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  • Shaw and the Edwardian Age
  • Daniel Leary
Leon Hugo, Edwardian Shaw: The Writer and His Age. New York: St. Martin’s Press and London: Macmillan Press, 1999. xiii + 308 pp.

I approached the reading of this volume “with an auspicious and a dropping eye.” (Claudius must have been a critic!) Yet another biography of Shaw—more twice-told-times-ten tales of Sonny transforming himself into G.B.S. or in this case metamorphosing from a failed novelist into a relatively successful dramatist. How could any writer revitalize this yawning terrain? However, the auspicious eye came to the fore, as it were, when I recalled Professor Leon Hugo’s stimulating articles, helpful, knowledgeable reviews, adept interviews over the decades in this annual; recalled too his volume, Bernard Shaw: Playwright and Preacher, the work of a writer focused, in command of his material, crisply economical. In the present work I am particularly taken by that authoritative, crisp efficiency. Aside from an “Introduction” that sets the stage with a summary of Shaw’s dramatic writings and doings in the 1890’s and a “Postscript” on Fanny’s First Play (1911) that nicely recapitulates Shaw’s decade-long battle with the drama critics, this study, true to its title, limits itself to the years of Edward VII’s reign, January 22, 1901, to May 6, 1910. Let me report, both eyes fully open now, critical monocle dangling, that the familiar has come alive and the terrain affords brave new vistas.

As Leon Hugo presents the case, Shaw was a Nobody in 1901 and

. . . emphatically a Somebody in 1910. It was a remarkable transformation, and this study is an attempt to depict it; to depict Shaw the Fabian, the revolutionary public man, the subversive playwright, [End Page 257] the controversialist, the wit—the entity that can be described only as the Shavian phenomenon—confronting a deeply entrenched conservative age, trying to mould it into his likeness and being, and winning his way to become the dominant radical voice of the age. It was no easy rite of passage. There were triumphs, there were setbacks; success and crashing failure. By 1910, when there could be no gainsaying the irresistible force of his personality and his works, there were many who continued to resist him. This is paradox, but Shaw and paradox were synonymous.

That passage from the first page of the “Preface” gives us a precis of what Hugo intends to do—and does so admirably—in this work. I quote at length because I want you to savor his style. There is vigor here—clarity and authority combined—that you will find throughout; there is momentum—onward propulsion; some variation of that fanfare on paradox at the close will be heard at all chapter endings, most closings of chapter segments, and at the curtain of each of the three major sections: “1901-1904 Educate, Agitate”; “1904-1907 The Court Theatre”; “1907-1910 Confront”. Note the long second sentence—the semi-colons, commas, dashes, the parallel constructions, the rephrasings in those constructions, all holding the passage together. And this is followed by short to somewhat longer sentences with a minimum of transitions. The struggle between the establishment and “the Shavian phenomenon” that will be the substance of this work is caught in the give and take of these constructions. I am not attempting a critique of Hugo’s style (although I do think of Dixon Scott on Shaw: ascetic becoming aesthetic). I am just suggesting that, like Shaw himself, Hugo knows how to make his style reflect the contents; and, above all, knows how to hold a reader and propel him forward. Such style has much to do with the lifting of my dropping eyelid and the revitalization of the familiar that I experienced.

Professor Hugo states that in his study “there is no pretence at superseding any standard biographies of the subject; little attempt to scratch beneath the public surface of the personality.” As he sees it, he has written a study in sociology, a history of ideas in a pivotal decade featuring the struggle, as the subtitle has it, of “The Writer and His Age.” I think him a tad too modest. There...

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