Rather like a ghost of a ghost of Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw occupies one of those uncomfortable seats in history: Everybody knows the name, few people know anything about him, and though his work shapes our culture, probably fewer can tell you how, or why.
Caption from Today in Literature: Shaw shaking his head while looking at his bust, done by Sigismund de Strobl (Photo from TinL, too)
Today in Literature sent out a note:
George Bernard Shaw was born in Dublin on this day in 1856 — “fifty years to soon,” according to his calculations, and as if from another planet: “Whether it be that I was born mad or a little too sane, my kingdom was not of this world.”
Shaw portrays his parents as wildly divergent oddballs, their only shared emotion being a feeling of disinterested neutrality towards their offspring: “We as children had to find our own way in a household where there was neither hate nor love.” Mother’s habit of “lavishing indifference” upon him granted Shaw objectivity, and taught him to keep people at arm’s length — close enough to be moved by them, distant enough to be moved only to a quip, a quarrel, or a cause. And Dad was “a model father” because his ruinous enthusiasms for alcohol and tobacco inspired the son to abstain from both.
If, as Shaw claimed, “drink and lunacy were minor specialities” in his clan, then perhaps the spirit of detachment ran in the family too. Shaw seemed to think so: “Fortunately I have a heart of stone,” he wrote in 1939, “else my relations would have broken it long ago.” Biographer Michael Holroyd, concurring that the Shaws were an odd bunch, tells the final years and moments of one madcap uncle this way:
Uncle Barney was an inordinate smoker as well as a drunkard. Frequently drunk by dawn, he lived a largely fuddled life until he was past fifty. Then, relinquishing alcohol and tobacco simultaneously, he passed the next ten years of his life as a teetotaler, playing an obsolete wind instrument called an ophicleide. Towards the end of this period, renouncing the ophicleide* and all its works, he married a lady of great piety, took off his boots and fell completely silent. He was carried off to the family asylum where, “impatient for heaven,” he discovered an absolutely original method of committing suicide … involving as it did an empty carpet bag. However, in the act of placing this bag on his head, Uncle Barney jammed the mechanism of his heart in a paroxysm of laughter, which the merest hint of his suicidal technique never failed to provoke among the Shaws — and the result was that he died a second before he succeeded in killing himself.
Can you name any of Shaw’s works? Which of them have you read, or seen performed?
What’s your favorite Shaw story? Which of your favorite Shaw stories are untrue, or hoaxes?
* The ophicleide is not well known today; it’s similar to the sudophone.
George Bernard Shaw in 1899, at 43. Most photos show Shaw as an old man — he should, perhaps, be remembered more as a young rake. Wikimedia image. Shaw said, “The liar’s punishment is, not in the least that he is not believed, but that he cannot believe anyone else.” Quintessence of Ibsenism, 1891, “The Two Pioneers.”