- Bernard Shaw the Irish Writer
As Bernard Shaw left Dublin and his position at an estate agent’s office at the age of twenty to join his mother and sisters in London and promptly become a leading music and theater critic, ardent contributor to the Fabian Society, as well as fierce polemicist and controversial dramatist GBS, critics have understandably focused on his career in England and international impact, rather than on his Irish heritage. His enduring accent and incisive wit marked him as Irish, but his plays were concerned with the social evils of Victorian England and with philosophical reflections, which seemed to render his nationality irrelevant. In Bernard Shaw’s Irish Outlook, David Clare reclaims Shaw’s Irishness by defining what it meant for Shaw and, through a scrupulous analysis of select plays, shows how Shaw not only was Irish but also wrote “as an Irishman,” in the words of by R. F. Dietrich. Clare pays particular attention to the three plays set in Ireland—John Bull’s Other Island (1904), O’Flaherty, VC (1917), and Tragedy of an Elderly Gentleman in Back to Methuselah (1921)—but looks to evidence of Irishness beyond the easy geographic setting to Shaw’s Irish diasporic characters, the “surrogate” Irish, and his Stage English(wo)men.
The book is composed of a short introduction, four chapters developing different signs of Irishness, and a lengthy conclusion. The introduction presents Clare’s thesis that Shaw always thought of himself as Irish, despite a life spent in England, because “the beauty of Ireland … gave Irish people their distinctive perspective … and helped to shape him into the visionary iconoclast that he was” (1). Shaw’s own words at the end of his life that he was a foreigner in Britain certainly encourage Clare’s project that the most English of Irish dramatists deserves a critical hibernicization.
The first chapter, “Shaw and the Rise of Reverse Snobbery,” serves two interlocked purposes. It maps the Irish-born characters in all Shaw’s plays, and it explores the function of “reverse snobbery,” one of Shaw’s lesser-known but lasting influences. Clare convincingly argues that, while not ignoring Irish weaknesses (further detailed in chapters 3 and 4), Shaw “helped create a new kind of underdog hero” (7): Irish characters whose underprivileged childhood and struggles against adversity take pride in their background. The groundbreaking concept, at a time when fiction and drama inspired the desirability of belonging to and behaving like the higher classes, propounded in Shaw’s plays the superiority of the Irish [End Page 312] and the advantages of “being raised in an impoverished or marginalized environment” (11), as is evident in Pygmalion. The chapter brings to light the qualities of the Irish characters in the three Irish plays, but most interestingly in lesser-known pieces such as Press Cuttings, written in 1909 for Women’s Suffrage Societies. In this topical farce, the very English General Mitchener (a barely veiled disguise for Kitchener) is sequestered by suffragettes in his own War Office. He falls under the intellectual spell of his Irish charwoman Mrs. Farrell, whose realism, practical mind, and unromantic outlook (which clearly cast her as another mouthpiece for Shaw) make him regret his own shortcomings, brought on by his upbringing. Clare’s analysis of Man and Superman, The Doctor’s Dilemma, and Fanny’s First Play completes the view that Shaw’s socialism not only subverts literary stereotypes but promotes the long-term, character-building benefits of being an economic outsider rather than a middle-class Englishman (whose faults are developed in the final chapter).
Chapter 2, “Shaw and the Irish Diaspora,” delves into Shaw’s problematic, not to say contradictory, definition of a “real” Irish person, wavering between the somewhat romantic—and therefore un-Irish—“anybody touched by Ireland’s unique climate” and his admission that blood Irishness endures “beyond the shores of Ireland” (29). Clare demonstrates Shaw’s acceptance of the Diaspora in the portrait of his English and American characters of Irish descent whose overwhelming qualities derive from their heritage. Such examples can be found in characters...