Shaw's great literary career had a final dark side

November 17, 1991|By Brian Murray



OF FANTASY, 1918-1950.

Michael Holroyd.

Random House.

544 pages. $30.

George Bernard Shaw died in 1950 at the age of 94. Judging by the vastness and variety of his output, one might fairly assume that he spent nearly all of his time writing furiously away, turning out letters, essays and, of course, a long series of plays that helped alter profoundly the direction of modern British drama.

But Shaw was far from deskbound. He was forever lecturing and traveling, forging alliances and sparking feuds. His remarkable life intersected with the lives of many of the most fascinating people of his time. In fact, reading Michael Holroyd's "Bernard Shaw" is enough to convince one that Shaw knew simply everybody, from Thomas Hardy to Gene Tunney, from Mahatma Gandhi to Zsa Zsa Gabor.

It's not surprising, then, that Mr. Holroyd needed 15 years -- and three thick volumes -- to complete this superb biography of the brilliant, prolific and idiosyncratic "G. B. S.," whom the noted editor and translator William Archer once understandably described as "the most uncompromising, not to say fanatical, idealist I have ever met."

As Volume 3, "The Lure of Fantasy" opens, the Great War has come to a close. Shaw is 62, and famous not only for such plays as "Candida," "Man and Superman" and "Major Barbara," but for his championing of socialism, vegetarianism, feminism, "the Life VTC Force" and "the drama of ideas."

As Mr. Holroyd shows, Shaw's stage triumphs continued throughout the early 1920s, the years of "Heartbreak House," "Back to Methuselah" and "Saint Joan," one of his most immediately successful plays. "Saint Joan," Mr. Holroyd points out, demonstrated once more the Shavian belief that "the progress of humankind still depended on some people regarded by philistine society as sick, eccentric, wicked and even lunatic."

Throughout his final decades, Shaw continued to write plays, most of which now are forgotten -- and understandably so. For after "The Apple Cart," produced in 1929, Shaw found his somewhat waning energies severely split. For starters, he had to keep up with his correspondence, which had continued to grow after 1926, the year Shaw won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

He helped several biographers (among them Frank Harris) compile lengthy accounts of his life, and undertook the vast task of assembling a "Collected Edition" of his works, which came to exceed 30 volumes. Moreover, Shaw participated in several major film projects, including the 1938 shooting of "Pygmalion," produced by the mercurial Gabriel Pascal. And he developed an abiding passion for simplifying English spelling, perhaps the most quixotic concern of his later years.

As he grew older, Shaw probably became at least as well known for his poses and pronouncements as for his plays and their celebrated prefaces. With his white beard, knee breeches and wiry frame, he came to resemble more and more Central Casting's idea of the quirky schoolmaster or slightly dotty sage, always able to liven up his lessons with some sparkling witticism and an impish gleam in the eye.

But much that the later Shaw wrote and said is not, alas, amusing. Although not prone to racist or anti-Semitic ravings, Shaw cheered many of Hitler's early policies and wrote warmly of Mussolini. He backed Britain's own would-be dictator, the operatic Oswald Mosley.

By the mid-1930s, Shaw was calling himself a communist, and praising Stalin to the skies. Shaw made it quite clear that he approved of Stalin's use of intimidation -- and even extermination -- as a means of maintaining the smooth running of the state. There is, Mr. Holroyd notes, a "misanthropic relish" in much of Shaw's later writing; increasingly, his imagination "flirted pleasurably with death and, in more extreme fantasies, killing."

Why did Shaw's idealistic spirit and his fascination with strong leadership take so dark a turn? As Mr. Holroyd points out, Shaw had grownincreasingly impatient with the process of gradual social reform that he had backed as a Fabian socialist in the 1890s. He was ready, then, to regard Sovietism as nothing less than a new religion, the great cause behind which European artists, intellectuals and governmental leaders could all unite -- as many did.

Mr. Holroyd shows, too that a streak of coldness had always been a part of Shaw's complex personality, the residue, perhaps, of an odd childhood spent with an emotionally aloof mother and a father much addicted to drink. He suggests that as Shaw aged he grew steadily less interested in dwelling in the real world than in his own Shavian realm, where life could always unfold as in a Shavian play. Hence Mr. Holroyd's title -- "The Lure of Fantasy."

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