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  • Shaw & World War I
  • Peter Gahan
What Shaw Really Wrote about the War. J. L. Wisenthal and Daniel O’Leary, eds. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2006. xxxv + 309 pp. $59.95

What Shaw Really Wrote about the War is published by Florida University Press in its valuable ongoing Bernard Shaw series of new critical and biographical writing on Shaw, which also includes volumes like this that reprint collections of Shaw's own writing. A word of warning: this book is not a reprint of Shaw's 1931 collection of his writings on World War I, What I Really Wrote about the War, but rather a selection of the more substantial of those writings plus a couple of previously unpublished long pieces. Professors Wisenthal and O'Leary as editors have thereby missed a golden opportunity of reediting a collection originally edited by GBS himself, the major loss being Shaw's postwar linking commentary. The editors do not explain this condensation, but one new piece, "What I Said in the War," written in 1918 but before the end of the war, goes some way to make up for this loss. And by concentrating on the larger pieces, framed by the key texts Commonsense about the War written in the months following the outbreak of war in August 1914 and Peace Conference Hints written for the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919, this selection makes it easier to appreciate Shaw's writings on the Great War. The editors explain, inaccurately, that "The Collected Edition volume ironically became a war casualty itself: in September 1940 the sheets of What I Really Wrote about the War were destroyed." In fact, this occurred to the sheets of the Standard Edition of 1931 and not to the Collected Edition of 1930 printed in the U.K. or the equivalent U.S. Limited "Ayot St. Lawrence" edition printed the same year. Further, they misleadingly write, "What I Really Wrote about the War was never reprinted." In fact, Brentanos had reprinted a separate American edition in 1932.

Rather than explanatory notes, the editors put up front biographical reference notes to the familiar and unfamiliar names annotated with an asterisk in the ensuing texts—a surprisingly efficient way of conveying such necessary information. Other notes have therefore been kept to an absolute minimum, coming at the end of the volume along with a short bibliography and index. The editors' succinct introduction to their collection, "Shaw's Theatre of War," usefully applies the metaphor [End Page 333] of theatricality to the writings that follow. It lists the many Shaw plays generally concerned with the theme of war, such as Major Barbara and Arms and the Man, and those plays that grew out of his engagement with this particular war, Heartbreak House, Back to Methuselah, and even Saint Joan. The connection to these plays is indeed a major reason why this collection should interest us now, perhaps most obviously in the case of Methuselah, but is not pursued further in this introduction. Instead the editors persuasively argue "a close connection between Shaw's theatre criticism of the 1890s and his war criticism twenty years later." They explain: "In his theatre criticism he had opposed and ridiculed the hero-versus-villain basis of melodrama.… In his war criticism he keeps rejecting the melodramatic idea that England and its allies are the heroes and Germany the villain." They further stress that this collection can be used to overturn such popular misconceptions about Shaw's war writing, that he was, for instance, pro-German or a pacifist. He was neither, but he was pro-German culture and he did write in support of conscientious objectors like composer Rutland Boughton; an eloquent letter in support of Boughton is one of the few shorter pieces of journalism to survive into this selection.

More sharply, the editors take GBS to task for expressing ideas that would not be acceptable to an early-twenty-first-century readership, particularly his seeming endorsement of white European civilization. Even his friend H. G. Wells accused Shaw in a 1916 letter of using "disgusting race cant" in his argument for federations of states of, in the first instance, homogenous cultures rather than a...


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pp. 333-336
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Archive Status
Will Be Ceasing Publication
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