- Weintraub on Shaw
“SHAW could not help but be readable,” writes Stanley Weintraub in Bernard Shaw Before His First Play: The Embryo Playwright. The same could be said for Weintraub, a prolific author on an astonishing range of subjects and the world’s foremost authority on Bernard Shaw. This—Weintraub’s latest book—collects fourteen segments about Shaw’s life in London before his first success as a playwright. Weintraub’s segments were written over a fifty-year period, and they have been revised, augmented, and updated. Several are new, and all feature exhaustive research presented in lively (often witty) narratives.
Readers expecting only an account of Shaw’s development as a playwright are in for a pleasant surprise, for Weintraub’s book delivers much more than his title promises. We meet Shaw as a diarist, novelist, art critic, music critic, Fabian, boxer, actor, and public speaker—and there are also glimpses into his personal life as a friend, a lover, and a Londoner.
Bernard Shaw Before His First Play covers the years between Shaw’s arrival in London in 1876 at the age of twenty and the completion of Widowers’ Houses in 1892. When Shaw left his job as a clerk in Dublin, he had a conviction that he was destined for greatness but no plan for the future. He soon gave up paid employment and depended on his mother, a music teacher, to support him (though she never, Weintraub notes, cooked for him). The young Shaw spent his days pursuing an unconventional education among the books at the British Library and his evenings attending political and literary meetings. His scant pocket money came from writing reviews of art, music, and plays for various London publications. Ironically, Shaw’s theater assignments in those years were limited to “Victorian claptrap,” Weintraub says.
Having abandoned his early dreams of becoming an artist or a musician, Shaw eventually settled on a writing career and began to experiment with various literary forms. Weintraub’s book offers detailed accounts of Shaw’s early writings: an unfinished play in blank verse [End Page 99] about Jesus and Judas; political ballads written for a London newspaper (Weintraub notes that Shaw was “an execrable poet”); a political fantasy; and five ambitious but unprofitable novels. (Perhaps because Weintraub wrote his doctoral dissertation on these novels, “Bernard Shaw, Novelist,” this segment is a particularly useful introduction to Shaw as a writer.) There are many hints of the Shaw-to-come in these early writings, which offer much evidence of his talent for writing, his penchant for iconoclasm, and his gift for comedy.
But there is so much more to say about Shaw’s early years. Even Shavians who have read all the major biographies are likely to be surprised by what they find in Bernard Shaw Before His First Play: The Embryo Playwright. What’s new—and engrossing—in Weintraub’s book are the accounts of Shaw’s day-to-day occupations and interests. “In the Victorian Picture Galleries,” for example, chronicles Shaw’s early career as an art critic and then goes on to explain how his plays were influenced by some of the paintings he saw. “Shaw Becomes a Playwright: July–December 1892” is a much-expanded account of a familiar story: how Shaw and William Archer embarked on a collaboration that eventually fell apart but resulted in Widowers’ Houses, the play that propelled Shaw into a successful career in the theater.
“Bernard Shaw Besieged: Early Progresses to Oxbridge, 1888–1892” recounts a number of Shaw’s college speaking engagements. Here’s one engaging detail: when Shaw (who was always short of money in those early years) was given a sovereign to cover his travel expenses for a political lecture, he returned the unspent portion—two shillings and ninepence. The segment recounts a lecture that turned into a hostage situation, with Shaw and his Oxford listeners imprisoned in a room in a college residence by a group of students with opposing views. Shaw’s good-humored account of what must have been a frightening evening— and the...