The silliness of George Bernard Shaw

May 28 2009

Toynbee does not seem to have known Shaw, but he mentions him in a chapter about the Webbs, whom he did know.

Sidney (1859-1947) and Beatrice (1858-1943) Webb were English socialists, social reformers and busybodies. She was the daughter of an industrialist, he the son of a shopkeeper.

The catalogue of the Webbs’ public achievements is amazing. They were founding fathers of the Labour Party as well as of the Fabian Society, and they were not rank-and-file founding fathers either; they were George Washingtons. They were the founders of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Shaw, too, was all of these.

They were the authors of a long series of learned works in the field of social and economic history, all of which required laborious research. They worked like ants or bees. They told me once that, after their first half-dozen years of happy marriage and intellectual hard labour, they had decided that they needed a holiday, so they had gone for three weeks to Warrington [industrial town on the Mersey] and had spent the time working on the records there. They told this story against themselves because they knew that it was funny. They had the saving human gift of never taking themselves too seriously, while always being one hundred per cent. serious about their work.

Wells lampooned the Webbs (as the Baileys, “two active self-centred people, excessively devoted to the public service”), and Fabians generally (he had been one himself in 1903-08), in The New Machiavelli (1911). Toynbee is kinder, but not uncritical. He did not fall for Stalin. The Webbs, like so many others, did. They were supporters of the Soviet Union until their deaths. And so did Shaw.

The Webbs, Shaw and Wells were early supporters of eugenics, which was an aberration of both left and right. In 1917 Shaw’s friend Chesterton published a book criticising the idea, Eugenics and Other Evils.

How silly was Shaw (the only person to have been awarded both the Nobel Prize for Literature and an Oscar, but, since Al Gore, not the only person to have been awarded both the Nobel Prize and an Oscar)?

His sympathy for dictatorship grew in the ’20s and ’30s. He visited Russia in 1932, met Stalin, and became an ardent supporter of the Stalinist USSR. The Preface to his play On the Rocks (1933) is primarily an effort to justify the pogroms conducted by the State Political Directorate (OGPU). In an open letter to the Manchester Guardian, he dismissed stories of a Soviet famine as slanderous and called reports of Russia’s exploited workers falsehoods. He wrote a defence of Stalin’s espousal of Lysenkoism in a letter to Labour Monthly.

We need a comparative timeline showing who, Toynbee included, said what, and when, in England about communism, fascism, eugenics, race, war, the League of Nations, Jews and world government. I might try to create one. People shifted their ground. A couple of antisemitic remarks do not make Wells a monster. See John CareyThe Intellectuals and the Masses, Pride and Prejudice among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1939, Faber, 1992, one of the indispensable short books about the twentieth century.

Shaw’s views on spelling, vaccination and life-forces seem silly. So do some of his views on education, marriage, religion, government and medicine generally. Leaving money to fund the creation of a new phonemic alphabet (the foundation was never set up: the funds were insufficient) is silly. His teetotalism had something of the sandal-wearers about it. Bertrand Russell thought there was nothing at all to Shaw but vanity.

The marriage of an inherited Victorian seriousness with the (half-feared) modernists’ desire to shock and disconcert was fatal in lesser twentieth-century intellectuals and led to a foolish vehemence.


One day Shaw announced to [the Webbs] that he was going to stand for election to the London County Council. The Webbs threw cold water on this idea; the technicalities of public administration were not, they told him, in his line; but Shaw would not be dissuaded. “I shall stand all the same,” he said, “and of course I shall be sending you a copy of my address to the electors.” (It was customary for candidates for election to the London County Council to distribute, in advance, an election address in print, as a substitute for house-to-house canvassing.) Shaw did stand, the polling-day arrived [in March 1904; this is pre-modernism], and Shaw was nowhere in the running. The Webbs found Shaw fuming. “I cannot understand”, he said, “why I failed to get elected. I had supposed that my election address had made my election certain. It ought to have. I took great trouble with it, and it is one of the best things I have written – don’t you agree?” – “But we haven’t seen it.” – “You must have. I sent you a copy as I promised. We must look through your files: yes, of course, here it is.” – “This pamphlet of yours? Yes, that came, and we enjoyed reading it, but we still haven’t seen your election address.” – “Not seen it? Why, that is it.” – “But, in this pamphlet you haven’t mentioned the election; you haven’t even mentioned the County Council itself. It certainly makes very good reading; but how could you expect the electors to gather from it that you were a candidate and that, in this pamphlet, you were canvassing them for their votes. No wonder you weren’t elected.” – “Well, I am disgusted. If the electors are so stupid that they couldn’t see that this was my election address without being told that in so many words, I am sorry that I stood and am glad that I didn’t get in.”

“An irresistible force in the theatre”, the back cover of old Penguin editions called him. He was that. There is even a lyrical scene in Saint Joan, where the French wait for the wind to change on the Loire.

He could be humble. Responding to his friend Edward Elgar when opening a Shaw exhibition at the Malvern Public Library in 1929, he said: “I am seriously and genuinely humble in his presence. I recognise a greater art than mine and a greater man than I can ever hope to be.” It was Shaw who, shortly afterwards, badgered the BBC to commission Elgar’s third symphony. The sketches Elgar left when he died were thought indecipherable. Anthony Payne’s “elaboration” of them was first performed in 1998. We have Shaw, as well, to thank for it.

Shaw being extremely silly and conceited in a Fox Movietone clip filmed on August 26 1928, on the occasion of his first visit to America. Or is this a rather lovable Irish charm? There is a reference to Mussolini.

More Fox Movietone, from a 1931 (presumably second) visit. (There is a further Movietone clip on YouTube which shows him at Malvern, perhaps on the occasion I referred to.)

Getting on board a Stinson Model T at San Francisco, c 1932, and a lecture on dictatorship

The kindly Irishman on the desirability of mass killing – but on class or economic, not racial, grounds. The date of the clip, shown in a documentary, is not clear. This is the way DH Lawrence spoke, but Lawrence, partly under the influence of his German wife, spoke from the right and more malevolently.

“We must persecute,” Shaw had written in the Preface to Saint Joan, “even to the death.” In his last full-length play, Buoyant Billions (1947), post-war, a character asks:

“Why appeal to the mob when ninety-five per cent of them do not understand politics, and can do nothing but mischief without leaders? And what sort of leaders do they vote for? For Titus Oates and Lord George Gordon with their Popish plots, for Hitlers who call on them to exterminate Jews, for Mussolinis who rally them to nationalist dreams of glory and empire in which all foreigners are enemies to be subjugated.”

Acquaintances, OUP, 1967

3 Responses to “The silliness of George Bernard Shaw”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    I am aware that Shaw was too old to be identified directly with anything in modernism, but he helped to set a tone for the next generation.

    Was Shaw more politically foolish than Yeats?

  2. davidderrick Says:

    Toynbee must have been at least acquainted with Shaw. Shaw knew his father-in-law, Gilbert Murray, well.

    It’s strange how people imagine they are thinking, when all they are doing is following a fashion.

  3. davidderrick Says:

    Richard Overy in The Morbid Age, Britain between the Wars, Allen Lane, 2009: “[The Webbs] ended their honeymoon at the Trades Union Congress in Glasgow […] .”

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