George Bernard Shaw: Man of the Century

By Archibald Henderson | Go to book overview
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Richard Mansfield and The Devil's Disciple

WITH THE HOPE OF SEEING ELLEN TERRY PLAY THE LEADING RÔLE IN A PLAY OF his, Shaw wrote The Man of Destiny in 1895. "The heroine," he afterwards said, "is simply a delineation of Ellen Terry-imperfect, it is true, for who can describe the indescribable?"1 Asked if Sir Henry Irving had ever refused any play of his, Shaw replied: "Far from refusing any play of mine, Sir Henry Irving embarrassed me very considerably by spontaneously proposing to produce The Man of Destiny at the Lyceum Theatre. I, of course, showed my sense of the compliment, and of what was due to Sir Henry's position, by placing the piece at his disposal; but the project was never carried out, as, indeed, it must have been evident to everyone except Sir Henry himself from the beginning that it could not have been carried out without a greater departure from the Lyceum tradition than was possible at his age."2 The Man of Destiny was not produced at all until 1897, when it was given a suburban performance on July 1 at the Grand Theatre, Croydon. The critics' and public's failure at this time to understand the play is typical of the reception accorded almost all Shaw's plays in England for many years. It is true the acting was especially uninspired; but, as Shaw put it, "the audience was humble in its agony, and merely respected Napoleon for saying things it could not understand. It would even make a mouselike attempt to show its appreciation now and then, but each time it shrank back lest it should be taking seriously something that was perhaps one of my dazzling jokes. An agonizing experience for the author--but an intensely interesting one for the critic."3 Shaw was seen to smile only twice--both times at a frisky kitten that wandered onto the stage.

For a sympathetic and richly mellow interpretation of Ellen Terry, consult Shaw's Preface to Ellen Terry and Bernard Shaw: A Correspondence.
It is a curious coincidence that two H. I.'s played such obsessing rôles in Shaw's life, and at opposite ends of the scale: Henrik Ibsen ( His Inspiration) and Henry Irving ( "His Immensity"). The reactions of Shaw and Irving to each other were warped in the space- time aura of Ellen Terry. Shaw suspected Irving of trying to buy his favor as drama critic by paying for an option on The Man of Destiny and then pigeon-holing it. Irving was enraged that, after he had indicated a favorable attitude toward the play, Shaw published criticisms of his acting which seemed to charge him with drunkenness on the stage. The subject is far too complex and involved for further consideration here. Indeed the tense and prolonged drama connected with The Man of Destiny, involving Shaw, Irving, and Ellen Terry, furnishes the leitmotiv of the Shaw-Terry correspondence. See infra.
G. Bernard Shaw to Ellen Terry, July 4, 1897, Ellen Terry and Bernard Show: A Correspondence, pp. 183-184.


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George Bernard Shaw: Man of the Century
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