THE POCKET SHAW
POST 2: SHAW’S REMINISCENCES
By Neil Titley
+ Introduction and the FILM. + Timeline: The Life of Bernard Shaw + Bibliography (1200w)
The Reminiscences: ‘Guff and Bunk and Bugaboo’. (20,400w)
The Ideas: ‘P.P.E. and G.B.S!’ (11,600w)
Ten Talks on Music: ‘Music for Deaf Stockbrokers’. (24,700w)
GBS Quotations: ‘A Shavian Scrapbook’. (15,100w)
The Play: ‘The Intelligent Golfer’s Guide to Bernard Shaw’ (11,500w)
The Abridged Play ‘Shaw’s Corner’ (4,300w)
THE POCKET SHAW
POST TWO: THE REMINISCENCES
By Neil Titley
‘GUFF AND BUNK AND BUGABOO’
A LECTURE ROOM IN LONDON
Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and possessors of complimentary tickets. Looking at all these serried ranks of expectant faces, I feel an irresistible desire to sing an operatic aria but, for all our sakes, I will resist it.
Now then, BAD NEWS. As usual, the microphone isn’t working. The saintly aristocrats who reside backstage have decreed that tonight is not one of those when their skills with electricity shall be exercised. Extraordinary, isn’t it? In an age that has nothing to say, the loudspeaker has been invented.
But no matter.
I had better introduce myself, if that is really necessary. I confess that I am not addicted to the modest cough of the minor poet. I am G. B. S. George Bernard Shaw. I am not altogether what is called an orthodox man. For nomenclatory purposes I may be called a Fabian Communist and a Creative Evolutionist – if I must have a label at all. At present I am stuck all over with labels rather like a tourist’s trunk.
Though my trade is that of playwright, my vocation is that of prophet with occasional lapses into what uncivil people call buffoonery. I was described recently in America as a dignified old monkey shying coconuts at the public in pure senile devilment. I will deal with America later on.
I am also described as original above all things which is a dangerous thing to be hailed. I am a crow who has followed many ploughs. No doubt I seem prodigiously clever to those who have never hopped hungry and curious across the fields of philosophy and art and politics. Reputations are cheap nowadays. As Karl Marx said of John Stuart Mill:
“His eminence was due to the flatness of the surrounding countryside.”
Well, tonight I have come to talk to you about my life and probably about your lives as well. I’ll not pull my punches. Beware of timidity and diffidence. It’s all too often a calculation that silence looks like wisdom. In other words, if you only hold your tongue and look all-knowing you’ll get through life without your ignorance being found out. It’s only the man who has no message who is too fastidious to beat the drum at the door of his booth.
Now then, I wonder what you are like?
It is an age, we are told, of stress and strain, of fierce struggles for existence, in which men come to the theatre exhausted by work and requiring something stimulating, exciting, amusing and easily intelligible. If you search for a typical apostle of this view you will generally find him to be a gentleman some six or seven stones over his proper weight who, not being permitted by his wife and housemaids to lounge about the house after breakfast, goes down in a first class carriage to the City where he receives a number of illiterate letters and dictates equally illiterate answers to his clerks; goes out and eats enough confectionery to make a schoolboy blush; writes one private letter (an appointment with his doctor about his liver); meets his fellow citizens and tries to get the better of them in that dull sort of whist without cards which he calls business; takes a snack and two glasses of sherry to sustain him while he loafs at a bar and brags in whatever his particular line of brag may be; tries a little more whist; takes a heavy meal called ‘lunch’; orders something new to wear; goes to the club for afternoon tea and the evening papers until it is time to pay visits or go home to dinner; and finally turns up at the theatre under the compulsion of his fashionable wife and daughters in the character of a victim of brain pressure.
If you’ve come for theatrical illusion or romance, you’re in the wrong place. Don’t talk to me about romance. I was sent into the world expressly to dance on it with thick boots. Romance is the great heresy to be swept from art and life. Idealism is only a flattering name for romance in politics and morals. No, never romance. But humour, yes.
All my life I have striven in my little way to teach God’s enemies to laugh at themselves. I cannot conceive of a great man as a grave man; to lack humour is to lack the universal solvent. And with a life such as I have had, also humour has been inevitable.
I suppose that I come from a slightly odd background. In fact my mother is at present keeping up the tradition and turning to spiritualism. She holds weekly séances in Blackheath, and spends most of the time interviewing Oscar Wilde.
I was born in Ireland in 1856 and that meant being born in the seventeenth century with a strong dash of the sixteenth. I suppose my family were what would be known as bohemians. My mother had no respect for my father as he could do nothing dramatically interesting or effective; but she took him as he was in the kindly Irish fashion without trumping up a moral case against him or blaming him.
I can remember the first family tragedy – that of my Uncle Robert. He was reputed to sit with a Bible on his knees and an opera glass to his eyes watching the ladies’ bathing place in Dalkey. Later he was removed to a private asylum where, impatient for heaven, he resolved to expedite his arrival there. Every possible weapon had been removed from his reach but the custodians had reckoned without his Shavian originality. They had left him his carpet bag. He put his head into it and in a strenuous effort to decapitate or strangle himself by closing it on his neck, perished of heart failure.
I had three fathers. There was our lodger, Vandeleur Lee, who taught me my love of music and indeed led the partial exodus of my family to London. It was suggested that Lee seduced my mother, but no – a man who could do that could seduce the Wooden Virgin at Nuremberg.
Then there was my maternal uncle Walter. During my boyhood, he was a ships’ surgeon on the Inman Line and visited us between voyages, He had been educated at Kilkenny College, in his time the Eton of Ireland. When he was the smallest boy there and the only one who could squeeze himself out under the locked college gates, he was sent by the elder boys at night into the town to make assignments for them with the ladies of the street, his reward being enough whiskey to make him insensibly drunk. He was by the way astonished and horrified by the homosexualities of English public schools and maintained that schools should always be like Kilkenny College – within reach of women. He was also the first boy at the school to contract venereal disease.
Although he had to retire from Trinity College Dublin to recuperate after excessive dissipation, he was not untrained. Rather he was a trained man broken loose. He was full of the Bible which became in his hands a masterpiece of comic literature and he quoted the sayings of Jesus as models of facetious repartee. To the half dozen childish rhymes taught me by my mother, he added a stock of unprintable limericks that constituted almost an education in geography.
Then there was my father himself. When I was a child he gave me my first dip in the sea at Killiney Bay. He prefaced it by a very serious exhortation on the importance of learning to swim, culminating in these words:
“When I was a boy of only fourteen, my knowledge of swimming enabled me to save your Uncle Robert’s life”.
Then, seeing that I was deeply impressed, he stooped and added confidentially in my ear:
“And to tell you the truth I was never so sorry for anything in my life afterwards.”
He then plunged into the ocean, enjoyed a thoroughly refreshing swim, and chuckled all the way home.
My father’s gentle blood was ever too generous for trade. He never disowned his debts. However it’s true that he never paid them. I wonder if there is anything in the hereditary principle. I always remember the story of the peasant who, on hearing of Wordsworth’s death, said he supposed that his son would be carrying on the business.
I presume I am a teetotaller because my family has already paid the Shaw debt to the distilling industry so munificently as to leave me no further obligation. My father himself was in principle an ardent teetotaller. Nobody felt the disgrace of drunkenness as he did. Unfortunately his conviction in this matter was founded on personal experience.
A boy who has seen his father with an imperfectly wrapped goose under one arm and a ham in the same condition under the other (both purchased under heaven knows what delusions of festivity) butting at the garden wall in the belief that he was pushing open the gate and transforming his top hat into a concertina in the process and who, instead of being overwhelmed with shame and anxiety by the spectacle, has been so disabled by merriment (uproariously shared by Uncle Walter) that he has hardly been able to rush to the rescue of the hat and pilot its wearer to safety, is clearly not a boy who will make tragedies of trifles, instead of making trifles of tragedies. If you cannot get rid of the ancestral skeleton, you might as well make it dance.
What sort of gravity could a boy maintain with a family like that?
I had one moment of ecstatic happiness in my childhood when my mother told me that we were going to live in Dalkey. I had only to open my eyes there to see such pictures as no painter could make for me. I could not believe that such skies existed anywhere else in the world until I read Shakespeare’s ‘this majestical roof fretted with golden fire’ and wondered where he could have seen it, if not from Dalkey. The joy of it has remained with me all my life.
The same cannot be said of my scholastic career. Schools remain what they always were, essentially institutions for keeping children out of mischief – mischief meaning for the most part worrying the grownups. Schoolmasters have to spend most of their time as policemen, they cannot let the children do as they wish. If my schoolteachers had set me free to do as I liked, they could not have watched the experiment for long because the first result would have been a rapid movement on my part in the direction of the door and my disappearance there through.
If only they could have taught something relevant. But they attempted to teach an unreal morality based on romantic fantasy. The best brought up children are those who have seen adults as they really are. Hypocrisy is not the first duty. Do not give your children moral and religious instruction unless you are quite sure they will not take it seriously. Better to be the mother of Nell Gwynne than of Robespierre.
Then again, the schools will insist on teaching this Latin and Greek nonsense. When they tried it on me, I admit to preferring Caesar to Virgil but only because his statement that Gaul was divided into three parts, though neither true nor interesting, was the only Latin sentence I could translate. A knowledge of these languages is unnecessary. Shakespeare knew as much Latin and Greek as most university pass-men; that is for practical purposes none at all. But the schools hammer on at them. Superstition is nowhere stronger than in the field of obsolete acquirements. These languages are dead but they won’t lie down.
Finally I lay my eternal curse on whomsoever shall now or at any time hereafter make schoolbooks of my works and make me as hated as Shakespeare is hated. My plays were not designed as instruments of torture. All the schools that lust after them get this answer and will never get any other from G. Bernard Shaw.
Anyway, I showed my appreciation of my native land in the usual Irish way by getting out of it as soon as I possibly could. It is only the Irishman whose enthusiasm for his birthplace increases the further away from it he is. How many of all those millions who have left Ireland have ever come back to it or wanted to come back? The only sensible institution in the Emerald Isle was absenteeism.
From the day I first set foot in England I knew the value of the prosaic qualities of which Irishmen teach Englishmen to be ashamed as well as I knew the vanity of the poetic qualities of which Englishmen teach Irishmen to be proud. For the Irishman instinctively disparages the quality which makes the Englishman dangerous to him, and the Englishman instinctively flatters the fault that makes the Irishman harmless and amusing to him.
Eternal derision is the real curse of Ireland. When the Irishman comes to a country where men take a question seriously and give a serious answer to it, he derides them for having no sense of humour and plumes himself on his own facetiousness as if it made him better than anyone else. All Ireland’s failures have been due to her incapacity for believing in success or happiness.
The genius of the country is destroyed by the warring factions of Catholics, Protestants, and Englishmen. The Anglo Irish situation illustrates the difficulty of drawing in double harness people who remember nothing with people who forget nothing.
For example. To attract Irishmen to join the British Army in 1914 the walls were covered with placards headed ‘Remember Belgium’. The folly of asking an Irishman to remember anything when you want him to fight for England, was apparent to everyone except the British authorities. ‘Forgive and Forget’ would have been more to the point.
This was followed in 1916 after the Easter Rising – on the smouldering ruins of Dublin – a fresh appeal to arms was made. It read:
‘Irishmen! Do You Wish To Have The Horrors Of War Brought To Your Own Hearth and Homes?’
Dublin laughed sourly. The British blockade might win the war, if the British blockhead does not lose it first.
Then we have Ulster. If you have never been to Ireland you do not know what Protestantism is. I do know it and it has provided me with proof that no more frightful misfortune could threaten us than a general spread of fanaticism. I once exhorted the Irish Protestants to take a chance, trust their grit, and play their part in a single parliament ruling a united Ireland. They did not take my advice.
Probably they did not even listen to it, being too deeply absorbed in ‘The History of Maria Monk’ or the latest irrefutable proof that all the evil in the world is the work of that malevolent underground conspiracy called the Jesuits. I argued for the two sides to meet to discuss common ground but that too was ignored.
Admittedly the spectacle of a number of Ulster gentlemen trying to look as if they thought there was a great deal to be said for transubstantiation, confronted by a row of Catholic prelates trying to look on the bright side of Martin Luther, does not bear much contemplation.
But the windbags of the two rival platforms are utterly insufferable. It requires neither knowledge, character, conscience, diligence in public affairs, nor any virtue, private or communal, to thump the nationalist or Orange tub. Nay, it puts a premium on the rancour and callousness that has given rise to the proverb that if you put an Irishman on a spit, you will always find another Irishman to baste him.
Ireland is on the rocks – the same old rocks. And when a Catholic Irishman tries to get her off, a Protestant Irishman immediately tries to keep her on. And vice versa. The Irishman can’t be intelligently political. He dreams of what the Shan Van Vocht said in Ninety Eight. If you want to interest him in Ireland, you’ve got to call the unfortunate place Kathleen Ni Houlihan and pretend she’s a little old woman. It saves thinking. It saves working. It saves everything except imagination. And imagination is such a torture that you can’t bear it without whiskey. Ireland is an invalid, without the excuse of a disease.
The future may lie in the Sein Fein movement. If Sein Fein means that we are to decide and arrange our future for ourselves instead of having it all arranged for us by other people, then more power to Sein Fein’s elbow. But if Sein Fein means that we are to turn back and shrink into a little village community with a sham language that nobody in the whole wide world speaks and do nothing but wonder how much longer the turf will last in Donegal, then the proper place for Sein Fein is the ash pit. We imagine we are democratic because we are rebellious but when we have no longer any foreign tyranny to rebel against, we may discover that we have yet to learn the ABC of democracy.
The other day it was proposed to me that I should help uplift my downtrodden country by assembling with other Irishmen to romance about 1798. I not take the slightest interest in 1798. Until Irishmen apply themselves seriously to what the condition of Ireland is to be in 1998 they will get very little patriotism out of G.B. Shaw.
Still, there is hope for Ireland. You can always rally a nation that has some wit in it.
And so it was off to England and a different brand of lunacy. The habit of producing hardy bodies and timid souls is so common in England that you may spend hours listening to stories of broken collar bones, broken backs, and broken necks without coming upon a single spiritual adventure or caring thought.
If you eliminate smoking and the element of gambling, you will be amazed to find that almost all an Englishman’s pleasures can be – and mostly are – shared by his dog. The brain, as English society is at present constituted, can hardly be considered as a vital organ. Talk to an Englishman about anything serious and he listens to you curiously for a moment, just as he listens to a chap playing classical music. Then he goes back to his golf or motoring or flying or women just like a bit of stretched elastic when you let it go.
There is nothing that the English hate more than brains. For brains and religion you have to go to Scotland. And Scotland is the most damnable country on earth. Still, God help England if she had no Scots to think for her and without the Irish she would die of respectability within two generations.
Her class system is one of the silliest aspects of English society. It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth, without making another Englishman despise him.
In the imagination of its politicians England is a Utopia in which everything and everybody is ‘free’ and all other countries ‘police states’. I, being Irish, know better. ‘Englishmen never, never, will be slaves’? They are free to do whatever the Government and public opinion allows them to do.
The ability to build empires is presumed to stem from an aptitude for government but it really comes from an incurable inaptitude for theology and indeed for coordinated thought in any direction. The English success in colonizing has been due to their indifference to the religions of the colonised. They are quite correct. Try to imagine the effects of ruling India from the Vatican or Belfast.
Of course, the British Empire is not immortal. Rome fell. Babylon fell. Hindhead’s turn will come. But don’t worry, the race will pull through. If the English can survive their meals they can survive anything.
At the age of twenty or so I arrived in this strange land to make my fortune. I did not exactly belong to the people, it was more that I belonged to the impecunious. I remember once buying a book entitled ‘How to Survive on Sixpence a Day’, a question which at that time compelled me to be pressingly curious. I lived up to its maxims for a whole afternoon.
When I am attacked by English journalists for ‘ingratitude to the country to which I owe my success and reputation’ they seem to forget that when I came to England I got nothing for nothing and very little for a half-pence. That I was abused, vilified, censored and suppressed to the limit of possibility until my successes in Germany and America convinced my detractors that there was some money in my evil doctrines.
Anyway, for nine years I achieved a quite spectacular penury. For I had decided to become that stalwart of bare-footed dignity – a writer. Of course, I had wanted to become an opera singer or a painter, never a writer, but….. Well, never mind.
All great art and literature is propaganda. I am not an ‘Art for Art’s Sake’ man. For Art’s sake alone I would not face the toil of writing a single sentence. One thing I’ve noticed though. Artists are born, not made. I always tell people that if they can’t do three quarters of any art form by instinct, they’d do better sweeping a crossing. Also, the relationship between artists and money was ever fraught.
Nothing is as fatal to an artist as a regular income. The true artist will let his wife starve, his children go barefoot, his mother drudge for her living at seventy, sooner than work at anything but his art. To women, he is half vivisector, half vampire. He will sacrifice everything; a sublime altruist in his disregard for himself, an atrocious egotist in his disregard of others.
So I first tried my hand as a novelist and turned my back on money. It returned the compliment. I wrote five novels, one after the other, and I quite freely admit that they were dreadful. Anybody who could read ‘The Irrational Knot’ could read anything. Still, you cannot learn to skate without making yourself ridiculous and I kept trying.
My third novel was rejected by the publishers Macmillans with the comment that ‘they would be glad to look at anything else I might write of a more substantial nature’. Now you must admit that when one deals with two large sociological questions in a novel and throws in an exposition of modern German Socialism as set forth by Marx as a makeweight, it is rather startling to be met with an implied accusation of triviality.
Anyway, try as I might, I could not find a publisher. Until of course years later after I had become a successful playwright when publishers started printing anything they could find that bore my name. Suddenly these youthful horrors were resurrected for public consumption. But the buffoons started printing them in the wrong order, starting at the last one and working back to the first.
I learnt from the American newspapers that the list of book sales in the USA was headed by a certain novel called ‘Cashel Byron’s Profession’ by Bernard Shaw. This was unmistakably Opus 5 of my novels. Apparently, the result was encouraging for presently the same publishers produced a new edition of ‘An Unsocial Socialist’ –Opus 4 – in the criticising of which the more thoughtful reviewers, unaware that the publisher was working backwards, pointed out ‘the marked advance in my style’, ‘the surer grip’, ‘the clearer form’, ‘the more mature view of the world’ and so forth.
However in the 1880’s all this was inconceivable. Realising I could not write saleable novels I looked around for another occupation. I had been directed to the works of Karl Marx by Henry George, one of that exceedingly rare breed – an American socialist.
So, although I certainly suffered from shyness to begin with, I decided to practise the art of public speaking and accordingly used to declaim at Speakers Corner in Hyde Park. It is a place where the speechmakers surrounded by idlers and supporters will expound some doctrine, usually on the imminent damnation of everybody in the park except the speaker and his supporters.
My first speech was delivered to three loafers lying on their backs on the grass, one of whom without getting up called out: “‘ere, ‘ere” whenever I paused for breath.
One of my best speeches was delivered in torrents of rain to six policemen sent to watch me, plus only the secretary of the society that had asked me to speak who held an umbrella over me. I made up my mind to interest those policemen though as they were on duty to listen to me, their usual practice after being convinced that I was harmless, was to pay no further attention. The police are what might be called class conscious. You will find that out if you are foolish enough to fall out with them. I entertained them for more than an hour. I can still see their waterproof capes shining in the rain when I shut my eyes.
My ability to lecture grew and I started going to places and conferences further afield. I never lectured on anything except controversial politics and religion, and my fee was a third class railway ticket. In this way I secured perfect freedom of speech and was armed against the accusation of being a professional agitator.
For instance, I was making a speech in Dover Town Hall when some gentleman arose, a sort of walking Daily Telegraph, and shouted to the audience not to let itself be talked to by a paid malcontent from London. I immediately offered to sell him my fee for £5. He hesitated and I came down to £4. I offered to make it five shillings, a half crown, a shilling – even sixpence. When he would not deal even at a penny, I claimed that he must know perfectly well that I was there at my own expense. If I had not been able to do that, the meeting, which was a hostile one, would probably have broken up.
Some of the conferences had their amusing moments. I remember at one Socialist conference, I called at my hotel and found all the leaders standing disconsolately around a fire, looking as if the social revolution had come and left them all far behind. They were silent for a change and so I could hear a rumbling which I ultimately located as coming from their stomachs. Then the chairman, H.M. Hyndeman, spoke up at last.
“The Countess of Warwick has invited us to dinner and has forgotten all about it”.
One speech I made was at a model village called Bessbrook – where the inhabitants neither swear nor get drunk and look as if they would like to do both.
It was at the time when the suffragettes on prison hunger strikes were being subjected to forced feeding. A gentleman named Mr. Herbert Gladstone had volunteered the information that forced feeding was not painful. I said to the audience that it might well be that Mr. Gladstone was right on this point. I would therefore undertake to provide Mr. Gladstone with the finest banquet possible. The rarest wines and delicacies would be provided regardless of expense.
The only condition I would make was that Mr. Gladstone would partake through his nose and that a camera would record his unmistakable symptoms of delight with which he would convince us all of the truth of his assurances that the forcibly fed Suffragette is merely enjoying an indulgence. There was a profound silence from Mr. Gladstone.
I did have my detractors though. Graham Wallas was told that if there were a revolution, I would not be at the barricades. He replied that they were quite wrong. That was just where I would be but explaining to everybody within earshot how preposterous the whole proceeding was.
Still, all this speechifying – while fun – did not bring in any money. So I was forced into the ranks of the newspaper critics and at last my financial strait-jacket was removed.
I decided quite early in life that I would never allow myself to be persuaded that I was enjoying myself when, as a matter of fact, I was not enjoying myself. And I decided to apply this maxim to my criticism of the stage.
From the first I loved the theatre. It is essentially the most vivid and real of all ways of story-telling. Barry Sullivan’s stage fights in Richard III and Macbeth appealed irresistibly to a boy spectator like myself. I remember one delightful evening in Dublin when two inches of Macbeth’s sword broke off and whizzed over the heads of the cowering pit, to bury itself deep in the front of the dress circle, after giving those who sat near its trajectory more of a thrill than they had bargained for.
It was the start of my theatrical infatuation and eventually led to my time as a dramatic and literary critic. I provided a newspaper feature for ten years so I know what it’s like, and I know how press day comes round and round like the sails of a windmill in a hurricane. I joined the staff of the Star on the second day of its existence; the second day because on the first such strict orders were given to the doorkeeper to exclude all questionable characters that he refused to admit any member of the literary profession.
I soon settled in. I relished the deadly vendettas that arose out of reviews. When I was reviewing for the Pall Mall Gazette, the barbarous amusement of skinning minor poets was in vogue and an auto da fe took place once a month or so with a batch of them, the executioner being sometimes myself, sometimes Oscar Wilde., and sometimes William Archer. Archer became one of my closest friends, and also a constant source of amusement. He had a habit of wearing a winged collar which gave his head the appearance of being wedged in a jam pot.
Oddly enough, I might have started my career as a playwright some years earlier than I did had not Archer fallen asleep while I was reading him the very first draft of my very first play. It convinced me that I did not have the makings of a playwright. Not till long after did I discover that Archer’s somnambulism was an inveterate habit and that any play by any author invariably sent him to sleep as surely as any drug. To any other drama critic this would have been a grave drawback and indeed it did lead to an unfortunate incident for Archer.
At the first performance of one play, one of its characters falls asleep holding a revolver. Someone touches him on the shoulder. He gives a convulsive start and the pistol goes off with a roar. Archer, suddenly aroused from slumber, started wildly to his feet with a thin scream and automatically buried his clenched hands in the hair of the lady in front of him. To Archer’s consternation and horror, the lady’s hair came off and Archer was left standing there holding the wig in his hands.
The life of a critic in the nineties could be quite hazardous. The patrons of the gallery at the Princess’s Theatre, being admitted at half the usual West End prices, devoted the savings to the purchase of sausages to throw at the critics. I had to appeal to the person who successfully aimed one at me, to throw a cabbage next time as being a vegetarian, sausages were wasted on me.
And there were different sorts of difficulties. I found that I could never fairly criticise Sarah Bernhardt, because she was so like my Aunt Georgina.
I was also forced into the position of attacking William Shakespeare. To most Victorian Englishmen he was only a bust in Stratford Church. To me he is one of the few realities England has ever produced. But the men who praised Shakespeare at that time were the sort of men who would have stoned him to death had they been his contemporaries. To praise him saved them the trouble of thinking. It got them the credit of correct and profound opinions and enabled them to pass as men of taste. To expose these humbugs and to rescue the real Shakespeare from them, it was necessary to shatter their idol. The Bardolatry I shook up was simple ignorance; the bardolators barely read him.
My Victorian contemporaries considered Shakespeare to be a lame dog to be helped over the stile by the ingenuity and inventiveness of the actor/producer. And of course the chief amongst these was Sir Henry Irving. Now, I liked Henry. Though he was without exception the stupidest man I ever met – simply no brains – nothing but character and temperament. Henry did not merely cut Shakespeare, he disembowelled him.
So I went into the attack. If he was going to play Richard III, I knew who was going to play Richmond. He gritted his teeth through my comment on his ‘Romeo and Juliet’ scenery:
‘The design of Friar Lawrence’s cell is interesting, though I rather doubt that a simple friar’s cell often ran to the luxury of a couple of frescoes by Giotto’.
But he was reportedly livid over my comment on his latest ingénue:
‘Miss Lilian Swain plays the part of Puck. She announces her ability to girdle the earth in forty seconds in the attitude of a professional skater and then begins the journey awkwardly in a swing which takes her in the opposite direction to that in which she had indicated her intention of going. As an actress, she is about as interesting as a steam hammer closing licked stamps’.
After my comment that he started his own applause by drumming the stage with his boot heels, he retorted that he would pay the cost of my funeral any time. It was the most glorious theatrical storm in a liqueur glass.
But there was a real point to my objections. The longer I live the more I lean to the time-honoured theory that the true position of all of us theatrical people should be together with the rogues and vagabonds. Well, the actor with a specific acting ability was being driven off the stage by the walking toff.
A typically 1890s play was a tailor’s advertisement making sentimental remarks to a milliner’s advertisement in the middle of an upholsterer’s and decorator’s advertisement. The actor in striving to make himself a gentleman, was only succeeding in making himself eligible for stock-brokers dinner parties. It was ironic that Irving’s knighthood was announced simultaneously with Wilde’s conviction.
One thing that is almost beyond conception is the ignorance of theatrical people of any world besides their own, however important. But Henry Irving’s single-mindedness reached new realms, even for theatre. His marriage to Florence O’Callaghan for example ended in less than a year when riding home in a carriage after his first night sensation in ‘The Bells’, she said:
“Are you going to go on making a fool of yourself like this all your life?”
Irving ordered the driver to stop and without a word jumped from the carriage and never returned to his home and never spoke to her again.
Still, for two reasons I keep fond memories of Henry Irving. One was for his lifelong friendship with my dear Ellen Terry. If any actress ever deserved the epithet ‘divine’ it was Ellen.
Henry was playing ‘Beckett’ at the Theatre Royal, Bradford. Dazed after the performance, he managed to get back to the hotel in a cab where he collapsed in a chair in the vestibule and then losing consciousness slipped to the floor. The news of his death reached Ellen in Manchester. The next night she ordered the curtain to go up on J.M. Barrie’s new play as usual. She managed to act almost to the end, when she came to the lines:
“It’s summer gone, autumn begun, farewell, summer, we don’t know you any more I had a beautiful husband once, black as the raven was his hair…….”
Then she broke down in grief for her old love and friend and partner while stagehands quickly lowered the curtain and the audience filed out of the theatre in respectful silence. It was a scene Henry would have appreciated.
The other reason was for telling me his favourite anecdote. During his performance as Othello, while engaged in throttling Desdemona he asked the actress playing the part what they were having for supper. As she breathed her last groan, she muttered: ‘Stuffed turkey’.
Nothing is more significant than the statement ‘All the world’s a stage.’ The whole world is ruled by theatrical illusion.
So I finally decided to write plays for the stage. It was not difficult. My twelve years of stump oratory, my six years as a St. Pancras borough councillor dealing with the lighting and paving and dust collecting, my twenty years of Fabian agitation, on top of a childish grounding in Mozart, Beethoven, Verdi, Mayerbeer, Donizetti – all that is within the reach of everybody. Combine this with the unscrupulous moral versatility of the born dramatist, and there you have it.
Anyway I was not trained to manual work. Half an hour of it would make me wish myself dead. And five minutes of my work would produce a strike among the navvies. I became a writing machine, just as a navvy is a digging machine. Outside his natural vocation, the greatest genius may be simply feeble-minded. In the theatre, I became a highly efficient person; in an astronomic observatory, I should be sacked at the end of the first week.
From the first, I deliberately avoided literary society. I spent one lunch at the Savile Club listening to them all taking in each other’s washing – that was enough.
Of course I immediately walked into trouble. It is no more possible for me to do my work honestly as a playwright without giving pain than it is for a dentist. The nation’s morals are like its teeth; the more decayed they are, the more it hurts to touch them. It was my intention to show that society creates vice by refusing to pay virtue properly.
If you offer a pretty girl tuppence an hour in a match factory with a chance of contracting necrosis of the jawbone from phosphorus poisoning on the one hand, and on the other a relatively jolly and pampered time as the harlot of a wealthy man, you’re loading the dice. It raises the question whether the girl does not owe it to herself, her self-respect, and her desire for wider knowledge and experience, to sell herself to a gentleman for pleasure rather than to an employer for profit.
If a woman accepts Capitalist morality and does what pays her best, she will draw the wages of sin. The pious pie in the sky implication that a girl born in a fried fish shop in the East End can if she likes practise in all the liberal professions shows that some people have not a clue as to the real condition of the poor. ‘If they have no bread, let them eat cake’ is practical in comparison. It is absurd to knock a woman down, and then call her fallen.
So I wrote ‘Mrs. Warren’s Profession’ to explain these views – with the result that on its opening night in New York the entire cast was arrested for ‘disorderly conduct’.
The censorship was just as bad here. Few people are aware of the monstrous laws against blasphemy that still disgrace our statute book. If any serious attempt were made to carry them out, prison accommodation would have to be provided for about every educated person in the country starting with the Archbishop of Canterbury. Vatican censorship has become such an absurdity as to render a Catholic University almost a contradiction in terms.
The authorities argue that censorship is inevitable. Very well then. All that needs to be done is to find a censor who combines all the wisdom, learning, and concern for human welfare of the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords, the episcopates of all the Churches, and the omniscience of the Holy Trinity and put fine art under his thumb.
But, of course, not even this paragon would be able to account for fashion. Some of my plays were for many years banned for their obscenity and blasphemy. Now they are now disparaged as old-fashioned and prudish.
Still, despite the inconvenience of my plays being banned, the fuss that they produced was exhilarating. No author who has ever known the exultation of sending the Press into a hysterical tumult can ever be satisfied with the stereotyped compliments that ordinary plays produce.
There are a few things that one must remember when writing for the stage. One of them is to find the right title. Managers spend their days drudging through manuscripts 99% of which are hopelessly bad. But they naturally turn first to the plays with promising titles – and something like ‘The Vegetarian’ will not do. Once accepted, make it plain to the director that he must play what you have written and not what he thinks you ought to have written. And to avoid confusion one must write clear stage directions for the actors to perform. I remember a fabulously awful stage direction in one play:
‘Sir William turns his back to the audience and conveys that he has a son at Harrow’.
It makes life very difficult for the thespian community.
After my first few ventures into play-writing, none of which had been seriously produced, I wondered whether it was worthwhile going on. But man is a creature of habit. You cannot write three plays and then stop. And then unbelievably I had my first hit.
‘Arms and the Man’ was manufactured into a London success at the Royal Court Theatre – at a net loss of £4000. In fact, it was so successful there was speculation as to whether the manager Granville Barker and I might have to take to the roads with a street organ. I asked the doorman how the play was going one night. He replied: “Fine, fine. Less and less people walk out every night.”
I followed this play with ‘Candida’ and at last as well as success even some money started to come in, the drunken scene was very much appreciated, I’m told. Especially in Aberdeen.
Then came a smash hit in America. The manager there was Richard Mansfield. His wife said that he went down on his knees every night and thanked God for ‘The Devil’s Disciple’ and always finished his prayer with:
“But, O God, why did it have to be by Shaw?”
With success, of course, came the detractors – like seagulls after a fishing boat. I was accused of producing ‘Pygmalion’ in Germany instead of London so that I would not be detected in plagiarism of Smollett in my plot. This showed an amusing ignorance of British culture. The one place where I would have been absolutely safe from detection was, in fact, London.
And after the detractors came the amateurs. I received a letter from the Woodford Amateur Dramatic Society: ‘Can we play Candida?’ I replied that I did not know, but they could try.
They also wanted to know whether they should give the profits, if any, to charity. I replied that I would prefer them to get drunk on the money rather than that. Charity should begin at the Government and stay there, otherwise it is just a flimsy attempt to alleviate the evils of society that the nation as a whole should be coping with.
And when it’s not that, it is merely conscience money from the rich. I could point to a philanthropist or two to whom Posterity, should it ever turn from admiring the way they spent their money to considering the way they made it, would probably compare very unfavourably with King Herod.
Most of the money given by rich people to ‘Charity’ is made up of social ransom, political bribery, and bids for titles. The traffic in hospital subscriptions in the name of Royalty fulfils exactly the same function in modern society as Texel’s traffic in indulgences in the name of the Pope did before the Reformation. One buys moral credit by signing a cheque. Money is worth nothing to the man who has more than enough.
Anyway, I have finally reached such eminence that I am now sent invitations to visit universities. At any rate those rather strange universities where they seem to allow anybody to lecture provided he will do it for nothing. I am not an MA, nor otherwise decorated, all attempts to educate me having proved utter failures.
So no university was permitted the dubious joys of my student-hood. Not Oxford, nor Cambridge, Durham, Dublin or Glasgow. Not even those Non- Conformist holes in Wales. And I thank every deity in the universe for the fact. I might have ended up as a don. Most dons represent the survival at a university of the members least fitted for the world who appear eminent to men too young to know what eminence at full pitch really means.
As a man of the world – which usually means without moral responsibility – I am often asked for my advice to the young. Well, the golden rule is that there is no golden rule. So I will now proceed to give you a list of them.
I am convinced that a taste of poverty is absolutely vital to enable a young man to develop his views. There are far too many powerful people who are born rich and middle-aged. They are timidly conservative at the age when every healthy human being ought to be obstreperously anarchic. Unless you begin as a revolutionist then at fifty you will be the most appallingly fossilised old bore that ever devastated a Rotary Club. If at twenty you are a revolutionary, then you will have some chance of being up to date when you are forty.
All that youth can do for the old is to shock them and keep them up to date. Beware obedience – it is only freedom from the intolerable fatigue of thought. I managed to hold my own view in a minority which on some very sensitive points reached odds of about one to fifty million. But play your cards carefully. Live for your ideals rather than die for them. And argue for them. It is in the conflict of opinion that we win knowledge and wisdom. A man never tells you anything, until you contradict him.
Discover what you can about life. It is easy to be respectable with nobody ever offering you the chance to be anything else. Ignorance of evil is not virtue but imbecility. Admiring it is like giving a prize for honesty to a man who has not stolen your watch because he did not know you had one.
Remember that any man with two solicitors and two bankers is a rogue.
Be careful of the pursuit of the Superman – it leads to indiscriminate contempt for the human.
But also get what you want in life, otherwise you will grow to like what you get.
Above all, keep yourself clean and bright; you are yourself the mirror through which you must see the world.
The quicksands do make life difficult. Still, they are there. It’s no use pretending they’re rocks. And, of course, I may be wrong – even I am not infallible. At least, not always. People often complain that I have not solved all the problems of the universe for them. Obviously I am not omniscient nor omnipotent. I am not a God. I am not even proprietor of the Times.
My advice to you if you are thinking of joining the professions is to look at them very carefully. Let me take three of the most popular – medicine, law and the army. I will deal with medicine first.
We have not lost faith, we have simply transferred it from God to the General Medical Council. I know men of quite exceptional intelligence, men who have freed their minds from all philosophical and religious dogma, who nevertheless read the Lancet and the British Medical Journal from end to end every week as devoutly as any superstitious washerwoman ever read Old Moore’s Almanack.
If religion is the mother of scepticism, then science is the mother of credulity. You have only to search an emancipated man’s mind long enough to come upon an abyss of superstition – nowadays generally that unvenerable survival of witchcraft known as medical science.
People have been taught to regard any doubts about the omniscience of doctors as blasphemy. Even the fact that doctors themselves die of the very diseases they profess to cure passes unnoticed. Their reputation stands like an African king’s palace on a foundation of human skulls. It should be made compulsory for a doctor using a brass plate to have inscribed on it in addition to the letters indicating his qualifications, the words: ‘Remember I too am mortal’.
A successful doctor has to be a tolerably accomplished comedian to succeed in general practice. Did you ever see a boy cultivating a moustache? A middle-aged doctor cultivating a grey head is much the same sort of spectacle. Gravitas is one necessary accomplishment.
Group solidarity that would make the most rabid Trade Unionist unhinged with jealousy is another. The doctors will support each other through anything. Now and again some doctor in an unassailable position will go into the witness box and say what he really thinks about the way a patient has been treated but such behaviour is regarded as little short of infamous by his colleagues.
During the first great epidemic of influenza towards the end of the nineteenth century, a London evening paper sent round a journalist/patient to all the great consultants of the day and published their advice and prescriptions – a proceeding passionately denounced by all the medical papers as a breach of confidence. The case was the same, the prescriptions and advice varied wildly.
How a doctor can believe his own treatment right and his colleagues wrong when the patient is the same? Anyone who has ever known doctors knows that they are full of stories about each other’s blunders and errors, and the theory of omniscience does not hold good among themselves. But for this very reason no doctor dare accuse another of malpractice. He is not sure enough of his own opinions to ruin another man by them. He knows that if such conduct were tolerated in his profession no doctor’s livelihood or reputation would be worth a year’s purchase.
I do not blame him. I’d do the same myself. But the effect of this state of things is to make the medical profession a conspiracy to hide its own shortcomings. No doubt the same may be said of all professions. They are all conspiracies against the laity.
And there is also a curious psychological factor to be remembered. A serious illness or death advertises the doctor exactly as a hanging advertises the barrister who defended the person hanged. Supposing, for example, that a royal personage gets something wrong with his throat. If a doctor effects some trumpery cure with a wet compress or a peppermint lozenge nobody takes the least notice of it. But if he operates on that throat and kills the patient, his fortune is made. Every rich man who fails to call him in when the same symptoms appear in his own household is held not to have done his utmost duty to the patient. The wonder is that there are any royalty left alive in Europe.
There is a serious and important point to be made. Of all the anti-social vested interests, the worst is the vested interest in ill health. The Public Medical Officer has a safe, dignified, responsible, independent position based wholly on his perception of the public health. Whereas private medicine has to place itself in the position of a competitive private tradesman dependent on the patient’s money.
Let no one suppose that the words patient and doctor can disguise from the parties the fact that they are respectively employer and employed. The average doctor at present is struggling for life in an overcrowded profession and knows well that a good bedside manner will carry him to solvency through a morass of illness, whilst the least attempt at plain dealing with people who are eating too much or drinking too much would land him very quickly in the bankruptcy court. We must work towards a socialised health service in order to destroy the indignity to the doctor and the danger to the public.
I do have one personal story about the medical profession. In my forty third year I had an operation. There were four doctors, including the eminent operator. There were two things to be done – one, to gouge a pound or two of bone from my instep; the other, to get my broken arm into working order. They forgot the arm! I was unspeakably tickled by this triumph over the profession.
All the same, doctors if no better than other men, are usually no worse.
I cannot say the same for the military man. Marshal Foch was asked recently: “How would Napoleon have fought the war?”
Foch replied: “Oh, he would have fought it magnificently, superbly. But what on earth would we do with him afterwards”.
The military mentality must never be allowed near genuine political power. The modern army is such an engine of destruction that one would hesitate to trust it to the hands of God, let alone the sort of men who thought up the Battle of the Somme.
Tennyson summed it up with his lines: ‘Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and die’. To the moral imbecile and political sluggard, these conditions are as congenial and attractive as they are as abhorrent and intolerable to the William Tell temperament. The objection to the military system is that it tends to produce such men by a weakening disease of the moral muscles. This weakness is just what the military system aims at, its ideal soldier being not a complete man but a docile unit of cannon fodder which can be trusted to respond promptly to the external stimulus of a shouted order and is intimidated to the pitch of being afraid to run away from a battle.
Many of us count among our personal friends officers whose amiable and honourable character seems to contradict this. You have only to describe horrific acts of terrorism and their honest and generous indignation knows no bounds. They feel about them as men, not as soldiers. But the moment you bring the professional side of them uppermost by describing precisely the same proceedings to them as the work of professional armies, they defend them, applaud them and are ready to take part in them as if their humanity had been blown out like a candle.
I fear the soldier not because he is brave but because he is so utterly unmanned by discipline that he will kill me, not through hatred, but because he is told to. The peacetime army pretends to codes and moralities but the real basis of all military methods is that when people won’t do what they are told to do, you shoot them down.
A career in law is to be preferred but it too has its pitfalls. The ordinary man – we have to face it – is an Anarchist. He wants to do as he likes. He may want his neighbour to be governed but he himself doesn’t want to be governed. We all wish to be free from government interference but we soon find that without it we shall be either savages or the slaves of ruffians. And the result of that is that people will welcome any tyranny that will rescue them from chaos.
So we all need laws and the proper exercise of them. Without laws there is no secure leisure and without leisure there is no liberty. But the law must be administered properly and, at the moment, there is too much money involved in the whole operation for justice genuinely to be done.
Anyway, the English have always suspended Habeus Corpus whenever it threatened to be of the slightest use.
When I was a lad the abuses and costs of legal procedure had become so intolerable that my father taught me that the command to turn the other cheek to the smiter meant that if a man robbed you of a pound, it was cheaper to give him another pound to get rid of him than to go to Law with him.
Judges no longer take presents from litigants as they used to do as a matter of course. But the bar is still venal, selling its services to the highest bidder with unfair advantage to the largest purse.
Judges are generally odd fish. They are usually worn out barristers. Judge Gorell was one of the oddest. He was known as a ‘strong’ man because he was not afraid to hang someone. Well, of course he wasn’t afraid to hang someone. Where’s the risk in that? With the law on his side and the whole crowd at his back longing for a lynching as if it was a spree.
Gorell went into politics and still carried with him so much of the cloistered innocence and carefully sheltered dignity of the bench that it was plainly visible that he regarded the entire Houses of Parliament as being just one monstrous contempt of Court.
Law is a very necessary and useful thing but it has to see everything from one frozen point of view. It is essentially one eyed. Each of us is not a simple, single character but a bundle of characters under one hat. Yet for public purposes we blacklist one man as a coward and inscribe the name of another on the roll of honour as a hero. The Victoria Cross has been won by men abjectly afraid of ghosts, dogs and dentists.
What makes legislation such a difficult business is that laws cannot vary as individuals vary. They must assume that everybody is exactly like everybody else although no two people are alike; that everybody is consistent, although everybody is in fact a mass of contradictions.
Personally I have rarely been involved in court proceedings but I do remember once having to put up the bail for the Communist MP, Willie Gallagher, when he was charged with sedition.
“Are you worth £200?” asked the magistrate.
I replied that I would hardly like to say that, but that I’d got £200 if that was what he meant.
No, I am a law abiding man – and also, in the conventional sense, a man of very few vices. I am amazed by my own moderation. I am no more tempted by gambling than a croupier is. I do not eat meat. I regard doing so as cannibalism with the heroic dish omitted. While serving on the Health Committee of St Pancras Council I had to hold inquests on tubercular cattle which, considering I am vegetarian, I was about the last person to attend to the condition of the meat of the parish.
I do not smoke though I am not intolerant of that deplorable habit in others. Neither do I drink although I can understand why other people do. Alcohol makes life bearable to millions of people who could not endure their lives if they were quite sober. Also it enables Parliament to do things at eleven at night that no sane person would do at eleven in the morning.
As for hunting – well, while spending Christmas in the country one year, I was asked by an elderly country gentleman:
“I suppose you’re one of those chappies who are against killing for pleasure?”
“Oh, no” I replied. “It depends upon who you kill”.
The Christmas celebrations get worse every year. If the scene in the stable were repeated today, the three kings would bring a turkey, a bottle of whiskey, and a pound of greasy sausages as their contribution.
I had been staying at William Morris’s old English manor house where we all agreed to try and forget the festive season. We were not altogether successful. On the very first evening we were invaded by the ‘mummers’. They were local labourers who went through an operatic performance which I did not quite follow as they had neglected to provide me with a libretto.
I gathered that one of them was King Alfred and another St. George. A third, equipped with a tall hat, was announced as ‘the doctor’. He drew a tooth from the prima donna whom I had not succeeded in identifying; revived the other characters when they had been slain in single combat; and sang a song expressive of his aspiration to ‘live and die a farmer’s boy’. This he delivered with such a concentrated lack of conviction that I at once concluded that he actually was a farmer’s boy. My subsequent inquiries as to the rate of wages in the district confirmed my surmise.
We of the audience had to assume the character of good old English ladies and gentlemen keeping up a reasonable custom. It would be difficult to say whether we or the performers were the most put out of countenance. We were perfectly friendly at heart and would have been delighted to sit around the fire with them and talk but the conventions of the season forbade it. Since we had to be mock baronial, they had to be mock servile and so we made an uneasy company of Christmas humbugs. And a hey nonny no!
People do seem to take the most gratuitous interest in my sex life. I am described by the newspapers as an ascetic. Everyone who does not live in a prostitute’s bed and on a diet of cocaine is called an ascetic these days. But, although I did delay the end of my celibate state till the age of twenty nine, I suppose I was as amorous as most men.
Herbert Tree once said to Stella – Mrs. Patrick Campbell, as she was better known – “Let’s give Shaw a beefsteak and put some red blood in him”.
She replied: “He is bad enough as it is. But if you give him red meat, no woman in London would be safe”.
But what they did not realise was that I was raised in Ireland and they did not understand that my natural flirtatiousness was misunderstood by English women.
If you pay an Irishwoman a gallant compliment, she grins and says:
“Arra, g’long with you.”
An Englishwoman turns deathly pale and says in a strangled voice:
“I hope you meant what you just said”.
And it’s devilish difficult to explain that you didn’t.
I remember spending one evening in quite innocent dalliance with a lady in London. She said that she would countenance my advances provided they were honourable. On inquiring what that proviso meant I found that it meant that I proposed to get possession of her property if she had any, or to undertake her support for life if she had not; that I desired her continual companionship, counsel and conversation to the end of my days and would take a solemn oath to be always enraptured by them; above all, that I would turn my back on all other women for ever for her sake.
I did not object to these conditions because they were exorbitant and inhumane, it was their extraordinary irrelevance that prostrated me. I replied with perfect frankness that unless the lady’s character and intellect were equal or superior to my own, her conversation must degrade and her counsel must mislead me; that her constant companionship might for all I knew become intolerably tedious to me; that I could not answer for my feelings for a week in advance, much less to the end of my days; that to cut me off from all natural and unconstrained intercourse with half my fellow creatures would sorrow and warp me if I submitted to it and, if not, would bring me under the curse of the clandestine; that finally my proposals to her were wholly unconnected with any of these matters and were instead the outcome of a simple impulse of my manhood towards her womanhood. Our relationship did not flourish.
All young men greatly exaggerate the difference between one young woman and another. If marriages were made by putting all the men’s names into one sack, and all the women’s names into another, and having them taken out by a blindfolded child like lottery tickets, there would be just as high a percentage of happy marriages as there are under the present system.
Still, it’s a waste of time criticising the judgement of a young man in love. I suspect that it is also a waste of time criticising marriage, but here goes.
The English will never abolish marriage. They never abolish things but they circumvent them more unscrupulously than any other nation. Shelley attempted to attack marriage and was reviled in his time. His unpardonable offence was that he attacked marriage as an institution for which he was denounced as a fiend in human form, whilst Nelson who openly left his wife and set up a ménage a trois with Sir William and Lady Hamilton, was idolised.
Incidentally, at the first public meeting of the Shelley Society at University College I asked the audience whether they knew that Shelley was expelled from Oxford as an atheist, that he ran away with the daughter of an anarchist, and that he thought that it was as natural and proper for a man to sleep with his sister as with any other woman; whereupon two ladies who had been palpitating with enthusiasm for Shelley under the impression that he was a devout Anglican resigned on the spot.
Marriage is popular because it combines the maximum of temptation with the maximum of opportunity. But real married life is too often the story of the youth and the maiden who pluck a flower from the mountainside and bring down an avalanche on their shoulders.
The great lovers never exposed their adulation to the test of domestic familiarity and it lasted them to the grave. Marry your man or woman and at the end of the week you’ll find no more inspiration in them than in a plate of muffins. In married life the important thing is the recognition of the other’s limitations. I remember Annie Besant was the most frightful romantic in this respect. She found that she could not be the bride of heaven and therefore became the bride of Mr. Frank Besant who was hardly an adequate substitute. She followed this by becoming infatuated with me who was an even worse one.
The greatest marital sacrifice is that of the adventurous attitude towards life –the ‘being settled’. It is usually also the death of balanced conversation. The surest way to stop a man talking is to marry him – the surest way to set a woman talking is to marry her. I have noticed that when a woman says there is no use talking to a man, he can very seldom get a word in edgeways for the following half hour.
In my early forties I developed what I thought was a gangrenous foot, together with the effects of falling down an entire flight of stairs. In this woeful condition I met Charlotte Payne-Townshend – my green eyed Irish millionairess.
Charlotte and I were determined not to marry. However, under the impression I was dying, I offered her widowhood. The marriage took place at West Strand Registry Office. I wore an old jacket which had been reduced to rags by the crutches on which I hobbled about. My friends, Graham Wallas and Henry Salt, were present, both immaculately dressed. The registrar never imagined I could possibly be the bridegroom. He took me for the inevitable beggar who completes all wedding processions. Wallas – over six feet tall – was so obviously the hero of the occasion that the registrar was on the point of marrying him to my betrothed. But Wallis, thinking the formula rather too strong for a mere witness, hesitated at the last moment and left the prize to me.
I have stayed married to Charlotte for a reason I never thought possible, namely that I thought more of somebody else than I did of myself. In fact, I got to like her so much that it would have been superfluous to fall in love with her. And we have been happy. There was never any question of breeding though – she had a morbid horror of maternity – and she was forty anyway.
Over the years, like all husbands I who began as her passion have become a habit. We are never heroes to our families. The Roman Emperors had a slave to whisper to them: ‘Remember thou art mortal’. Family life provides exactly the same corrective. No one can escape its dose of forced humility. Not even a Crown Prince – no, not even the son of a Chicago Meat King.
The fickleness of the women I have loved is only equalled by the infernal constancy of the women who have loved me. And of all women I had to go and fall head over heels in love with Mrs. Patrick Campbell.
Stella! She used to call me Joey the Clown. Stella and Joey. Now there was a love affair. No matter how I may have changed or if I ever deny it later, I really did love her. I offered to write her a certificate to that effect if she wanted. Never did a man paint his infatuation across the heavens more rapturously and shamelessly. Well, I have written some idiotic love letters but Beethoven did the same – and whatever mine may contain they cannot be more fatuous than Beethoven’s. Oh Lord, those letters must not be published until we are both dead. Then we can be added to Heloise and Abelard and all the rest of them.
But love did not blind me. Oh no! Stella could be a monster.
When we were rehearsing ‘Pygmalion’ I remember her saying to the fellow playing Colonel Pickering – what was his name? – anyhow he was a most distinguished looking man with perfect manners and an admirable actor. She actually said to him during a rehearsal:
“Put that chair there, please. And do it as much like a gentleman as possible.”
I wonder why he did not throw the chair at her head. He would have got three cheers from me if he had.
If she started agitating for a larger dressing room it was best not to argue but to surrender at once even if it involved rebuilding the theatre. It was cheaper in the long run. Men are no good when it comes to tackling a woman who can see nobody’s point of view but her own. I once said that all men over forty are scoundrels; in the case of women the age is thirty.
A young man has written to me that he is considering suicide. If he is convinced that he is not worth his salt and is an intolerable nuisance to himself and everyone else, suicide is a solution to be considered. But I would always advise such people to put this off until the next day in case something interesting turns up in the evening. All this gloom over the future – just because we do not last forever, you don’t have to think that we are going to end today.
Unhappiness is a warning to move on, not sit down. You may think you can’t move on but you can. At those sort of hopeless moments people are like the old prisoner in the Bastille sawing the bars of his little window with a watch spring so intently that he does not notice that the door has long been wide open.
To consciously pursue happiness is the nearest route to frustration and suicide. Happiness is not the object of life. Life has no object – it is an end in itself and courage consists of the readiness to sacrifice happiness for an intenser quality of life. Live dangerously. Do not attempt to plan to the exclusion of risk in life. Without risk and work, life is not worth living. If you lose heart, get interested in something. Become a learner. The future is with the learners.
The secret of being miserable is to have leisure to bother about whether you are happy or not. The cure for it is occupation, because occupation means pre-occupation and the pre-occupied person is neither happy nor unhappy, but simply alive and active, which is pleasanter than any other happiness.
HIS STUDY IN HIS LONDON FLAT
This damned war is throwing all our calculations into the fire. Everyone considered that the Germans would cave in quickly. But the Germans had powerful allies, chief amongst them being the British War Office.
So we stand amidst the ruin of Europe. I don’t know why it is being called the Great War. It’s a big war but that’s not the same thing. The historians will shower us with reasons how it has happened but the reality lies in the stupidity of our statesmen and the moral void in the human heart.
The statesman who wishes to head off a popular movement can do it infallibly by drawing a war across its path. War makes a Prime Minister’s job easy because it brings every dog to heel. However loudly a reformer may sing the praise of Jesus as the Prince of Peace, the firing of a single cannon shot will change the hymn to ‘The Son of God Goes Forth to War’. Catherine of Russia, when she was faced with a revolt against the misery of her people, said not: “Let us relieve their misery by appropriate reforms” but “Let us give them a little war to amuse them.”
Then there are the people who clamour that war is necessary to strengthen moral fibre. I am pleased with their spirit of advocating war for its own sake, as a tonic. Let those who believe in it repair to Salisbury Plain and blaze away at one another until the survivors, if any, feel that their characters are up to scratch. If men will not learn until their lessons are written in blood, why blood they must have – their own for preference.
Byron said: “It is not difficult to die and enormously difficult to live.”
Those who do not know how to live have had to make a merit of dying – a melancholic accomplishment which the outbreak of war has given practically unlimited opportunities of displaying. The moment the first shot was fired all the Britons and Belgians and Germans and French and Austrians and Russians became enraged sheep and imagined all sorts of romantic reasons for fighting. In addition to the solid reason that if Tommy and Ivan did not kill Ludwig and Franz, Ludwig and Franz would kill Tommy and Ivan.
Then there was the susceptibility of the masses to war fever and the appalling danger of a daily deluge of cheap newspapers controlled by a moneyed class which curried favour with the military caste not only for social reasons but because it has a large direct interest in war as a method of raising the price of money.
Acres of print were spent in convincing us of the morality of our cause. In starting this war there was about as much ethical content as in the collision of two trains. Any person who has persuaded himself that sixty five million human beings can possibly differ from any other sixty five million belonging in the same hemisphere and in the same civilisation – and that of two custom-houses a few hundred yards apart, one is full of murderers and villains and the other of angels and heroes, clearly ought to be in Broadmoor and not editing a newspaper.
According to the papers there was only one virtue – pugnacity; only one vice –pacifism. It all poured out. All that bad blood of the fierce little cowards at home who egged on others to fight for the gratification of their national vanity. The impact of physical death and destruction, the one reality that every fool can understand, tore off the masks of education, art, science, and religion from our ignorance and barbarism. It left us glorying grotesquely in the licence suddenly accorded to our vilest passions and most abject terrors.
The Christian priests joined in the war dance without even throwing off their cassocks first. Most of the clergy turned their churches into recruiting stations. The Bishops did not protest when a body calling itself the Anti German League succeeded in closing a church in Forest Hill in which God was worshipped in the German language. I can hardly imagine how the Church has got the nerve to exist after its stance in this war.
You will never have a quiet world till you knock the patriotism out of the human race.
Then there are the stupidities of the home front. Yesterday, the Times announced that the Lambeth Guardians had decided to discontinue the practice of giving the workhouse children an egg on Christmas morning in order to bring home to them that the country is at war and that everybody ought to practice some self-denial. Do you really want to belong to this race of cretins?
It must not be imagined that the soldiers are all for war though. The contrary would be nearer the truth. It is by the soldiers that we are told that if we could see one day of war, we should never want to see another. It is the civilians and women who keep up the romantic prestige of war and hand out the white feathers. Last month the Royal Flying Corps sent a wreath to the grave of von Richoven, the German flying ace, when our squealing civilians would have buried him at the crossroads, with a stake driven through his heart.
But the soldiers are driven on by the inexorable mad logic of war.
The mechanisation of modern war greatly reduces the power of the human conscience to keep abuses in check.
It would be hard to induce a youth of ordinary good nature to take a woman and a baby in her arms and tear the two to pieces with a Mills bomb in full view of the explosion. But the same youth, thousands of feet up in a war plane, pre-occupied with the management of his machine and accuracy of aim, will release a bomb that will blow a whole street of family homes into smithereens, burning, blinding, mutilating scores of mothers and babies without seeing anything of his handiwork except the glow of a conflagration which is as pretty as a firework. The hospital surgeon sees what the pilot has done but it is the pilot and not the surgeon, who releases the bomb.
I can answer for at least one person who found the change from the wisdom of St. Francis to the morals of Richard the Third extremely irksome. I could not divide my conscience into a War Department and a Peace Department. And so I printed my opinions in a pamphlet called ‘Common Sense about the War’.
Of course, the response to this essay was predictable. I was attacked as being pro-German, a pro-German being any person who kept his head amid the prevailing lunacy. Henry Arthur Jones said that England was his mother and I had kicked her on her deathbed. Ever since he has treated me as a diabolical criminal anarch. I was excommunicated from every tennis club, every golf club, and amazingly from the County Wexford Bee-Keepers Association, an organisation that I had not the faintest memory of ever joining.
In short, I had been giving exhibitions of moral courage surpassing those achieved on the battlefield but so far have not received the Victoria Cross. It is true that suggestions have not been lacking that I should receive the Iron Cross.
Of course, I was far too old to get mixed up in conscription. But my friend Lytton Strachey was not. He was to appear before the tribunal and he was not at all sure of his answers to the questions usually put by the military representatives.
“What would you do if a German attacked your sister?”
“Get in between?” puzzled Lytton.
However, although I aided the conscientious objectors, I could not be in total agreement with them. I paid my war taxes because if I were on a ship that had sprung a leak I should take a hand at the pumps even if I knew that the damage had been caused solely by the incompetence of the captain and his navigating staff. Also I don’t think that the idea of not paying one’s taxes on moral grounds is a very effective one. All that happens is that the bailiffs sell your umbrella stand.
Of course, not even something as hideous as the trenches can be entirely without humour. My old friend C. E. Montague, although fifty two years old, volunteered for service. When his hair turned white in a single night in the trenches his officers suspected shell shock. The cause in fact was that Monty was unable to procure his usual relay of hair dye.
One story was about two German prisoners of war. The British troops gave a little concert and asked that their two prisoners might be allowed to be present. The officer consented and went off to attend to some other matter. On his return he found the two prisoners standing with a modest air before the audience and the sergeant announcing:
“And for the next item our friends Hans and Fritz will now oblige wi’ the ‘Hymn of Hate’ ”.
If we did not die of laughter at the humours of war we should die of horror. Europe in fact is dying of horror to a considerable extent though she does not know it.
And, at the end of it all, the waste. The stupid, mind-staggering brutal waste. It’s a sickening business, this sending lambs to the slaughter because we are governed by bloody fools wire-pulled by damned thieves.
Nations are like bees. They cannot kill except at the cost of their own lives. Not only are our future Shakespeares and Platos being killed outright but the best harvests of the survivors are being sown in the barren soil of the trenches.
And this is not a mere British consideration. To the civilised man, the slaughter of German youth is as disastrous as the slaughter of the English. Fools exult in the German losses. They are our losses as well. Imagine exulting in the death of Beethoven, simply because Bill Sykes dealt him the death blow.
At times, I feel like the Arab who was so ashamed of our civilisation that he took out his European false teeth and crushed them to bits.
Our sons are dying. Now.
When nearly every house has a slaughtered son to mourn we will go out of our senses if we treat these bereavements at their peace value. It becomes necessary to give them a false value, to proclaim the young lives worthily and gloriously sacrificed to redeem the liberty of mankind, instead of expiating the heedlessness and folly of their fathers and to expiate it in vain.
Today I heard that Stella’s darling son Beo has been killed.
Wait a week and I will be clever and broadminded again.
But now – Oh, damn, damn, damn, damn, damn, DAMN!
And., Stella. Dear, dear, dear, dear………… dearest.
THE GARDEN SHED AT AYOT ST LAWRENCE, HERTFORDSHIRE
‘Lady Steele will be AT HOME on Thursday at 3pm.’
So will Bernard Shaw.
I seem to spend my entire life writing letters these days. I keep a secretary, an agent and a solicitor and on the strength of these calamities I am supposed to be fabulously rich. When I refused the Nobel Prize money hundreds of people, especially Americans, wrote to suggest that as I was so wealthy I might lend them something. This added to the burden of my life. I am now practising a complicated facial expression which combines universal benevolence with an obviously savage determination not to save any American from ruin by a remittance of 500 dollars.
I was voted the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925. Heaven knows why they chose 1925. It must have been to reward me because it was the one year that I hadn’t written anything. I don’t believe in titles and flummery. Titles distinguish the mediocre, embarrass the superior, and are disgraced by the inferior.
The Labour Party offered me a peerage but nothing would induce me to accept one. I should have to pay more for everything.
Titles can also be embarrassing. I remember when the Pall Mall Gazette wanted to have the conductor Mr. Augustus Mann knighted. It led to one disreputable person – I can’t recall who – going around the concert halls saying:
“A Mann’s a Man for a’ That.”
Hertfordshire is lovely at this time of the year. Did you know I have lived here over forty years now? I remember when I first visited Ayot St. Lawrence with Charlotte. We wandered around until we came to the graveyard. There we found a tombstone bearing the inscription:
‘Jane Eversley. Born 1815. Died 1895. Her time was short’.
I felt that a place where the inhabitants who died at eighty were considered short lived had the right sort of climate for me. So we bought the house that I have called ‘Shaws Corner’.
I am certainly not lonely here. No such luck. I could do with a little solitude. Ayot is like the editorial office of a big newspaper on the eve of a great war. What with the telephone ringing, the doorbell buzzing, the door knocker banging, and the number of people who try to force their way in or climb trees to take snapshots of me as I totter about the garden, I believe life on Piccadilly Circus would be relatively monastic.
When Charlotte died I didn’t order any black things. Dying is a troublesome business – there is pain to be suffered – and she suffered a lot and it wrings the heart. But at the end it is a warfare accomplished, a beginning all over again. You can always see that in their faces. My father found something in a funeral which tickled his sense of humour and this characteristic I have inherited. I never grieve – but I do not forget.
Suppose I sat down and howled after all this bravery. You may ask why I shouldn’t cry but it is not my line. Bad taste is what I am good at. Bad taste dries tears. Just a little touch of it in the right place is sovereign for a melting heart especially when everyone else is in such an ecstasy of good taste that you just want to scream.
And you can come and close my eyes too when I die and see me with my mask off, as I really was. I almost envy her………
For someone who loathes travelling I seem to have done an inordinate amount of it. While I would have happily stayed at Ayot Charlotte was determined to see every country possible. Before my marriage I drew the line at Broadstairs. After ten minutes in Broadstairs I was bored beyond description. The air was infernal. The townsfolk called it ozone and considered it splendid but there was a visible crust over them, a sort of dull terra-cotta surface, which they pretend to regard as a sign of robust health.
If Broadstairs was bad, you may imagine my feelings on finding myself hustled off to New Zealand. I admit that I was treated like a king, dined and feted everywhere – but nothing could be more exhausting. I found to my amusement that the Government in a frenzy of anti-Communism had passed a law prohibiting the landing of any person who had recently visited Russia. But one gets so frightfully out of touch abroad. I saw no newspapers except New Zealand ones and I hadn’t any idea what was going. All I had was a general impression that everybody was dead and that I ought to be.
Europe was almost as dreary. I was held up in Lyons for two days in the rain and if you don’t know what that means, you know nothing of life’s tragedy. To my mind the French would be a tolerable nation if only they would leave art alone. It is the one thing for which they have no capacity and their perpetual affectation of it is with them what hypocrisy is with the English.
If you are ever tempted to go to Athens I advise you not to bother. Just buy a few second hand classical columns and explode a pound or two of dynamite amongst them, and there you are.
In Sweden, I did achieve the impossible – a meeting with the playwright August Strindberg. After a few words of greeting and some further conversation consisting mainly of embarrassed silence and a pale smile or two from Strindberg and floods of energetic eloquence in a fearful lingo, half French, half German, from myself, Strindberg took out his watch and said in German:
“At two o’clock, I am going to be sick”.
I accepted this delicate intimation, and withdrew. It coincided with my feelings on abroad.
No, I think I will stay in England with the English. They do have some standards. You can win in London what is called a moral victory. That is, if your venture is recognised as aiming high you can come out of a financial failure with an enhanced reputation. Whereas when we come to the United States of America if you spoke of a moral victory, they would not understand what you are talking about. There, the only success is financial success. If an American hears the words ‘morality’ or ‘immorality’ he immediately thinks of ladies underwear.
Unfortunately America is even more riddled with bugaboo than we are. I have become accustomed to regard the usual American President as a statesman whose mouth is the most efficient part of his head.
They hark back to the principles of 1776 with ludicrous reverence. The America of George Washington is as dead as Queen Anne. Admittedly, America has no Star Chamber and no feudal barons. But it has Trusts and it has millionaires whose factories, fenced in by live electric wires and defended by Pinkerton retainers with magazine rifles, would have made a radical of George the Third.
Would Washington or Benjamin Franklin have lifted a finger in the cause of American independence if they could have seen its reality? A proposal to make the Presidency of the United States hereditary would shock the Americans. Yet they take it as a matter of course that the management of a vast business should descend from father to son.
I have never wished to visit the Statue of Liberty. I may be a master of comic irony but even my sense of irony does not go as far as that. But do not mistake my attitude to America. The average American still has illusions about modern progress and liberty and God’s good intentions and stray preference for the principles of July the Fourth.
It is puzzling to him to be regarded as a thief and a scoundrel supporting a government which would disgrace the quarter deck of a pirate ship. It seems to him that he is up against a monstrous prejudice against America. He is wrong. What he is really up against is a strong dislike of modern Capitalism and the doctrine of Laissez-Faire. It simply means that America is just as bad as Europe.
Also the almighty dollar is having a dreadful effect on the Europeans. The real competition nowadays is the competition of Regent Street with the Rue Rivoli, both after the spending power of the American Trusts. What is all this growing love of pageantry, this effusive loyalty, this officious rising and uncovering at a wave of a flag or a blast from a brass band? Dreams of imperialism? Not a bit of it. Obsequiousness, servility, cupidity, roused by the prevailing smell of money. When Mr. Carnegie rattled his millions in his pockets all England became one rapacious cringe. The Americans are becoming to regard us as another tribe of redskins. England will be just another reservation.
Of course the American cranks are almost clinically insane about Karl Marx and the Russians. They bandy the name Marx around with quite hilarious ignorance. I know the American crank well – he never stops writing to me under the impression that I am the world’s Super-Crank.
I never met Marx personally. He was not an infallible man but what he did do was to impress upon the world that the economic constitution of society was at the bottom of practically everything in society.
His ‘Das Kapital’ is not a treatise on socialism – it is a jeremiad against the bourgeoisie supported by a mass of official evidence and a relentless Jewish genius for denunciation. When coal created the miserable slums we call towns, then Wordsworth and Coleridge and Keats came along with their nature worship. It was left to Marx to lift the lid and show us what things were really like. The people who have never read him now think him obsolete in order to justify their lack of knowledge.
Much the same ignorance is applied to Russia itself. Apart from the documents which are virtually official publications, we get nothing here in England about Russia except fanatic reactionary rubbish such as Churchill quotes on one hand and on the other, pictures of the delights of Communism so highly rose-coloured that they cannot possibly be true?
Now, I have always regarded myself as the real author of the Russian Revolution because I said that the best thing the soldiers could do in the 1914-1918 War was to shoot their officers and go home. The Russians were the only soldiers who had the intelligence to follow my advice.
So I decided to visit the country for myself and was generally impressed. The English newspapers said I had only been shown what the authorities wanted me to see. To suggest that it is possible to camouflage the whole of Moscow and Leningrad to disguise it as an earthly paradise is as breath-takingly fatuous as to suggest that Tammany Hall could do the same thing to New York.
Two things did strike me. Fifteen years before, Russia abolished God, suppressed the Bible, and adopted the precept ‘Do as thou would’st’ – with the result that Russia is now the most Puritanical country in the world.
The second was that I was interested to meet authors in Russia who looked more prosperous that many that I have seen here – authors who never even attempted to borrow money from me.
But despite this amazing fact, we need not follow Russia as our model. What has Moscow to teach us that we cannot teach ourselves? Moscow is built on English history written in Kentish Town by Karl Marx.
As I grow old, I see more clearly that the novelties of one generation are only the resuscitated fashions of the generation before last. It is a too little considered truth that the fashion in which we think changes like the fashion of our clothes, and that it is difficult, if not impossible, for most people to think otherwise than in the fashion of their own period.
This, by the way, is why children are never taught contemporary history. Their history books deal with periods of which the thinking has passed out of fashion and the circumstances no longer apply to active life. For example, they are taught history about Washington and told lies about Lenin. In Washington’s day, they were told lies (the same lies) about Washington and taught history about Cromwell.
I am against disarmament. I believe in making war on war, policing the world by a terrific international armament which shall destroy any national armament that attempts to begin fighting. The League of Peace must have a first class armoury or the League of War will very soon make mincemeat of it.
Our business is not to disable ourselves or anyone else but to organize a balance of military power against war whether made by ourselves or by any other power. This can only be done by a combination of armed and fanatical Pacifists of all nations, not by a crowd of non-combatants wielding deprecations, remonstrances and Christmas cards.
It is utter nonsense to say that if you keep guns they will go off. People can wear boots without kicking their children. I don’t suppose anything like one percent of the guns supplied to soldiers have ever been fired at a human target.
The peace at present is maintained by funk. Anything that intensifies funk makes for peace. The polite name for funk is common sense. Any statesman who is not desperately afraid of starting a cannonade should be sent to a mental hospital.
All that Hitler talk about purity of race leaves me cold. The more mixed the better, and the quicker it happens the sooner we’ll get some sanity in the world. If I were an Omnipotent Creator I could stop wars in a week by setting loose a few billion locusts and white ants in every acre of territory in the countries of the belligerents. Next day they would be fighting, not each other, but armies of tiny creatures making an end of human food and human furniture so fast that all would be forgotten in the general terror. There would be no Semites and anti-Semites, no British and Germans, no Americans and Japanese, no proletarians and plutocrats, no Moslems and Hindus, blacks and whites, yellows and reds, no Irishmen, even. Nothing but men and women fighting frantically for human life. I imagine such things when I wish to see all our patriotic and militarist bunk and guff and bugaboo in their proper significance.
The newspaper I read at breakfast this morning contains a calculation that no less than twenty three wars are at present being waged to confirm the peace.
Oh, those idiots! I wish a medium could raise the spirit of the Unknown Soldier, the politicians gather to hear him – and he answers in German.
No matter. I have retired from all that to the relatively peaceful world of turning out plays. It’s all I do these days except for letter writing. It’s surprising how one comes across the subject matter for plays.
The last time Extreme Unction was described to me it inspired me on the character of Captain Shotover in ‘Heartbreak House’. Lena Ashwell was telling me about her father, a retired sea captain. When he was told he was about to die, he was asked whether he desired Communion. He consented but when it was administered he absolutely refused to eat consecrated bread unless it was accompanied by consecrated cheese.
Incidentally an attempt has been made to locate ‘Heart break House’. My neighbour Cherry-Gerard said:
“It’s what Shaw’s house would look like if his wife would let him”.
After the opening night of ‘The Apple Cart’, I received a rather appealing letter of complaint from a greengrocer who wrote that he was disappointed in the play because after buying a ticket he could not find a single reference to apples anywhere.
I had great fun with my old comrades, the critics. I put on ‘Too True To Be Good’ at the Malvern Festival and arrangements were made to bring up the London critics by aeroplane. Weather conditions were adverse and the flight arrived late. The critics were in an extremely dilapidated condition and one of them collapsed as they entered the auditorium just as the second act went up. Another of them staggered from the aeroplane asserting: “I’m going to dismember Shaw”.
I suppose it was no wonder their reviews were not encouraging. Admittedly the play was much too long at first and had to be cut down to bone. Even then some people seemed to think that three and a half hours made a fairly substantial bone. The intelligentsia seemed to like to it. That far more numerous body which may be called the un-intelligentsia, did not.
The one play that attracted praise everywhere from the start was ‘Saint Joan’. At first I was not really interested in the subject. I had been looking around for a historical character. Hesketh Pearson suggested a Protestant play about the Dutch leader William the Silent. But I found the idea of William being silent at the top of his voice for four hours in a Shaw play too bizarre even for me.
I would have preferred to write a play about Mahomet rather than Saint Joan but I was worried in case some Arab fanatic should decide to assassinate me for blasphemy, assassination being the sincerest form of censorship.
However, at Charlotte’s suggestion, I did do ‘St. Joan’ and immediately found myself the object of veneration from the most unlikely quarters. The play certainly changed things. Before it, people used to laugh when I was serious. Now the fashion has changed. They take their hats off when I joke which is still more trying.
Anyway, let them take it all as they will. Play writing is fun and I’ve never taken myself that seriously. Also I possess a small secret. Every time I see a Chekhov play I want to go home and burn one of mine.
The house is filling up with statues and portraits of myself – one of the more dubious aspects of Grand Old Manhood. My bust by Rodin is a horrible thing. It gets younger every day. A strange thing about Rodin was that he never regarded a portrait bust finished while the sitter was still alive. He kept complaining that his sitters got tired of sitting for him and would send forged telegrams to themselves calling them away on pressing business, just to escape.
Augustus John painted six magnificent portraits of me in eight days. Unfortunately he kept painting them on top of one another until my protests became overwhelming. Only three portraits have survived and one of these got turned into a subject picture. I went to sleep while I was sitting and John, fascinated by the network of wrinkles made by my shut eyes, painted them before I awoke and turned a most heroic portrait into a very splendidly painted sarcasm. He entitled it ‘Shaw Listening to Someone Else Talking’. It made me look like an inebriated gamekeeper.
I still manage to get some exercise and I do a lot of gardening. Strangely, I like machines as a child likes toys. I once bought a cash register without having the slightest use for it. So naturally, even now, I adore bicycles. They give me more exhilaration than anything else.
One evening, years ago, I felt that I must have a real experience of some sort under conditions especially as regards fresh air as unlike those of the theatre stalls as possible. After some consideration it occurred to me that if I went into the country, selected a dangerous hill, and rode down it on a bicycle at full speed in the darkest part of the night, some novel and convincing piece of realism might result. It did. For the next three weeks I looked like a badly defeated prize fighter.
About a year after that I managed to ride full tilt into Bertrand Russell. He jumped aside with the suddenness of a negligent wicket keeper straight into three feet of ditch water, with myself and the bicycle on top of him. A few small children stood and gazed curiously as Britain’s leading playwright and its leading philosopher scrambled out, cursing each other and drenched to the skin.
When I was sixty I yielded to the fascination of a motor bike and drove it away from the factory for eighty miles before we inevitably parted company – myself into a hedge and my motor bike into my neighbour’s herbaceous borders.
Royalty has always interested me. I have never understood how anybody at this stage in history can consent to have a crown stuck on his head. Now of course you cannot allow your kings and queens any real power. Dynasties of geniuses do not occur. That is the decisive objection to hereditary rulers. But a limited monarchy can be quite useful. It combines the inertia of a wooden idol with the credibility of a flesh and blood one.
The price you pay for its political convenience is all the flunkydom propagated by the throne. Every king is supposed to be a libertine and oddly enough owes a great deal of his popularity to this belief. So he cannot deny it without deeply disappointing his subjects.
Vulgarity in a king flatters the majority of his people. I accepted George V quite frankly as a complete lowbrow and as such was not at all surprised when he decided to go to the Cup Final instead of to the inauguration of the Stratford Memorial Theatre.
I once received a letter from a bus driver chiding me over the fact that I had not written in the newspapers over George V’s death. Twice, he said, he had nearly run me over. The next time he would do so.
‘And you’re not the only one’ he went on. ‘I only just missed that Mr. Churchill the other day.
I rather like old Winston. He is a romantic militarist who through the war quite splendidly kept up the spirits of the nation. What makes him dangerous in peacetime politics is that he sincerely and honestly believes what he says and doesn’t realise that he is talking nonsense. But he is a man of independence and humour. How he managed to avoid expulsion from the Conservative Party during the Thirties, I cannot imagine. I can only conjecture that he contributed very liberally to the party funds.
It may amaze you to learn that I am still regarded as a sex symbol by young women. It certainly amazes me. There is no remedy for the fact that a saintly old age makes a man the sport of every flapper. Women lose all sense of shame when their prey is over seventy. My secretary has a soulless way of putting letters from ladies into the waste paper basket when they run to more than thirty pages and are directed to my eternal salvation or breathe a hopeless adoration for my person under misapprehensions as to my age and the colour of my hair.
The dancer Isadora Duncan quite openly propositioned me with:
“You have the greatest brain in the world and I have the most beautiful body – so we ought to produce the most perfect child’.
I could only reply:
“What if the child inherits my body and your brains?”
She begged me to call on her when she declared that she would dance for me naked. I gravely made a note of the appointment but forgot to keep it.
All that was so long ago. I always saw women openly but with one eye only – the other was enchanted. Now the enchantment is gone and I can no longer tell myself love stories.
Anyway, why should they bother? Old men’s kisses are like dust.
As I grow older my biographers crowd thicker and faster. What on earth they will find to write about, I don’t know. I am not that interesting biographically. I have never killed anybody and nothing very interesting has happened to me. I have had no heroic adventures. All my happenings have taken the form of books and plays. Read them or spectate them and you have my whole story. The rest is only breakfast, lunch, dinner, sleeping, wakening and washing, my routine being just the same as anybody else’s routine.
I am not a Superman, certainly not the man of romance. I am the typical suburban who goes off to work every day, respectable, debt paying, and secretly proud of the fact that my roses are the reddest in the road, only in my case it happens to be plays and not roses.
One curious fact has emerged though. Nearly all my biographers are Tories and while they are painstaking on such subjects as to how many pairs of socks I possess, they have an odd habit of skating over such minor topics as Socialism or the salvation of our society. They practically ignore them while praising me for irrelevancies. It is as if I told them that the house was on fire and they had replied: “How admirably monosyllabic.”
If I were not a gloriously successful man, in England they would have dismissed me as an Irishman, and in America as a Socialist. I did not fail and that’s all there is to it. In fact I have been the most salutary influence in the last fifty years which has become obvious to everybody in the world I should think, except possibly a theatrical agent. Well, the most salutary influence in England anyway.
Now, alas, my prophecies are forgotten in the excitement created by their fulfilment. That is the tragedy of my career. I shall die as I have lived because I am like a clock that goes fast. I always strike twelve an hour before noon.
I still get requests to speechify. I was asked to speak on the Decay of Decency. I replied that at my age I would prefer to speak on the Decency of Decay.
Last week I had to go up to London and tackle a conference with the London County Council about the National Theatre project. The effect of my visit as a gibbering ghost to the scene where I was once a star tub thumper was so ghastly that I stupefied the meeting. The leader of the opposition rose chuckling and said that his presence was superfluous as the opposition was now in the hands of that fine old Tory, Mr. Bernard Shaw.
There was talk of private endowments. The Carnegie Trust wanted to put the whole thing in the hands of a theatrical committee. All I could say was that if Mr. Carnegie proposed to be guided by a committee composed of critic, actors, actresses, managers, directors, and students of the stage, the sooner Mr. Carnegie was made a ward of court and strictly looked after, the better.
Fortunately my teeth did not drop out and I got through without forgetting what I was talking about or who I was talking to – a great triumph at ninety. But it was positively my last appearance. I daren’t try it again.
Old men are dangerous. It doesn’t matter to them what is going to happen to the world. To most men age brings not wisdom but golf.
And age makes us so egotistical. In my case I’ve never had any difficulty in being that at any age. But it affects the others as well. We become serious and concerned for the opinion of posterity. Thomas Hardy had a portrait destroyed because it depicted him laughing.
I was a pall bearer at Hardy’s funeral and so was Rudyard Kipling. We had never met before and Edmund Gosse virtually frog-marched him over to be introduced. Kipling was nervous and fidgety. He made a little dive at me, thrust out a hand quickly, said ‘Howdedo’, withdrew the hand instantly as if he hardly dared trust me with it, and bolted like a rabbit into a corner where A.E. Houseman was there to protect him.
We must have made a curious procession. Galsworthy and I were six feet tall while Kipling and Barrie were about five feet. As we marched Kipling bobbed about continuously right in front of me and kept changing step. Every time he did so I nearly fell over him.
Kipling was the epitome of everything foolish. A romantic schoolboy who never grew up. What Kipling could never realise was that no matter how noble his aspirations of imperialist idealism might be, our capitalist traders were there to make as much profit out of the inhabitants as they could and for no other purpose.
Also he will always remain constitutionally and congenitally incapable of having the faintest inkling of the reality which he idolises as Tommy Atkins.
No, I’m sick of Kipling-esque brutalitarianism. Still, he’s a superior versifier to our modern nature poets. Most of their poems are little more than rhythmical lists of garden produce.
It is incredible how the days fly past like telegraph poles on a railway journey.
I see there is a tendency to treat me like an archbishop. I fear that in that case I must be becoming a hopeless old twaddler. It is frightful for the citizen as the years pass him by, to see his own contemporaries so exactly reproduced by the younger generation. His companions of thirty years ago have their counterparts in every city crowd – when he has to check himself repeatedly in the act of saluting an old friend only to find that it is really 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.
It is strange that if you learn anything when you are young, you will remember it forever. Now that I am old, I forget everything in five seconds. So cram it all in while you are young.
Now I am no longer a ‘great man’ but an old dotard, I can look at the ‘great man’ business. I assure you all the fun of the thing is yours – it is the people who celebrate me who have the fun. I have all the work and I have all the requests for interviews and all those damned dinners and I am half dead from the experience.
I have always been so unspeakably hurried and worried when – so often – all I wanted was ten minutes in the moonlight at Stratford.
Good God, I am twenty years older than the Albert Memorial.
SHAW’S BEDROOM AT AYOT, HERTFORDSHIRE
A nap is a brief period of sleep which overtakes superannuated persons when they endeavour to entertain unwelcome visitors or to listen to scientific lectures. I won’t have cranks in the house. It’s bad enough with me in it………………..
Somebody was talking to me before I slept. Who was it? No matter. When they left I bet they said “the old blighter’s dying”, eh?’ Well, they’re all getting old too and trying to make a merit of it as usual……….
Now, where did you all come from and what did you come to see? An old man who was once a famous playwright and talked about everything on earth and wrote about it. Well, here is what is left of him – not much to look at, is there?
I want to go with my regalia around me. This is the regalia of St. Pancras Council and this – I am still an Irishman and quite unreasonably intensely proud of being Irish – this, the insignia of Dublin. I accepted the invitation to become an honorary freeman of Dublin because she alone has the right to affirm that in spite of my incessantly controversial past and present I have not disgraced her. And I’ll be the only Viking in Valhalla wearing the St. Pancras Borough Council sash………….
My bolt is shot. I should not serve you by attempting to lie superfluous on the stage I once adorned…………
I dreamt that I was talking to Lawrence. In Arabia. Frightful! I don’t believe there is a world beyond the grave and the last person I’d want to talk to if there were would be Lawrence. Oscar, yes. Chesterton, yes. But not Lawrence. Charlotte and I gave him that motor cycle. The one he was killed on. With his mania for drowning himself in speed, it was like handing a loaded pistol to a suicide. Such a dear fool……………..
Even H.G. Wells has gone. He used to complain about all my busts and portraits. He said that you couldn’t move anywhere in Europe without bumping into an effigy of myself. He even constructed one himself. It was made out of papier maché and placed on his front lawn to be used for archery practice and stuck as full of as many arrows as St. Sebastian. When I am dead, my dears, Sing no sad songs for me, But cast my spells on Mr. Wells, And ask a handsome fee……………..
And there was young Aubrey. Aubrey Beardsley. He must have been dead, oh, forty, fifty years? Oh, ever so long now. He once made a charming design of a Pierrot stepping out on to the stage to announce the opening of the ‘John Bull’ magazine. Smithers the publisher foolishly objected that it suggested flippancy and that ‘John Bull’ would like something serious. Aubrey revenged himself by substituting a monumental John Bull for the Pierrot. Eighty thousand of these were printed and circulated before George Moore detected that John Bull had been painted in a condition of restrained sexual excitement………
All those lovely people. I miss them. I miss them……… No, I don’t. The only man I miss is the man I used to be…..……..
Any regrets? Not many. Anyway, if God starts giving me examination marks for my activities on earth, there’ll be wigs on the green, I’ll promise you. Anyway, it is not religion but the wireless that will be the opium of the people…….
And I’ll stand four square for Socialism as well. My political ideas and writings have remained the same for seventy years – the only thing that’s changed has been the book price………
No, no regrets or apologies. Oh yes, I do have one. I must apologise for having consistently maligned Brahms when I wrote music criticism. I wrote: ‘There are some sacrifices which should not be demanded twice from any man, and one of them is listening to Brahm’s Requiem’.
I was wrong in that callow judgement. Now that I know it, I find it very funny………….
Yesterday Fleet Street decided I was dead until I denied the allegation over the telephone…………
Where’s that damned nurse? She’s meant to be making me coddled eggs. I’ve been waiting hours. How long, Oh Lord, how long? ……..
Do you ever study the cinema? I, who now go to the ordinary theatre with effort and reluctance, cannot keep away from the cinema. If I had to start my career all over again I would prefer cinema scripts and television over the platform.
Gabriel Pascal, my personal film director, rang me to say that in box office terms I am now bigger than Greta Garbo. I suppose this is meant to cheer me up.
The Hollywood people suggested Garbo to play St. Joan. I am convinced that if the play was about the Blessed Virgin Mary they would suggest Mae West.
I read the play to General de Gaulle to get his consent for raising French morale. Carried away, de Gaulle gave his enthusiastic consent remarking that he himself felt his mission was to liberate France as well. The thought struck me that instead of Garbo, de Gaulle himself wanted to play Joan……..
Stella Campbell’s first screen test in Hollywood was awful. She played the balcony scene as Juliet but looked more like Mussolini’s mother. Stella. She should have rung me………..
Did you know about Mussolini’s famous march on Rome. He actually went by train…………….
Harpo Marx once asked me if I was born ‘Bernie Schwartz’………
Alfred Hitchcock, the tubby Cockney film director, called on me one day and after the preliminary handshakes said affably:
“One look at you, Mr. Shaw, and I know there is a famine in the land”.
“And one look at you, Mr. Hitchcock, and I know who caused it”…….
I warn you that in a hundred years we shall all be dead. I encourage you with the reflection that we shall none of us be missed. Of course, the real joke was that I was in earnest. I didn’t go to all this trouble simply to amuse the public…….
What the devil is to become of you all without your shepherd, God only knows. But the world contrived to get on before I was born, I don’t quite know how, and I daresay it will make some sort of lame shift after I am dead.
I feel nothing but the accursed happiness I have dreaded all my life long. The happiness that comes as life goes, the happiness of yielding and dreaming instead of resisting and doing, the sweetness of the fruit that is going rotten…….
Oh, look here, I am getting talking. I must stop. Well, it is very pleasant to have seen you all here and to think that you are my audience and all that because I am a born actor myself. I like an audience. I am like a child in that respect……
You know, Leslie Howard was not right as Professor Higgins. He didn’t have the strength of will. When we do the remake we must have Charles Laughton. Remind me to tell Pascal…….……
Look up, my dears, look up to the heavens. There is more to life than this, there is so much more……………..