SHAW The Annual of Bernard Shaw Studies 25 (2005) 127-134
[Access article in PDF]
Shaw Responds to Shaw-Bashing
John A. Bertolini
Prefatory remarks: My normal trade is writing about Shaw's plays as constructed works of dramatic art. Dick Dietrich, a very persuasive fellow, has prevailed upon me to address Shaw's relationship to the Here and Now, a journey I take into the land of character—Shaw's character—not without reluctance, the sweetest form of unwillingness. In some ways my talk today merely glosses the last section of Eric Bentley's famous notice of Shaw's death.1 For what I propose today is to explore and reflect on two instances of Shaw's responding to attacks, one an act of attempted ostracism, the other in print, as a way of highlighting what is so distinctive about Shaw's magnanimous character and so conspicuously lacking in today's political and literary discourse.2
In November 1937 in one of Shaw's great talks on war—and let us remember he was not an absolute pacifist ("Wars if you must; but for God's sake, not war songs," as Chesterton imagined Shaw murmuring)3 —he made two suggestions that were remarkable, one for its wit and the other for what it revealed about his soul. "If nations had any sense, they would begin a war by sending their oldest men to the trenches. They would not risk the lives of their young men except in the last extremity."4 Ever the comic dramatist, Shaw first reminds his audience of the tragic sight of "lads" going to the front in World War I singing "'Tipperary' on their way to the slaughterhouse," but then conjures "the spectacle of regiments of octogenarians, hobbling to the front, waving their walking sticks and piping up to the tune of 'We'll never come back no more, boys, we'll never come back no more'"—and asks his listeners, "wouldn't you cheer that enthusiastically?" He notes, "I should," and adds, "And let me not forget that I should be one of them." That image of old men going to the Front—impossible to make an actuality, but purely from the realm of the comic imagination—is the true Shavian poetry of comedy. It is fantastical and personal, detached and moving—all at once.
The other suggestion he makes regards responding to hatred and hostility: Shaw commends Jesus' Sermon on the Mount because it "is a [End Page 127] very moving exhortation, and it gives you one first-rate tip, which is to do good to those who despitefully use you and persecute you."5 Shaw then observes, "I, who am a much hated man, have been doing that all my life." Had Shaw stopped there we might object that he seems to be congratulating himself on his virtue, on his Christian forbearance, but he goes on: "and I can assure you there is no better fun; whereas revenge and resentment make life miserable and the avenger hateful." Now there is a novel approach: be kind to your enemies because it is the highest enjoyment—not virtue, not goodness, not ethics but the highest enjoyment—fun—life has to offer, and because to do the opposite will make you unhappy. Try telling that to the hit-men of the culture wars, say Frank Rich, the hysteric, or the politicians who regard their opponents as crooks and liars and worse. Yet, that is why Shaw's particular brand of debate is so much needed in the here and now. Will we see a Shaw emerge nowadays? One never knows, but it seems unlikely—alas! Perhaps we need to resurrect him, so Gore Vidal will go away.
The first episode I wish to explore is the proposed expulsion of Shaw from the Dramatists' Club in the wake of Shaw's publication of "Common Sense About the War" in the New Statesman in November 1914 just as World War I was beginning. Here I will borrow from my introduction to the Barnes and Noble Classics edition...