Not long ago I described how a number of us gathered together to commemorate the centenary of Oscar Wilde’s birth. We stood in the street outside the house in Chelsea where he lived until disgrace, imprisonment and exile ended his life and we watched in silence as the mayor of Chelsea placed a plaque upon the door of the house bearing the simple statement that Wilde had lived there.
Afterward we adjourned to the Savoy for luncheon and listened to speeches extolling the man whose flaring genius ended in shame.
And now, or just a few days ago, a number of us went to Malvern, near Shakespeare’s lovely countryside, to honor the centenary of another Irish man of letters—George Bernard Shaw. It was arranged that on the first evening there would be a production of his play, Caesar and Cleopatra, performed by the admirable Birmingham Repertory Company as a prelude to its going to the Old Vic in London.
On the next day there was to be a luncheon where the centenary speech would be delivered by the author of London Letter. It was flattering to he thus honored, but it meant that I would have to speak to actors, authors and producers who had worked intimately with the great man.
Meanwhile every newspaper in London was full of articles written by critics, dramatists and others who had known Shaw. If there is any chuckling among the gods on Olympus there must have been a lot of it during the newspaper discussions. The hundred - year - old
Shaw in death was as much a controversial figure as when he strode the earth. In life he inspired immense controversy. Erom the Llysian Pields he still inspires it.
He died a wealthy man and it is always interesting to study how a man of substance disposes of his money. Shaw’s faithful secretary who had given her whole life to his service was left a thousand pounds. That was all. CBS had been a childless widower for many years and this faithful secretary had protected him, soothed him and served him as if she had been the only woman in his life.
But rich men who are generous in life often become mean and insensitive when making a will. In fact, almost the entire fortune of Shaw was left as a fund to be used in creating a new phonetic English alphabet. The money is still in existence but the English alphabet remains unaltered.
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Shaw left a shrine ... to which no pilgrims come
His trustees did, however, decide that his modest house in the country would be kept exactly as it was and would only be rented to an occupier who would, as far as possible, keep it as a shrine. But no one came forward. It is still there—a shrine to which no pilgrims come. The Shavians who contend that he was second only to Shakespeare as a playwright have done nothing about the dwelling place. Only recently someone offered to rent it if he could re-arrange the contents to make the place livable. 1 understand that his terms have been accepted.
There is an old saying that every child that is born becomes the battlefield of its ancestors. The varying strains of heredity are in conflict from youth to the final curtain. Shaw had the good fortune to be born in what he described as respectable impecuniosity. His father was a feckless character not unlike the father of Charles Dickens. His mother was a singer and a good pianist and there was always music in the house even if the meals were irregular.
He also had the luck to be born in Ireland while it was occupied and governed by the British. Thus there was a double clash because in addition to being the occupying power Britain was also a Protestant country ruling a Catholic community.
The paradox and perhaps the partial tragedy of Ireland is that during the British occupation Ireland produced great men in such numbers that they became rulers of nearly everything except their own country—great soldiers, great statesmen, great authors. It is only since Ireland was made free of the British yoke that no greatness has appeared.
Perhaps that is understandable. Resentment can be a great stimulus to the mind, and rebellion can inflame the soul.
But eventually Shaw’s mother brought him to London where they lived in the dull suburbanism of the Fulham Road. Shaw got a job in an oflice where he had to put stamps on the letters and buy luncheons for the clerks. As an extra selfimposed task he taught Irish songs to the clerks and conducted them with a pen when the boss was out.
In his spare time he wrote, but received nothing but rejection slips. He was unknown and editors either did not read his manuscripts or failed to discover merit in them.
At last a literary friend got him a job on a periodical where he wrote on music. And gradually London became aware of him. In the course of time he became a dramatic critic and sprang to fame as the man who was determined to destroy the theatrical tyranny of Sir Henry Irving. Shaw believed, or pretended to believe, that Irving was so tradition-bound and so powerful that there was no chance for new ideas.
Ellen Terry, that serene empress of beauty, was Irving’s leading lady and was much amused by the brash young critic from Ireland. Probably Shaw was in love with her, and he certainly wrote her endless ardent letters, but Ellen Terry was used to men falling in love with her and was not unduly excited.
Not content with waging war on Irving our young Irishman decided to attack Shakespeare. He declared in print over and over again that the Shakespeare cult was so strong that people’s brains were closed to new ideas and undiscovered genius—by which he meant himself.
Then he seized on Ibsen whose newest play was drawing less than a corporal’s guard in a tiny West-End theatre. But this was no pretense on Shaw’s part. Taking up his pen he wrote in his theatre column: “Last night at Her Majesty’s Theatre The Flag Lieutenant had its two hundredth performance before a capacity audience. And also last night a play by Ibsen was performed to an audience of twenty. But because Ibsen’s play was performed it constitutes an ultimate death sentence on The Flag Lieutenant.”
Soon Shaw was the outstanding dramatic critic of London. Controversy had carried him to fame. And then one day he threw down his pen and resigned: “I cannot go on cannonading cock-shaffers.” As a dramatic critic for many years in London 1 know exactly what he meant. A critic sees plays that only an idiot would endure.
Shaw was henceforth to be a dramatist in his own right. His fame mounted but controversy kept pace. He was such an exhibitionist that he grew a beard that was to become famous, wore a countryman’s clothes in town, joined the socialist party in its salad days, mocked society and ridiculed the smugness of Victorianism.
Yet not even his crank outlook and his love of unpopular causes could hide the fact that here was a playwright with such a command of language and so profound a knowledge of the theatre that the whole civilized world would feel his impact.
With the mysticism of the Irish he could see the hidden secrets beyond the clouds and sense the shape of things to come. One character of his play, Man and Superman, was that new phenomenon in British life—the chauffeur. Yes! The man who understood machines would be the master of the world.
Then there was Pygmalion, in which he set out to prove that the difference between a Cockney flower girl in Covcnt Garden market and the society hostess in her luxurious home was the way in which you treated them. You will remember how in the play he picks up a flower girl, sends her to a professor of phonetics to give her a refined accent and then launches her on London society.
She gets away with it perfectly until, as you all know, a young man asked her at a reception if he could see her home through the park. To which came the immortal reply: “Not bloody likely!”
London was shocked. London was startled. London was delighted. Shaw had become a legend while still alive. Incidentally Pygmalion is the terrific Broadway hit of 1956 in a musical version, but under another name. But now we see Shaw moving toward real greatness. His musical training began to take effect on his writing. English is the supreme language of poetry and Shaw, although mocking Shakespeare, knew that the Bard of Avon was the greatest musician of words in all time.
In the trial scene of his play, St. Joan, Shaw arranged the actors like an orchestra and cast them according to their voices. I once asked him what he thought of a certain actor and he answered: “If he had two more notes in his voice he would be our greatest star.”
My first contact with him came in the very early 1920s when I had joined Lord Beaverbrook’s Daily Express. My job on the paper was vague and certainly had nothing to do with the theatre.
At that time Shaw was out of fashion. Noel Coward and Ivor Novello were the new idols of the theatre, the hideosity of the short skirt was about to burst upon us, jazz was in the air. In such a mood Shaw’s new play. Heartbreak House, produced at the little Court Theatre in Sloane Square, was mocked by the critics.
The story is too long to tell in detail but l telephoned Shaw, whom 1 had never met, and arranged a special matinee of the play when the critics would come again and debate the play with Shaw on the stage. There were great crowds trying to get in for the matinee but next night the theatre was almost empty and the management went bankrupt.
But Shaw never lessened in his gratitude and friendship toward me. Therefore it was a joy when many years later as editor 1 could persuade him to write occasional articles for the Express.
So jealous was he of his reputation that he would demand a printer’s proof which would come back with endless alterations in his spidery handwriting, plus a demand for a new proof. It. in turn, would come back with more spidery alterations and still another demand for a proof.
But his star was sinking. Tired of the bungling of the socialists, still at war with the Conservatives, rich in money, but wearying of the world, he outlived his time. The death of his wife left him a lone creature, yet from his pen came that brilliant prophetic comedy. The Apple Cart, in which he showed America trying to rejoin the British empire.
Today the Anglo-American partnership is the basis of Western civilization, and our queen is loved almost as much in America as in the commonwealth.
And before Shaw' died he saw Heartbreak House hailed as a triumph. Undoubtedly it was his greatest play and will live as long as men are moved by the witchery, the music and the architecture of words.
Thus, on the centenary of Shaw’s birth, my wife and I motored to those rolling hills and wistful villages that fired Shakespeare's genius into flame, and to the assembled pilgrims I made the anniversary speech with such words as w'crc within my command. Then we drank to the memory of the man who tried so hard to destroy his own immortality but failed.
Late that night after reaching home in London I took down from my library shelves the volume of his plays that includes The Doctor’s Dilemma. Many of you will remember the last few minutes of the play when the wretched young painter who had cheated his way through life is dying in the presence of the interested doctors and the wife whom he treated so badly.
Even in his last moments the artist mocks the doctors. As he sees death beckoning to him he blusters that he has done nothing wrong, that he has fought the good fight and never denied the faith. It is as if he is trying to come to terms with Ciod at the last moment.
Then he feebly folds his hands. Slowly, gently and with the serenity of death almost upon him he utters his secret creed:
"I believe in Michael Angelo. Velasquez, and Rembrandt; in the might of design, the mystery of color, the redemption of all things by Beauty everlasting, and the message of Art that has made these hands blessed. Amen. Amen."
If there be some who can read those words unmoved at least they must agree that seldom in the whole literature of the drama has there been such music and rhythm and color in one short speech. Even to write down those words touches the emotions—but think of their impact when spoken on the stage.
Having mocked our tears when he was alive. Shaw’ now threatens to command them in death, if
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