Friday, March 17, 2017

George Bernard Shaw

I never much liked him while studying him in college.  Shaw was considered second only to Shakespeare, but he always bothered me.  I was gratified when I started reading CS Lewis to find that he also found Shaw irritating, but I could never put words to it until long after.  (I did like "Pygmalion," possibly because of My Fair Lady, and I didn't find "Major Barbara" so bad. ) I now get what bothered me: playwrights can create a false reality. (Yeah, duh, but bear with me.) They can make a priest be a hypocrite by the lines thy put in his mouth and the actions they make him perform.  They can make Chinese inscrutable, blacks shiftless, businessmen greedy, wives innocent, husbands oppressive, children wise, and politicians corrupt, however they choose.  This is all rather obvious, but if it is done skillfully the reader or audience is taken in, accepting the prejudice of the playwright as if it were a fact.

Shaw does this rather clumsily, but taking all in all, it's not entirely his fault.  He came out of the tradition of melodrama, and was one of the first to pull away from it. Pioneers don't have the advantages of knowing the tricks of those who come later.  They are the inventors of the tricks. If we compare GBS to those who came after he is certainly cartoonish. Yet compared to those who came before he shows a more realistic character. Still, it is worth noting that an artist who deserves credit from scholars may not be worthy of the effort of a production now.  It was a favorite theme among my theater friends in the 1970's that Sarte had stolen everything from Artaud, and it's sorta true.  Nonetheless, Sarte did it better and remains at least watchable/readable.  Artaud is not that interesting anymore.

As for Shaw, John Osborne thought him a complete fraud.  I don't know that this is true, but I am figuring that Osborne has some credibility here. More than, say, me.  Or you. Others disagree, and I suppose they have more credibility than me also.  It's fascinating to read the Wikipedia article and realise that the collective critics pretty much boil down to one critic who has successfully fought off the others.  In this case, whoever controls the Wikipedia legacy of Shaw has decided that Fred S Crawford's opinion is the bee's knees.  Crawford insists that everyone who criticises Shaw was nonetheless influenced by him, no matter how far he has to stretch to illustrate that. Everyone owes everything to Shaw, it st seems.  Coward, Ayckbourn, Stoppard, and all the absurdists. Even Osborne who disliked him. Crawford finds it not only significant, but definitive, that the cahttering classes talking about Shaw gave birth to the word shavian, which is still in use today.  Except it isn't.

Welcome to the petty world of artistic criticism.  What remains is that we can examine Shaw for his ideas and see how those have held up.  I'll give that summary to George Orwell, who makes a genrral observation that is also quite good, then narrows it to Shaw.

As it happens, George Orwell in his 1946 pamphlet James Burnham and the Managerial Revolution does shed light on the Glenn Beckish claim that Shaw’s dual embrace of communism and fascism was broadly typical of Fabians or other sorts of socialists:
English writers who consider Communism and Fascism to be the same thing invariably hold that both are monstrous evils which must be fought to the death; on the other hand, any Englishman who believes Communism and Fascism to be opposites will feel that he ought to side with one or the other. The only exception I am able to think of is Bernard Shaw, who, for some years at any rate, declared Communism and Fascism to be much the same thing, and was in favour of both of them.
 I have complained about  the teaching of Shakespeare as well.  He's next.  If you want to get a head start, read Polonius's speech to Laertes.


james said...

I confess to a fondness for Caesar and Cleopatra. I found the collected plays when I was about 16, and plowed through them all (back in my mis-spent youth when I finished a book if I started it). They seemed (mostly) lively enough, but quite a few smelled so strongly of ground axe that I've never been tempted to re-read them. Or watch them, which would take even longer. And his fascination with life-force, or whatever it was he called it, seemed so silly that those plays sounded much more comic than he intended.

The whole force and triumph of Mr. Bernard Shaw lie in the fact that he is a thoroughly consistent man."

Grim said...

I remember enjoying Arms & the Man as a youth, although it also grinds the axe: war is not a joyous adventure, romantic notions are always pretensions, the wise and practical businessman is infinitely preferable to the soldier.

Still, it was performed in 1894. Those notions became tired and hackneyed after WWI, and especially so after Vietnam. In 1894, it might have been a message that genuinely had reason to be conveyed. It's only a partial truth, but it is nevertheless an important part of the truth. Where it was absent, it was worth saying.