SHAW The Annual of Bernard Shaw Studies 23 (2003) 137-147
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The Artist as Superman
If environment, circumstance, and heredity are determining factors, then Bernard Shaw should have lived and died a clerk chained to his office desk at 15 Molesworth Street, Dublin, where he labored unhappily as an adolescent. Instead he became the second greatest playwright in the English language. Beyond the well-known facts, who was Shaw and what was the connection between the life and the art?
It is the peculiar spinning out of the life history, the weaving of the personal life myth that fascinates, and yet it is the realm of everyday life that offers a pathway into secret spheres, including the labyrinthine psyche of the great creative artist. Certainly life and art are not to be equated, but the two are intimately connected. That particular drama of wit and energy, vision and purpose, could only have been brought forth by the playwright Bernard Shaw living the life he lived.
Shaw's life shows the triumph of the artistic and aesthetic over the vulgar and conventional. Far more profoundly, it shows the triumph of the intellectual and the moral over the emotional and psychological. I wish to suggest the nature of Shaw's struggle and triumph by outlining a portion of the inner landscape of his richly configured world. Please let me emphasize as strongly as possible that Shaw's measure cannot be taken by reducing to a label or phrase or relationship this endlessly complex artist and human being.
In the autobiographical Preface to Immaturity, Shaw declared that he had unconsciously resolved to reincarnate Shakespeare from the cradle. Behind the seeming hyperbole was a psychological identification with the literary father he both admired and envied. In order to fulfill his self-proclaimed destiny as Shakespeare's heir, Shaw had to outwit a destiny he came to believe that he had inherited, a destiny that marked him as an outsider but at the same time endowed him with artistic genius. In his own psyche, that darkly guarded cache of conflicting desires and motives, Shaw played out the raucous nineteenth-century battle that pitted genetic [End Page 137] inheritance against the power of individual will. Championing will even as he insisted that he was a born artist and genius, he transformed the materials of his life, mundane as well as momentous, into enduring stage drama.
Those determined transformations took root in a childhood nurtured on snobbery and pretense. Impecunious rather than moneyed, the Shaw family struggled to maintain the social status they claimed as members of the Protestant minority. The stresses of social hypocrisy on the sensitive young boy were exacerbated by family relationships. Assigning blame for his painful childhood, Shaw pointed to his alcoholic father, George Carr Shaw, who was equally unsuccessful as a parent, a husband, and a breadwinner. Significantly Shaw never forgot an incident that occurred when he was less than five years of age. Then, without warning, an inebriated George Carr Shaw tried to throw his son into a canal. Rushing home to his mother after that sudden and terrifying event, young Sonny (as his family called him) was further assaulted by his mother's refusal to comfort her son. Instead Lucinda Elizabeth (Bessie) Shaw voiced her disgust at her drunken husband. With that denouncement, the boy's orderly world was shattered. The shock of the twin betrayals by both parents, not just the father he blamed, was so great that Shaw claimed to be marked for life.
Although what Sonny learned might have disturbed any young child, gradual awareness would have been far less traumatic. For it was neither his father's tipsy antics nor the discovery that a teetotaler was really a drunkard that shaped his response. It was the form in which that knowledge came to him—via a sudden disruption in the flow of time. The force of that revelation to the young boy indicates how essential it was to him to dwell in an unaltered world. Overpowered by the sudden and urgent, the...