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  • Authorship and Shaw’s Shakes Versus Shav
  • Christopher Wixson (bio)

The fact is, you look on an author as a sort of god. I look on him as a man I pay to do a certain thing for me. . . . Who and what is an author that he should be privileged to take liberties that are not allowed to other men?


I confess that though as a matter of business I wish my plays to be performed, as a matter of instinct I fight against the inevitable misrepresentation of them.

—Preface to Plays Pleasant2

In his final speech in The Tempest, Prospero, bereft of his “potent art” and the aid of his “demi-puppets,” pleads with the audience to set him free.3 Particularly in light of the Victorian sentimental tradition that elided the character with the retiring Shakespeare, the image of the magician ultimately subject to the pull of commerce is startling yet prophetic, given the industry the Bard would become in subsequent centuries, his works perpetually refinished to suit popular taste. Our last glimpse of the author/character is as a puppet trapped within his own text, the authority shifted from the producer to the consumers. Mortality’s effects on authorial control were also on Bernard Shaw’s mind late in his life when he concluded a 1949 op-ed piece about tax-code discrimination against writers with the questions: “Why is property in our creations communized after less than two lifetimes and that of simple distributors made perpetual? Why is property in turnips made eternal and absolute when property in ideas is [End Page 79] temporary and conditional?”4 In his published response, novelist Charles Morgan amplified its underlying concern that, “when Mr. Shaw’s heirs are deprived of their power to prevent it, [any disreputable cad or political enthusiast] will be able, by garbling the text and adding his own introductions, to represent Shavianism as advocacy of almost anything on earth.” Shaw’s anxiety is not surprising, considering the playwright’s prolific success at self-authorization and frequent skirmishes with theatrical adversaries for textual mastery. A few months after this piece, he wrote Shakes Versus Shav, which he believed in all “actuarial probability” to be his “last play” and “the climax of [his] eminence.”5 In it, playwrights are depicted as actual puppets, and their petty squabbles become Shaw’s response to the fate of the late playwright, his charms o’erthrown, his image at the mercy of other hands.

Commissioned by Waldo Lanchester for the Malvern Marionette Theater, Shakes Versus Shav begins with Shakes out for revenge, angry that his authorial persona is being disparaged and his words appropriated by an upstart crow named Shav, whom he condemns as a “ shameless fraud,” an “infamous imposter” lost in an “ecstasy of self-conceit” in “[daring] to pretend / here to reincarnate my very self.”6 When Shav appears, they brawl, stage a bout between surrogates Macbeth and Sir Walter Scott’s Rob Roy, and view a presentation of Heartbreak House in dramaticule. Following further heated charges of plagiarism and pessimism, Shav asks Shakes to “for a moment suffer / My glimmering light to shine.” A light suddenly and mysteriously appears between them, to which Shakes responds by immediately “puffing out” the splendid torch, saying “out, out brief candle.”7 Treated as an eccentric one-off, Shakes Versus Shav is rarely performed and considered, at least by one midcentury scholar, “one of [Shaw’s] dotages, a pathetic exhibition of nonagenarian gaminerie.”8 Taken more seriously, biographers have found it a rich mine of allusion, invoking (among other things) the playwright’s interest in the infamous “long count” of the 1927 Tunney-Dempsey boxing match as well as purported genealogical links between the Shaws and Rob Roy and Macduff. Contemporary scholars have approached the play, which begins and ends with Shakespearean quotation, mainly within the context of Shaw’s ongoing professional rivalry with his predecessor.9 This essay seeks to reframe the grappling portrayed in Shakes Versus Shav within the larger idea of the uniquely vexed creative authority for playwrights, arguing that Shaw presciently muses over the ramifications for the Shavian text upon the death of the author...


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pp. 79-94
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