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Books: Greatest Shavian

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G. B S. A FULL LENGTH PORTRAIT—Hesketh Pearson—Harper ($3.50).

In the spring of 1898 there appeared in London’s Saturday Review a drama column which said: “The English do not know what to think until they are coached, laboriously and insistently for years, in the proper and becoming opinion. For ten years past … I have been dinning into the public head that I am an extraordinarily witty, brilliant and clever man. That is now part of the public opinion of England; and no power in heaven or on earth will ever change it. I may dodder and dote; I may parboil and platitudinize; I may become the butt and chopping block of all the bright, original spirits of the rising generation; but my reputation shall not suffer; it is built up fast and solid, like Shakespeare’s, on an impregnable basis of dogmatic reiteration. . . .» The column was signed by G.B.S.

In G.B.S. A Full Length Portrait, Author Hesketh Pearson tells the full story of the man behind this reputation. Never before has there appeared so complete and fascinating a study of George Bernard Shaw. Author Pearson has drawn on 30 years of intimate friendship with Shaw. His book has the marks of an official biography, is crammed with Shaw’s comments and corrections. New to readers will be the chapter on the women in Shaw’s life, the detailed section on his childhood and early upbringing.

Teetotallng Tosspot. Father George Carr Shaw early inspired Son Bernard with a sense of the ridiculous. Ruined in his Dublin business, “he found the magnitude of the catastrophe so irresistibly amusing” that he laughed “until he was exhausted.” Surgeon Sir William Wilde (Oscar’s father) operated on Father

Shaw’s squint, “overdid the correction so much,” says Shaw, “that my father squinted the other way all the rest of his life.” Father Shaw taught Bernard that the Bible was “the damndest parcel of lies ever written,” adding that it was to be heartily respected. He was a bigoted teetotaler, he assured his fiancée, forgetting to add that this was “due to the agonies of remorse he always suffered after his frequent bouts of intoxication.”

Mother Shaw was without “comedic impulses,” failed to roar with laughter when her husband, a goose under one arm a ham under the other, butted his top hat vainly against the garden wall in the belief that he was opening the gate. Warmer, and obscenely humorous, was his father’s brother, who was “reputed to sit with a Bible on his knees, and an opera glass to his eyes, watching the ladies’ bathing place.” Eventually he was taken to an asylum, where he played Home, Sweet Home on the flute. He died from closing a carpetbag on his neck.

“A devil of a childhood,” says Shaw. But family example made him a rigid teetotaler and a player of wind instruments. It also taught him to laugh at tragedy, to mix comedy and sadness. School days developed his contempt for educational institutions, he claimed that he learned nothing at school. Prison, he said, was far preferable: “They may torture your body; but they do not torture your brains.” Schoolboy Shaw became a lying, stealing, cowardly brat and a sensitive, musical creature who composed private prayers to God.

When family finances got tight, Shaw, scarcely 15 years old, became clerk “in a first-class and intensely snobbish firm of land agents at 18s a month.” Despite his efforts to spend work hours teaching fellow clerks atheism and opera, he was promoted to cashier. One day a friendly apprentice remarked to Shaw “that every young chap thought he was going to be a great man.” Shaw realizing suddenly that he had always known he would be great, quit and left for London. He was 19.

Shameless Sponger. In London he spent nine years of semi-poverty and struggle. Shaw admits he lived shamelessly off his mother’s small earnings as a singing teacher, that his determination to write made him utterly ruthless. “I did not throw myself into the struggle for life: I threw my mother into it. I was not a staff to my father’s old age: I hung on to his coattails.” Reading in the British Museum converted him to Marxism. He also studied carefully a book called The Manners and Tone of Good Society and learned to speak at street corners. Soon he was an enthusiastic member of the Fabian Society, then a small group of radical intellectuals.

But Shaw decided that the revolution could not be won in a day. Taking part in a worker’s demonstration, he saw troops and police charge the crowd, saw his fellows run madly for safety. When they appealed to him for leadership, he was helpless. Said he later: “I am a thinker, not a fighter. When the shooting begins I shall get under the bed, and not emerge until^we come to real constructive business.” He threw himself vigorously into municipal government, spent years on committees as vestryman and councilor. There he learned to conciliate his political enemies, became scornful of Labor M.P.s who lost their seats by refusing to compromise. “When I think,” he said, “of my own unfortunate character, smirched with compromise, rotted with opportunism, mildewed by expediency . . . dragged through the mud of Borough Councils … I do think Joe might have put up with just a speck or two on those white robes of his for the sake of the millions of poor devils who cannot afford any character at all because they have no friends in parliament.” Only One Fault. But he would not compromise in his artistic life. As a music critic, as dramatic and art columnist, he shocked thousands of readers and editors. “My criticism has not,” he said, “any other fault than the inevitable one of extreme unfairness.”

Sample unfairnesses:

> “I have no more to say generally [of Gounod’s Redemption] than that if you only take the precaution to go in long enough after it commences and to come out long enough before it is over, you will not find it wearisome.”

> “There is nothing that soothes me more after a long and maddening course of pianoforte recitals than to sit and have my teeth drilled by a finely skilled hand.”

> “During the past month Art has suffered an unusually severe blow at the hands of the Royal Academy by the opening of the annual exhibition at Burlington House.”

His correspondence with editors was just as lively. The Daily Chronicle wrote him furiously: “Dear Sir, I am directed by the editor to inform you that he will see you damned before he gives you more than £5 for the article in question.” Shaw replied: “Dear Sir, Please inform the editor that I will see him and you and the whole Chronicle staff boiled in hell before I will do it for that money.”

Shaw’s first plays were received without enthusiasm, but soon he was battling with the dramatic leaders of his day. Invited to Westminster Abbey for Shakespearean Actor Sir Henry Irving’s funeral, he retorted: “Literature, alas, has no place at his death as it had no place in his life. Irving would turn in his coffin if I came, just as Shakespeare will turn in his coffin when Irving comes.”

Intellectual Eunuch. With his fiery reputation, red beard and white complexion, women found Shaw fascinating. They disagreed with a critic’s description of him as looking like “an unskillfully poached egg” or being, as H. G. Wells said spitefully, “an intellectual eunuch.” He fell blissfully in love with Socialist Poet William Morris’ daughter May. But she married a mutual friend. In later years he admitted that May had a mustache, insisted that “it made a pair of lines so decorative that they would have enchanted the finest Maori tattoo artist.”

In general Shaw was biologically cold: “My pockets are always full of the small change of lovemaking; but it is magic money, not real money.” “The ideal love affair is one conducted by post,” he told Author Pearson. One such love affair he conducted for years with Actress Ellen Terry. He had no sex life until he was 29, when he was “virtually raped” by Jenny Patterson, one of his mother’s singing pupils. But he decided sex relations were “hopeless as a basis for permanent relations.”

Death he dismissed as vigorously as sex. But he had a horror of earth burial, bought shares in crematoria, was thrilled by the artistic effect of their “twirling ribbons of soaring, garnet-colored flames.” After his mother’s cremation he “found [her] calcined remains . . . strewn on a stone table at which two men . . . looking exactly like cooks, were busily picking out and separating the scraps. …” “Coal was very scarce,” he said when his sister died, “and Lucy burnt with a steady white light. . . .”

His play Saint Joan (1924) was his biggest box-office success. Asked if it meant he was about to become a Roman Catholic, Shaw cracked: “There’s no room for two Popes. …”

World famous in World War I, Shaw showed high courage by insisting on freedom of opinion in wartime. He attacked the outcry over the sinking of the Lusitania, claimed it was sentimental to weep over the loss of a few rich passengers at a time when millions were dying horribly at the front. Dropped by dozens of friends, he lived with his stairway barricaded by iron spikes, continued to write violent criticism of the British.

Author Pearson carries his story on through the post-war years, to Shaw’s espousal of the Soviets, his defense of Edward VIII in the abdication crisis. He discusses Shaw’s youthful novels and political writings, gives details of production and cast of virtually every Shaw play. Each aspect of G.B.S.’s life he illustrates with a host of anecdotes. More recorder than critic, Pearson has nothing new to say about the literary qualities of the famous plays. He simply believes that Shaw is “that rarest of creatures: a great character, whose humorous sanity irradiated an epoch which will probably be known to history as the Shavian age.”

The Author. Broad-shouldered, highbrowed, 6-ft.-2 Hesketh Pearson was born to write a life of paradoxical G.B.S. “Two and two equal any sum that takes my fancy,” he cracked in his autobiography (Thinking It Over, TIME, Sept. 5, 1938). Pearson has fathered eight biographies, mostly lives of prominent English literati (William Hazlitt, Erasmus Darwin, Gilbert & Sullivan, Shakespeare). He also wrote a life of Henry Labouchère, fashionable, witty editor of the London weekly Truth, who got into hot water at court by questioning the right of the Duke of Cambridge to ride at the head of the army “with his drawn salary in his hand.”

Destined for the Church, Biographer Pearson says: “I didn’t see myself as a man of God, so I went on the stage in 1913.” In that year he met G.B.S., played in Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion and The Doctor’s Dilemma. In World War I he served as a British officer in Mesopotamia.

“My advice is don’t,” said Shaw, when Biographer Pearson suggested writing his life. Pearson persisted, worked on the biography for two years, visiting Shaw once a week at his London home in Whitehall Court. Even during the London blitz, Biographer Pearson wrote on unperturbed. His only interruption was an incendiary bomb in the bath. Said Shaw, when he read the book: “Boswellian.”

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