Books: The Metropolitan Critic — A Dinosaur at Sunset |
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A Dinosaur at Sunset

Like the first, the second volume of what will eventually be a four-book set of Shaw’s correspondence looks and handles like a doorstop from Valhalla. Nearly a thousand pages of it, most of them unskippable: the reader must forge on in a kind of despairing delight, overwhelmed by the abundance and vitality of what is on offer and secretly grateful that he knows only as a statistic what Professor Laurence knows for a fact — the complete set will contain a mere hundredth of the communications Shaw actually wrote. Compared with Shaw, Dickens is Ronald Firbank. Here is writing as a form of breathing, industry as a form of rest. In the last couple of weeks I have read both volumes and been convinced all over again that Shaw was out of this world, not least in his ability to understand the world so well. In this volume, covering the twelve years (1898-1910) in which he revolutionized the theatre, his grasp of affairs — big and little, world-wide and domestic — is as true as it is powerful. Not until a long time later did garrulity displace eloquence and brainwaves insight. For the present, he is making history, and so we read on with the unsettling certainty that he is helping to make us: a character-building experience, relieved by the high entertainment value of his style as a correspondent.

‘All genuine intellectual work’, he wrote to Florence Farr, ‘is humorous,’ and whatever die truth of that in general, in his own particular case he was at this time busy proving it. Apart from the pamphlet-length letters to his biographer, Archibald Henderson, the book is marked by compression, cogency and a vivid epigrammatic brio. Gags abound, all of them emergent from a penetrating realism. ‘Like a greengrocer and unlike a minor poet,’ he tells the concussed Henderson, ‘I have lived instead of dreaming.’ Everybody knows about Shaw’s ability to immerse himself in the detail of activity: it’s the quality which provides the solid underpinning of Music in London and Our Theatres in the Nineties, securing those six volumes as the finest critical achievement in the language. And for years now there has been a growth industry in exploring Shaw’s interests: books like Shaw the Chucker-Out amplify the picture sketched in monographs and biographies by men like Chesterton, Pearson and (still a central book) Eric Bentley. But what this selection of correspondence uniquely provides is the feel and force of all Shaw’s enterprises raging forward simultaneously from day to day: the Goethean artist-philosopher, the intellectual omnivore, is right there in front of you. By the beard of the prophet, was there nothing the man could ignore?

He goes up in a balloon, and within weeks is an expert on balloons. He buys a car and becomes a leading authority on cars. He commences an international correspondence with photography fanatics: this lens, that lens, wet plates, dry plates. The virtues and failings of a new pianola are sorted out and communicated to fellow pedal-pushers. These minor themes of his intellectual formation multiply in a steadily more complicated counterpoint. Surging through them are the major themes, most of them developed in an earlier period but still involved in an endless process of receiving their final elaborations. His socialism by this stage had become complex, tirelessly analytical and cleansed of utopianism. ‘Of course an artificial city, so to speak, is no more impossible than a canal is,’ he writes to Edward Rose in 1899, ‘but the thing should be kept clear of philanthropy and utopian socialism because people (the tenants) will not stand being kept in a nursery.’ It could be contended that his judgments are sound because he is relying on what he sees rather than on (as he did at a later stage, about Soviet Russia) what the Webbs thought they saw. But the contention won’t quite do. Shaw in this period was able to make reliable generalizations about America, which he had never visited, and when the Fabians split over the South Africa question he put himself above the battle by providing an analysis of the situation prophetic in its clarity — in fact, South African history is now working itself out along lines which Shaw deduced from documents seventy years ago without setting foot outside London. Prophecy is not the test of analysis, but as supplementary evidence it’s hard to ignore, and the reader of this volume will find himself encountering it every few score pages.

His power of generalization from detail — not only from observed detail, but from reported detail collated and pondered — is at its peak. It’s only one of the ways in which he resembles Croce in the same period: one grows more and more convinced that they are the twin master-minds over that stretch of history. Like Croce, Shaw had read Marx before Lenin did, and again like Croce he had gone on to a vastly more complicated analytical position. Shaw’s cyclic theory of history, in which events swung back and forth like a clock’s pendulum but civilization went forward like a clock’s tick, bore a piquant resemblance to Croce’s, in which all occurrences ran in Viconian circles but the human spirit was carried forward by Providence.

Both men had sought to discard the vulgarities of historicist metaphysics while retaining an ideal of progress. And to cap the resemblance, Shaw was as obviously (and remains to this day) the greatest prose stylist in English as Croce was and remains the greatest in Italian. Such a comparison isn’t meant to imply that Shaw is Croce’s equal as a philosopher: in fact, the difference between the two men is a precise demonstration of why the artist-philosopher is finally engaged in something other than philosophy. But it is meant to imply that this was the last modem period in which super-minds could grasp the world whole, with confidence of purpose as well as of ability. This purposive element is what now makes them look like dinosaurs — dinosaurs at sunset. Croce thought evil was simply error, and that no movement totally devoid of constructive ideas could possibly affect history. Shaw’s view was perilously similar and ran into the same kind of difficulty. The arrival of totalitarianism settled the hash of their ideas of progress as effectively as they themselves had discredited the materialistic determinism of their predecessors — an irony compounded by the fact that the new callousness was a throw-back to those predecessors. The consensus now is that Shaw was a fool to understand totalitarianism so slowly. My point in bringing up Croce is that Shaw was not alone in being so unhorsed. It was the very magnitude of their minds that misled them. They thought that unreason could be reasoned out of countenance. A great, a truly great, mistake.

In these years occur the first productions of all Shaw’s early plays. He was involved in the practicalities of theatrical business to the uppermost bristle of his eyebrows. There are brilliant letters to Ada Rehan on the changing character of the stage since Ibsen which show the kind of trouble he was prepared to take to convince actors that they were doing something serious. Ignore such instruction as they might, the actors were unlikely to brush lightly aside the accompanying bombardment of technical advice: the nuts and bolts of performance and production stick out tangibly everywhere in the volume, re-creating in the most abrasive way what a Shaw matinée at the Royal Court must have been like — an act of dedication, and not just because scarcely anybody got properly paid. These were the days before Shaw became the ‘overwhelming force in the theatre’ that the Penguin blurbs were later to call him. Commercially, it was small-time: but the planning that went into the presentation was the full complement of the thought that went into writing the plays, and anyone who doubts that Shaw’s humility was as endless as his conceit should look at the relevant letters and see the lengths that selfless toil can go to. A visionary, he was yet the opposite of a dreamer. He was responsibility incarnate. As a vestryman of St. Pancras he fights to keep the district’s solitary free women’s loo open; as a playwright he strives to convince his translator Trebitsch that arbitrary variations on words play havoc with construction; as an author he controls everything from the renting out of his own electrotypes to the width of his margins and the fonts of his title-pages. Nothing, but nothing, is let slide. It will be a rare contemporary reader who contemplates this perfection of character without wishing a plague on the man’s ashes.

Orwell somewhere calls Shaw an empty windbag and somewhere else confesses that he has read practically every word Shaw has written. Such ambivalence is inevitable. The superhuman is inhuman in the end, and only a dolt could admire it without misgivings. But that doesn’t mean we should go on trying to cut Shaw down to size. It’s widely supposed that Shaw wasn’t capable of sex, but a less comfortable and more likely supposition is that he was above it, like Leonardo. He could certainly be an interfering busybody, but only because as a totally truthful man he couldn’t readily conceive of someone intelligent not wanting to hear the truth. Poor Erica Cotterill was allowed to entertain her hopes of conquest too long, but one doubts whether it was because Shaw was toying with her affections: he probably believed that by an application of common reason he could fill her head with something else besides passion. Shaw’s friendships were so disinterested as to be hardly recognizable as friendship. He lent money to acquaintances of good character but would never grant a loan to his friend Charles Charrington, whose bad character he would forgive but not abet. He supported Wells in the Fabian power struggle until the moment when Wells’s reckless indolence was proved, whereupon he destroyed him overnight. Shaw can appear callous only to the selectively compassionate — i.e. to nearly all of us. Most of us love unreasonably, tell half-truths and favour our friends. The world is like that — which is what I mean by saying Shaw was out of it. He was a moral genius.

‘His correspondence alone would fill many volumes,’ St. John Ervine wrote in his now reissued Bernard Show, ‘and the task of editing it will not be enviable.’ Enviable, perhaps not. Vital, certainly. Professor Laurence, half-way home, has already proved himself fully equal to the task.

(Listener, 1972)


The title of this piece shows that I was under the sway of the excellent Whitney Balliett: Dinosaurs in the Morning was one of his books of collected jazz criticism. I was pleased, when rereading, to discover that I had at least had the grace to acknowledge how Shaw turned into an apologist for totalitarianism later on, in a less distinguished and more garrulous phase of his long career. Writing the same piece now, I would start from that point: but I would still get round to recording the never-diminishing thrill of reading his two great original trilogies Music in London and Our Theatres in the Nineties. John Carey, reviewing The Metropolitan Critic with asperity, took special exception to my calling those six volumes ‘the finest critical achievement in the language’. He wanted to know my qualifications. Well, my qualifications are better now, and I still believe it. Professor Carey likewise disapproved of my calling Shaw ‘the greatest prose stylist in English’, but there I had the backing of T. S. Eliot, who, even while detesting Shaw’s opinions, thought him rivaled as a stylist only by Congreve. It was undeniable, however, that I overdid that sort of superlative: rankings are inappropriate to works of art, which all, for the time they monopolize your attention, strike you as the best thing ever. To record the inebriation can be a valuable stimulus for the reader, but should be done soberly. I was too forgiving, of course, about Shaw’s behaviour vis-à-vis Erica Cotterill and his other female acolytes: he did toy with their affections. Sexual dysfunctionality, like power worship, is one of those things about Shaw that are best admitted outright, so as more quickly to face the problems posed by his overwhelming charm.