George Bernard Shaw: Man of the Century

By Archibald Henderson | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 62
Anecdotes and Noble GBeSsences

Shaw ONCE DESCRIBED HIMSELF, WITH PERFECT ACCURACY, AS THE JESTER AT the court of King Demos. Beneath all his jesting was a skeletal structure of basic truth. He remarked to me privately after I had introduced him to Samuel L. Clemens: " Mark Twain and I are in very much the same position. We have to put things in such a way as to make people who would otherwise hang us believe that we are joking."

Shaw's case is really that of Voltaire all over again. Voltaire was summed up by one of his biographers as "a mere monkey of genius, who amused and diverted by his funny tricks"; and by another as "the best Christian of his time, the first and most glorious disciple of Jesus." The New York critics of The Simpleton of the Unexpected Isles took the author severely to task for his "simian antics" in throwing coconuts at the audience from the jungle. The Rev. R. J. Campbell, propounder of "The New Theology," described Christ as the "Bernard Shaw of his day."

From an address on "Shaw as a World Power" at the Town Hall Shaw Dinner, January 10, 1930, I venture diffidently to quote a few words:

In every age the world demands some passionate protestant, to compel us to justify our beliefs and to evaluate our lives. Cervantes and Molière, Swift and Voltaire, Ibsen and Carlyle, Ruskin and Shaw. Each fought the battle for individual liberty, a finer art, a purer life, a nobler race.

In one of the most thrilling of orations Victor Hugo said: "To combat pharisaism; to unmask imposture; to overthrow tyrannies, usurpations, prejudices, falsehoods, superstitions . . . ; to replace the false by the true; . . . to reclaim the heritage of the disinherited; to protect the weak, the poor, the suffering, the overwhelmed . . . that was the war of Jesus Christ! And who wages that war?" Victor Hugo, in his age, answered "Voltaire"; and I, in mine, answer, "Shaw."

Shaw is a singular composite of the playboy and the prophet, the harlequin and the hermit, the pierrot and the philosopher. By calculation he is a split personality, a weird combination of opposites: Barnum and Bunyan, Butler and Blake, Dickens and Jeremiah. Through the flashes of his wit we discern the lineaments of the sage. Epigram and anticlimax are his favorite weapons; and his sermons are more impressive and eloquent than those of many a bishop.

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