Thinking About Theater

A Playwright's Political Madhouse (Part II)

Our theater’s vitamin deficiency: not enough George Bernard Shaw.

This is part II of Michael Feingold's latest "Thinking About Theater" column. Click here to read part I.

George Bernard Shaw in 1914.
George Bernard Shaw ruffled feathers not only with his socialist-leaning plays but also with his outspoken political writings. At the advent of World War I, he wrote Common Sense About the War, in which he took all participants in the conflict to task, including Great Britain. His unpatriotic stance made him an object of intense criticism. Above: Shaw in 1914, at the age of 57.

A famous image of George Bernard Shaw comes from his lifelong friend, the critic and Ibsen translator William Archer. When Archer first met Shaw, in the British Museum Reading Room, the then-novice playwright was alternately studying two books: Marx's Das Kapital and the orchestral score of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. Viewed superficially, the image conveys the wide range of Shaw's interests (economic theory and opera), and of his skills (foreign language, musical notation), as well as his passion for everything new and radical: Das Kapital had not yet been translated into English; Tristan had just had its London premiere.

Closer scrutiny reveals a less pleasant aspect: Shaw's lifelong fascination with theories that would give rise to totalitarian systems. The intellectual path from Marx led to the Soviet empire, the anti-intellectual path from Wagner's ecstasies to Nazism. Shaw in later life was not wholly immune to either ideology, and put both in his plays. The disillusioned characters of Too True to Be Good try to enter a new socialist state, the "United Federation of Sensible Societies" or "UFSS" (an obvious allusion to the USSR), which declines to admit them. In Geneva (1938), Shavianized cartoon versions of Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco defend their policies.

These and many other public statements from the last third of Shaw's life reinforce an unhappy fact: He had lost faith in democracy. Impatient for a better world, he viewed the parliamentary failures of the 1930s with increasing fury and frustration. In a speech he gave at New York's Metropolitan Opera House in 1933, published in London under the sardonic title "The Political Madhouse in America and Nearer Home," he even derides the U.S. Constitution as "only a Charter of Anarchism […] a guarantee to the whole American nation that it never should be governed at all." The ordinary man, Shaw explains, "may want his neighbor to be governed, but he himself doesnt [sic] want to be governed." The resulting gridlock, as Shaw describes it, looks startlingly like the sordid mess of our polarized politics today.

Though Shaw's plays have fallen out of fashion, some production companies, such as New York's Roundabout, keep them in their repertoire. Above: Swoosie Kurtz, Lily Rabe, and Byron Jennings in Roundabout's well-received 2006 production of Heartbreak House, for which Kurtz earned a Tony nomination.
Though Shaw has fallen out of fashion in recent years, some production companies, such as New York's Roundabout, keep his plays in their repertoires. Above: Swoosie Kurtz, Lily Rabe, and Byron Jennings in Roundabout's well-received 2006 production of Heartbreak House. Kurtz earned a Tony nomination for her performance as Hesione Hushabye.
(© Joan Marcus)

And worse follows. Washing his hands of democracy, Shaw, the great humanist, one of our language's sublime articulators of the value of human life, began increasingly to doubt its inherent worth. He did not harden his heart in private; to individuals in need he remained consistently kind, and generous. But the side of that heart he showed in public appeared noticeably harder. When political refugees from Italy told him of the brutal and violent tactics Mussolini employed, he waved them away. Publishing rosy impressions of his trip to Soviet Russia, he dismissed outcries from people who knew firsthand what Stalin was up to. And then there was the matter of the Jews.

Shaw was not an anti-Semite. He was not an enemy of any ethnic group, nationality, or religion. But he envisioned the disappearance of such distinctions, ridiculing even his own heritage's claim to any special qualities: "What a ridiculous thing to call people Irish because they live in Ireland!" exclaims a progressive young woman in Back to Methuselah. "You might as well call them Airish because they live in air. They must be just the same as other people." In his disillusioned old age, Shaw failed to see that Europe's Jews were in a specially dangerous position after Hitler took power. For him, their persecution was simply another in the endless parade of political and religious persecutions that made up history. He did not support it — in one magazine article, he suggested that Hitler could "build up a strong, solid German people" by compelling all Jews to marry Aryans — but his failure to grasp the urgency and magnitude of their plight leaves a dismal dark stain on the record of a great mind.

The notion of compulsory intermarriage points up another large paradox of Shavian thought. Ferociously indignant at the idea of his own or any specific individual's rights being violated, Shaw was almost cosmically cavalier in wishing away the rights of vast groups of people for the sake of an overall greater good. In another of his troublesome late plays, The Simpleton of the Unexpected Isles (1934), he invented his version of the Last Judgment: Angels appear and "the useless people, the mischievous people, the selfish somebodies and the noisy nobodies" all simply vanish. It's hard to imagine what humans that rubric would leave alive.

Shaw's vast dramatic imagination produced a sweeping five-part epic (Back to Methuselah, 1921) as well as a playful 10-minute puppet play (Shakes versus Shav, 1949), one of his last works. In the latter (seen above), puppets representing Shakespeare and Shaw come to blows, Punch and Judy-style. "Couldst thou write King Lear?" challenges Shakes, to which Shav retorts, "Couldst thou have written Heartbreak House?

To love Shaw today, one has to face his darker side and go on, just as he would have done. That it makes him harder to accept completely is not a problem: Shaw was never, at any stage of his life, completely acceptable to anyone. He set out to raise hackles, and succeeded in doing so in all the best ways: by raising laughter, by raising questions, by challenging standard assumptions and shaking complacency awake. Within the laughter, the darkness was present from the start. One of Shaw's most lighthearted early comedies, You Never Can Tell (1898), ends with a marriage being arranged. The bride's father, still suspicious, asks the lawyer settling the matter if he thinks the match an unwise one. "All matches are unwise," the lawyer replies. "It's unwise to be born; it's unwise to be married; it's unwise to live; and it's wise to die."

To which the play's comic lead, an elderly waiter (who happens also to be the lawyer's father), adds, "Then, if I may respectfully put a word in, sir, so much the worse for wisdom." The line is Shaw's rebuke to all ideas, dark or light, including his own; the instinct to live takes precedence over thought. The play ends with a dance, in which the hero — the prospective bridegroom — is comically left partnerless, foreshadowing the isolated heroes of the somber late plays. In such ambiguous moments, we can see why we need Shaw: Few other writers have dared the darkness so deeply and at the same time illuminated it so brilliantly.

Michael Feingold has twice won the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism, most recently in 2015 for his Thinking About Theater columns on TheaterMania, and has twice been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Criticism. He serves as chairman of the Obie Awards and has also worked as a playwright, translator, and dramaturg.