George Bernard Shaw: Man of the Century

By Archibald Henderson | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 47
The New Politics

BERNARD SHAW WAS A MAN OF AFFAIRS. HIS PREOCCUPATION WITH POLITICS-- polity, the welfare of the State--was intense and unremitting. In the Fabian Society he played, on a mimic stage, the rôle of the statesman. In a speech in celebration of his seventieth birthday, he declared he did not care a snap of his finger for his literary eminence in comparison with his pioneering and constructive work as one of the founders and organizers of the Labour Party. He has delivered hundreds of speeches in behalf of political causes and individual candidatures galore. The overwhelming majority of his writing and public speaking, exclusive of the writing of plays, concerned itself with politics in the largest sense of the word--the study and contrast of social classes, the wealth and poverty, the welfare and misery of the people. Economics and finance--the vertebrate structure of contemporary politics--occupied a large part of his attention. At times, I am obsessed by the feeling that art played a very secondary part in the life of this international publicist. During the War of 1914-1918 he assumed the rôle of Statesman without Portfolio and held that position thereafter.

Fortunately for literature the searchlight of his critical genius falls definitely upon political issues. In John Bull's Other Island he studies the Anglo- Irish question as a problem of racial, social, political and religious contrast and conflict. In Heartbreak House, he portrays the tragicomedy of the débâcle of British society, character and leadership in face of an imminent world cataclysm. In The Apple Cart are vividly displayed the political bankruptcy of contemporary democracy, the fact that it can be exploited by a clever monarch more easily than by a democratic adventurer, and the present-day subservience and subjection of both aristocracy and monarchy to plutocracy.

John Bull's Other Island ( 1904) is essentially a British comedy, indigenous to the soil, topical and nationally local, with little or no likelihood of, or potentiality for, crossing frontiers. It is in the line of classic tradition in British comedy--Goldsmith, Sheridan, Wilde, Shaw--embodying witty and searching satire by Irishmen of English temperament, character, politics and social life. Shaw, this "fatherlandless fellow" (vaterlandlose Geselle) as the Germans during the War of 1914-1918 scornfully called him, surpassed his fellow countrymen in objectivity; for he possessed the essential dramatic quality of

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