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Theatre Journal 56.1 (2004) 138-139
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Bernard Shaw and Barry Jackson. Edited by L. W. Conolly. Selected Correspondence of Bernard Shaw. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002; pp. xliv + 218. $60.00 cloth.
Bernard Shaw and The Webbs. Edited by Alex C. Michalos and Deborah C. Poff. Selected Correspondence of Bernard Shaw. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003; pp. xxxiv + 313. $65.00 cloth.
In this age of Internet access and cellular telephones, letter writing may become a lost communicative art. We no longer anticipate the arrival of epistolary news of friends and family with the daily mail now that we pick up the telephone or press the "send" button. As high-speed communication eases this anticipation, we forget that, until recently, letter writing was the primary means of information sharing. Perhaps this is a reason why collections of personal letters now make such fascinating reading. In an almost voyeuristic way, the mundane activities of everyday life shared through letters emerge as significant, and the reader is witness to the authors' evolving eccentricities. Such is the experience when reading the correspondence of George Bernard Shaw.
The "Selected Correspondence of Bernard Shaw" series is presently a collection of five books, each dedicated to the correspondence between selected individuals and Shaw. This series is the only one of its kind to contain such an extensive concentration of Shaw's letters and therefore is invaluable to any Shavian scholar. The latest two books in the Toronto series are letters and notes between Shaw and Barry Jackson, edited by L. W. Conolly, and between Shaw and Sidney and Beatrice Webb, edited by Alex C. Michalos and Deborah C. Poff. Of the more than 300 letters and notes printed in these two volumes, over seventy-five percent of them have never been published until now.
Depending upon one's own interest in Shaw, of course, some collections in this series are perhaps more interesting reading than others, but each book contains its own unique perspective on Shaw, as evidenced in the differences in topics between Shaw and Jackson, and Shaw and the Webbs. Furthermore, the series is unique in that these books contain letters not only written by Shaw but letters written to Shaw. Therefore, reading through these volumes is akin to eavesdropping upon conversations, as discussions and arguments passed through the mail. As Conolly, the general editor of the series, notes in both books, "Such an approach . . . allows for insights into the nature of close personal and professional relationships, with all the emotional and intellectual drama that usually accompanied such Shavian associations" (Michalos ix, Conolly x).
Though the general outline for both books is similar and begins with a brief biographical sketch of the letters' authors, the introductions may be too brief for the reader unfamiliar with Jackson or with Sidney and Beatrice Webb. However, the essays are helpful for understanding the correspondents' relationship to Shaw. The correspondence is arranged chronologically and categorized according to format, whether written as an autographed letter, typed or carbon copy, signed or unsigned. Also recorded is the location where each original piece of correspondence can be found. What is most helpful—and sometimes more interesting than the letters themselves—are the editors' notes prefacing many of the letters explaining the purpose in writing that particular communiqué. For example, much of the correspondence between Shaw and the Webbs concerns the activities of the Fabian Society, a progressive caucus providing an arena for debate of social reform and justice. Therefore, the editors attempt to outline the political situation in Great Britain when a given letter was written. Likewise, following each piece of correspondence, as in a footnote, the editors clarify obscure references within the letter (such as individuals referred to by their initials or nicknames). It should be noted that Conolly tends to be more descriptive in the Shaw/Jackson footnotes than Michalos and Poff are in the Shaw/Webb footnotes, as if the latter assume the reader has a familiarity with late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century British politics and peerage.
Beatrice and Sidney Webb...