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  • The Strategy and the Bacteriology:Scrutinizing the Microbe in Shaw's Too True to Be Good
  • Charles A. Carpenter (bio)

Too True to Be Good kicks off with a real head shaker: near a luxurious bed that accommodates a sleeping lady is an easy chair in which a ghastly figure slumps. Its shape is roughly that of a human being, but it looks like a skeleton of short black rods encased in a luminous jelly. The Monster, as the text names it, is clearly in a state of advanced misery. It broods aloud, wishing it could die—in fact, wishing the lady in the bed would die and release it from its suffering. A cry of indignation helps ease its discomfort: "What right has she to get ill and make me ill like this? Measles: thats what she's got. Measles! German measles! And she's given them to me, a poor innocent microbe that never did her any harm." Even worse, "she says that I gave them to her."1

Meet Shaw's one and only dramatized microbe and perhaps literature's one and only unjustly accused bacterium. A doubly facetious start for a serious play, with a grotesquely fantastic creature making idiotic, topsy-turvy comments. No one could possibly take this particular germ seriously.

Except Bernard Shaw. When St. John Ervine found fault with the play, Shaw said he had failed to deal with the scene that conveys "the possibility which has been all along overlooked by the germ theory pathologists: namely, that the bacillus has been infected and transformed by the disease which has attacked the patient, instead of being itself the disease."2 Shaw had been intrigued by this possibility long before Too True to Be Good was staged in 1932: at least as far back as 1906, when he met Dr. Almroth Wright, wrote The Doctor's Dilemma, and based its title persona on the man. He mentions the idea in the preface to that play (3, 250-51) and in two [End Page 135] articles on Wright.3 In 1918 he says in a letter to the Vaccination Inquirer, "It seems now pretty well established that it is not the bacillus that determines the form of the disease, but the disease that determines the form of the bacillus."4 In an unpublished letter in the Bernard F. Burgunder Shaw Collection at Cornell University written in 1921, he elaborates on the idea to a friend named Edgar Jepson:

The notion that the streptococcus is the disease is now pretty well exploded: what happens when you catch the disease is that your bacilli catch it too, and are modified in form by it, so that you can diagnose it by the shape of the bacilli just as you can diagnose smallpox or jaundice by the change they make in the patient's skin. This gave rise to the belief that there are specific bacilli of typhoid, plague, tetanus etc. etc., and that they are the cause of the disease; but this is now out of date, though it will take most of us fifty years to learn it.5

Shaw actually worked the notion into a play written a decade before Too True to Be Good: Back to Methuselah. In "The Tragedy of an Elderly Gentleman," that ancient history buff recalls the forlorn century in which "the microscope men terrified themselves and everyone else out of their wits with the invisible monsters they saw: poor harmless little things that die at the touch of a ray of sunshine, and are themselves the victims of all the diseases they are supposed to produce!" (5, 515). Shaw maintained this belief at least until he was as old as Captain Shotover; in Everybody's Political What's What? he says in passing, "Microbes, though they are products and not causes of disease, are none the less infectious."6

If Shaw does indeed believe what his high-strung microbe says, why present it in such a farcical—nay, downright silly—dramatic context? The few critics who have dealt with the issue are not much help. One of the most trenchant contemporary reviews, by Bonamy Dobrée, calls the whole first...


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