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Subversive Shaw, Part 2: Politics, Women, and Sex

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“If I were a woman, I’d simply refuse to speak to any man or do anything for men until I got the vote... Women should have a revolution! They should shoot, kill, maim, destroy — until they are given the vote.”

Interview, George Bernard Shaw
The Tribune, March 12, 1906

George Bernard Shaw, Digital ID th-50443, New York Public Library This blog post is one of the few spaces left in the Internet universe that will guarantee you no dishing about celebrities. You are safe here. When it comes to the notable figures of world literature, however, I make no such claim. While my better nature tells me that an author should be judged solely on the basis of his or her words as they appear on the printed page, some darker devil in my personality is endlessly attracted to the knotty biographic details of authors’ lives. Sometimes the words reveal the life, other times the words disguise the life, and usually there is a tricky, interwoven combination of the two.

Although Shaw’s plays are not, strictly speaking, autobiographical, certain elements of his life seem to provide the brickwork that supports many of them, especially his political attitudes, his relationships with women, and his attitudes towards sex.

* * *

I began research on my upcoming presentation “Subversive Shaw: An Introduction to the Life and Work of George Bernard Shaw” by scouring the Internet for information, but came up with little more than an occasional stalk of wheat poking bravely from an almost limitless sea of chaff. What surprised me most was how many websites exist which drip with hatred for a Victorian playwright who’s been dead for 60 years. Some of this has to do with Shaw’s early atheism, and some with his unorthodox views on marriage, but mostly, this has to do with his socialist politics. The people who create such sites seem to have similar problems with our federal government, and sometimes these two dissimilar threads are rolled together into one big incomprehensible ball of anger. They stop just short of claiming that Shaw was born in Kenya.

After my Internet foray, I turned to The New York Public Library’s collection of books by and about Shaw — and there, of course, found a real wealth of material. (We seem to have come a long way from our 1905 ban on Man and Superman.) Still, despite all the millions of published words by and about him, Shaw remains a complex and paradoxical character. Although generally acclaimed as the most generous and humane of men, incapable of vindictiveness or cruelty, it is his political ideas, which spanned a long and well-packed working life, that have sparked no end of heated discussion and can still seem confusing. They include his commitment to Fabian Socialism, his sometimes contradictory impulse towards Marxism, his antipathy to all things capitalist, his declarations after visiting the Soviet Union that he was a “communist,” and certain of his later comments which caused him to be labeled a fascist sympathizer.

Some of these attitudes find their way into the dramatic work. A few plays, particularly the early ones like Mrs. Warren’s Profession, are outright attacks on the capitalist system. Later, in Major Barbara, after two acts of sublime comedy, Shaw seems to fall under the spell of his powerful armaments manufacturer, Andrew Undershaft. The workers employed by Undershaft seem to dwell contentedly in a community which is described as very much an ideal socialist state, but in which you might also detect a faint whiff of totalitarianism. In Man and Superman, when John Tanner is waylaid by Mendoza and his band of brigands, their exchange is perhaps a little too suggestive of today’s headlines from Washington:

MENDOZA: I am a brigand: I live by robbing the rich.

TANNER: I am a gentleman: I live by robbing the poor.

* * *

The intelligent woman's guide to socialism and capitalism., Digital ID 488897, New York Public Library While a male author’s personal relationships with women and sexuality might be considered off limits for legitimate literary research, in Shaw’s case these issues animate much of his best and liveliest work.

He created some of the choicest roles for strong, independent women in all of dramatic literature. You have only to think of Eliza Doolittle, Major Barbara, Saint Joan, or Ann Whitefield in Man and Superman — to name a random few. Many of these characters were based on women Shaw was actually involved with, either in Fabian Socialist circles, the suffragist movement, or on the stage. In fact, some of these roles were created for specific actresses, such as Lady Cicely in Captain Brassbound’s Conversion for Ellen Terry and Eliza Doolittle for Mrs. Patrick (Stella) Campbell.

I followed my reading of Michael Holroyd’s Bernard Shaw, which discussed the women in Shaw’s life in more detail than I had thought possible, with Margot Peters’ Bernard Shaw and the Actresses. This highly readable work sets Shaw’s life and attitudes alongside the birth of the feminist movement. As Peters makes clear, “the New Drama was very much the drama of the New Woman: the emancipation of women on stage reflected the emancipation of women off it, and was fought for to a great extent by actresses struggling to free themselves from the bondage of traditional roles.”

Shaw was always an avid supporter of women’s freedom to liberate themselves from traditional roles. From his earliest plays, such as Mrs. Warren’s Profession, through the publication of his best-selling The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism in 1928, he made feminist issues his own. He signed the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage resolution, marched in processions, made innumerable speeches, and contributed time, advice, and money towards the cause. Once marriage was not a woman’s sole option, and education and financial equality had been achieved through socialist reform, Shaw believed that all women, regardless of class, could proclaim along with the aviatrix Lina in Misalliance:

I am an honest woman. I earn my living. I am a free woman: I live in my own house... I am strong: I am skillful: I am brave: I am independent: I am unbought: I am all that a woman ought to be... And this Englishman! This linedraper! He dares to ask me to come and live in this rrrrrrabbit hutch, and take my bread from his hand, and ask him for pocket money, and wear soft clothes, and be his woman! His wife! Sooner than that I would sink to the lowest depths of my profession... I would sink yet lower and be an actress or an opera singer, imperiling my soul by the wicked lie of pretending to be someone else. All this I would do sooner than take my bread from the hand of a man and make him the master of my body and soul.”

* * *

George Bernard Shaw, Digital ID th-50450, New York Public LibraryFor many people, the one detail of Shaw’s life which seems to transcend all others is the fact that his marriage, at the age of 42, to the Irish heiress and fellow Fabian activist Charlotte Payne-Townshend was apparently never consummated, an arrangement arrived at by mutual consent. “Do not forget,” he wrote in Sixteen Self Sketches, “that all marriages are different, and that marriages between young people, followed by parentage, must not be lumped in with childless partnerships between middle-aged people who have passed the age at which the bride can safely bear a child.” Still, while Shaw’s admiration for strong, emancipated, and independent women was genuine, his attitude towards sexual relations remained a curious mixture of disdain as well as an almost obsessive interest. His first physical relationship was an eight-year affair with a widow, Jenny Patterson,15 years his senior, who was his mother’s friend and vocal student. They eventually broke up over his involvement with Florence Farr, an actress, following several heated scenes among the three of them, which went directly into one of his earliest plays, The Philanderer.

THE VOICE. Never mind: I will announce myself. (A beautiful, dark, tragic looking woman, in mantle and bonnet, appears at the door, raging furiously.) Oh, this is charming. I have interrupted a pretty tete-a-tete. Oh, you villain! (She comes straight at Grace. Charteris runs across behind the sofa and stops her. She struggles furiously with him. Grace preserves her self possession, but retreats quietly to the piano. Julia, finding Charteris too strong for her, gives up her attempt to get at Grace, but strikes him in the face as she frees herself.)

CHARTERIS (shocked). Oh, Julia, Julia! This is too bad.

JULIA. Is it, indeed, too bad? What are you doing up here with that woman? You scoundrel! But now listen to me; Leonard: you have driven me to desperation; and I don't care what I do, or who hears me. I'll not bear it. She shall not have my place with you—

There were apparently additional pre-marital conquests, as well as some curious involvements in which Shaw inserted himself into other marriages, playing a subtle game of flattery and innuendo with the wife, while using his friendship with the husband as a safety net for when he danced too close to the edge. Shaw sometimes referred to sexual intercourse as not only an indignity, but as a drain on vital, creative power. Years later, however, he could write that “sexual experience seemed a natural appetite, and its satisfaction a completion of human experience necessary for fully qualified authorship.”

Mrs. Patrick Campbell, Digital ID th-00217, New York Public Library Shaw’s devotion to and abiding love for his wife might have been driven by a deep and enriching sympathy. But, while he did remain loyal to her, and would do nothing to cause her pain or embarrassment, he was still amazingly flirtatious with other women and would remain so throughout his life. Shaw was actively pursued by women well into his seventies, but more seriously troubling for Mrs. Shaw was the period of her husband’s middle-aged infatuation with the actress Patrick (Stella) Campbell. Although he had no intention of leaving his wife, and Campbell was already engaged to the man who became her second husband, it seemed for a few dangerous months in 1912 that infatuation had slipped into genuine love. In his letters, the fiercely anti-romantic Shaw fell into the high-flown rhetoric of romance:

“I want my dark lady. I want my angel. I want my tempter, I want my Freia with her apples. I want the lighter of my seven lamps of beauty, honour, laughter, music, love, life and immortality. I want my inspiration, my folly, my happiness, my divinity, my madness, my selfishness, my final sanity and sanctification, my transfiguration, my purification, my light across the sea, my palm across the desert, my garden of lovely flowers, my million nameless joys, my day's wage, my night's dream, my darling and my star.

Both parties seem to have escaped from this entanglement before anything more threatening was involved than an exchange of passionate letters, but I think it is also clear that for much of their time together, Mrs. Shaw had her hands full.

These and other pieces of the Shavian puzzle will be presented during “Subversive Shaw: An Introduction to the Life and Work of George Bernard Shaw,” scheduled for October 7, November 10, and December 2, 2011 at 2:15 p.m.

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