- Meditations in Time of Civil War: Back to Methuselah and Saint Joan in Production, 1919–1924
Hang out your brightest colors.—Bernard Shaw to Joanna Collins, sister of Michael Collins, August 1922
In 1923, G.B.S. made his final visit to Ireland, never again returning to his homeland in the twenty-seven remaining years of his life. He apparently felt that the country was blighted by a regressive and backward-looking kind of patriotism, and in 1930 he wrote that any cultured Irishman “felt that his first business was to get out of Ireland.”1 Indeed, in response to those who exhorted Shaw to participate in Irish affairs during the latter part of his life, he prepared a stock reply that he intended to have printed on postcards, curtly informing his correspondents, “Mr Bernard Shaw takes no sides in Irish party politics.”2 After all, in John Bull’s Other Island (1904), he had scorned the trite imagery that characterized much Irish patriotic discourse, lamenting that if anybody wanted to interest an Irishman in national affairs, “you’ve got to call the unfortunate island Kathleen ni Hoolihan and pretend she’s a little old woman.”3
As a result, his writings do not generally lend themselves to being incorporated into republican balladry. Nevertheless, the folk singer Brian Moore—who has recorded a number of patriotic songs such as “Croppies who will not lie down” and “Soldiers of Cumann na mBan”—has performed a track called “Michael Collins,” with the chorus:
Hang out your brightest colors, His memory now recall. [End Page 147] Oh each one wants a part of him: No-one wants it all.4
These lyrics derive from a letter that Shaw wrote to the sister of the Irish revolutionary hero, Michael Collins, in the week after her brother had died. Shaw and his wife had dined with the thirty-one-year-old Michael Collins only hours before the shoot-out in West Cork that fatally injured Collins in August 1922. And, after hearing about the killing, Shaw wrote to Collins’s sister: “tear up your mourning and hang up your brightest colours in his honour; and let us all praise God that he had not to die in a snuffy bed of a trumpery cough, weakened by age, and saddened by the disappointments that would have attended his work had he lived.”5 Shaw’s affinity with the revolutionary leader, as well as the sting in the tail provided by describing those “disappointments” that an older Collins would inevitably have experienced, indicate how, in 1922, Shaw’s feelings for Ireland remained as complicated and paradoxical as when he had written his earlier dramas that deal explicitly with the country, John Bull’s Other Island and O’Flaherty V.C. (the latter written in 1915).
Yet there is a kind of appropriateness in Irish balladry appropriating Shaw’s words about Collins, as, for all the playwright’s exasperation with Ireland’s patriots, Shaw felt irritated by those who had long attempted to stifle any Irish attempts at self-government. As Peter Gahan has recently pointed out, “The standard biographies give little indication that during the years 1918–21 . . . Bernard Shaw’s attention to his native country’s politics was at its most persistent.”6 As I will argue in this article, Shaw’s playwriting repeatedly engaged with Ireland during the Anglo-Irish War and the Irish Civil War, with the confusing and fluctuating political situation that existed between 1919 and 1924 affecting the composition and staging of the two significant dramatic works that he wrote during this time, Back to Methuselah and Saint Joan.
Back to Methuselah
By the closing years of World War I, Shaw had long supported the idea that Ireland ought to achieve a kind of Home Rule, an arrangement that would grant Ireland, England, Scotland, and Wales their own parliaments, but would also maintain a joint council to coordinate matters of mutual interest across the islands. Shaw despaired at the flourishing of divisive and mutually conflicting sectarian identities, and he endorsed instead the idea that Ireland and England ought to be natural allies. [End Page 148]
When the Anglo-Irish...