- A Modest Monograph on Shaw
Shavians will be charmed by the tone of this new Shaw monograph, whose purpose in described in modest terms: “It is hoped that the attempt to peep briefly into Shaw’s treatments of war, politics and history in his major plays will serve Shaw scholars as points to begin with, or to ponder about, which they can definitely improve upon.” In the book’s preface, Gautam Sengupta—former head of English at Gurudas College, University of Calcutta—adds that he hopes his discussion of Shaw’s views on these problematic and ever-timely subjects will “arouse public conscience,” a goal Shaw would certainly endorse.
Unfortunately, the reader’s confidence is soon undermined by the book’s shortcomings. These include problems with coherence among sections, clarity and consistency in citation of sources, and numerous and various sentence-level errors that should have been caught by any copyeditor, some of which can cause confusion—for instance, using “vindicate” for “indicate,” [End Page 325] “apply” for “aptly.” There are also serious omissions in the author’s research that make some of the judgments extremely questionable. For example, he asserts that “[a]ny critic who seeks to trace and analyze the nature of Shaw’s responses to political issues of his time as embodied in his drama should begin with an analysis of The Apple Cart (1928)” because “Shaw never did choose to write directly on political themes, or, on, forms of government as such, till The Apple Cart” (Kindle locations 80–83). Even if one were to examine only Shaw’s fiction and dramatic writings, this leaves several important works that focus directly on political systems and figures, from his most blatantly political novel, The Unsocial Socialist (1883)—not mentioned in this book—to plays featuring prime ministers, real and fictional (including segments of his “world classic” Back to Methuselah 1918–1920)—which the author dismisses with one sentence—and Great Catherine (1913), a play (again, not mentioned) about the Empress of Russia.
Obviously, a short monograph cannot fully discuss all of Shaw’s works, but as the author’s stated audience is “interested scholars,” he could have easily included a comprehensive list of works—large and small, famous or obscure—that relate to the book’s three themes. For example, though Caesar and Cleopatra, The Man of Destiny, and Geneva are discussed at some length, no mention is made of other works depicting the key rulers discussed, especially Napoleon and Hitler. Granted, The Emperor of Perusalem, a spoof on Hitler written in 1913, is a relative trifle, but the playlet, written before Hitler’s rise, and its preface, written after his death, do help us understand how Shaw’s view of Hitler evolved over the decades. Similarly, Back to Methuselah, absent from this study, offers valuable insights into Shaw’s ideas on leadership, war, imperialism, and specific historical figures (including Napoleon and Hitler), as do lesser-known works such as Farfetched Fables and “The Emperor and the Little Girl.”
A wider reading of Shaw’s relevant works might have provided a more balanced view of Shaw’s complex ideas about dictators and authoritarianism as they evolved over his long life. “Even Shaw’s later-day opinions,” writes the author, “confirm his definite leaning towards autocracy. Despite torture and tyranny ruthlessly imposed by Hitler and Mussolini, both the dictators were held in reverence by Shaw” (Kindle locations 262–63). Such statements (and many others) require nuancing. Similarly, in his analysis of Caesar and Cleopatra, the author writes that “[t]he adoration shown for the Roman conqueror perhaps parallels, in terms of historical past, an implicit admiration for the world-conquering motivation of an imperialist nation” (Kindle locations 2042–44). And elsewhere we read that Shaw supported England’s imperial project, especially in Africa. The author ignores Shaw’s [End Page 326] caustic denunciation of British imperial violence, “The Denshawai Horror,” in his preface to John Bull’s Other Island—another play with much to say about the politics of empire but...