In a two part series for Rebel, Paul O’Brien looks back at the political impact of the playwriting and activism of socialist dramatist Bernard Shaw.
Any decent second-hand bookshop has acres of shelves devoted to Bernard Shaw that nobody buys. At this remove, it’s hard to imagine how influential Shaw was in his time. He was the author of fifty-two plays, thousands of essays, and was one of the most prolific street-corner speakers arguing the case for socialism.
He was a founder member of the Fabian Society, a Nobel prize-winner, and lauded by everyone from Lenin to Churchill. Up to the 1950s he was one of the most widely read socialist thinkers in the English language.
He was born in Dublin in 1856, a Protestant, from an old Ascendancy family on the slide into middle-class gentility. His political radicalism began in Dublin, when as a landlord’s agent he saw at first hand the degradation and poverty that existed in the slums. He left Ireland at the age of twenty, but his Irish background and early life left an indelible mark on his personality and his politics.
Shaw had promised W.B. Yeats a play for the opening of the Abbey Theatre in 1904, but on receipt of the script Yeats decided that the play was beyond the technical and financial abilities of the Abbey. John Bull’s Other Island was subsequently produced in London. Shaw depicted the reality of Ireland that had little to do with the idealised picture presented by Yeats and Lady Gregory on the stage of the Abbey Theatre.
However, Shaw seems to have written John Bull’s Other Island with a London audience in mind rather than the Abbey in Dublin. He wrote the play to challenge the misrepresentations and stereotyping of the Irish on the English stage. The play inverts the image of the stage Irishman and challenges the English audience assumptions about Ireland. Shaw projects Larry Doyle as a real Irishman who undercuts the stereotypical presentations typical of the period, and who Shaw hopes ‘will take over the job of stage interpreter of the Irish’. In this scene Doyle denounces Broadbent’s assumptions about the Irish:
Don’t you know that all this top-o-the-morning and broth-of-a-boy and more-power-to-your-elbow business is got up in England to fool you? No Irishman ever talks like that in Ireland, or ever did, or ever will.
The play was a critical success. Both the Prime Minister of the time and the leader of the opposition saw the performance, but whether it had any impact on British policy is open to question.
During the Dublin Lockout in 1913 Shaw spoke alongside James Connolly and Jim Larkin in the Albert Hall in London to help raise support and solidarity for the workers in Dublin. At the rally he urged the formation of a citizen’s force to protect strikers from police brutality. Two weeks later Connolly announced the formation of the Irish Citizen Army, that was to play an important role during the strike and in the 1916 Rising.
Common Sense about the War
In November 1914 the left-wing New Statesman published a pamphlet by Shaw called Common Sense about the War. Shaw wrote it to open people’s eyes to the ‘monstrous triviality… of what we imagine to be patriotism’. He blamed both sides; the Junker class in Britain and Germany who were prepared to go to war to defend their own class interests. Almost alone amongst the left intellectuals in Britain, Shaw exposed the imperialist designs that were behind the war. But Britain was in no mood to be lectured on the rights and wrongs of the war. A torrent of abuse was directed at Shaw following the publication. He was accused of treachery by both the left and right wing of the British establishment.
The pamphlet was not a pacifist tract, or indeed pro-German, as his detractors implied. Once the war commenced, Shaw reluctantly supported the British side, but he wanted better treatment for the soldiers who had to do the fighting, and for the widows of the dead soldiers who were left to raise a family on the measly war-widows pension of five shillings a week. He went on to question whether: ‘have the brave men all gone to the trenches to be betrayed by the slackers and jobbers and poltroons and party gamesters they have left behind? Shaw had no time for the British Government; he believed that it was no better than the German Government. The brutal reality of war shook his belief in the role of the intellectual elite and the leaders of the Labour movement. Shaw had seen ‘man after man in the Labour movement sell-out because he could not trust his future to the loyalty of the workers’.
At a time of crisis, such as the war, the centrality of class was thrust to the centre of Shaw’s politics. He had spent over thirty years lecturing to working-class men and women up and down the country, but could never really escape the Fabian mistrust of the uneducated worker – benevolent dictator or superman was always there in the back of his mind as the solution to society’s ills. Shaw’s belief in rational argument permeates his writings on the war. But he had no political forces or organisation to implement his views on the war. In contrast, Lenin and the Bolsheviks simple slogan ‘Bread, Peace, and Land’ aimed at the workers, soldiers, and peasants mobilised a movement that ended the war in Russia and instituted the social changes advocated by Shaw.
Shaw tried to explain his position by way of Ireland. He published a letter in the Freeman’s Journal urging Irish support for France and decrying all the pro-German sentiment as a betrayal of Ireland’s ‘old comrades’, the French. However, Shaw’s letter only showed up how out of touch he was on Ireland. All this was to little effect; his claim to be an Irishman, and therefore objective about the war, cut no ice in England.
At the outbreak of the war Shaw had little interest in Irish nationalism, and even less understanding of the political reality in Ireland. He had promised Irish dramatist Lady Gregory a play for the Abbey to assist with the finances. O’Flaherty, V.C. was a recruiting play to encourage Irishmen to enlist in the war effort. In typical Shavian style, he appeals to Irish discontent, and the desire for adventure; the solution is to enlist and see the world – or at least the world from the trenches of France. O’Flaherty’s mother, an Irish nationalist. is outraged that her son had joined the British army, but is calmed by O’Flaherty’s declaration that he joined the army paying the largest allowance. The irony of Shaw suggesting that unsophisticated Irishmen could be fooled into joining British war effort by suggesting in the play that England was the real enemy was not understood or appreciated by the authorities in Dublin Castle. The production was cancelled and O’Flaherty, V.C. did not see the light of day until the end of the war.
Shaw initially had little sympathy for the Irish rebels in 1916. On 30 April he wrote to a friend that ‘the Irish business is rather ghastly’. This ghastly business took a different turn when Shaw heard of the murder of his friend Sheehy Skeffington by a British army officer, and the execution of the leaders of the Rising in the aftermath of the rebellion. As the executions dragged on, Shaw wrote a letter of protest to The Daily News in London which appeared on 10 May. Shaw defended the actions of the rebels, and the right of any Irishman, as he was, to take up arms to achieve independence for his country. Shaw’s letter added to the disgust in Ireland and England that many felt about the almost daily executions that were taking place in Dublin. Anger at the rebels gave way to admiration for their courage and a real resentment at the policy of the government. Two days later, following the execution of James Connolly, the executions were halted. The ninety-seven prisoners who had been sentenced to death had their sentences commuted to life imprisonment. There is no doubt that Shaw’s letter was influential in shifting opinion in British government circles. It is also to Shaw’s credit that he contributed a substantial sum to the fund for the wife and children of James Connolly.
In the wake of the failed Rising, Shaw’s sympathies for Irish freedom and his personal identity as an Irishman, grew even stronger. Shaw’s attention was now fixed on Roger Casement who was due to face trial that August. Casement had been arrested as he landed on the coast off Kerry from a German submarine a few days before the Rising. Casement had been in Germany trying to raise support and obtain arms for the Irish Volunteers. Shaw wrote a draft of a speech to be delivered by Casement from the dock with all the thunder that he was capable of. He wanted Casement to justify his actions, to speak to the future as Robert Emmet had done in 1803. The draft even closes with an Emmet-style flourish: ‘Gentlemen I have done my duty: now it is your turn’.
Casement was found guilty and hanged on 3 August 1916. Casement had discarded most of Shaw’s draft, but it was unlikely that any strategy could have saved him, especially after information concerning Casement’s homosexual activities was made public. Shaw was not deterred by this, and right up to the last moment he petitioned for his sentence to be commuted. Casement’s execution and martyrdom was an underlying theme in Shaw’s treatment of Joan of Arc in his play Saint Joan.
Shaw was running out of friends in Britain. His perceived opposition to the war and his support for the Irish Rebellion left him isolated and practically friendless. However, Shaw’s public support for the Rising and his efforts on behalf of Casement had not gone unnoticed in Ireland. When the Abbey Theatre reopened in the aftermath of the Rising, they staged three of Shaw’s plays, John Bull’s Other Island, Arms and the Man, and Widowers’ Houses. The Abbey was sold out almost every night. In March 1917 the Abbey presented Man and Superman, and The Inca of Perusalem, followed by The Doctor’s Dilemma. Shaw was the toast of literary Dublin even if the Little Irelanders’ complained that this was at the cost of local writers and dramatists.
Shaw remained an unapologetic supporter of Ireland’s right to self-determination. He opposed the partition of Ireland, damning the Unionists for wanting to make ‘Ulster an autonomous political lunatic asylum’. But he was equally appalled by the Civil War that tore the country apart.
Shaw had introduced Henrik Ibsen, the Norwegian realist playwright, to the English-speaking world and in the process he practically created twentieth-century drama. With Saint Joan and Caesar and Cleopatra he reinvented the history play, which had been virtually dormant since Elizabethan times. In all his plays Shaw transformed the ideas of politics into the language of life. In his soul he was a socialist and he made no attempt to hide the fact that he wrote for a purpose. Almost single-handedly he laid the basis for a socialist theatre. Shaw was the most prolific writer of his time; his fifty-two plays in terms of quantity and quality are equaled only in the past by Shakespeare and Ibsen. In addition, he was a music and theatre critic, and a first-class polemicist.
Shaw wrote Widowers’ Houses in 1884 shortly after his discovery of Marxism, and it is the nearest he ever came to writing a purely socialist play. In it, Dr. Harry Trench is a thoroughgoing bourgeois liberal living off the income from the family fortune. He is horrified when he discovers that his prospective father-in-law is a rack-renting slum landlord. He is even more horrified when he discovers that his own unearned income derives from the same source. The play lacks the fluency and ease of his later plays, but Widowers’ Houses is no mere polemic; it is a play, which disturbingly shows the soul of man under capitalism ‘thoroughly corrupted and deformed’. Shaw insisted that his characters were not exceptions, but typical members of their class. The alternative, socialism, is unspoken; the play does not inspire the audience with a vision of their own creative strength; the impetus towards socialism comes from the revulsion caused by the grim analysis of the status quo.
Mrs. Warren’s Profession, the most challenging and most notorious of Shaw’s plays has essentially the same theme as Widowers’ Houses, except that Shaw makes the business of prostitution represent capitalism in general. Shaw was a campaigner for women’s liberation and here he makes the point that if workingmen have nothing to sell but their labour; women have nothing to sell but themselves. The subject of the play meant that it was unthinkable that it would be allowed a public performance in the 1890s. Even now, over a hundred years later, audiences sometimes feel a sense of discomfort with the moral tone of the play.
However, Shaw’s critique of capitalist society is not quite as forceful as in Widowers’ Houses. The protagonists are more tolerable and likeable, a trait that was to become one of Shaw’s hallmarks, than in the earlier work. He makes us like Mrs. Warren, the prostitute turned madam, and Vivie her vulgar daughter, as opposed to the distasteful characters in Widowers’ Houses. Shaw’s plays stand in contrast to the simplistic melodrama of the time, whose villains were cardboard cut-out caricatures of reality. Shaw’s exploiters were never straw-men or women, they were complex characters caught up in moral dilemmas that exposed in a surprising and meaningful way the contradictions inherent in capitalist society. Boss Mangan the businessman in Heartbreak House is one of the most vulgar, greedy, and irredeemable characters Shaw ever created, or any other dramatist for that matter.
Shaw is best known for Pygmalion, which was transformed into the musical and film My Fair Lady. Pygmalion is an anti-romantic comedy, and the unspoken play contained within it shows the contradiction between the false morality of the ruling class and the reality of the world on which it is based, a contradiction which of course was lost in the Hollywood translation.
Hardly any of the work produced in the last twenty years of Shaw’s life deserves to be revived. But, at least five or six of his plays are classics that will continue to be performed. In a world dominated by poverty and war, Shaw was concerned in his life as well as in his work as much as any other writer, and more than most, with that subject matter.