George Bernard Shaw: Man of the Century

By Archibald Henderson | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 46
The Social Struggle

THE WAY OF THE SATIRIST IN THE THEATER IS HARD. IF HE SATIRIZES CURRENT customs and institutions too sharply, he runs the grave risk of driving from the theater the clientele on which his livelihood depends. Even if his livelihood be not dependent upon the success of his plays--and this was the case with Shaw--no man likes to fail in his chosen profession. Shaw entertained very decisive views regarding the function of the theater, taking it seriously as a forum for the most advanced ideas on contemporary social, economic, scientific and religious problems. He waged a continual warfare in behalf of the higher drama, the vehicle for constructive and reformatory ideas about current institutions. The fight he waged was an uphill battle for fifteen years.

Shaw's wit and satire were liabilities as well as assets. For the silly critics, who didn't know their own silly business, would attend his plays, laugh uproariously for three hours, and the next morning slate the play as unworthy of being treated seriously, because he so obviously had his tongue in his cheek! This went on so long that at last, in Fanny's First Play, he turned the tables on the critics and covered them with the most genial ridicule. The public, out of sheer enjoyment of this supposedly anonymous work, played Shaw's game for him, laughed the critics out of countenance, and left him completely victorious. His eminence, indeed, his pre-eminence, in contemporary British drama was never thereafter seriously challenged. Shaw had won the long battle against prejudice, stupidity, malevolence, and superciliousness.

The two critics who really failed him were Walkley and Archer. The Greek scholar, with his classic allusiveness and his reverence for French models, treated him with a patronizing condescension which to anyone not so equable and good-natured as Shaw would have been maddening. While finding Shaw "more entertaining than any other living writer for the stage," Walkley flatly pronounced him "no dramatist at all." The worthy Archer, with a reformatory zeal for the improvement of a man of intelligence and genius far beyond his capacity to understand, wrestled with this Dark Angel of the theater, who would go his own way, resolute and rejoicing. He protested against Shaw's introducing the most advanced ideas in the theater, crassly laughed at him for being ahead of his age, spoke in solemnly regretful tones of his most brilliant qualities, tacked deprecatory characterizations upon

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