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THE NOVELS OF BERNARD SHAW By Robert Hogan (University of California, Davis) The criticism of drama, probably more than any other branch of literary criticism, proceeds largely by the repetition of time-honored clichés, such as "Tragedy cannot be written in our time," or 'What is needed to revitalize the stage is a really good poetic drama," or "Eugene O'Neill had all of the qualifications for a great writer except the ability to write," or "Sean O'Casey ceased to be a significant artist when he moved out of the Dublin slums." The modern dramatist who probably best invites criticism by cliche is Bernard Shaw, who understood perfectly the importance of cliches to advertising, particularly self-advertising, and who had the cleverness to compose and propagate those cliches by which criticism has since discussed his work. Shavian criticism has tended to accept Shaw's own simplified estimate of his work for the full and sober statement, just as people have tended to accept the Shavian mask for the real face. Behind Shaw's Harlequin mask, however, was the face of a man of genius, compassion and, surprisingly, diffidence. Indeed, even in the apparently unbridled egotism of the self-advertisements, that curious diffidence kept rising to the surface. Nowhere is that diffidence more apparent than in Shaw's half-brash and half-apologetic remarks about the early work which he called "The Novels of My Nonage." In discussing' the five novels which he wrote between 1879 and 1883, Shaw veers from contemptuous dismissal to extravagant puffing, and sometimes even runs that gamut in the same sentence. He called his first novel, IMMATURITY, negligible, and suggested that the reader would lose nothing by avoiding it;' he remarked to Archibald Henderson that admiration of his fourth novel, CASHEL BYRON's PROFESSION, seemed to him "the mark of a foo1"2; of his last novel he remarked that, "people who will read AN UNSOCIAL SOCIALIST will read anything"3; and finally, in a letter to Daniel Macmillan, he summed up all of his early work by saying: I really hated those five novels, having drudged through them like any other industrious apprentice because there was nothing else I would or could do. That in spite of their disagreeableness they somehow induced readers rash enough to begin them to go on to the end and resent the experience seems to me now a proof that I was a born master of the pen. But the novel was not my proper medium. I wrote novels because everybody else did so then. However, in another mood Shaw remarked that IMMATURITY was "a very remarkable work."'' He asserted that his second novel, THE IRRATIONAL KNOT, was a fiction of the first order because its morality was original rather than borrowed, a point that he developed at considerable length in his preface to MAN AND SUPERMAN.^ On several other occasions, he remarked that his novels failed due, "not to any lack of literary competence on my part, but to the antagonism raised by my hostility to respectable Victorian thought and society,"7 and, "The better I wrote the less chance I had."8 Actually, Shaw's contradictory remarks about the novels suggest a considerable after-the-fact fondness for his first-born children,9 while the tone of the prefaces he later appended to them suggests that the fondness was tempered by an uneasy suspicion that others might think them work unworthy of a pre-eminent dramatist— mere apprentice work, in fact.10 64 Nevertheless, the tone of the prefaces suggests that, after the scars of failure in fiction had been healed by the later overwhelming success in drama, Shaw found he still valued this early work. Yet his later work was so consistently and universally successful that even the mature aplomb of a Shaw might have felt uneasy about the consistent and universal failure of his first work. At any rate, he does offer in the prefaces a number of rather specious reason» for re-publishing the novels years after their composition, and it is difficult to avoid the conclusion , seen dimly through a smokescreen of bantering insouciance, that Shaw really published them because he liked...


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pp. 63-114
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