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Subversive Shaw, Part 3: Common Sense About the War
"The hag Sedition was your mother, and Perversity begot you. Mischief was your midwife and Misrule your nurse, and Unreason brought you up at her feet — no other ancestry and rearing had you, you freakish homunculus, germinated outside of lawful procreation." — Fellow playwright Henry Arthur Jones, on Bernard Shaw and his anti-war stance
But any look back at the historical picture convinces me that the world was never really much different, except during those periods when it was painted in even grimmer strokes.
To prepare for the recent Library talk "Subversive Shaw: An Introduction to the Life and Work of George Bernard Shaw," I spent a good chunk of the past year reading work by and about that irascible Irishman. Although I included some of my thoughts on Shaw in Parts One and Two of this blog series, he continues to fascinate me. His life, which lasted as long as anyone's is likely to last (with his wits and energies still remarkably intact), coincided with many of the world's darkest moments. Shaw was born as the Crimean War was coming to end, lived to see the dropping of the Atomic Bomb, and had as constant backdrop to his middle years the Boer War, the Russian Revolution, both World Wars, and at least a dozen other military conflicts involving Great Britain. Not an easy task to keep your faith against those odds, but Shaw managed as well as anybody could.
As well as being one of the great playwrights of the twentieth century, Shaw was a zealous social reformer and, for a good portion of his life, an indefatigable optimist — a man who believed that humankind could and would improve itself, that people needed only to will their own perfection.
But Shaw was as susceptible to the mood of the times as we are. When the Great War came along, his optimism was counter-balanced with despair. As jingoism swept Great Britain and people entered a near-ecstasy of patriotic fervor, Shaw remained firm in his uncompromising opposition to the war. He claimed that England and its allies were just as responsible as Germany for the bankrupt political systems which had led to the debacle. As the troops marched off to the gray mud of the trenches and Zeppelins launched their indiscriminate bombing runs, it took great courage for Shaw to publish his anti-war manifesto, Common Sense About the War. In both armies, he claimed, the soldiers should shoot their officers and go home. Once that little step had been taken, they could "gather in their harvests in the villages and make a revolution in the towns; and though this is not at present a practicable solution, it must be frankly mentioned, because it — or something like it — is always a possibility in a defeated conscript army if its commanders push it beyond human endurance when its eyes are opening to the fact that in murdering its neighbours it is biting off its nose to vex its face." Since the British War propaganda machine had done its work so efficiently, few public figures dared to speak out in opposition. Shaw did, and the public despised him for it. Many of his personal friends and acquaintances turned against him. (In the open letter quoted above, fellow playwright Henry Arthur Jones wielded a sledge hammer of abuse.) Shaw was bitterly, often violently, accused of treason, and for a time became the most despised man in England.
Shaw's literary response to the Great War was Heartbreak House. Although it is laced with some of his sharpest comedy, Shaw called this play his "tragedy." The scene is set in an English country house, built to resemble a ship, whose inhabitants represent the rudderless leisure class — the wealthiest one percent of the early twentieth century. There is no hint or mention of war... until the conclusion of the final act when bombs starts to fall. "Did you hear the explosions?" says Mrs. Hushabye in wild excitement. "And the sound in the sky: it's splendid: it's like an orchestra: it's like Beethoven." Reading or seeing the play a second time, once we know where it is leading, we see how the earlier scenes practically ring with a martial drumbeat. The bombardment awakens Shaw's characters from their lethargy. Like England itself, they have been seduced all along by luxury and idleness. The only answer, as declared by the half-mad, ultra-sane head of the household, Captain Shotover, is: "Navigation. Learn it and live; or leave it and be damned."
I will discuss Shaw's views on war, politics, religion, culture, and sex during the next free presentation of "Subversive Shaw," to be given on Thursday, November 10 at 2:15 p.m. in the South Court classrooms at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. The program will be repeated at the same time on Friday, December 2.