George Bernard Shaw's Crash Course on SA

Cape Times (South Africa), March 20, 2009 | Go to article overview

George Bernard Shaw's Crash Course on SA


BYLINE: Muriel Rubin

Passing by a second-hand bookshop in Muizenberg after an early morning swim, a photo of none other than George Bernard Shaw caught my eye. Fashions may change but the joys of bathing in Muizenberg are constant.

There was the 80-year-old Shaw, in his bathing suit, sampling the joys of that delectable swim of all swims. Whether he was thinking about the water's temperature or contemplating the next episode of the novella he was writing, we will never know.

But to see the indomitable, bearded old Irishman paddling in the sea, with the Muizenberg mountain, Boyes Drive and bathing huts as his backdrop, is quite captivating. What an unexpected image - old GBS himself in Muizenberg some 75 years ago.

Mind you, one is never far from some aspect of the legacy of Shaw's prolific talents. From the devotees boasting the complete works in their libraries, to 1950s teenagers delighting in Higgins' "Let a woman in your life and your serenity is through", or sighing over Eliza Dolittle's "I could have danced all night and then have asked for more" - without even knowing that My Fair Lady is the musical version of Shaw's most delightful play, Pygmalion.

Now we just have to google "Shaw" and then choose from something like 43 000 entries. Most of us would start with the famous witticisms, and leave the prolix prefaces to those drawn to debate, whether it be atheism, linguistics, feminism, or socialism.

Tied up with the impressive Shaw oeuvre is the long life - and love life - of this small man whose attractions were surely more cerebral than physical. Shaw had a penchant for the talents of the great actresses of the time, first Ellen Terry and then Mrs Patrick Campbell.

For the past weeks audiences have been enjoying the play Dear Liar, a delightful evening of Shavian wit and protestation via the playwright Jerome Kilty at the congenial Theatre on the Bay. The dialogue is drawn from 40 years of letters that cover the sparring love affair between Shaw and Stella, usually known as Mrs Patrick Campbell.

Returning from this excellent evening at the theatre in Camps Bay, I wondered what Shaw was doing in the Cape in the early 1930s.

It is Shaw himself who helps provide the answer in a letter to another of his female correspondents, Lady Astor. This is an extract from |a letter he wrote to her from Knysna in February 1932: "Up to the moment of the catastrophe the trip was a great success. For sunshine, scenery, bathing, and motoring [!], the place is unbeatable. In Cape Town I did a stupendous lecture on Russia, speaking for an hour-and-three-quarters without turning a hair, at the City Hall, and enriching the local Fabian Society beyond the dreams of avarice.|I also made the first broadcast to be relayed all over the Union of SA."

Shaw was well prepared for his first visit to SA. He arrived with |a thought-provoking "interview" that he had prepared for the Cape Times that tackled the lack of rights for non-whites. He asked the Fabians outright whether "Natives" were admitted to trade unions, just the sort of question that General Herzog, the Prime Minister, was hoping he would avoid.

A leader in The Argus is revealing: "How will SA react to Mr Shaw and he to us? No doubt our politics and our native policy will strike him as astonishingly funny. But if our weather behaves nicely, our sun, and our respectful interest in Mr Shaw may lead him to deal lightly with our very obvious shortcomings."

Shaw's arrival was treated as an event of national importance full of potential danger, but few can have been relieved when Shaw turned his attention to broader issues of religion. …

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