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  • The Voice of Shaw
  • Ivan Wise (bio)
Bernard Shaw . The Spoken Word. London: British Library Board, 2006. Two-CD set. 128 minutes. £15.95.

This new collection of talks and speeches, dating from between 1931 and 1947, features all but one of Shaw's surviving BBC radio broadcasts.1 Over two hours of material in all, much of it is very interesting indeed, although modern concentration spans may find some of it hard going. During these twelve lectures and broadcasts, Shaw's topics range from the danger of the coming war and the prospects for Britain's future to dispensing some helpful advice to sixth form students.

One's immediate reaction on listening to the broadcasts is to appreciate how well Shaw made use of this relatively new technology. One wonders what he would do with today's technology, and indeed Michael Holroyd [End Page 233] has said recently that, were Shaw alive now, "you would not have got him off the television."2 It is quickly apparent why Shaw was so in demand as a speaker: he knows how to make himself understood. Most orators forget that they must speak much more simply than they write because their audience will only hear their words once. Indeed, most orators speak as if they were delivering a dissertation. Shaw, on the other hand, has the ability to talk clearly without talking down. It helps that his choice of language is often vivid, especially, for example, when describing how a war cannot be won or even waged on credits. He uses words in his speeches that, other than the occasional adjective like "belligerent," can be understood and would themselves be used by a ten year old. In addition, he discusses an important economic subject, such as the removal of Britain from the gold standard, with reference to "fried fish and chips," which would endear him to the least knowledgeable listener. This ability to be clear comes across throughout his broadcasts.

For those who have not listened to Shaw, it is worth remembering what an extraordinary voice he had. He speaks slowly and with complete clarity. Every syllable is in place. When he says, "I write plays," the word "plays" seems to have three distinct sounds. When he utters words such as "ordinary" or "society," it is as if he were about to begin singing, such is the vitality he rubs into them. His diction is so good that one almost thinks his performance should be compulsory listening for aspiring actors and newsreaders everywhere. Nonetheless, his style of speaking is out of fashion. He pronounces the word "minutes" as "min-oots." Equally, his is an accent from the past. No one speaks like this today anywhere, not even well-spoken Irishmen. The sound quality of the recording, which is occasionally variable and suffers from background noise, tends to foster a period atmosphere. Indeed, the whole collection sounds like a glimpse into a now-dead past. But this is precisely why it is valuable.

Shaw sounds—and is—old on some of the later tracks, as he himself admits: "When I was a young man, which is now an unreasonably long time ago. . . ." However, his age, as he recognizes, gives him a substantial advantage over younger critics: "I have no future, and need not care what I say or do." Two birthday tributes feature contributions from Shaw, which, quite naturally, dwell on his advancing years. On his eighty-eighth birthday (1944), he says about the event, "It's a sore subject with me," and goes on to observe that the first birthday compliment he received was a "bomb from Adolf Hitler." On his ninetieth birthday, he states mockingly to his audience that they have come to see a man who used to be a playwright and "here's what is left of him. Not much to look at, is it?" But he is more than willing to send himself up, commenting that just because he is over eighty and has a white beard people assume that this implies he has some degree of wisdom. [End Page 234]

Despite his age, Shaw is in a characteristically confrontational mood throughout. He goads the American audience by...


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