- Abiding Love: Shaw and Russia
Bernard Shaw’s 1931 trip to the Soviet Union, and his increasingly vociferous public endorsements of Stalin and the Soviet experiment that issued from his pen after the trip, are well known. Not so well known, but captured [End Page 220] brilliantly by Olga Soboleva and Angus Wrenn in their new book, The Only Hope of the World: George Bernard Shaw and Russia, is Shaw’s long-standing love affair with Russian culture, which goes back at least to the 1880s, when he was moving in the same circles as émigré Russian revolutionaries Sergius Stepniak, Prince Peter Kropotkin, and Esper Serebriakov. The book chronicles those heady times in 1880s London, and traverses all the way to Shaw’s last years, but it has the additional advantage of surveying a few especially interesting Soviet productions of Shaw’s plays, and of ending with a detailed history of a play about Shaw and his relationship with Mrs. Patrick Campbell, Dear Liar, which has had a remarkable stage life within Russia from the time shortly after it was written in the late 1950s right up to the present day.
The book is comprised of a brief introduction and six chapters, each one detailing an aspect of Shaw’s relationship with Russia. The first chapter, “Admirals and Amiable Gentleman: Shaw and the Russian Anarchists,” provides brief but fascinating biographies of the Russian anarchists mentioned above, especially Stepniak and Kropotkin, and makes for compelling reading on that score alone. We learn that it was Sergius Stepniak’s poignant expatiation on the deplorable conditions in Russia under the Czars that converted William Morris to socialism, and he exerted an equally strong influence on Sidney Webb as well. The authors contend that these highly educated, debonair anarchists, who stressed the necessity of strong leadership and an elite class of revolutionaries to bring about change, likely had a deep influence on Shaw, and that the “negative attitude toward democracy which Shaw had encountered early in the work of Carlyle, within a British context, would have been augmented in the 1880s, as Shaw began to come into contact with the Russian émigrés in London, from middle and upperclass, even aristocratic backgrounds” (38).
In Chapter 2, “‘All Art at the Fountainhead Is Didactic’: Shaw and Lev Tolstoy,” the authors claim that Shaw found in the great Russian not so much a mentor as “an explicit validation of his own thoughts” (52). Much of the chapter covers both Shaw’s and Tolstoy’s negative views of Shakespeare, which went further with Tolstoy than with Shaw. (Shaw actually came to Shakespeare’s defense when he felt that Tolstoy unjustly berated Shakespeare for his style, although he agreed with Tolstoy that Shakespeare lacked philosophical purpose.) Much of the rest of the chapter is spent comparing The Shewing-up of Blanco Posnet to Tolstoy’s The Power of Darkness, which Shaw claims inspired the play. Soboleva and Wrenn show how the play took the form it did as a result of Tolstoy’s criticism of Man and Superman. Tolstoy admired the earlier play, but felt Shaw’s [End Page 221] brilliant writing was an obstacle to his didactic message. Blanco Posnet, on the other hand, expresses the same theme as Man and Superman, but with “clarity and simplicity,” as Tolstoy recommended, so that it was “accessible even for an unsophisticated audience” (64). Tolstoy may have served as an explicit validation of Shaw’s own thoughts, but also clearly influenced Shaw more than that statement implies—or so the authors appear to suggest.
In Chapter 3, “‘A Fantasia in the Russian Manner’: Shaw and Maxim Gorky,” the authors argue that Gorky was the strongest influence behind Heartbreak House, rather than, as is usually thought, Chekhov. Most of the chapter consists in an illuminating and incisive analysis of Heartbreak House alongside Gorky’s Summerfolk, which was interpreted at the time of its 1904 premiere as “a postscript to The Cherry Orchard, in which Lopakhin’s dream had found...