Shaw: an entertaining, outrageous life

G. B.

August 05, 1991|By Eleanor L. Cunningham

BERNARD SHAW, Vol. 1: The Search for Love (1856-1898). By Michael Holroyd. Vintage Books, paperback. $15.95, 465 pages. ONE OF the most influential figures in modern literature, George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) once said he liked an audience, that he was like a child that way. A man who did everything to the extreme, Shaw, the writer, critic, socialist and vegetarian, prided himself on being able to entertain and outrage. His close friend Lady Astor once said, "He is very insulting and very amusing."

In "The Search for Love," the first of two volumes entitled "Bernard Eleanor L.CunninghamShaw" (originally published in hardback by Random House, Inc.), biographer Michael Holroyd takes a critical look at Shaw's beginnings, from his parents' history to his marriage in 1898.

Shaw was born into an impersonal, impoverished family: his father was an alcoholic and his mother, in search of a musical career, eventually left him. Shaw claimed that his mother, nicknamed Bessie, preferred his sisters and neglected him during his infancy, and told friend Ellen Terry about his "devil of a childhood, rich only in dreams, frightful and loveless in realities." What Shaw missed as a child, he desperately tried to make up for as he grew into an adult and a writer, seeking attention and love from a world that learned to criticize and adore him.

Although a known incorrigible in school, it was there he became a devoted Shelleyan and replaced his own life with fantasy and the worlds of Dickens and Shakespeare. A love for art inspired prowls though Dublin's National Gallery and lessons at art school. Music was also an important part of Shaw's life. His mother's music teacher, George Vandeleur Lee, lived at the Shaw home and filled the house with the music of Handel, Gluck and Mozart, among others.

Bessie ran off to London with Lee, and this profound change left Shaw with a passion for improvement. Shaw soon left for London as well, where he began the first of many jobs writing articles, essays and criticism for newspapers.

Once he escaped from the drudgeries of Dublin, he found the situation in London was not much better. He saw a solution to the city's problems in socialism, becoming a leader in the Fabian Society. He wrote novels, none of which was successful.

Shaw also began a series of confusing and non-committal affairs, and considered himself a ladies' man. Some of these women were actresses, and his fascination with them and the theater moved him toward play writing.

In 1884 he began a serious attempt with "Widower's Houses." His plays often dealt with socialism, corruption and individual growth.

But he was continually criticized. Later, when his first plays were published in one volume, Max Beerbohm wrote in the Saturday Review, " . . .to all intents and purposes, his serious characters are just so many skeletons, which do but dance and grin and rattle their bones. I can hardly wonder that Mr. Shaw has so often hesitated about allowing this or that theatrical manager to produce one of his plays. To produce one of them really well would be almost impossible at any ordinary theater."

After many attempts, Shaw began to find initial success with "Arms and the Man" as well as "Candida." "The Devil's Disciple" eventually triumphed in America. The biography ends with this hint at the recognition to come for Shaw, and with his decision finally to marry Charlotte Payne-Townsend, his secretary and nursemaid.

Holroyd, who spent 15 years on the research and writing of "Bernard Shaw," has done an extraordinary job. Full of facts, wit and eloquent writing (a lost art these days), "The Search for Love" illuminates the whys and hows of Shaw's character and the "Shavian world" he sought to create around him.

However, it is not easy reading and is probably most interesting for Shaw fans. Holroyd does do a convincing job of getting the reader intrigued enough to embark on Volume 2, "The Pursuit of Power," as massive in size and information as Volume 1.

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