George Bernard Shaw: Man of the Century

By Archibald Henderson | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 63
Temperament and Personality

BERNARD SHAW WAS ONE OF THOSE CURIOUS FIGURES IN LITERARY HISTORY-- Rabelais, Stendhal, Voltaire, Rousseau, Blake, Swift, Ruskin, Nietzsche--who preoccupy and obsess us with that "affectation of singularity" which is the monomark of a deeper reality of singularity. He stood out conspicuously in his age as one who resolutely and defiantly forced contemporary recognition of his genius. Like Whistler he seemed to accomplish this miracle by flippant wit, egotistic iteration, and complacent assumption of his superiority. It was a dangerous illusion, as his young imitators found to their cost. Shaw's real foundation was a mass of work which never left his hands until he had perfected it to the utmost of his powers. Anyone who will examine the entire bulk of his output will be surprised to find how little is known of it. His swanking was only his fun, done to amuse himself and the public in his scanty leisure. There is no reason to doubt his sincerity when he declared that his enormous publicity distracted attention from his work instead of limelighting it, and that he was really the worst advertised author of his age in the world.

Shaw's writings alone, however able or distinguished, would never, one hazards, have sufficed to procure him during his lifetime the peculiar eminence he enjoys today. Shaw was a professional celebrity, a self-styled phenomenon. Like all great artists--Shakespeare, Wagner, Ibsen, Strauss, Stravinsky--who have something new and rich and strange to offer to the world, he waged an unceasing warfare with the public. In criticism he fought for untrammeled outspokenness--the right to depreciate Shakespeare no less than to glorify Shaw. In the theater, he fought for the hearing and recognition of a new kind of play to which the critics denied the name of drama. It was the battle of the little theater against the commercial theater, of the coterie theater against the mass theater, of the experimental drama against the standardized, conventionalized drama.

No one familiar with Shaw's plays and especially the prefaces to the plays, which are wide-ranging treatises upon the larger social, philosophical, and religious ideas provoked by the plays, can have failed to note the combative tone in which they are pitched. Through them all sounds the Keltic challenge to combat--the defiant voice of one who trails the tails of his coat on the ground and dares anyone to tread upon them. It is the cry of the bravo who

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