Written on December 27th 2010
I borrowed this book from the RDS in December 2010. I had published my autobiography earlier in September 2010 and found myself at a loose end and without any plans for further writing except for my usual book reviews. I had been thinking recently of my ideas about the long-term future of the relationship between Ireland and Britain and my strengthening view that 1916 had been a disaster, not only for the relationship between the two islands but also because of the consequence of the rebellion on the later history of our country. I thought such a prominent Anglo-Irish person as George Bernard Shaw might be a good introduction to a study of the relationship with our sister island. A few of my previous reviews, such as those on Birrel, Dangerfield and Sturgis, are relevant to this aspect of our history.
Gibbs’s book is entirely based on short quotes about GBS in
the form of letters, recollections and writings by many of his contemporaries, most of whom were well known figures in the literary, dramatic, musical and social world in the late 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. Apart from the hundreds of comments about Shaw in these reminiscences, diaries and remnants, Shaw was quite generous in responding to enquiries from newspaper correspondences and foreigners who were anxious to interview him. However, rather than face to face interviews, Shaw preferred to receive questions in writing to which he invariably responded in the same manner. Extracts of these interviews are also included.
The book is one of about twenty books published by
Macmillan in this series about English and Irish authors and poets. Shaw’s history is based on the recollections of contemporaries, friends and critics. Like the other books in the series, this volume represents a form of biography which is certainly rounded and informative but is hardly the most difficult or most scholarly approach to biography. It does however provide for scanning and dipping and for easy reading, and provides a thorough insight into Shaw’s remarkable career and his huge contribution to the social and political life of his adopted country. While the views of the many correspondents vary widely, one is left with a condensation of facts which are highly favourable to Shaw, the man, and to his contribution to the English literary and artistic world. For those of us who are interested in Anglo-Irish history and in the mutual welfare of the two countries, Shaw stands out as a most prominent figure, an Irishman who has made a major contribution to the social, literary, political and artistic life of his adopted country and who has brought great credit and important gifts of art and education to Dublin and his native land.
Chapter 1 includes the recollections of his more intimate family and friends about his early years. He emerges as a relatively normal child and youth within a rather dysfunctional Protestant family. His unusual and early interest in music and art presaged his later genius as a writer and dramatist. One observer described his impression of the boy’s ‘hauteur’ as being unusual in such a young person, an aspect of his early maturity which is certainly conveyed to the reader.
In later chapters there are frequent references to his striking appearance – his tall thin figure, his red or sandy coloured hair, his red and untidy beard while a younger man, his small hands and his facial pallor. According to Beatrice Webb, his fellow Fabian, he was fastidious and unconventional in his dress. One observer described his dress in his earlier years as arrogantly Bohemian! Philip Gibbs talked of him as ‘Man of genius, charm of personality and high distinction’. A brilliant talker and delightful companion, he was easy and kind with people, good humoured and courteous, even when he was disagreeing with their views. He remained cool even when provoked. His support for socialism and his involvement in the Fabian and other socialist organisations are well known and he appeared to be happy to announce to the British people that he was an atheist and a vegetarian as well as a socialist.
He was a distinguished essayist and a prolific playwright with an emphasis on social and political themes; a great orator, attractive always for his good humour and eloquence, and, perhaps most of all, radical and controversial in his integrity and his honesty, in his concern for the underdog and, I guess, his inability to feel comfortable in the company of the conservative and the reactionary. He might be perceived as a cynic but quite clearly he was motivated by idealism. Much of his political and social activities were devoted to the support of the worker and his family. Despite his frequently expressed views and opinions which challenged the establishment, he never exceeded the bounds of reason. He had many of the sentiments of the pacifist.
He had a huge capacity to write and to contribute to a wide variety of social and political subjects. Age seemed not to influence his capacity to work nor did it impair his creativity. Some of his greatest plays and political essays were written in his sixties, seventies and eighties, including St. Joan and Back to Methuselah. Late political works included The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Everybody’s Political What’s What. Another was his portrait of British democracy in chaos On the Rocks. I was to some extent reminded of my own modest approach to my retirement years and to writing. It was then, after I retired at the age of 66, that I wrote eight of my books on a wide variety of subjects. Previously I had written two tracts on heart disease prevention for patients. Shaw used to conceive the subject of his play or essay and their creation in his mind before he put pen to paper; and when he wrote he did so quickly. This too was my own experience. He wrote in a very characteristic tidy, legible and uniformly small script. My appalling writing was in strong contrast to his.
Shaw was particularly courageous about his opposition to
Britain’s entering the Great War. He spoke about the hidden political motives of some of the leading liberal politicians which led to Britain’s joining. He believed it was hypocritical to attribute Britain’s participation in the War to the German invasion of Belgium. However he was reticent about his opposition because he did not wish to discourage conscription which was not introduced until 1915.
Chapter 7 deals with his views of the genesis of the Great War and his visits to the Front. In my review of Dangerfield’s book The Strange Case of Liberal England I referred to the circumstances in Britain in the early years of the 20th century which might have made it more ‘convenient’ for the politicians to enter the war. I referred to the difficulties created by the Suffragette movement, the increasing labour troubles and general strikes and, most importantly, the apparently insoluble problems created by the Home Rule movement and its opposition by the Northern unionists and the Tory rump. These pressures were immediately resolved by entering the war, at least for the embattled Liberal Government, I could find no evidence of these pressing political factors among Shaw’s analysis of the genesis of the Great War but his reference to hidden political motives may have been the factors which I was referring to.
|Casement during his trial.|
As might be expected, he took a close interest in Casement’s trial (Chap 7) and was strongly of the opinion that Casement should have pleaded as a prisoner of war and thus avoided being hanged. However, Casement’s legal advisers (Gavan Duffy and Sergeant Sullivan) were opposed to Shaw’s opinion and failed to prevent Casement’s death by hanging. Shaw provided the substance of Casement’s final and remarkable speech at the end of his trial. There is little in the book to suggest Shaw’s interest in Irish affairs and his famous letter protesting against the execution of the 1916 leaders is not mentioned by any contributor. He does write to criticise Dev at the time of the economic war in the mid-1930s and he also believed that Ireland should allow the British navy to occupy the Irish ports during the World War. In neither case did he receive a positive response from Dev and the Irish government. On the question of the ports he thought his view was reasonable because, after all, was the navy not there to protect the Irish too.
About his association with women, Chapter 5 includes the following quote
This chapter, entitled Philanderer and Married Man refers to his close attention to women and the great attraction he evoked among them but it is likely that he lacked the normal passion for love and heterosexual sex which is the lot of most men. He married late and his relationship with his wife, a wealthy Irish landowner, endured and was apparently very happy although it was thought by one observer to have been sexless.
Shaw died in his ninety fifth year. He was a life-long
vegetarion and was proud of the fact that he took no vigorous exercise. He was however a committed walker during his daily life. He suffered little illness during his active years and his death was precipitated by a fall in his garden at Ayot St. Lawrence when he suffered a fractured leg followed by surgery. Subsequently his health deteriorated and he died willingly and peacefully seven weeks later. The tributes to him and his political and literary contributions were quite remarkable and quite unanimous despite his outspoken and radical views about things which were dear to the British such as the justification of the Great War, the hardships of labour and the underprivileged, and the greed of the wealthy and the landed classes.
After the fall ---- newspapers carried daily bulletins about his health; and his death seven and a half weeks later and there was front-page news around the world. Theatre audiences stood in silence, and the lights of Broadway were dimmed in farewell.’
I feel a sense of pride that a fellow Irishman could be revered by the English and the international world. His career and his political opinions were symbolic of the better aspects of the affiliation between the Irish and the British, an affiliation with a common and powerful language and much bilateral integration of race over the centuries. Nor need the language, the myths and ancient history of Ireland clash at a social, practical or political level with those of the English mainland. During these current recessionary times we are conscious of the strains which exist within the European Union. Whatever may happen in Europe, and hopefully we shall weather this and other storms, our more recent and better association with Britain is special and must be retained and encouraged.