- They Talk About Shaw
The stream of biographies and critical studies of Shaw flows steadily today, but the transcript of this 1955 Biography in Sound broadcast remains valuable and interesting, first because all of the commentators knew Shaw personally; second, their recollections are often arresting; and third, they present a kaleidoscope of perspectives and opinions. People as various as Sir Cedric Hardwicke (distinguished British actor), Rebecca West (feminist author), Nancy Astor (first woman elected to the House of Commons), Norman Thomas (American socialist), Lilli Palmer (German actress), Frank O’Connor (Irish author), Leonard Lyons (American journalist), Bertrand Russell (British philosopher), Blanche Patch (Shaw’s secretary), and Lilla McCarthy (British actress) speak frankly and support their views with vivid reminiscences.
Part 1 of the program focuses chiefly on the public Shaw; for instance, Hardwicke appreciates Shaw’s impact on actors and their diction, despite the fact that he told Hardwicke that he was Shaw’s “fourth favourite actor,” and that the other three were “the three Marx brothers” (9). Russell discusses Shaw’s value as a controversialist who could zero in on anything silly or phony claimed by his opponents, even though he lost that clear-sighted capacity when he championed the Soviet Union (11). Thomas acknowledges Shaw’s important role in the development of socialism in England, culminating in the rise of the Labour Party. Edward Dodd, Jr., Shaw’s American publisher, marvels at the way Shaw wrote his own publishing contracts, which were, he says, “lucid, precise, fair, and legal … and also, of course, entirely unconventional” (18).
Part 2 shifts the emphasis somewhat to the private Shaw. Lord Astor (Nancy’s son) sketches a rather touching picture of Shaw entertaining him and other children at Christmastime, doing imitations of his own voice as if it were played on a recording at different speeds. Lawrence Langner says that Shaw wrote Saint Joan because his wife left books about Joan all over the house, but that Shaw apparently thought he got the idea himself. Russell describes Charlotte Shaw’s bored expression whenever Shaw began to regale company with one of his favorite anecdotes, the story of how his uncle committed suicide “by putting his head in a carpet bag and then shutting it” (30). Shaw’s brilliance, his inexhaustible energy, and his aggressive [End Page 316] originality sometimes make him seem somewhat alien to us, as if he were one of his “supermen” himself. In contrast, anecdotes like those in this section of GBS on NBC make him seem more comfortably familiar, suggesting that he was one of us—at times anyway—never mind the formidable impression. After all, what talkative, story-loving husband doesn’t bore his wife from time to time?
The seventy-two textual notes prepared by transcriber Leonard Conolly constitute another agreeable feature of this pamphlet. They clarify references to people and events, of course, and occasionally correct the faulty memories of the speakers. They also identify the published sources of quotations and information mentioned in the transcript. Two examples will illustrate their utility and the added interest they supply. First, the observation by James Mason Brown that he used to maintain “that part of his (Shaw’s) mind must have been made out of the kneecap of Leon Errol” (12) would remain completely obscure, if a note did not reveal that “Leon Errol (1881–1951) was an American vaudeville actor known for his comic trademark of a wobbly walk” (39). Or consider note 40, the response to an assertion by Nancy Astor that “When Mrs. Shaw died, she left him to me (23)”: “That may have been Lady Astor’s view, but Shaw resented her attention. Wearing (Bernard Shaw and Nancy Astor xxiv) quotes playwright William Douglas Home as recalling Lady Astor telling Shaw that Charlotte’s death made him ‘a lonely old man’ at his home in … Ayot St. Lawrence. ‘You ought to come and live in London. I’ll look after you.!’ ‘I don’t like London, Nancy,’ he replied. ‘Then...