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Book Reviews G.B.S., Act III Michael Holroyd. Bernard Show: Volume III: 1918-1950. The Lure of Fantasy. New York: Random House, 1991. 32 plates ix + 544pp. $30.00 SHAW PLAYED so many roles on so many stages in his ninety-four years that he not only magnetized biographers but also tested their life force. When Hesketh Pearson proposed a biography in 1938, Shaw jotted a postcard: Don't. I have got everything out of myself that there is to be got. My autobiography by Frank Harris has left nothing to be gleaned. The huge biography by Archibald Henderson laid his life waste, as I warned him it would. I need inbunking, not debunking, having debunked myself like a born clown. Like Harris, Henderson, Pearson, and St. John Ervine, Michael Holroyd appears to have been more stimulated than cowed by such warnings. With a collaborator, Harris had hacked forth 100,000 words in a white heat, only to die as though from an overdose, prompting Shaw to edit his manuscript for the welfare of his impoverished widow. But Harris was an exception. Far from laid waste, his counterparts pursued G.B.S. for years: Pearson for twelve, Henderson for forty five, St. John Ervine for twenty. Now, nearly four decades after these notable forebears, Holroyd joins them, capping fifteen years of Shavianizing with the final volume of his three-volume set. Wryly, he quotes the London Times on Shaw's ninetieth birthday: "Mr Shaw is so vast a subject that none will envy the ultimate biographer." Then, on the dust jacket amidst busts of Shaw, he smiles brightly, slyly, youthfully: while he may not have produced the ultimate biography, surely his is the most comprehensive one. Holroyd may be envied for a combination of advantages he has had over his forerunners. At hand has been the smorgasbord of facts Shaw fed them, yet Holroyd has been free from the extensive seasoning, cutting, and revisions through which Shaw, in a manner worthy of Pirandello, "inbunked" himself under their ostensible authorship. And information has accreted mightily since their days. Thousands of letters and scores of essays, reviews, and speeches not in Shaw's Standard 325 ELT : VOLUME 35:3 1992 Edition have surfaced to expose hundreds of roles and acts of G.B.S., as have a plethora of reminiscences and letters about him, his wife, friends, and milieu. Specialized biographical probes and modern literary criticism have provided a wealth of insights, as have fine editions of Shaw's screenplays, diaries, and primary and secondary bibliographies. Historically , the exposé of Stalin, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the undercutting of Keynesian economics, and Margaret Thatcher have challenged his lifelong social and political views, while the Women's Movement has cast retrospective lights on his feminism, and his plays, including lesser-known ones, have experienced renewed life. Not least important, finally, Holroyd has been blessed by the Shaw Estate and lavish funding for three volumes. Such developments offer new stages for biographical play. Yet given Shaw's vastness as a subject, any biography, even a three-volume one, must select, condense, and integrate the new and the old. Shavian quintessences must be sought through a discreet orchestration of multitudinous essences. As Holroyd's third volume does this luminously, it is his best. The greatest strength of Holroyd's preceding volumes lay in their episodic but acute syntheses of Shaw's activities and ideas, and their sensitively drawn vignettes of his family, friends, and contemporaries. Many of these renderings derived from sources familiar to Shavians, who might have wished for more of the richness of the originals, but Holroyd fashioned them well. Each volume misfired, however, in its attempt to cohere its episodes. Searching for a catchy thesis, Holroyd subtitled Volume I "The Search for Love," and his drift went adrift, overblown. Adopting romantic and Freudian strains from various specialized biographies he warped Shaw's first forty-two years by implying that his novels, Fabian activities, music and theater reviews, plays, and life force sprang less from the fervor of his social, aesthetic, and philosophical interests than from Oedipal ghosts of his loveless youth. In short, by exalting a commonplace essence, Holroyd subverted...


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