SHAW The Annual of Bernard Shaw Studies 23 (2003) 37-46
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Shaw, War, and H. G. Wells
Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells were both dedicated to reshaping the world: as Shaw commented in one letter to Wells, "The first volume of [Karl Marx's] Capital (all I ever read of it) changed the mind of Europe; a thing we two have been trying to do all our lives." 1
Although (apart from some satiric fantasies) Back to Methuselah is Shaw's only direct attempt to picture what this change might mean, H. G. Wells was very much in the futures business with almost a third of his voluminous writings being explorations from the present into visionary alternatives. Titles like The World Set Free or Men Like Gods offer much the same ecstatic hope for change as Shaw's "metabiological Pentateuch"; and a comparison between the ways in which each envisaged the future is illuminating. It encapsulates the extremes of the turn-of-the century revolutionary movement in which they were both involved, as well as throwing the nature of Shaw's beliefs into high relief by the contrast.
The links between the two writers, both of whom aspired to be the intellectual leader of the new century, are well known: their common membership in the Fabian Society, and Wells's forced resignation after publicizing the scandal of his affair with Amber Reeves (at that time the secretary of the Society) in his novel Ann Veronica—their extensive correspondence from at least 1901 right up to just three days before Wells's death in 1946, which shows that each read the other's work, even sending drafts of some pieces to one another. What has not been as fully realized is the degree to which both Wells's novels and Shaw's plays were written as direct responses to each other's work. There are enough overlaps or cross-references to qualify several of their works as a serious literary conversation, and significantly, the subject of their artistic argument was specifically their idea of the perfect society, and the means through which it might be achieved.
For instance, Shaw's inflammatory Commonsense About the War in 1914 was at least in part an attack on a pamphlet by Wells (published just three months before), to which Wells responded two years later with "What is [End Page 37] Coming: a forecast of things after the war"—and then explicitly echoed in the title of a pamphlet written in 1940, during the Second World War: "The Common Sense of War and Peace: world revolution or war unending." More centrally, there are conceptual links between Major Barbara and H. G. Wells's novel A Modern Utopia. Published earlier in the same year Shaw's play was first performed, this novel presents a parallel world where armaments manufacturers (like Shaw's merchant of death, Undershaft) simply do not exist, and science rules through a self-selecting oligarchy of intellectuals who (in sharp contrast to Cusins, Shaw's romantic "Professor" rejoicing in the juvenile nickname of "Dolly") model themselves sternly on the selfless code of Japanese Samurai. Similarly, Shaw's elegiac lament for a society that can only be redeemed by bombs in Heartbreak House can be seen as a counter to Wells's 1913 novel, The World Set Free, itself also clearly a riposte to Major Barbara, where unleashing a weapon of mass destruction—uncannily anticipating the atom bomb—ushers in a socialist utopia. And indeed a parodied personification of H. G. Wells even appears in Heartbreak House, with his notorious sexual escapades—in 1914 Wells had fathered yet another illegitimate child with the young suffragette Rebecca West—being reflected in the obsessive womanizing of the romantic fantasist Hector Hushabye.
But it is around Back to Methuselah that the closest connections emerge. As an unsent draft of one of Shaw's letters to Wells shows, the Napoleon scene of Part IV is a riposte to Wells's Outline of History, published in 1920, which Shaw felt misjudged...