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GEORGE BERNARD SHAW Twentieth-Century Victorian Stanley Kauffmann Surely, George Bernard Shaw possessed more energy, physical and mental, than any other man who ever lived. I am not surprised to learn that he suffered from migraine: How else could Nature persuade him to take a rest? Thus W. H. Auden began his review of the second volume of Shaw's collected letters (The New Yorker, November 25, 1972). Similar comments figure in virtually every review of the first two volumes of letters; they recur in the reviews of Volume 3, published in 1985 by Viking, once again under the superlative editorship of Dan H. Laurence. This third volume, which is to be followed by a fourth and final volume, covers the years 1911-1925 and contains 578 letters and postcards. Samuel Hynes, reviewing this volume (The New Republic, July 15 & 22, 1985), uses data from Laurence and a calculator to fix some statistics. Says Hynes: . . . the three volumes of letters published to date, containing just over 1,900 letters in all, amount to less than .8 percent of Shaw's total output. If the complete letters were to be published, they would fill 390 volumes. To write a quarter of a million letters, Shaw had to average nine a day, 365 days a year, over an extraordinarily long life, while at the same time writing plays, prefaces, novels, tracts, music and art criticism, and a vast amount of casual journalism . To which I would add that Hynes omits Shaw's theatre criticism-in my view the best in the English language. Hynes could not have known of a volume called Agitations published (by Ungar) later in 1985, containing more than 155 of Shaw's letters to the press, unreprinted elsewhere, edited by Laurence and James Rambeau. To all of which I would also add that, besides his writing, Shaw frequently spoke and debated at meetings for social and political causes, that for several years he was a municipal of54 ficeholder, that he was an early and active member of the Fabian Society, that he was a co-founder of the Labour Party, the New Statesman, and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. These facts are both less and more impressive when Shaw, born 1856, is seen as a product of Victorian conditioning. Put the facts above against most contemporary lives and they seem Himalayan; compare them with some of Shaw's contemporaries and you see that, in rough data at least, he is a man comparable to other men and women of his time. Some examples. Henry Mayhew (1812-87) wrote theatre ballads and burlesques and farces and co-founded Punch before he went on to write his immense landmark sociological studies, London Labour and the London Poor and The Criminal Prisons of London, as well as his quite different German Life and Manners. George Henry Lewes (1817-78) wrote, translated, and adapted innumerable plays, acted a bit, became a distinguished theatre critic, co-edited The Leader, co-founded and edited The Fortnightly Review, wrote a four-volume Biographical History of Philosophy, a study of Comte, a two-volume biography of Goethe, and a five-volume work called Problems of Life and Mind. Tom Taylor (1817-80) was professor of English for two years at the University of London, was called to the bar, was secretary to the Board of Health for 12 years, translated Ballads and Songs of Brittany, became editor of Punch and art critic of The Times, and wrote or adapted over a hundred plays. Seen in this context, Shaw's prodigality is less anomalous, more like Mozart seen against the Mannheim school or Shakespeare against the Elizabethans. Contradictorily, the facts of Shaw's achievements become even more impressive when posed against the careers of most of his contemporaries. In them, their energy seems concentric, whirling in a closed circle around their lives and era. With Shaw-and this may be a partial definition of genius-the energy seems to whirl forward, to burst continually into a succession of futures, not through prophecy as such but through intense perceptions treated candidly that lead from his day into areas not widely perceived in his day yet familiar to us...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1537-9477
Print ISSN
1520-281X
Pages
pp. 54-61
Launched on MUSE
2018-01-03
Open Access
No
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