Monday, March 23, 2015


A couple of weeks ago I received a message whereby the sender requested my help in finding an alleged Shaw quotation "to the effect that we have surpassed ourselves in the art of war, but not so in the art of peace." 

After trying many different word combinations, I finally found the passage the original query referred to. It belongs to a long speech from Don Juan in Hell by the mouth of the DevilThe relevant fragment reads as follows: 

THE DEVIL. [...] And I tell you that in the arts of life man invents nothing; but in the arts of death he outdoes Nature herself, and produces by chemistry and machinery all the slaughter of plague, pestilence and famine. The peasant I tempt to-day eats and drinks what was eaten and drunk by the peasants of ten thousand years ago; and the house he lives in has not altered as much in a thousand centuries as the fashion of a lady's bonnet in a score of weeks. But when he goes out to slay, he carries a marvel of mechanism that lets loose at the touch of his finger all the hidden molecular energies, and leaves the javelin, the arrow, the blowpipe of his fathers far behind. In the arts of peace Man is a bungler. I have seen his cotton factories and the like, with machinery that a greedy dog could have invented if it had wanted money instead of food. I know his clumsy typewriters and bungling locomotives and tedious bicycles: they are toys compared to the Maxim gun, the submarine torpedo boat. There is nothing in Man's industrial machinery but his greed and sloth: his heart is in his weapons. This marvellous force of Life of which you boast is a force of Death: Man measures his strength by his destructiveness.

We cannot disagree with Shaw in that "homo homini lupus;" in fact, many readers will find a certain parallelism between the words quoted above and Undershaft's (Major Barbara) peculiar philosophy of constant improvement in the "arts of death": 

UNDERSHAFT. Not at all. The more destructive war becomes the more fascinating we find it. No, Mr Lomax, I am obliged to you for making the usual excuse for my trade; but I am not ashamed of it. I am not one of those men who keep their morals and their business in watertight compartments. All the spare money my trade rivals spend on hospitals, cathedrals and other receptacles for conscience money, I devote to experiments and researches in improved methods of destroying life and property. I have always done so; and I always shall.

Another interesting thing that I've learned in the process of finding this quotation is that Shaw quite often connects the concepts of life and death in the form of another dichotomy with more social and political implications: war and peace. Let us take a look at some examples. I have decided to focus solely on quotations from the plays, because one could write a book if the prefaces, letters, pamphlets and speeches are considered.  

To begin with, and despite the socio-political implications I've alluded to, the drive for both war and peace are to be found within each individual person. For example, when Anderson (The Devil's Disciple) learns that the soldiers had come for him, the stage direction tells us that "the man of peace vanishes, transfigured into a choleric and formidable man of war.

Conversely, as Aubrey (Too True to Be Good) argues when the Sergeant excuses his behaviour because "that was war,"

AUBREY. It was me, sergeant: ME. You cannot divide my conscience into a war department and a peace department. Do you suppose that a man who will commit murder for political ends will hesitate to commit theft for personal ends? Do you suppose you can make a man the mortal enemy of sixty millions of his fellow creatures without making him a little less scrupulous about his next door neighbour?

Of course, war and peace are closely connected in collective terms as well. First, because the existence of either does not depend on their ethical superiority, but on business questions instead - as Undershaft reminds us once again: 

UNDERSHAFT [with a touch of brutality] The government of your country! I am the government of your country: I, and Lazarus. Do you suppose that you and half a dozen amateurs like you, sitting in a row in that foolish gabble shop, can govern Undershaft and Lazarus? No, my friend: you will do what pays US. You will make war when it suits us, and keep peace when it doesn't.

The consequence of all this is that the dividing line between war and peace in practical terms gets thinner and thinner. The second part of Back to Methuselah ("The Gospel of the Brother Barnabas") contains some words to that effect: 

BURGE. We won the war: don't forget that.
FRANKLYN. No: the soldiers and sailors won it, and left you to finish it. And you were so utterly incompetent that the multitudes of children slain by hunger in the first years of peace made us all wish we were at war again.

Likewise, the Commander-in-Chief in the second of the Farfetched Fables knows all too well what the outcome of the situation will be, but he also knows that he cannot intervene because of certain technicalities: 

C.-IN-C. Not a bit of it. Ketch is far too cunning to go to war with us. He did not go to war with anybody. He dropped his bombs on the Isle of Wight just to shew Capetown and the rest that the world was at his mercy. He selected the Isle of Wight because it's a safe distance from his own people, just as we selected Hiroshima in 1945. He thinks islands are out-of-the-way little places that dont matter to us. But he maintains that his relations with the Commonwealth are friendly; and as you have not declared war on him we are still technically at peace. That makes it your job, not mine, though as usual when there is anything to be done except what was done last time, I shall have to do it.

Given all the grey areas between war and peace, I have to agree with Shaw's Caesar and proclaim that both war and peace are sophisticated arts that only the greatest artists can master, preferrably if an imperialist. 

CAESAR. What! Rome produces no art! Is peace not an art? Is war not an art? Is government not an art? Is civilization not an art? All these we give you in exchange for a few ornaments. You will have the best of the bargain.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015


You can hear these words in Don Juan in Hell, the oneiric third act of Man and Superman that is often played separately, just like our friends from ShawChicago recently did. Don Juan is discussing life, love, and the Life-Force with Ana and the Statue. The conversation reaches a particularly articulate point when Ana argues that there is a certain ethical virtue in procreation. Don Juan, of course, replies that the act of "begetting" - to use Biblical lexis - is no more virtuous because it happens in wedlock. In that sense, marriage is nothing but a conventional way of doing things that has been perpetuated because it is practical and efficient. These are the actual words:

DON JUAN. [...] Dona Ana has, I admit, gone straight to the real point—yet it is not a difference of love or chastity, or even constancy; for twelve children by twelve different husbands would have replenished the earth perhaps more effectively. Suppose my friend Ottavio had died when you were thirty, you would never have remained a widow: you were too beautiful. Suppose the successor of Ottavio had died when you were forty, you would still have been irresistible; and a woman who marries twice marries three times if she becomes free to do so. Twelve lawful children borne by one highly respectable lady to three different fathers is not impossible nor condemned by public opinion. That such a lady may be more law abiding than the poor girl whom we used to spurn into the gutter for bearing one unlawful infant is no doubt true; but dare you say she is less self-indulgent?
ANA. She is less virtuous: that is enough for me.
DON JUAN. In that case, what is virtue but the Trade Unionism of the married? Let us face the facts, dear Ana. The Life Force respects marriage only because marriage is a contrivance of its own to secure the greatest number of children and the closest care of them. For honor, chastity and all the rest of your moral figments it cares not a rap. Marriage is the most licentious of human institutions—

One may think that this remark is rather ambiguous, given that Shaw was a Fabian socialist and, as such, rather on the side of trade unionism. Not quite. 

In his introduction to the 1913 Waverley edition of Hard Times, Shaw finds fault with Dickens's depiction of Slackbridge because he is just an extravagant "figment of the middle-class imagination. No such man would be listened to by a meeting of English factory hands." But Slackbridge is not an inaccurate portrayal of the typical trade union leader because they are not corrupt, superficial, or trite. Mind you, 

"Not that such meetings are less susceptible to humbug than meetings of any other class. Not that trade union organizers, worn out by the terribly wearisome and trying work of going from place to place repeating the same commonplaces and trying to “stoke up" meetings to enthusiasm with them, are less apt than other politicians to end as windbags, and sometimes to depend on stimulants to pull them through their work. Not, in short, that the trade union platform is any less humbug-ridden than the platforms of our more highly placed political parties." 

In light of this, we can easily equate trade unionism to conventionality, boredom, empty words, and many other negative elements of social organization. Thus, by extension, what most people call virtue is an equally deplorable notion, as Shaw reminds us on many an occasion.

Already in The Irrational Knot (1880), Douglas tries to talk Marian into leaving her husband by saying: "You know what a hollow thing conventional virtue is." A similar conception can be found in one of Shaw's pieces of dramatic criticism. In a review of Sydney Grundy's The Silver Key (an adaptation of Alexandre Duma's Mademoiselle de Belle Isle), Shaw admits to finding something recognizable in Richelieu. After all, "What people call vice is eternal: what they call virtue is mere fashion." The ethics of conventional virtue is systematically attacked by Shaw in an attempt to shake the conscience of his readers. Just like Isabella asks Mr Smith in Immaturity: "do you really believe that virtue is its own reward in this world?" 

Although, to be fair, the preface to Androcles and the Lion contains a more elaborate train of thought in which both sides of the matter are considered: 

"When Talleyrand said that a married man with a family is capable of anything, he meant anything evil; but an optimist may declare, with equal half truth, that a married man is capable of anything good; that marriage turns vagabonds into steady citizens; and that men and women will, for love of their mates and children, practise virtues that unattached individuals are incapable of. It is true that too much of this domestic virtue is self-denial, which is not a virtue at all; but then the following of the inner light at all costs is largely self-indulgence, which is just as suicidal, just as weak, just as cowardly as self-denial."

At any rate, even outside his literary endeavors Shaw still has an axe to grind against this thing called 'virtue'. In a letter to fellow Fabian E. D. Girdlestone (26 Sept. 1890. Bernard Shaw Collected Letters, 1874-1897, p. 266), he points his finger at the real enemy of the born world-betterer: 

"Our enemy is not essentially the landlord or capitalist: these are but accidental forms of the true enemy—the Good Man. Virtue is only a mask for the revolting features of Unhappiness. Let us be religious, if you will, but not virtuous, not moral, not good—anything but that. My only boast is that in these days when it is so easy & cheap to be a Christ, I have ventured to follow the poor, despised, but always right Devil."

Whether Shaw followed God, the Devil, or tried to impersonate either of them, has always been open to interpretation. What is unquestionably true is that, all things considered, the most sensible thing Shaw ever said about virtue is probably written in an unfinished essay entitled "From Dickens to Ibsen." There we read what we all know, that "sham virtue is by no means less poisonous than sham skill in architecture."

Paolo Veronese - The Triumph of Virtue over Vice - WGA24939
Paolo Veronese. "The Triumph of Virtue over Vice." (1554-1556)