Wednesday, December 21, 2016


Caricature of George Bernard Shaw

Yes, my dear fellow Shavians. It's that time of the year again. The time of the year that, as Shaw put it,

"Christmas is forced upon a reluctant and disgusted nation by the shopkeepers and the press; on its own merits it would wither and shrivel in the fiery breath of universal hatred."

But this blog is solely concerned with sourcing quotations, and that's what we're going to do. The bad-tempered remark above is to be found in an article published in the Saturday Review (1 January 1898), entitled "Peace and Goodwill to Managers." The article is included in Vol. III of The Drama Observed, 1897-1911, as well as in Shaw's Dramatic Criticism from the Saturday Review, 1895-1898 and Dramatic Opinions and Essays (Vol. II), this one available online.  

The "rant" against Christmas that opens the article is, in fact, a little longer than the quotation above. It reads: 

"I am sorry to have to introduce the subject of Christmas in these articles. It is an indecent subject; a cruel, gluttonous subject; a drunken, disorderly subject; a wasteful, disastrous subject; a wicked, cadging, lying, filthy, blasphemous, and demoralizing subject. Christmas is forced on a reluctant and disgusted nation by the shopkeepers and the press: on its own merits it would wither and shrivel in the fiery breath of universal hatred; and anyone who looked back to it would be turned into a pillar of greasy sausages."

This quotation has been used by some authors to illustrate Shaw's well-known dislike for Christmas and the celebrations it conventionally involves. For example, Hesketh Pearson quotes this passage in two of his biographical volumes: G.B.S.: A Full Length Portrait (p. 146) and Bernard Shaw: A Biography (p. 176). 

George Bernard Shaw, his life and works; a critical biography (authorized) (1911) (14595271509)

This, of course, is not the only passage by Shaw where one gets an idea of how much he truly "hated" Christmas. Some are even harsher, like the fragment from one of his pieces of music criticism (Music in London, 1890-94 Vol. III, p. 113. 20 December 1893):

"Like all intelligent people, I greatly dislike Christmas. It revolts me to see a whole nation refrain from music for weeks together in order that every man may rifle his neighbour's pockets under cover of a ghastly general pretence of festivity. It is really an atrocious institution, this Christmas. 
We must be gluttonous because it is Christmas. We must be drunken because it is Christmas. We must be insincerely generous; we must buy things that nobody wants, and give them to people we don't like; we must go to absurd entertainments, that make even our little children satirical; we must writhe under venal officiousness from legions of freebooters, all because it is Christmas - that is, because the mass of the population, including the all powerful middle class tradesmen, depend on a week of licence and brigandage, waste and intemperance to clear off its outstanding liabilities at the end of the year. As for me, I shall fly from it all tomorrow or next day to some remote spot miles from a shop, where nothing worse can befall me than a serenade from a few peasants, or some equally harmless survival of medieval mummery, shyly proffered, not advertised, moderate in its expectations, and soon over. In town there is, for the moment, nothing for me or any honest man to do."

But all Shaw quotations are not quite complete without their share of anti-climax. However, since the author does not supply the anti-climax this time, I guess circumstances will. That is the only explanation I find for The Bernard Shaw Christmas Flea Market, of course. 

Thursday, October 27, 2016


Just the other day I was turning over the pages of Music in the Air: The Selected Writings of Ralph J. Gleason, when I realized that he quotes Shaw twice in two different articles: one about blues guitarist and singer B.B. King and another on Jazz trumpetist Louis Armstrong. On both occasions, the quotations read more or less the same, something along the lines that "anybody can make a beginning."

Although no source is provided -and the wording is slightly different- in either case, I thought these words were likely to come from one of Shaw's critical pieces on music. Bingo!

The first volume of Music in London (1890-1894) contains an article dated 9 December 1891 in which he criticizes another form of "bardolatry" during Mozart's centenary. As he says in the second paragraph, "The word is, of course, Admire, admire, admire." But Shaw refuses to simply please his readers and remains aware of the fact that many Mozart 

"...worshippers cannot bear to be told that their hero was not the founder of a dynasty. But in art the highest success is to be the last of your race, not the first. Anybody, almost, can make a beginning: the difficulty is to make an end—to do what cannot be bettered."

This piece, because it includes Dickens among other artists who were the last of their generation, is also quoted in the introduction to Dan H. Laurence and Martin Quinn's Shaw on Dickens

Needless to say, another thing that struck me - although it should come as no surprise - is that this jazz and pop music critic was indeed familiar with Shaw's music criticism. It amazes me to think of how influential Shaw has been and remains to be in so many fields and for so long. 

But to return to the dichotomy of beginnings and ends in art, readers may wish perhaps to learn that this is not the only time that Shaw used the same rhetorical parallelism - although in a rather different sense and spere.  

In his lecture "The Simple Truth about Socialism," included -among other works- in Louis Crompton's The Road to Equality (pp. 155-194), Shaw argues that "we must improve the nation if we are to im­prove its institutions"; in other words, that we must strive to produce the "Superman" before attempting any profound socio-political reform. This idea, however, is not devoid of problems for

"The Eugenic Society feels quite sure, apparently, that it can make a beginning by at least breeding out tuberculosis, epilepsy, dipsomania, and lunacy; but for all we know to the contrary, the Superman may be tubercu­lous from top to toe; he is quite likely to be a controlled epileptic; his sole diet may be overproof spirit; and he will cer­tainly be as mad as a hatter from our point of view. We really know nothing about him. Our worst failures today may be simply first attempts at him, and our greatest successes the final perfection of the type that is passing away. Under these cir­cumstances there is nothing to be done in the way of a stud farm. We must trust to nature: that is, to the fancies of our males and females. No doubt some of the fancies are morbid; but they must all have some meaning: that is, some purpose; and the purpose must he in the main a vital one, or it would hardly have survived. At all events, that is the best we can make of the situation."

Given the previous opinion on what it means to "make a beginning," it seems quite clear that Shaw is renouncing eugenics at this stage -be it because it is immoral or impractical. Shaw's interest in and discussion of eugenics and its methods, however, are multifaceted, so I won't go beyond recommending the most recent book I know of that covers this topic: Bernard Shaw and Totalitarianism: Longing for Utopia.

This blog, alas, can only make a beginning. 

Sunday, October 16, 2016


A few months ago I came across a new bibliographical reference - almost by chance - of which I knew very little at first: only that its title was "Well Printed Books." Upon further investigation I found out that the item in question was not a book or an article, but rather a piece of art. More specifically, one by Tara McLeod (, a "hand-print book-maker" based in New Zealand. Among his works, there is a beautiful broadsheet of a Shaw quotation that reads

"Well printed books are just as scarce as well written ones, and every author should remember that the most costly books derive their value from the craft of the printer and not from the author's genius."

I must admit I fell in love with the quotation, as well as with the quality of the printing and typesetting - to the extent that I went to great lengths to get one of the few copies available at the National Library of New Zealand (thanks are due to their staff, who went beyond their duty to make this possible). Here is what the framed piece looks like on my office wall. 

Initially, this piece was commissioned by the National Library Of New Zealand in 2015 for their exhibition “The Book Beautiful,” which seems to have been worth a visit

However, as you probably have guessed by now, this post is actually meant to find out more about the source and context of the quotation. Well, wait no more. These words belong to Shaw's essay "On Modern Typography," which opens with a note of gratitude "to the printer, and the printer's reader" and ends on "the moral of what I have been saying," summed up in the above quotation. 

Of course, by the reverse token, printers who do not do their job professionally - as it apparently happened with some page proofs of The Devil's Disciple (Collected Letters, 1898-1910, p. 226), "should be boiled down into tallow forthwith & sold for what he will fetch." This passage can also be read in the more recent Bernard Shaw and His Publishers, edited by Michel W. Pharand. 

Although most Shavians know of Shaw's interest in printing and typesetting - and practically every other process involved in publishing a book - is won't hurt anybody to remind readers of how this interest was spurred by his friendship with William Morris

George Frederic Watts portrait of William Morris 1870

And one gets a pretty accurate idea of how serious Shaw was about the whole printing business when one reads his letter to Grant Richards (9th September 1898) with the detailed specifications for the forthcoming edition of The Perfect Wagnerite

"If you choose the big type (as I anticipate from your letter you are likely to) then you must impress upon Clark that every defect in the printing will be ten times more glaring with the larger than with the smaller. There must be no holes and rivers of white patching the page. As a first step to attain this, the huge gaps left at the beginnings of each sentence on the sample page must be vehemently forbidden. The spaces between the words must be kept as narrow and even as possible: it is better to divide words at the end of the line with hyphens than to spoil the line by excessive spacing merely to “justify” without dividing, as some printers make a point of doing. There should be no greater space between the point at the end of a sentence and the capital, than between the last letter of one word and the first of the next within the sentence. In short, the color of the block of printing should be as even as possible. The printing of the sample couldn’t possibly be worse in this respect."

I guess I could quote a hundred other examples, but readers can delve into any of the sources cited here and find many more for themselves; although you may choose to start with Joseph R. Dunlap's interesting survey of these matters published in The Shavian 2.3 (1961, pp. 4-15), fittingly entitled "The Typographical Shaw: GBS and the Revival of Printing." The full text of the article was also published in The Bulletin of the New York Public Library (Oct. 1960), which you can also read below

Sunday, September 25, 2016


A couple of days ago a dear friend asked me if the oft-quoted line "the British and Americans are two peoples separated by a common language..." was actually something Shaw had coined. This quip, and slightly altered versions thereof, has been attributed to Shaw - often by illustrious people who actually met him. For example, The Shavian 6.5 (Spring 1987) includes a brief note that reads as follows: 

However, as the excellent, informative post by The Quote Investigator demonstrates, chances are Shaw never uttered those words; or, at least, as my own database seems to suggest, there is no reliable, extant record of the when and where. 

Given the futility of my sleuthing, I thought it would be a good idea to go over a few passages where Shaw refers to or comments on the English spoken in America - mind you, a rather different version of the language than the one we hear today; and far from being a single, unified variety for that matter.

Differences in semantics and usage between American and British English, for example, could have arguably confused visitors of the 1902 photographic exhibitions of the Linked Ring and the Royal Photographic Society. Shaw did not have a high opinion of one of Edward Steichen's works, but...

"To make matters worse, Mr. Steichen actually labels the lady with the cat in the American language. He calls her a "nude." This may be American modesty; but in English the adjective is only used substantively by old-fashioned dealers to denote a naughty French picture. This use of the word is also exemplified on the books entitled Nudes from the Paris Salon. Consequently English artists use the term Life Study, which is more accurate descriptively, and better grammar to boot." (Bernard Shaw on Photography, p. 88)

A working knowledge, then, of the differences between these two varieties of English is a good thing. Shaw seems to corroborate this notion in his review of Olivia (by W. G. Wills), published in the Saturday Review on 6 Feb. 1897. 

"Its success, if it does succeed, will be due mainly to the acting of Miss Cicely Richards, who pulls it through with great ability, seconded effectively by Mr Cockburn. Miss Esme Beringer's impersonation of the heroine, though altogether artificial, is clever; and Mr Courtenay Thorpe manages to play with some distinction as the father. Mr Abingdon is a comic American interviewer; but the part is beneath criticism. Besides, Mr Abingdon has no command of the American language." (The Drama Observed. Vol. II, p. 771).

This is not the only critical piece by Shaw where we find a reference to "the American language" as a simple way to sketch the idiolect of a performer, somewhat derisively. In Music in London (Vol. II, p. 236), a similar descriptive use of the phrase is made 

An American accent, in addition, does not guarantee a comfortable living - although the opposite is also true. See, for example, the following extract from one of Shaw's letters to Charlotte (31st Oct. 1897): 

"There is a young American musician-a Philadelphian genius-the only American I ever met without an American accent-at present starving in Paris in the usual way. His name is Philip Dalmas..." (Collected Letters, 1874-1897, p. 818)

It is also true, nevertheless, that one can never be too sure about Shaw's real opinion on this question. Let us be reminded of the anecdote included in Allan Chappelow's Shaw the Villager and Human Being - A Biographical Symposium (pp. 217-218)

"Another time I criticised a radio performance of Saint Joan in which the part of St. Joan had been played by an actress with a pronounced American accent. Shaw just roared with laughter, but later told me he had telephoned the B.B.C. about it and told them he did not hear the broadcast himself, but had been told that the actress was wonderful ! That was typical of G.B.S.-you never really knew how he was going to react."

After all, Homer also nods and Shaw - who was chewed out by a listener because of his "slovenly pronunciation" during a broadcast talk - entertained certain American idiosyncrasies in pronunciation. The following fragment, for example, can be read in L.W. Connoly's Bernard Shaw and the BBC (an adapted version was published in "Shaw and BBC English" in The Independent Shavian 42.3 (2004): 

This does not mean that Shaw did not know his American English - quite the contrary. However, some critics beg to differ - however misinformed their claim is. As David Matual points out in his "Shaw's The Shewing-Up of Blanco Posnet and Tolstoy's The Power of Darkness: Dramatic Kinship and Theological Opposition" (SHAW 1, p. 129), critics like H.L. Mencken "ridicule Shaw's inept reproduction of what he imagined to be American English."

At any rate, I believe what best summarizes Shaw's views on the power of language and what it means in a holistic sense (social, economic, literary, ritualistic) is his response to an adaptation of Hamlet in "contemporary American English" by Irvin Fiske: 

There's the rub!

Sunday, June 5, 2016


Bernard Shaw's words (whether apocryphal or not) are often used in today's tourism industry to advertise different places he visited. See, for example, the letter about Skellig Michael (Ireland) that we discussed here; or the oft-quoted compliment about Dubrovnik. But perhaps the highest compliment he paid to a location were the parting words as he finished his tour of New Zealand: "It's the best country I've been in." 

This is, at least, what many different sources claim. Martin Parker, in his article "New Zealand or Aotearoa - A Confused Culture" mentions this quotation; similarly, this guide on Going to Live in New Zealand also entices prospective visitors with Shaw's words. 

Shavian sources mention this anecdote as well, and they all coincide that Shaw praised New Zealand in superlative terms as he was boarding the cruiser that would take him back to England. Perhaps the most detailed account of his visit that is freely available online is Isidor Saslav's article in the Stout Centre Review, which also includes this parting eulogy

In a very interesting, succint discussion, Michael Holroyd (Bernard Shaw: The One-Volume Definitive Edition, p. 670) expands on the reasons behind Shaw's like for New Zealand: 

"After crossing the sea to what Mark Twain had called ‘Junior England’, Shaw experienced something of what Trollope had found the previous century - ‘You are, as it were, next door to your own house.’ So New Zealand came to suggest an idealized Ireland. ‘If I were beginning life, I am not sure that I would not start in New Zealand,’ he said. ‘ . . . I, being an old Victorian, am much more at home here than in London. You are quite natural to me . . .’ Such tributes suggest a mirage reflecting what his life might have been like in another Ireland without a tearful childhood and the divisive violence of Irish politics. ‘If I showed my true feelings I would cry,’ he told a photographer on board the Rangitane who had asked him to give his brightest smile on leaving New Zealand: ‘it’s the best country I’ve been in.’"

If, however, we focus on the exact source of these words, all researchers provide the same answer: an article in The Dominion, dated 16 April 1934. For example, Julie Fry and Hayden Glass quote this article in their book Going Places: Migration, Economics and the Future of New Zealand. Even better, the compilation What I Said in N.Z.: The Newspaper Utterances of Mr. George Bernard Shaw in New Zealand (p. 29) reproduces the whole article.  

If you wish to read more about what Shaw was reported as saying during his visit to New Zealand, you may peruse the excellent digital repository of newspapers of the National Library of New Zealand. I have taken the liberty of selecting one in particular, where Shaw states that "the trouble about New Zealand is that it is too pleasing a place." 

At any rate, although it goes without saying that New Zealand is one of the natural paradises on earth, I would like to finish this post with another country that Shaw held in high esteem, one should think. Specifically, Dan H. Laurence, in the introduction to the second part (1931-1936) of his fourth volume of collected letters, writes

"When their second world cruise ended in 1936, the Shaws disem­barked for what GBS may by then have realised would be the last time. Asked by a journalist, "After visiting twenty-nine countries, what do you think would be the best country to live in?" Shaw's succinct reply was, "I should say Heaven."

New Zealand or Heaven? You make the call. 

George Bernard Shaw and Sir Joseph James Kinsey

Tuesday, May 10, 2016


Although this is a well-known quotation for most Shavians, I must admit that I felt compelled to write about it when I found it in an article in an edited volume entitled The State of Social Progress of Islamic Societies (p. 572). The world Shaw lived in saw its fair share of revolutions, and the world today seems to be headed in a similar direction, especially in some Islamic societies. It should come as no surprise, then, that this should be the closing words of the foreword to The Revolutionist’s Handbook and Pocket Companion.

And it is precisely the disparity between what those words meant for Shaw and his readers in the context of Man and Superman and how they have been used by different people afterwards that I would like to illustrate today. 

This fragment has been quoted by several Shaw critics, although each of them has used it to exemplify a rather different aspect. So, for example, Richard M. Ohmann (Shaw: The Style and the Man) makes a purely stylistic claim when he argues that this is one of the many examples where 

"...Shaw frequently compounds the structure of a whole piece from a set of negations. Take that quintessence of Shavianism, “The Revolutionist’s Handbook.” After a preface concluding that “Revolutions have never lightened the burden of tyranny” (italics mine), John Tanner’s first chapter outlines the need for controlled breeding, but in doing so it begins with a denial that transfiguration of institutions is evermore than change from Tweedledum to Tweedledee, and ends with a warn­ing that the goal of breeding must be neither a race of mindless athletes nor a race of Sunday School prigs."

Prise de la Bastille

H.P. Hackett (Shaw: George versus Bernard), in turn, focuses on how Man and Superman reveals itself as a major turning point in Shaw's philosophy, or rather, that by then 

"He was summing up the results of twenty years' experience as a reformer, confessing failure of the old method, and trying for a new one. He looked back and said that reforms were useless till man had reformed himself, and looked forward and said that man couldn't reform himself till the Life Force had reformed him. He cleared the decks of everything else in a single sweep—or rather in a series of them called a Preface, a Philosophy, and a Revolutionist's Handbook. He did it with that magnifi­cent openness and thoroughness which is the joy and despair of his biographers—for it gives them the fullest inside information about him, and yet when they try to present it to the public, they find that it was all so much better in the original."

Outside the Shavian circles, however, there has been a motley corpus of appropriations of this quotation - sometimes stretching its original sense beyond recognition. 

So, for example, we find wild claims such as the argument found in Competition Science Vision that "having seen the iron-curtain of Stalin after the 1917 Revolution, the great English dramatist G.B. Shaw gave this lucid comment that 'Revolutions have never lightened the burden of tyranny..." Either Shaw mastered time travel or I fail to see how this is even possible. 

Some other times (The New Management: Democracy and Enterprise are Transforming Organizations), the quotation is used as a foreboding, gloomy summary of historical evolution, without taking into consideration the ability of humankind to evolve, according to Shaw. So, for Halal

"By embracing the icon of capitalism held up by the West, communism has shed its old ideology only to submit to a new ideology. Many Russians bitterly condemn the blind faith in capitalism that now imprisons them as badly as communism used to. George Bernard Shaw put it best: Revolutions have never lightened the burden of tyranny..."

Others have used Shaw's words to summarize the corrpution of the ideals of the French Revolution and the age of Enlightenment. Take, for instance, this passage from Violence: The Enduring Problem; or the opening quotation in Chapter III of A Cultural History of the Modern Age Vol. 2: Baroque, Rococo and Enlightenment. The bottomline is usually the same and I believe it neglects another key passage from The Revolutionist's Handbook that underscores where the real revolution lies: 

"Our only hope, then, is in evolution. We must replace the man by the superman. It is frightful for the citizen, as the years pass him, to see his own contemporaries so exactly reproduced by the younger generation, that his companions of thirty years ago have their counterparts in every city crowd, where he had to check himself repeatedly in the act of saluting as an old friend some young man to whom he is only an elderly stranger. All hope of advance dies in his bosom as he watches them: he knows that they will do just what their fathers did, and that the few voices which will still, as always before, exhort them to do something else and be something better, might as well spare their breath to cool their porridge (if they can get any). Men like Ruskin and Carlyle will preach to Smith and Brown for the sake of preaching, just as St Francis preached to the birds and St Anthony to the fishes. But Smith and Brown, like the fishes and birds, remain as they are; and poets who plan Utopias and prove that nothing is necessary for their realization but that Man should will them, perceive at last, like Richard Wagner, that the fact to be faced is that Man does not effectively will them. And he never will until he becomes Superman."

However, ascertaining what Shaw, Wagner, Nietzsche, and everybody else in the history of ideas might mean by "Superman" will have to wait for another day. 

A staunch magistrate surprised by the apparition of a radica Wellcome V0011360

Sunday, April 24, 2016


Yesterday, as I was doing some research on how the concept of madness has evolved throughout history (hands down, my first recommended reading would be this), I found an online blog entry entitled "Vanity: a cautionary tale." The text, lo and behold, ends with "the wise words of George Bernard Shaw."

The quotation, of course, caught my eye; especially because it seemed to be connected to my previous post about the different acting skills of Duse and Bernhardt. In other words, Shaw seems to appreciate above all else what is left of one after the good looks and the make-up fade; what is true, truly ours. 

These words, as usual with Shaw, leave no reader indifferent, but I felt I really needed to find the source because they would be interpreted differently depending on who is the recipient of Shaw's adoration. 

Well, as it turns out it was Mrs. Patrick Campbell who deserved such an eloquent praise - as many of you may have guessed. The letter was sent from the Midland Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool, and it was dated 23rd October, 1912. 

If you want to read the whole letter, you may turn to page 252 of My Life and Some Letters, by Mrs. Campbell herself (the letter begins on the previous page). The letter was also included in their collected correspondence, (Bernard Shaw and Mrs. Patrick Campbell: Their Correspondence). 

Shaw wrote this letter after Stella had come down with some unspecified illness that induced high fevers and severe headaches. That must have been the reason why, a week later, in an annotation to one of Shaw's letters, she records: "He came and read me Androcles. I was really too ill to listen, and it nearly killed me..." 

And they say literature is good for you!

Mrs Patrick Campbell Hollyer

Monday, April 18, 2016


It wasn't long ago that I found a brief online biography of Italian actress Eleonora Duse. The biography made reference to how Shaw "gave his nod to Duse" in her unspoken rivalry of years with Sarah Bernhardt. Shaw praised Duse, we read, "in an adamant oratory quoted by biographer Frances Winwar." 

I was, of course, curious about the exact words of that "adamant oratory" and I immediately turned to Winwar's biography in search of the words by Shaw. Winwar, in his Wingless Victory - A Biography of Gabriele D'Annunzio and Eleonora Duse, indeed refers to the occasion when both actresses "decided to play Magda, Duse at the Drury Lane and Bernhardt at Daly's Theater" in what the author calls a "duel for supremacy." He goes on to describe how Shaw "voted unqualifiedly for Duse and defended his choice with trenchant oratory." No source, alas, is provided for this episode. 

A similar account is provided in Taranow's biography of Bernhardt, where he refers to Shaw as a "passionate Ibsenite" who "was negatively sensitive" to Bernhardt's performances. 

A much later biography of Duse (by Helen Sheehy) includes a reference to the same critical piece by Shaw and his opinions on Duse's performance. This time, we are only a little luckier in reading that it was written soon after Shaw had begun writing for The Saturday Review

Once this information is provided, it is easy to turn to any of the excellent edited collections of Shaw's dramatic criticism in order to find the relevant article. Specifically, "Duse and Bernhardt" (that was its title) was published on June 15, 1895. The full text of the article is available HERE. has also digitized this text and made it publicly available HERE. Other collections where the article can be read include Bernard F. Dukore's The Drama Observed (Vol. II, pp. 366-371)

Since I know you are more than capable of reading the article yourself and drawing your own conclusions, I will only bring to your attention how this article has been quoted and used in other media as an example of superb dramatic criticism and as the epitome of a certain kind of approach to acting. An approach that, as Shaw's article suggests, can tell "the difference between an effective part and a well-played one."

After the 2006 Academy Awards, for example, Shaw's less-than-Solomonic judgement on these two actresses was borrowed to illustrate how "beauty in acting has less to do with good genes (or a great plastic surgeon) than with the representation of human truth."

The rivalry between both icons of acting (together with the observations by Shaw) was dramatized in 2003, in a "frightening" face-off

"Duse and Bernhardt" was also included as an external element in a more recent adaptation of this historical competition, "The Ladies of the Camellias"

In fact, Shaw's "un-Shavian rapture" is the basis of Sheehy's biography of Duse, as suggested by this New York Times review.

In a more distant, convolute connection, Shaw is quoted in a review of a ballet coreography based on Duse's professional life (in German).  

Well, I hope this gives you an idea of how relevant a drama critic Bernard Shaw still is. I'm sure you all have your favorite in the Duse-Bernhardt duel, but nothing compares to Shaw's critical essays. 

Monday, March 28, 2016


One of the publications I regularly check for Shaw-related essays is the Journal of William Morris Studies. The journal, which can be accessed freely on the website of The William Morris Society, often contains references to Shaw, whether because of their friendship or because of their shared interests (socialism, typesetting). The summer issue (2015) of the journal contains a brief reference to Shaw, quoted as saying that Ebenezer Howard was 

"One of those heroic simpletons who do big things whilst our prominent worldlings are explaining why they are Utopian and impossible."

These words are taken from a letter that Shaw wrote after Sir Ebenezer's death in 1928, addressed to A.C. Howard, his son. I guess he must have taken solace in the fact that someone like Shaw would say such things of his father. The letter has not been included, to my knowledge, in any of the collected Shaw correspondences, and is held as part of the Ebenezer Howard papers

Ebenezer Howard Grave

The Shavian twist, as usual, comes when we read the rest of the paragraph, which continues as follows: 

"And of course it is they who will make money out of his work."

Shaw is here probably referring to the success of Howard's inventions, like some printing machines for which he took out several patents. However, as many of you may know, Sir Ebenezer Howard is best known as the founder of the first "utopian" Garden Cities. Perhaps his ideas and prospects about these Garden Cities are best summarized in his Garden Cities of Tomorrow (1902), a thorough account of the different aspects that an ideal city should address. 

At any rate, what interests me the most about this quotation is not so much what it says or what it implies for the understanding of the figure of Ebenezer Howard. In this case, what I find of interest is that Shaw's words have been chosen to synthesize the spirit of Howard's urban dreams on countless occasions - thus indirectly conferring a great deal of authority to Shaw. 

Beevers, to begin with the obvious, quotes this passage in his critical biography of Howard. Likewise, the introduction to English Garden Cities published by English Heritage also chooses Shaw's words to epitomize the nature of Howard's plans. Even a recent article on an exhibition revisiting the legacy of William Morris mentions Howard twice, Shaw's words included. 

This is, in sum, another example of how Shaw manages to capture the elusive nature of human personality with his phenomenal command of words and ideas - perhaps he should have taken up playwriting!

Monday, March 7, 2016


A few weeks ago, I was reading some new publications in order to decide whether their references to Shaw would be of interest to readers of the Continuing Checklist of Shaviana. One such publication was Nimrod Tal's The American Civil War in British Culture: Representations and Responses, 1870 to the Present. In chapter 3, "British Intellectuals and Abraham Lincoln" we read that "Bernard Shaw saw a cult of Lincoln in England" (p. 95), although no source is provided either in the text or in a note.

I tried to search for the source of these alleged words by Shaw in my database, but I could not find anything vaguely related to a "cult."

Luckily for me, however, this notion of Shaw's acknowledgment of a "cult of Lincoln in England" is to be found in other publications on the subject. So, for example, Adam I. P. Smith, in his article "The ‘Cult’ of Abraham Lincoln and the Strange Survival of Liberal England in the Era of the World Wars," not only cites Shaw as the source of these words, but in a footnote he provides three references where I expected to find the sources I was looking for. 

The first one is Mark E. Neely's The Abraham Lincoln Encyclopedia, where we can read (p. 53) that "George Bernard Shaw told Lincoln collector Judd Stewart that there was 'a cult of Lincoln in England, received of late from Lord Charnwood's very penetrating biography.'"

The source of Shaw's words is further corroborated by some documents that have been recently digitized from the Files of the Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection. These documents include a 1981 issue of Lincoln Lore, the Bulletin of the Louis A. Warren Lincoln Library and Museum, which was edited by the aforementioned Mark E. Neely. There, we read an almost verbatim reproduction of what he had written in his The Abraham Lincoln Encyclopedia: "George Bernard Shaw told Lincoln collector Judd Stewart that Charnwood's "very penetrating biography" created "a cult of Lincoln in England." 

Of course, although Shaw's opinion as quoted by Neely is plausible, we are still left with a personal record of a conversation of which there is no further evidence. Whether one chooses to take this with a grain of salt is a personal decision, but I cannot end this post without bringing to your attention the fact that Shaw read all the books about Lincoln we have just mentioned - and then some. 

If you search for "Lincoln" on the website of the National Trust Collections, and you limit your search to the items found in Shaw's Corner, you will find that Shaw owned copies of both Drinkwater's play and Charnwood's biography - as well as another biography of Lincoln by Basil Williams. 

Shaw may or may not have said that there was a "cult," but he was no doubt aware of the stature of Abrahm Lincoln as an icon of history and culture.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016


A few days ago I discovered that the terrorist who was responsible for the 2011 Norway attacks had written a manifesto in which he quotes Shaw twice. The first quotation is one of the aphorisms in "Maxims for Revolutionists," one of the addenda to Man and Superman, and it reads: 

"Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it."

Reign of the Superman

The other quotation is a little bit more complex. Not only because the whole sentence has the usual convolute syntax that so many of us have grown to enjoy, but because it is part of a longer context that needs to be discussed as well. The quotation in question is the following: 

"A revolution always seems hopeless and impossible the day before it breaks out and indeed never does break out until it seems hopeless and impossible."

As many of you may remember, this fragment is from the Preface to Back to Methuselah. Specifically, it is part of the section called "The Betrayal of Western Civilization." In this section, before writing the sentence I have quoted above, Shaw is complaining about the abuses on the part of allegedly democratic governments in the form of censorship and repression (though not exclusively) because they are afraid.

"Statesmen are afraid of the suburbs, of the newspapers, of the profiteers, of the diplomatists, of the militarists, of the country houses, of the trade unions, of everything ephemeral on earth except the revolutions they are provoking; and they would be afraid of these if they were not too breaks out, and indeed never does break out until it seems hopeless and ignorant of society and history to appreciate the risk, and to know that a revolution always seems hopeless and impossible the day before it impossible; for rulers who think it possible take care to insure the risk by ruling reasonably."

In other words, what may seem like encouragement for revolutionists is actually a plea for reasonable government. This surprises no-one among Shavians, for we know Shaw was not a man of action. 

That is perhaps why Lenin called him "a good man fallen among Fabians."

That is perhaps why he decided to walk away from the Bloody Sunday riots.

That is perhaps why he joined and promoted a political (Fabian) society that was named after a Roman general that defeated Hannibal with delaying tactics.  

And that is perhaps why we find interesting connections between censorship and revolution in Shaw's writings. So, for example, we can read something to the same effect of the above in the Statement of the evidence in chief of George Bernard Shaw before the Joint-Committee on Stage Plays (1909).

"The Inquisition and the Star Chamber, which were nothing but censorships, made ruthless war on impiety and immorality. The result was once familiar to English­men, though of late years it seems to have been for­gotten. It cost England a revolution to get rid of the Star Chamber. Spain did not get rid of the Inquisition, and paid for that omission by becoming a barely third-rate power politically, and intellectually no power at all, in the Europe she had once domin­ated as the mightiest of the Christian empires."
Paradoxically (not quite), as he points out in his famous letter to H. M. Hyndman (28 April 1900), Shaw is a revolutionary himself, but a "moral revolutionary"

"I am a moral revolutionary, interested, not in the class war, but in the struggle between human vitality and the artificial system of morality, and distinguishing, not between capitalist & proletarian, but between moralist and natural historian." 

Shavians of the world, unite! 
G Bernard Shaw 2

Tuesday, January 26, 2016


A few weeks ago, my faithful Google Alerts brought to my email inbox an article in The New Indian Express that illustrates the concept of repartee by providing a number of examples. Notably, two of them have Bernard Shaw as one of the necessary protagonists. The first of them has already been discussed here, and has been discarded as completely apocryphal. The other one, however, I had never heard of. It goes like this: 

"Cornelia Otis Skinner won critical acclaim in the lead role of Shaw’s play Candida. Shaw cabled, “Excellent. Greatest.” Skinner, overjoyed, replied, “Undeserving such praise.” Shaw cabled back, “I meant the play.” Pat came the reply, “So did I.”"

If you Google the key words in this exchange, you will quickly realize that the anecdote has been quoted countless times, even if we only list articles that are available online, like this one, this one, or this one. However, no source is provided in any of the instances I've come across. Not even in books that claim to have researched the question, or in the secondary sources they cite.  

Of course, the first thing I did was to check my database and, there it was! There is at least one book that makes reference to this witty repartee. Although, as we shall see, it is not the most reliable of sources. The exact details follow. 

On page 249 of Allan Chappelow's Shaw the Villager and Human Being, we read how Dr. William Maxwell recounts a story that Shaw told him when he was staying with him in Edimburgh: 

"The scene was the 90's, when he was a music critic. He had been invited to a soirée in the house of a noted society lady. She had engaged a violinist (in whose career she had taken an interest) to entertain her guests—there were hundreds of them—and at the end of the evening, asked Shaw what he thought of her protégé. He replied that the violinist reminded him of Paderewski. 'But Paderewski is not a violinist,' she said. ' Exactly,' replied G.B.S. !"

This paragraph ends with a footnote where the author goes on to say that "this amusing story prompted me to tell Dr. Maxwell the following one of a similar flavour." Of course, "the following one" is the story we have quoted at the beginning of this post.

Admittedly, Chappelow does not provide any other source but his own knowledge, and we cannot take his words as confirmation that the exchange between Shaw and Skinner ever took place. As we all know, Chappelow made Shaw's aquaintance when he visited him in 1950 (the year of Shaw's death) and took the last known photographs of him. Therefore, he can only have learned about this anecdote from secondary sources, and it is unlikely that Shaw should have ever mentioned this to him in person - Chappelow would  have probably included that information in his book.

In all, it seems that this quotation may well be apocryphal or, ultimately, impossible to confirm. There is nonetheless evidence to give credibility to this repartee. In 1943 (during Shaw's and Skinner's own lifetimes) Isabella Taves published a book entitled Successful Women and How They Attained Success. The chapter devoted to Cornelia Otis Skinner (pp. 69-78) also contains the same story, practically in the same words. 

Although I know of no data to confirm this, it is plausible to believe that either Shaw or Skinner (or both) might have come across this book - if the author did not send a complimentary copy herself. Wouldn't they have corrected Taves if the story weren't true? Who knows?

Cornelia Otis Skinner

Tuesday, January 19, 2016


I came across a somewhat lengthy quotation - allegedly by Shaw - the other day, as I was perusing an article about Greenwood Village's local election. Don't ask me why. 

The quotation reads as follows: 

“It is a curious fact that when we get sick, we want an uncommon doctor. If we have a construction job, we want an uncommon engineer. When we get into war, we want and uncommon admiral and an uncommon general. Only when we get into politics are we content with the common man.”

As usual, no source is provided. So I seached my database and... nothing! 

Well, it's no wonder. It turns out that none other than 
President Herbert Hoover pronounced these words as part of a telephone address from New York City to Wilmington College, Wilmington, Ohio on the occasion of the conference "Building For A Better Tomorrow." If you read the links below you'll see just how fitting the title was.  

The full text of the speech can be read at 
the Hoover Association's page, and you can see that it was later published as a booklet - a copy of which is available at the National Archives's site


Well, another misattribution, another dollar. We know of many witticisms and other quotations that have been erroneously ascribed to Shaw. 

However, this blog has no interest in the words of American Presidents - 
except for the occasional Shavianism. In fact, political speeches - or, rather, the speeches of politicians - are practically anathema for Shaw. See, for instance, what he had to say about the way the politicians of his time delivered their speeches through the wireless: 

"Most of the politicians are awful. Lloyd George was bad enough, and Churchill is no better. Someone ought to tell them that their House of Commons style, with long pauses between every word to think out what they are going to say next, is pitiful through the mike, especially when they pronounce their prepositions and conjunctions as if they were speaking oracles."

The quotation is from 
Hesketh Pearson's Bernard Shaw: A Biography (p. 469), and many of my dear friends from the ISS should re-read at least that page because another thing Shaw is quoted as saying is "Do you know anything about these infernal Shaw Societies?"  

At any rate, since Shaw was actually referring to style rather than to content, I'll spare President Hoover, Winston Churcill and all other politicians, and publish the post all the same.