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  • Shaw's London Then and Now
  • Rodelle Weintraub (bio) and Stanley Weintraub (bio)

The 1940s Blitz and a century of relentless building have done away with much of the London that Shaw knew. Yet for the indefatigable pursuers, on a walking tour, aspects of his early life in London are still visible, as well as urban settings he exploited in his plays.

Victoria Grove in Fulham, where GBS first lived with his mother and sisters (the younger, Agnes, succumbed to tuberculosis soon after they arrived from Dublin) has long vanished, supplanted by the annex to St. Stephen's Hospital; but Netherton Grove, Victoria Grove's twin, survives. The historic Brompton Oratory on the edge of Knightsbridge hardly seems like a Shavian site; however, it was there in the late 1870s that young Shaw, urged by a girlfriend to convert, wore her St. Christopher's medal when he visited Father Addis to listen at her request to the priest's arguments for Catholicism. The colloquy foundered on their disagreement over First Causes. "Glorying in the robust callousness of youth," Shaw insisted that if a maker of the universe existed, someone must have made the maker and another maker that maker. They could get no further, and as the priest conducted Shaw to the Oratory's exit, he confessed that "he should go mad if he lost his belief." Shaw kept his doubts and lost the girl.

Not far off is the lodging house on the Gloucester Road where Shaw's friend James Kingston Barton, a physician at St. Bart's, lived. There, one evening in 1878, Shaw ventured to replicate at a "bachelor party of young men of the professional class" the theatrical pose of unbeliever Charles Bradlaugh. Shaw thrust a large pocket watch toward his audience and, like Bradlaugh, dared the Almighty—if such a power existed—to strike him dead. Shaw considerately gave God five minutes. "The effect was electrical. Neither sceptics nor devotees were prepared to abide the results of the experiment." As the minutes ticked off, the guests began to scatter—until their host evaded the possibility of thunderbolts by urging the infidel to put his watch away. [End Page 31]

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Figure 1.

The Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, commonly known as the Brompton Oratory, is a Catholic church located in South Kensington. Photograph courtesy of David Castor.

The British Museum, Shaw's informal university, looms on Great Russell Street, although the great domed Reading Room in which he spent his weekdays has been turned to exhibition purposes. The vast library itself is now relocated adjacent to St. Pancras Station, from which Shaw often entrained to offer Fabian lectures for a pittance of expenses, using his travel time to pen reviews, and his first plays, in handy notebooks. Some of the Victorian and Edwardian venues in which he appeared in increasingly shabby evening dress as a music and theater critic are still colorful and lively, from Her Majesty's and the Haymarket, across from each other, to Drury Lane.

Adjacent to the Sloane Square underground station, the Court Theatre (alternatively over the years as the Royal Court Theatre), from 1904 into 1907, premiered Man and Superman, John Bull's Other Island, and Major Barbara, solidly establishing Shaw's London reputation. Even Edward VII laughed heartily through John Bull, allegedly breaking a chair rented to contain his bulk. Under the John Vedrenne-Granville Barker management, the Court through 1907 staged 988 performances, 701 of them productions of eleven Shaw plays. Despite the muffled rumble of tube trains beneath the playhouse, the Royal Court remains a prime venue for advanced drama. [End Page 32]

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Figure 2.

The British Museum, Great Russell Street. Photograph courtesy of Ham.

From 1881 to 1887, Shaw, with his mother and his sister Lucy, lived in a flat at 37 Fitzroy Street, an eighteenth-century row of lower-middle-class tenants, an address now gentrified to an opulent degree as the London headquarters of the Scientology religious system. From 1887 until GBS wed Charlotte Payne-Townshend in 1898, his music and drama critic years, his last bachelor residence was...


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