SHAW: THE PAPERS OF GEORGE BERNARD SHAW (1856-1950)
From The British Library, London
by Professor L W Conolly, FRSC, Department of English, Trent University, Canada
When Bernard Shaw (his full name was George Bernard Shaw, but he disliked using George) celebrated his seventieth birthday in 1926 he was one of the most famous people in the world, if not the most famous. Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925, he was renowned for his provocative political views and for plays such as Mrs Warren’s Profession, Arms and the Man, Candida, The Devil’s Disciple, Caesar and Cleopatra, Man and Superman, Major Barbara, The Doctor’s Dilemma, Misalliance, Pygmalion, Heartbreak House, the mammoth five-part Back to Methuselah, and Saint Joan. These and other Shaw plays had been performed not just throughout the English-speaking world, but in foreign-language productions in Europe, Asia, and South America. The world première of Pygmalion was in German (in Vienna) in 1913, and the controversial Mrs Warren’s Profession (written in 1893-94) was performed in Japan and China before the censor allowed the first public production in England in 1925. The controversy over the suppression of Mrs Warren’s Profession–the play took a sympathetic position towards women driven into prostitution by appalling working conditions and low wages–spread to the United States where the director (Arnold Daly) and the cast were arrested after a production at the Garrick Theatre in New York on 30 October 1905 and charged with “offending public decency” (the charge was subsequently dropped). Controversy became an ongoing feature of Shaw’s life, his iconoclastic and courageous criticism of Britain’s involvement in World War I, for example (expressed in his 1914 book Common Sense about the War), causing the press and public to excoriate him, friends to shun him, and booksellers and librarians to remove his books from their shelves.
Such notoriety seemed unlikely when Shaw was born into a genteel middle class Dublin family (his father was an alcoholic grain merchant, his mother a frustrated amateur mezzo-soprano) on 26 July 1856. There was little in his background or early career that hinted at the fame to come and how often he would be at the forefront of theatrical, intellectual, social, and political controversies big and small, profound and trivial, earnest and whimsical. Shaw left school at fifteen to take a mundane clerical position with a Dublin property agent, while in his spare time immersing himself in the many cultural amenities Dublin offered–a practice he had begun as a schoolboy: the National Gallery and the Theatre Royal were among his favourite havens. He also gained a broad if somewhat unconventional musical education by attending the lessons and rehearsals of his mother’s eccentric singing teacher, Vandeleur Lee; while he was still a schoolboy Shaw could recognize and sing (or whistle) all the principal works of Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, and Verdi. He also read widely and avidly (especially Shakespeare), and began experimenting as a writer himself.
New opportunities opened up for Shaw when his mother finally gave up on her husband and followed Lee to London in June 1873. Shaw stayed with his father for nearly three more years, strained though the relationship was, but by March 1876 he too had had enough both of his father and of Dublin. He resigned from his job and sailed for England, arriving in London on April Fool’s Day with nothing but uncertain prospects.
Vandeleur Lee paid Shaw to ghost-write musical criticism for him for a periodical called The Hornet for several months in 1876 and 1877, and for a few months in 1879-80 Shaw worked for the Edison Telephone Company. After he left that job in June 1880 what little income he had came from a few articles in the press and occasional handouts from his father. Otherwise, Shaw was entirely dependent on his mother (with whom he lived): “I did not throw myself into the struggle for life: I threw my mother into it,” he quipped in the preface to his novel The Irrational Knot. The Irrational Knot was but one of five novels Shaw wrote between 1879 and 1883, all rejected–some several times–by London publishers (though all were eventually published once Shaw had established his reputation as a critic and playwright). When not writing novels, Shaw busied himself studying French, seeing plays, gaining entrées to London society (the home of Lady Wilde, Oscar’s mother, for example), falling in and out of love, and, most importantly, reading voraciously in the library of the British Museum. It was there that Shaw first read (in a French translation) Marx’s Das Kapital, a work that
powerfully stimulated his political sensibilities, though not always in ways that Marx would have welcomed.
Shaw also actively participated in various debating clubs and literary societies in London, and in May 1884 he attended his first meeting of the Fabian Society, a socialist advocacy group formed in London earlier that year. The Fabian Society remains active in England, though its influence has waned considerably since the heady days when it counted some of England’s leading writers and thinkers among its members–H.G. Wells, Beatrice and Sydney Webb, and Shaw himself (he joined in September 1884). Membership gave Shaw an increasingly important platform as a writer (he wrote many of the Fabian Society’s famous “tracts”) and orator, and helped him formulate many of the ideas that he developed in his plays as well as in his political writings and speeches.
The year 1884, then, was significant for Shaw politically, but it was also the year in which his creative work took a new direction–from fiction to drama. The person who pointed Shaw in the new direction was someone he had first met in the British Museum, probably in the fall of 1883. His name was William Archer (1856-1924), one of London’s leading theatre critics and the translator and advocate of the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906), whose provocative plays (A Doll’s House, Ghosts, and Hedda Gabler, for example) Shaw also came to admire, champion, and, in his own way, emulate. (One of Shaw’s earliest books–The Quintessence of Ibsenism, published in 1891, but originally an 1890 lecture to the Fabian Society–is an analysis and defence of Ibsen’s work.) Archer helped Shaw secure posts as music and art critic with major periodicals (the Dramatic Review and The World), but, more significantly, suggested a plot outline for the play that eventually was performed (1892) and published (1898) as Widowers’ Houses, Shaw’s first play.
Shaw worked on Widowers’ Houses in November 1884, and returned to it periodically over the next several years, leaving it untouched, however, for long periods. By 1884, after eight years in London, his life was becoming astonishingly full and busy. He was one of the capital’s most prominent critics, adding the Pall Mall Gazette (as literary critic) and The Star (as music critic, using the impressive pseudonym “Corno di Bassetto”) to the publications he wrote for, and his reputation as a compelling and entertaining lecturer on political and a miscellany of other topics meant that by the mid-1880s he was giving a hundred or so lectures a year in London and the provinces. He took part in political demonstrations, he travelled in Europe, he wrote pamphlets for the Fabian Society (and edited Fabian Essays in Socialism, 1889), he met writers (Oscar Wilde, William Butler Yeats), he went to the theatre, he pursued and fended off women–young and not-so-young, single, married, and widowed. By 1891 Shaw had become a celebrity. “Everybody in London knows Shaw,” said the Sunday World in 1891: “Fabian, Socialist, art and musical critic, vegetarian, ascetic, humourist, artist to the tips of his fingers, man of the people to the tips of his boots, the most original and inspiring of men–fiercely uncompromising, full of ideas, irrepressibly brilliant–an Irishman.”
These early years of Shaw’s life and career are comprehensively reflected in the British Library collections of his work. Add Ms 50594, for example (Part 1 of this microfilm edition), is an 1884 shorthand version of Widowers’ Houses, while Mrs Warren’s Profession is represented by, for example, a longhand version (1893) and Shaw’s rehearsal notes for an early (but undated) production (Add Mss 50598 in Part 1). Much of Shaw’s work with the Fabian Society (reports, lectures, tracts, manifestos) is represented in Add Mss 50680-50690 (Part 2), and many of his early essays for newspapers and periodicals are included. Add Ms 50691 (Part 3), for example, consists of copies of his contributions to The Hornet, the Dramatic Review, and The World. Add Mss 50650-50658 (Part 1) include shorthand and typescript versions of Shaw’s novels, as well as early poems and short stories, while Add Mss 50660-50661 (Part 2) are rich in autograph, typescript, and shorthand materials concerning Shaw’s enthusiasm for Ibsen.
Widowers’ Houses defined the kind of playwright that Shaw wanted to be–at least in the early years of his playwriting career. Structured as a social comedy, with deliberately conventional stock characters and a happy ending (the marriage of a young couple after apparently insurmountable obstacles have been overcome), Widowers’ Houses nonetheless undermines convention by tackling an ugly and pervasive social problem head on. Drawing on his first-hand knowledge of the slums of Dublin and reflecting his resolute political convictions, Shaw uses the play to denounce the iniquities of slum housing, not by showing the slums and their tenants, but by exposing the moral sophistry and corruption of the beneficiaries of slum housing–middle-class landlords, upper-class holders of mortgages on slum properties, and even a working-class former rent collector turned property owner.
Critical reaction, however, to Widowers’ Houses and other early Shaw plays was unenthusiastic (positively hostile in the case of Mrs Warren’s Profession), but Shaw had found his métier, and he stuck to his task of using the theatre as a means of social commentary and criticism. At the same time, he was well aware of the need to entertain as well as admonish and instruct, and he began to attract a popular audience with plays such as Arms and the Man, which ran for a creditable fifty performances at the Avenue Theatre in London in the spring of 1894. Other plays followed in rapid succession: The Man of Destiny (written in 1895), The Devil’s Disciple (1896-97), Caesar and Cleopatra (1898), Captain Brassbound’s Conversion (1899), Man and Superman (1901-03), John Bull’s Other Island (1904), Major Barbara (1905), The Doctor’s Dilemma (1906), Misalliance (1909-10), Fanny’s First Play (1911)–which ran for an astonishing 622 performances in London in 1912)–Androcles and the Lion (1912), and, perhaps now the most famous of them all, Pygmalion (1912-13)–which ran for 118 performances at His Majesty’s Theatre in London in 1914.
These plays are represented in the British Library collections (Add Mss 50593-50649, most of these being in Part 1) in many forms–autograph longhand and shorthand versions, printed copies, autograph rehearsal notes, autograph corrections and revisions, typescripts, promptbooks, and printed proofs. Film adaptations of Shaw’s plays are also represented–by the script, for example (with revisions and notes, for Major Barbara (1941, with Rex Harrison and Wendy Hiller).
Writing plays was not Shaw’s only preoccupation in the early years of the twentieth century. He continued to write and lecture for the Fabian Society, he was an active member of numerous committees (including, for example, the Organising Committee for the proposed Shakespeare Memorial Theatre), he campaigned against theatre censorship, and, as the First World War loomed, he warned against the dangers of military and political fanaticism on all sides. His Common Sense about the War, published shortly after the outbreak of war in August 1914, resisted jingoism and so was fiercely condemned by press and public alike as unpatriotic. Shorthand and typescript texts of Common Sense are in this collection, as are subsequent writings about the First World War (Add Mss 50668-50671, Part 2). While the war years were not productive for Shaw from a theatrical point of view, they gave him the impetus for his next major play, Heartbreak House (Add Ms 59901, Part 1), completed in 1919, which ends with a bomb falling on a country home, a powerful metaphor for the end of an era and perhaps the end of a civilization.
After the war Shaw picked up momentum again with his playwriting, leading to his longest play, the mammoth five-part exploration of creative evolution called Back to Methuselah, written between 1918 and 1920. Add Ms 50631 (Part 1) consists of Shaw’s shorthand preface and text of the play, as well as subsequent autograph and typescript revisions. Shaw’s other major achievement of the 1920s was Saint Joan, written in 1923, and first performed in New York in December 1923 and in London in March 1924 with Sybil Thorndike as Joan. Add Ms 45923 (Part 1) is an autograph shorthand draft of the play, and related autograph and typescript materials can be found in Add Mss 50633-50634 (Part 1).
As Shaw approached and passed his seventieth birthday, he showed no signs of slowing down. Always an inveterate traveller (usually at his wife Charlotte’s behest), he took world cruises in the 1930s, always working while he travelled. He went to Russia in 1931, met Stalin, and praised Communism. He also praised Hitler in the 1930s, causing more public fury and a ban by the BBC on a talk on Hitler in 1940. He had embraced opportunities made available by the BBC from the beginning of broadcasting in 1922 by participating in debates with the likes of Hilaire Belloc and G K Chesterton, giving talks, and, of course, by allowing productions of his plays, the most notable of which in the early years was a 1929 broadcast of Saint Joan spread over two evenings. And when television broadcasts began in 1936 (suspended during World War II), Shaw was at the forefront of developments again with, for example, televised extracts from How He Lied to Her Husband in July 1937. An introduction that Shaw wrote for a television production of Geneva in April 1939 is in the British Library collection (Add Ms 50643P, Part 1), as are shorthand, typescript, and printed texts of BBC radio talks given by Shaw between 1928 and 1977 (Add Ms 50705, Part 3). Other radio scripts are in Part 1 (Add Ms 50633, 50638).
The founding by Sir Barry Jackson of the Malvern Festival in 1929 gave Shaw a new impetus for playwriting, plays such as The Apple Cart (written for Malvern in 1929, though first produced–in Polish–in Warsaw), Too True to be Good (1931), The Simpleton of the Unexpected Isles (1934), Geneva (1938), In Good King Charles’s Golden Days (1939), and Buoyant Billions (1946) all receiving their world or English premières at the Festival. Shorthand and other texts of these plays as well as Shaw’s rehearsal notes for Malvern productions are in Part 1, and Part 2 (Add Ms 50664) contains essays Shaw wrote for the Festival’s programmes.
Shaw demonstrated his continuing commitment to social and political analysis through works such as The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism (1928), lauded by Labour Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald as “after the Bible . . . the most important book that humanity possesses”–a remark that revealed MacDonald, Shaw said, to be “more of a wit than I suspected.” The autograph shorthand text of The Intelligent Woman’s Guide is in Part 2 (Add Ms 50672). The published text, with autograph and typescript corrections and insertions, is also in Part 2 (Add Ms 50674). Other political commentary appeared in Everybody’s Political What’s What? (1944), a typescript of which, with Shaw’s autograph corrections, is also in Part 2 (Add Ms 50675). This section of Part 2 (Add Mss 50659-50679) is rich in Shaw’s essays generally, containing his views on an impressive variety of subjects–pugilism, architecture, the Irish Question, vivisection, and the National Theatre, among others.
Insights into more personal aspects of Shaw’s life are contained in Part 3 (Add Mss 50706-50718)–family history notes, medical reports, cheque book stubs, travel documents, and address books, for example–while Add Mss 50719-50739 (also Part 3) contain notebooks on a miscellany of subjects ranging from Shaw’s juvenile drawings to draft letters to the press to more rehearsal notes and printed ephemera.
In 1937 Winston Churchill–no political ally–described Shaw as “the greatest living master of letters in the English-speaking world.” And abroad and at home Shaw was greeted, befriended, and sought after by politicians, sportsmen, artists, writers, musicians, scientists, photographers, and film stars–Gandhi, Nehru, Gorky, Gene Tunney, Rodin, Mark Twain, Wells, Lawrence of Arabia, Elgar, Einstein, Karsh, Chaplin, Garbo, and many more. Vegetarian, teetotaller, spelling and alphabet reformer, anti-vivisectionist as well as
pre-eminent playwright and social activist; there was hardly an aspect of human activity in a life that lasted nearly a century that Shaw did not participate in or comment on.
He died at his home in the isolated village of Ayot St Lawrence in Hertfordshire on
2 November 1950 from complications following a fall in his garden while pruning a shrub. He was ninety-four years old. His death was front-page headline news in practically every newspaper in the world, and the lights of Times Square and Broadway theatre marques were blacked out in respect. Shaw’s will, dated 12 June 1950, instructed the Public Trustee to deposit “such letters and documents as might be worth preserving” in a “public collection such as that of the British Museum.” Thus it was that the British Museum Library–subsequently the British Library at its new St Pancras site–took possession of this outstanding collection, a collection that documents in a myriad of ways the life and works of one of the most remarkable figures of British cultural and political life.
Parts of this Introduction are drawn from the Introduction to my edition of Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession (Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2005).