an object of culture. In other words, I try to take a look at GBS (the persona behind the man) so as to gain a better understanding of what has granted him such enduring popularity. In this sense, it is always interesting to look at the reception Shaw had in his lifetime, and the image he projected. 

Don't be afraid. What's coming is not a lengthy, cumbersome essay on how scholars, critics, and the like viewed Shaw. Instead, I've chosen to show here a short clip (just 10 seconds long. You surely can spare that, can't you?). It belongs to a 1933 Warner Brothers cartoon entitled "I've Got to Sing a Torch Song." As you may know, that was also the title of a popular song at the time, featured in the film of the same year "Gold Diggers of 1933." Let me begin by embedding the video with the music. 

Bernard Shaw is among the many celebrities that are portrayed in the film - more or less overtly. For example, there's a guy singing in the tub who has a sign that reads "Cros Bingsby" on his door. 

This is the Shaw part- judge for yourselves!

Given that this is a satirical portrayal of Shaw, there are a few things that are worth commenting on. All these aspects are proof of the image that the general public had of him. 

To begin with, it seems quite clear that Shaw's interest in boxing was widely known. It suffices to turn over a few pages of Jay Tunney's The Prizefighter and the Playwright to find out more about that. Therefore, it is not surprising that he should be depicted as a thin pugilist punching a globe. 

In addition, the idea that Shaw is punching a globe is, of course, a representation of his attempts at "world-betterment," of his revolutionary, shocking ideas, and of the general opposition he met along the way. Shaw always had an axe to grind, and always found someone to wield it against. 

Then, again, the globe bounces back at him and knocks him out. The metaphor leaves little room for interpretation. This is especially meaningful in light of the events that unfolded during the thirties, because it was then that Shaw had a rude awakening from his dreams of utopia - especially after the deeds perpetrated by the strong rulers of Europe he admired (Mussolini's cartoon alter-ego appears right before Shaw in the movie).

Finally, all the pictures of himself on the wall suggest an aura of conceit and self-awareness that was not very far from the truth, at least in what respects to his playwrighting persona. However, Bernard Shaw was a very friendly and humane person, as his neighbors and acquaintances recall. Many visitors would not even recognize him when they walked past him along the roads of Ayot St Lawrence. Such was his naturalness.  

To wrap things up, it would be nice to connect this cartoon to many other caricatures and satiric drawings in which Shaw has been depicted. Many of those can be accessed online on the digital image repositories of universities and other institutions. In my personal opinion, the collections of the British Cartoon Archive are especially interesting. 

George Bernard Shaw by Edmund S. Valtman ppmsc.07950

Thursday, February 19, 2015


This is probably one of the most popular quotations in Shaw's repertoire. Indeed, photographs like this one abound on the Internet. 

The quotation originated in a letter Shaw sent to Ellen Terry (28 Aug. 1896), included in Bernard Shaw Collected Letters Vol. I (1874-1897), p. 645.

"But I dread success. To have succeeded is to have finished one’s business on earth, like the male spider, who is killed by the female the moment he has succeeded in his courtship. I like a state of continual becoming, with a goal in front and not behind. Then, too, I like fighting successful people; attacking them; rousing them; trying their mettle; kicking down their sand castles so as to make them build stone ones, and so on. It develops one’s muscles. Besides, one learns from it: a man never tells you anything until you contradict him."

From the point of view of "contradiction" as a powerful tool to mine out the truth from people, Shaw followed what he preached. In another letter to Ellen Terry (25 Nov. 1905), he probed her thoughts on whether she considered Frederick Kerr to be the best option to play Brassbound in these terms: 

"Unless you contradict me, I shall assume that you prefer him to the available alternatives."

Of course, this tecnique - although effective - was not without detractors. As we can read in an article by Tom Miller (The Shavian 8.8, 2000), professor Harold J. Laski did not enjoy Shaw as a provocateur who fostered conflicting arguments, especially because Shaw seemed to have the sympathetic upper hand from his audience: 

"He talks as though he knows that Europe is listening at the keyhole to what he says; and he has, consequently, a reckless disregard for truth where this is in conflict with sensation that I really find a painful thing. And the adulation which surrounds him is irritating beyond words. He says something which makes you revolt; you contradict; and his audience looks at you as though you had spat upon the Eucharist." (8 Jan. 1928)

This is not to imply that Shaw would not "contradict himself" from time to time, as we all know. To quote but one - should I say momentous - example, Beatrice Webb records in his typescript diary (24 May 1927) that while she was "reading proofs of The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism" together with her husband, she pointed out to Shaw that he had "contradicted himself more than once in the book." In Beatrice's recollection of the event, Shaw was "rather impressed especially as I insisted that I did not want him to alter anything he had written."

I wonder if self-contradiction was Shaw's way of getting the truth out of himself?

By the way, Beatrice Webb's both manuscript and typescript diaries are digitized and freely available at the LSE Digital Library. A phenomenal initiative and an endless lode of information for research. 

Beatrice Webb, c1875

Tuesday, February 10, 2015


Here are the results of the poll I shared a couple of weeks ago. It will remain open until further notice, so you can still vote HERE

There seems to be a consensus among respondents that the five MVPs (Most Valuable Plays) in the Shavian canon are Man and Superman, Heartbreak House, Major Barbara, Pygmalion, and Saint Joan. Even if these results are as valid as those of the Eurovision Song Contest, it is still a nice conversation starter, I guess.