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  • Shaw and Bertrand Russell versus Gilbert Murray on Britain’s Entry into World War IThe Inside Story
  • Charles A. Carpenter (bio)

What follows is a brief history of bitter strife among lifelong friends. It expands into a revelation of what lies beneath and remains concealed in those people when their friendships are severely challenged. Because all three of them happened to be unquestioned geniuses, dedicated activists, and highly prolific writers, their interaction during a time of extreme stress becomes all the more revealing. The key individual who touched off this cultivated but disquieting conflict was Sir Edward Grey, British Foreign Secretary from 1906 to 1915; the key event was his decision to commit his country to war against Germany on 3 August 1914.

By that time, approaching the age of sixty, Bernard Shaw had completed his triumphant “reign” at the Court Theatre and had resigned from the Executive Board of the Fabian Society. He was one of England’s most conspicuous figures, constantly arguing his opinions from whatever pulpits would risk his voice and whatever publications cared to exploit his popularity. He was relentless in pursuing and exposing scandals which derived from the government and its bedfellow, the aristocracy, and which threatened to affect the lower echelons of society in disastrous ways. The decision to go to war became a prime target.

One of his very best friends and a favorite correspondent, although a decade younger, was an Australian / English classics professor named Gilbert Murray, whose vocation would normally have been enough to draw little but scorn from Shaw. Murray’s scholarly brilliance was confirmed when, in 1908, he was appointed to the highest academic honor in England at the time, Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford University. Shaw’s greatest [End Page 25] achievement to date was his successful campaign, bolstered mainly by his own plays, to influence susceptible English playgoers to prefer intellectually stimulating drama to the “popular” fare. The friendship of the two was mutually respectful: they sent each other the drafts of nearly all of their writings and assumed that they would take the time to read them carefully and comment upon them at length. This despite the fact that both were also otherwise occupied as earnest campaigners for worthy causes and cultivators of a host of valued relationships.

Bertrand Russell, one of the most respected British philosophers in the early twentieth century, was a cousin of Murray’s wife and member of an aristocratic family. But like Shaw he had a strong iconoclastic bent directed especially toward conventional ideals that were typically evoked by his fellow aristocrats. A socialist at heart while eschewing an active commitment, his chief expertise was in logic, which he used as an instrument of persuasion on social and political issues as well as in philosophy and mathematics. His collaboration with Alfred North Whitehead on the landmark work Principia Mathematica was his most notable achievement during the prewar period. Russell corresponded extensively with Murray in those years.

Shaw was won over to Murray in the late 1890s partly because of his famously engaging manner and wide-ranging erudition, but more immediately by the fact that he yearned to become a playwright.1 Influenced by Euripides and Ibsen and nudged by Shaw, after a few false starts he shifted his focus to composing a kind of play that was unparalleled at the time: modernized translations of Greek dramas aimed at converting theater audiences from “Sardoodledom” (Shaw’s term for the French well-made play à la Victorien Sardou) to “the New Drama” chiefly exemplified by Shaw but also by Harley Granville Barker, St. John Hankin, John Galsworthy, and (in Murray’s and Shaw’s minds) Euripides. Shaw appropriated Gilbert’s looks, mannerisms, and translations for the character of Cusins in Major Barbara—a problematic episode for Murray, but not severe enough in itself to cause a breach.2

The three were destined to clash head-on when, on 3 August 1914, Sir Edward Grey surprised half the nation and many members of Parliament by announcing that Britain was joining its fellow members of the “Triple Entente,” France and Russia, in declaring war on Germany and its allies. The clinching event was the...


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