- Shaw Among the Modernists
[Freud] quoted Bernard Shaw from Man and Superman. “As a rule there is only one person an English girl hates more than her mother; and that’s her eldest sister.” In England that remark is flippant, a drawing-room witticism, an Oscar Wilde shocking paradox. In Germany, where Max Reinhardt put on Shaw’s plays along with Wedekind’s Spring Awakening and Gorky’s Lower Depths, it would be received with a difference.—A. S. Byatt, The Children’s Book
Who, exactly, counts as Shaw’s contemporary? And is there any benefit to thinking of him as a modernist, an outlier in the avant-garde, or both? Shaw was unquestionably contemporaneous with a particular coterie of late Victorians, from Sydney and Beatrice Webb and Samuel Butler to William Archer, Ellen Terry, and Gordon Craig. He may have been a contemporary of Ibsen and Zola and he was a generation behind Wagner (though a generation ahead of the tastes of his fellow Englishmen regarding the latter). There is an established Shavian “smart set,” with whom G.B.S. collaborated and corresponded; they appear in all the biographies and made him what he was. Then there are the figures that are more generally acknowledged as modernists and members of the European avant-garde and avant-guerre, many of whom knew Shaw (or at least knew of him) and often attempted to condemn him to an era of harmless “eminent Victorian” eccentricity: what Wyndham Lewis and Ezra Pound refer to in the inaugural issue of Blast, the organ of the British response to Futurism known as Vorticism, as the “years 1837 to 1900/abysmal inexcusable middle-class/(also Aristocracy and Proletariat).” 1 The parenthetical addition at the end of the line, which comically indicts every Victorian in a mire of class conflict, is a strategy of supplementation and subtle self-contradiction that was the prerogative of the Vorticists, and, as I hope to show, of Shaw as well. Shaw lived an awfully long time. Although he worked alongside modernists and members of the avant-garde, what might be gained by placing him in those categories? [End Page 133]
In the epigraph to this article, novelist A. S. Byatt proposes that Shaw ought to be thought of alongside more aggressively experimental Continental modernists, yet many English modernists saw Shaw less as a chameleon than as a relic, a malingering Victorian. When T. S. Eliot, in The Criterion, referred to the protagonist of Shaw’s Saint Joan as a “great middleclass reformer” and “a disciple of Nietzsche, Butler and every chaotic and immature intellectual enthusiasm of the later nineteenth century,” he was also launching a broadside against Shaw himself—and ousting him from the country club of twentieth-century experimental formalism. 2 With some exceptions, particularly regarding Shaw’s relationship to William Butler Yeats and James Joyce, Shaw’s critics have followed suit. In Shaw’s Sense of History, J. L. Wisenthal locates Shaw within traditions established by the Victorian historians Thomas Babington Macaulay and Thomas Carlyle. 3 “History” was an important perceptual category for the Victorians. But we have no comparable volume about Shaw’s sense of time, even though time, particularly the subjective experience of durée as explained by Henri Bergson, was an important subject for Shaw and the modernists. 4
One does not of course need to be a modernist or a member of the avant-garde to be a good artist. But since Shaw wrote plays, prefaces, broadsides, radio addresses, television plays, and film scripts alongside various “contemporaries” who are often thought of as modernist or avantgarde, and who negotiated similar relationships between high culture and mass culture, as well as tradition and rupture, it seems worthwhile to begin to consider how Shaw might fit into the jigsaw of British and Continental modernism. Toril Moi’s Ibsen and the Birth of Modernism (2006) argues that in order to recuperate Ibsen as a modernist and an experimental dramatist, we need to redefine modernism in terms of its historical emergence. For Moi, modernism, read through rather than despite Ibsen, is a reaction to “aesthetic idealism,” the congruence of the true, the good, and the beautiful...