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  • “Educate, Permeate, Irritate
  • Michel W. Pharand
Charles A. Carpenter. Bernard Shaw as Artist-Fabian. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2009. xix + 115 pp. $65.00

The Organizing Principle of this book, a variation on “Educate, Agitate, Organize,” the motto of H. M. Hyndman’s Marxist organization, the Social Democratic Federation, is “Educate, Permeate, Irritate.” This, according to Charles A. Carpenter, is an apt descriptor of the modus operandi of Bernard Shaw, whose “audacity and irritation were integral to his self-expression as a passionate reformer.” This compact study accomplishes a great deal: it outlines Shaw’s Fabian principles and tactics—in a lively, engaging manner—and provides a [End Page 494] rich variety of examples, from both his polemic and dramatic works, of what Carpenter calls his “sheer lustfulness for the audacious and the paradoxical.”

Although sympathetic to the SDF, the members of the Fabian Society, within a year or so of their formation on 4 January 1884, had evolved into antirevolutionaries dedicated to gradualist rather than Marxist reform. Shaw joined the Society on 5 September 1884, was elected to the executive committee on 2 January 1885, and resigned from it in April 1911. During those twenty-seven years he was one of the society’s most prolific speakers and contributors, editing the landmark Fabian Essays in Socialism (1899) and producing long works such as Fabianism and the Empire (1900)—on the pending Boer War—and The Common Sense of Municipal Trading (1904), as well as countless Fabian “tracts” with provocative—no: irritating—titles, such as “The Impossibilities of Anarchism,” “The Illusions of Socialism,” “Socialism for Millionaires,” and “Socialism and Superior Brains.” As Carpenter reminds us (and it is a point easily forgotten), during the 1890s Shaw was also writing major critical treatises—The Quintessence of Ibsenism (1891), The Sanity of Art (1895), The Perfect Wagnerite (1898)—as well as hundreds of art, book, music, and theatre reviews—and ten plays!

According to Carpenter, Shaw was “above all an artist in temperament, outlook, and vocation,” and the subject of this book is “the artistic underpinning of Shaw’s Fabianism.” We find the most succinct expression of Shaw’s Fabian artistry in his 1902 preface to Mrs. Warren’s Profession (1898): “fine art is ... the most effective instrument of moral propaganda in the world.” Bernard Shaw as Artist-Fabian, essentially a study in methodology, provides numerous examples of Shaw’s use of fine art—metaphor and analogy, rhetorical devices, dramatic situations—to further his socialist agenda. Readers will not be disappointed by the extended treatment accorded “The Illusions of Socialism” (1896) and the important essay “The Basis of Socialism: Economic” (in Fabian Essays in Socialism), and will also appreciate the valuable eyewitness accounts of Shaw the orator: the Fabian fireball with the red beard who “does not make you feel that he thinks you are either a fool or a knave if you happen to disagree with him” (Stephen Sanders); who “goaded his audience one minute, shocked it the next, then resolved his whole argument in a gust of laughter” (Patricia Pugh); and who wished to produce the conviction “that what was so obvious to the speaker must be equally obvious to everyone in the audience who was not a congenital idiot” (C. E. M. Joad). [End Page 495]

The goal of permeation, said Shaw in an 1896 interview, was “to persuade the world to take our ideas into account in reforming itself.” What Carpenter calls Shaw’s “deliberate and effective permeative strategies,” dating from his “official” Fabian period (1894–1911), are illustrated by Widowers’ Houses (1884–1892), Mrs. Warren’s Profession (1893), John Bull’s Other Island (1904), and Major Barbara (1905), Carpenter showing how the plays combine education on economic issues with “subtly covert assaults on capitalist institutions, attitudes, and assumptions,” with endings that leave the problems arising from the capitalist system “adamantly unresolved.” Most enlightening are the instances from Widowers’ Houses (about slum landlordism) and Mrs. Warren’s Profession (about prostitution) that demonstrate how Shaw uses the permeative technique (first coined by Shaw critic Martin Meisel) of the “audience surrogate,” which Carpenter informs us is the use of characters “implicated because of a personal connection they were not...


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pp. 494-496
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