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The Subversive Bernard Shaw


G. Bernard Shaw, Welwyn, August 1st, 1904., Digital ID 483402, New York Public LibraryOur laws make law impossible; our liberties destroy all freedom; our property is organized robbery; our morality is an impudent hypocrisy; our wisdom is administered by inexperienced or malexperienced dupes; our power wielded by cowards or weaklings; and our honour  false in all its points.  I am an enemy of the existing order for good reasons...
          Preface to Major Barbara

In my recent reading of Michael Holroyd’s biography, Bernard Shaw, I came upon a curious historical tidbit concerning the New York Public Library: a surprising, although apparently singular, case of self-censorship.

In the early twentieth century, when the New York Public Library was comprised of only a few lending libraries, the influence of former U. S. postal inspector and virulent anti-smut crusader Anthony Comstock was felt everywhere. The twin mottos of his Society for the Suppression of Vice were “Morals, not Art and Literature” and “Books are feeders for brothels;” and his campaign to suppress this country’s so-called morally objectionable reading material was a great success.  Sometimes, even before the crusaders had actually intervened, public institutions fell into lockstep with his fervid policies, hoping to circumvent potential trouble.  

In September 1905, Shaw’s play Man and Superman was successfully presented in New York, although it stirred up its own stew of controversy.  The New York Times was supportive of playwrights whose work would “face the problems of existence fearlessly and express them freely and openly.”  On the other hand, The Chicago Tribune called it "smut" and declared the play “unfit for general reading.”  Shortly after this production appeared, Professor Arthur E. Bostwick, then head of the New York Public Library’s circulating department, removed Man and Superman and other Shaw works from general circulation and placed them on the restricted list, out of the reach of easily corruptible children.  “Suppose,” The New York Times of September 21, 1905 reported him as saying, "that ‘Man and Superman’ fell into the hands of a little east sider.”  His great fear, it seems, was that exposure to Shaw would increase the rate of juvenile crime.

When Shaw learned of this incident, he assumed that the library’s withdrawal of his plays was a direct result of Comstock’s interference (which it was not) and, in a letter to The New York Times, railed against “Comstockery” as the “world’s standing joke at the expense of the United States.  Europe likes to hear of such things.  It confirms the deep-seated suspicion of the Old World that America really is a provincial place, and second-rate civilization at best.”

This drew a retaliatory response from Comstock himself, in which he labeled Shaw “that Irish smut-dealer” and vowed to be more vigilant in his dealings with him.  A month later, now fully aware of Shaw’s reputation, he alerted the police to the forthcoming New York production of another Shaw play, Mrs. Warren’s Profession. This early play portrays prostitution as the only economic alternative for underprivileged women in a male-dominated society and draws a direct link between prostitution and marriage.  In his preface to Plays Unpleasant, Shaw wrote that: “ men without conviction are more dangerous in modern society than poor women without chastity.”  Contrary to Victorian cultural stereotypes, Mrs. Warren is presented not as the corrupt villain of the piece or as its frail victim, but as an intelligent, capable businesswoman who clearly understands the relationship between sex, money, and power. Right after opening night, most of the cast was arrested by the vice squad and the remaining shows were cancelled. 

Man and Superman
is viewed by many critics as central to the Shavian canon.  But what was there in this play that was considered unruly enough to merit George Bernard Shaw, Digital ID TH-50446, New York Public Librarycensorship?  With its discursive third-act drama of ideas, its inversion of the cultural stereotypes of the passive female and the active male, its philosophical underpinnings of the Life Force and Creative Evolution, and its appended booklet of subversive maxims, “The Revolutionist's Handbook,” how much of Man and Superman would “a little east sider” have understood?  According to A. E. Bostwick, the danger lurked in Shaw’s radical “attacks on social conditions” and what they would do to a young person’s attitude if he were “to read that the criminal before the bar of justice is no more of a criminal than the Magistrate trying him?”  These unfortunate but fairly absurd fears take on a somewhat darker meaning when we realize that the “little east sider” he refers to is likely someone of foreign extraction.

In 1905, one wave of censorship led to another, and the whole story of this interlude is presented in Censorship of the American Theater in the Twentieth Century.  Although I was appalled to read of the role played by one of my library ancestors, I suppose the attitude behind it is not too surprising, considering how many modern instances there have been of fear, ignorance, and prejudice being used to influence the political climate.

But take a pause here.  George Bernard Shaw?  That irascible-looking old Victorian gent with the bristling beard and the unmistakable gleam in his eyes?  While Shaw’s writing is certainly not “immoral” in the narrowest Comstock sense, the truth is that it was and remains thoroughly subversive.  Under the cloak of sublime comedy, Shaw sought to expose the hypocrisy of Victorian society and morality.  His three earliest plays alone, published under the collective title Plays Unpleasant, dealt with poverty (Widower’s Houses), the outmoded concept of marriage (The Philanderer), and prostitution as the inevitable byproduct of a corrupt capitalistic system (Mrs. Warren’s Profession).  These topics were hushed up in those times and are not comfortable for us to face directly even today. 

Shortly after their removal, Shaw’s plays were returned to the library’s circulating shelves--perhaps due to pressure being applied, perhaps to common sense finally prevailing. Nowadays, Shaw’s collected work is readily accessible in both the general research and performing arts libraries; his manuscripts, letters, and photos are available through special arrangement with the Berg Collection of English and American Literature; and Man and Superman is still found in many of the circulating libraries, where it can be borrowed by anyone, even that “little east sider.”  When I recently took an impromptu and unscientific poll of my friends and colleagues, however, it surprised me to discover how many otherwise well-read people knew little or nothing of George Bernard Shaw.  After a tick or two, some recalled having seen My Fair Lady, the Broadway musical turned into a movie with Audrey Hepburn. (This would have been especially galling to Shaw, as he had spent a good chunk of time and energy trying to prevent composers from messing about with his play Pygmalion).   Others had seen or at least knew of the classic British film versions of Pygmalion, Major Barbara, and Caesar and Cleopatra (for a YouTube snippet, click each title). Few had actually read them.  My recent revival of interest in Shaw centers on my plan to create a public presentation, “The Subversive Bernard Shaw: an Introduction to his Life and Work” which I hope to deliver sometime in the late fall.  I hope that this talk will perhaps atone for the library’s earlier misdeeds in regards to Shaw.

George Bernard Shaw, Digital ID TH-50445, New York Public LibraryBut I see already that synthesizing such a rich and lengthy life into a brief presentation will be no simple task.  Shaw was one of the most prolific writers of all time, producing over fifty plays, some with prefaces that are longer than the plays themselves; five novels; music, dance, and theatre criticism; volumes of social and political commentary, and numerous socialist lectures and pamphlets.  Although a late bloomer (he only turned to playwriting after the age of thirty-five), by seventy he was globally famous. He continued to write and lecture with the same wit, intelligence, and energy until his death on November 2, 1950, at the age of ninety-four. 


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Robert, You reminded me of

Robert, You reminded me of how much I always loved reading Shaw's plays--a love inspired by my favorite English professor. I remember seeing a wonderful production of Man and Superman (starring the incomparable Philip Bosco) at the Circle in the Square, and I particularly love the movie version of Caesar and Cleopatra. I haven't read any of the plays in many years, but I think I may go back to them after reading this.

Robert Armitage

How do we find out if and when Robert Armitage will do his presentation he above calls “The Subversive Bernard Shaw: an Introduction to his Life and Work”? I'd love to come to NYC for this presentation!

"Subversive Shaw" is

"Subversive Shaw" is scheduled for Oct. 7, Nov. 10, and Dec. 2. Check the website in advance for any last minute changes.

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