- Bernard Shaw and Gilbert Murray ed. by Charles A. Carpenter
In keeping with the high standards set by his fellow editors of the University of Toronto Press’s Shaw correspondence series, Charles A. Carpenter has not only recuperated an important epistolary relationship of the early twentieth century but produced a compelling dual biography peppered by the letters of two literary lions.
While Bernard Shaw is recognized by most people, Gilbert Murray is relatively—and unfairly—little known. Murray was a brilliant classical scholar who held the chair of Greek at Glasgow University at the tender age of twenty-three and later assumed the Regius Chair of Greek at Oxford University. He became highly respected in his time for his translations of the plays of antiquity, most notably those of Euripides. These plays were major contributions to the independent theatre movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, often performed alongside those of Shaw during the celebrated years of the J.E. Vedrenne-Harley Granville Barker repertory productions at the Court Theatre.
An interesting aspect of the letters is the revelation of just how much Murray—one of the few correspondents who could give as well as he took with Shaw—informed the writing of several of Shaw’s plays. He was an astute critic and was never shy about letting Shaw know his opinions after readings or performances; not surprisingly, Shaw returned the favour on several occasions. Their letters provide great insights into their dramas over the course of their careers in a correspondence that lasted from the 1890s until Shaw’s death in 1950. Those who have heard of Murray before will likely be aware that he was the model for Adolphus Cusins, the Greek scholar in Shaw’s great play Major Barbara; when he acted the role, Granville Barker even dressed himself to impersonate [End Page 512] Murray. But Murray also had a direct effect on other Shaw plays: for example, his translation of The Trojan Women influenced Heartbreak House, and he inspired Shaw’s last important play, Geneva, through his tireless work for the International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation.
However, the differences between the men were quite profound: Murray was an old-school Gladstonian liberal and a classical scholar, while Shaw was the anglophone world’s most renowned socialist, iconoclastic wit, and public intellectual. In response to Murray’s chastisements of his perceived flippancy, Shaw would scold the more conservative tendencies of academics to be reserved in their judgments, concluding in his inimitable and purposely provocative style that “every university professor is an ass.” Despite these differences, Shaw and Murray rarely had a falling out, even when their correspondence cooled during World War I when Murray, like so many others in Great Britain, was critical of Shaw’s open hostility to the jingoistic patriotism of the day. While many scholars will revel in the revealing and sometimes penetrating discussions of world politics, the social life of England’s elite, dramatic theory, and literary criticism by two perceptive minds, the most engaging moments are those when their intense humanity is on display, especially in the wake of the deaths of loved ones and other tribulations in their private lives.
A small point—and it is one that I hope can be rectified soon—is an unsightly typo on the first page of the introduction: Murray was born in 1866, not 1886. The correct year is noted on the next page, but this causes some undue confusion. There are also a few inclusions among the 171 letters that should have been left on the cutting-room floor: a couple of short ones that the editor was unable to make any sense of and a brief telegraph that adds nothing of value. But these qualms are minor.
Carpenter’s informative interludes ably fill the gaps when the correspondence becomes infrequent, and the forewords to each of the letters provide excellent context. Even the annotations seamlessly continue the narrative. Aside from Carpenter’s tendency on occasion to be a bit over-reliant on Wikipedia for some facts and background...