Books: What Did Shaw Believe?

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BERNARD SHAW (242 pp.)—Eric Bentley —New Directions ($2).

A lecture by Single-Taxer Henry George convinced George Bernard Shaw that modern society was ill-made and needed to be completely rebuilt. Since then (1882), Shaw has played to perfection the role of the world's gadfly jester. In turn, the world has stared at him with amused perplexity, never certain when Shaw was serious and always a little bewildered about the meaning of his dazzlingly written but contradictory plays and prefaces.

Was Shaw merely an iconoclastic critic of humanity's failings who exaggerated for the sake of sensation? Not according to him: like Lear's Fool, he meant every word he said. "The real joke," he once remarked, "is that 1 am in earnest."

Pose of Arrogance. Worshipful Critic Eric Bentley, who has tried to truss Shavian doctrine into a system of thought, is one of the few who still pay unflagging homage to Shaw's ideas. For him Shaw is not merely a brilliant playwright who handled the English language with a clarity and wit unrivaled since Swift; Shaw is also a profound thinker whose "pose of arrogance was a deliberate strategy in an utterly altruistic struggle" to irritate men into thought. But the "utterly altruistic struggle" failed, and there was Shaw's tragedy: he, the court jester, was idolized, his plays were adored, but his opinions were either ridiculed or thinned into insignificance. As Shaw wisecracked: "Not taking me seriously is the Englishman's way of refusing to face facts."

But which facts was the Englishman—or anyone else—to face? Here is where Shavian Bentley has his troubles.

Shaw, never a systematic nor an original thinker, preached socialism—but a brand so condescending and aristocratic that both Hyde Park revolutionists and solid trade unionists regarded him as an interloper. His bureaucratic socialism was a mixture of the Enlightened Gentleman and the Robot Superman. His heated exposes of the conditions of England's workers were followed by sneering gibes at their stupidity (the "Yahoos," he called them). He attacked capitalism, but portrayed capitalists so sympathetically that the readers of his plays found the attack indistinguishable from a defense.

In a brief for free speech as forceful as Milton's Areopagitica, he drew and quartered the censors who dared fool with his plays. Later he was to praise the death's-head trio of totalitarianism: Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin.

Homemade Fancies. Once there is added to these bewildering inconsistencies Shaw's homemade fads & fancies—his plumping for "eugenic breeding'' (which Bentley, with restraint born of love, euphemizes into "idealistic racism"), antivivisectionism, vegetarianism, the Bergsonian "Life Force"—the Shavian mind begins to look like a railroad baggage room, full of handsome luggage and old egg crates.

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