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  • Censored and Embedded Shaw:Print Culture and Shavian Analysis of Wartime Media
  • Daniel O'Leary (bio)

On turning over the large stiff pages of a folio volume, or the yellow leaves of a manuscript, in short, a poem, a code of laws, a confession of faith, what is your first comment? You say to yourself that the work before you is not of its own creation. It is simply a mold like a fossil shell, an imprint similar to one of those forms embedded in a stone by an animal which once lived and perished. Beneath the shell was an animal and behind the document there was a man. Why do you study the shell unless to form some idea of the animal? In the same way do you study the document in order to comprehend the man; both shell and document are dead fragments and of value only as indications of the complete living being. The aim is to reach this being; this is what you strive to reconstruct. It is a mistake to study the document as if it existed alone by itself. That is treating things merely as a pedant, and you subject yourself to the illusions of a book-worm.

—Hippolyte Taine, "Art as Historical Product"

In 1904, at the request of William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw wrote the play that deals most extensively with his view of his native island, Ireland.1 In his "Preface for Politicians" written for the 1907 publication of John Bull's Other Island, Shaw explains: "JOHN BULL'S OTHER ISLAND was written . . . as a patriotic contribution to the repertory of the Irish Literary Theatre. Like most people who have asked me to write plays, Mr Yeats got rather more than he bargained for."2 With typically Shavian robustness, and in spite of his Irish "implacable hostility to English domination," Shaw's preface goes on to critique the politics of Yeats's nationalist friends, pointing out that John Bull's Other Island is uncongenial to "the whole spirit of the neo-Gaelic movement."3 No doubt fully conscious of the nuances of the paradox, Shaw insists nonetheless on being himself "English enough to be an inveterate Republican and Home [End Page 168] Ruler." But "Preface for Politicians" also stresses that Shaw believes himself an authentic Irishman and is convinced that his analysis of relations between Ireland and the Empire should be considered at least as valid as the views expressed by Irish nationalist revolutionaries.4 Despite his qualified belief in Irishness, Shaw does not share the widespread (and incorrect) late-Victorian Irish nationalist conviction that there is a clear ethnological distinction between the Irish and the English people, and he describes the Irish and English races as "those two hollowest of fictions."5 Instead, Shaw argues that the two peoples are of the "same extraction," and he adopts the position, first expressed systematically in 1849 by the Swiss American anthropologist Arnold Guyot, that physical geography and climate account for the cultural differences among peoples.6 In assuming such a belief, as a nationalist Shaw relieves himself of any need for radical or revolutionary republican doctrines, since the physical conditions of Ireland alone will preserve the Irishry, no matter what the political status of the island. Later, such a view will be important to Shaw, freeing him to openly express his admiration of British civilization and to develop a much more complex analysis of the interpenetration of the two cultures than was, or is, generally expressed by the Gaelic movement or Irish nationalists. Both in the preface to John Bull's Other Island and later, in his important World War I writings, Shaw often expresses pro-English opinions, especially concerning English people's individual characteristics, and he repeatedly stresses the English contribution to European civilization. These views would become especially relevant when Shaw's wartime writings were tested for their commitment to the struggle against what most Britons had been convinced was Prussian militarism. When the censor did strike, and Shaw's opinions were influenced or suppressed—by officials, by editors, and by Shaw himself—the issue would be his enthusiasm for Prussian music and culture, rather than his attacks against...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-1480
Print ISSN
0741-5842
Pages
pp. 168-187
Launched on MUSE
2008-12-24
Open Access
No
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