Bernard Shaw and the New Spirit

Arnold Kettle


It has seemed to me for some time that much Marxist or left-wing assessment of the work of Bernard Shaw has been less than satisfactory. It is true that Shaw was in many respects a vulnerable figure. Both in his life and his art he offered a great many hostages to fortune, and fortune—in the form of the deepening crisis of capitalist society through which he lived so long—wasn’t slow to take advantage of the situation. Yet when one has totted up the errors and the sillinesses, the false hunches and the jokes that fell flat or rebounded against him, what remains is greatly impressive and, like so much good writing, not easily predictable. It is not hard to see in a general way how he emerges out of the stresses and contradictions of his time; yet it is no easier to ‘explain’ him than it would have been to foresee those others he so much admired: Mozart and Wagner, Dickens and Ibsen. And perhaps what one most wants to say of him is that it is in the end to that company that he belongs.

What follows cannot of course be in the nature of a reassessment of Shaw’s work. That would need far more than a short essay. All I can hope to do is to suggest certain approaches and perspectives that might make possible a more full and satisfactory estimate.

Caudwell in his essay on Shaw in Studies in a Dying Culture strikes a note I would want to query.

Faced with proletarianisation, he clung to the bourgeois class. In the same way, faced with the problem of ideological proletarianisation in his reading of Marx, he resisted it, and adhered to Fabianism, with its bourgeois traditions and its social responsibility  . . .

Well, yes, one sees what he means all right. And it isn’t untrue. But is it really what most matters, what most needs to be said? Isn’t there perhaps even something rather dangerously Platonic in the approach, a setting up of ideal standards, embodied in the word proletarianisation, and an insistence on judging not only a man's life but also his work against that ideal standard. One

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hesitates to use that argument with Caudwell who did himself make precisely that effort—and at the cost of his life—which he accuses Shaw of shirking. Yet the suspicion remains that, in concentrating so single-mindedly on what Shaw wasn’t or on what he might have been, Caudwell runs the risk of missing what he was, what he brought to the movement he always tried, with whatever foibles and failures, to serve. To stress too much the role of Shaw as misleader is unsatisfactory not because the charges that can be made against him may not have truth in them, but because it becomes so easy, in the process, to miss what is truly original, the contribution no one else did or could make.

It is interesting to recall that Caudwell’s criticism, which rather too readily equates Shaw’s weaknesses with his Fabianism, is not in some ways so very different from that of Shaw’s own Fabian friend and colleague Beatrice Webb. She too was shocked by what seemed to her Shaw’s frivolity or irresponsibility, feeling that he sold the pass for the sake of effect or applause or some sort of bourgeois approval. In 1905, the day after taking the (Tory) Prime Minister to see Major Barbara at the Royal Court, she wrote in her diary:

I doubt the popular success of the play: it is hell tossed on the stage with no hope of heaven. G.B.S. is gambling with ideas and emotions in a way that distresses slow-minded prigs like Sidney and me .—But the stupid public will stand a good deal from one who is acclaimed as an unrivalled wit by the great ones of the world.—I think that what both Caudwell and Beatrice Webb underestimated is the liberating effect of good art and, in particular, the complexity of the way that effect can work. It is true that the ‘moral’ of Major Barbara seems to be that the capitalist realist Undershaft holds all the cards. But the deeper burden of the play is that power can never be effectively challenged by idealism and Shaw’s ability to open up that question for his audience is in the long run worth a score of easier moral victories to comfort the converted.

A more recent assessment of Shaw from the left—by Raymond Williams—seems to me representative of what a great many people nowadays think about Shaw:

Shaw’s dynamic as a dramatist is surely weakening, and it seems impossible that it can, as a major force, survive the period of which

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he was a victim. Respect for his ability to laugh at a great deal of persistent nonsense will certainly endure; and respect for his great wit and for his skilful forensic and burlesque . . . but the emotional inadequacy of his plays denies him major status. He withered the tangible life of experience in the pursuit of a fantasy of pure intelligence and pure force.

It is a formidable dismissal and all the more so because it stresses Shaw’s role as ‘victim’, isolated and frustrated by the socio-historical situation of his time and especially by the weaknesses of the British Labour movement and the strength of British bourgeois philistinism. But, again, it seems to me to go somehow wrong and to grant Shaw too little. And in this respect it is in striking contrast with the views of Shaw’s most persistent defender among twentieth-century dramatists: Bertolt Brecht.

Brecht did not idealise Shaw. But he recognised him generously as one of the writers with whom he had special affinities. When he was working on his Life of Galileo his mind would go back to Shaw’s Saint Joan, another twentieth-century chronicle-play set in the past and one he had watched from behind the scenes in the course of production in the twenties, when Max Reinhardt directed it in Berlin and Elisabeth Bergner was Joan. Brecht saw Shaw’s Epilogue, in which Joan reappears, so to speak, both in and outside history, as his attempt to achieve the sort of ‘distancing’ or ‘objectivising’ effect that Brecht called Verfremdung and regarded as so important to his own drama. He was not satisfied with Shaw’s solution and when, in East Berlin after the war, he himself worked on a Joan play for the Berliner Ensemble (an adaptation of a radio play by Anna Seghers entitled The Trial of Joan of Arc at Rouen 1431) he produced his own solution by writing a final scene for the play, placed squarely in France in 1436, by which he avoided the mystical element in Shaw’s Epilogue. I mention the point merely to establish that Brecht’s relationship to Shaw isn’t just of the ‘literary-history’ sort, or my own hunch.

I think it can be fruitful to look at Shaw in the light of Brecht’s subsequent achievement because the tendency has been to see Shaw’s work too much as a failure to establish a socialist drama and insufficiently as a creative move in that direction. This tendency, I’d suggest, is what leads to Raymond Williams’s dismissal which I have quoted, and it seems to me to inform also

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much of what is by far the most serious and rewarding Marxist study of Shaw—Alick West’s A Good Man Fallen among Fabians.

To achieve the perspective I am proposing—a perspective more revelatory of what is truly valuable (and progressive) in his drama—it is necessary to see Shaw historically, not only in relation to the socialist movement of his time but also in relation to the development of modern European drama.

My hypothesis is that there are two very great modern European dramatists, dominant in the sense we can now see Shakespeare to have dominated the drama of his time and after. These are Ibsen and Brecht. They are great not simply in themselves, measured in terms of the quality of their individual output, but in terms of their centrality to their times and, consequently, the depth of their influence, which will outlast superficial movements of taste and fashion.

Ibsen, starting from an unlikely base in Scandinavia and a slightly more promising German tradition, wrought a fully serious drama out of the most basic human dilemmas and developments of mid-nineteenth-century bourgeois Europe. If one calls it a bourgeois drama, that is not because most of the characters belong to the middle-class nor because Ibsen is uncritical of bourgeois society and its values; but rather because it is a drama that operates and makes its effect within a structure of feeling and—to a large extent—ideological assumption that is at bottom bourgeois. Ibsen’s people are stripped—before us and each other and themselves—of layer after layer of ideological comfort and illusion and falsity; but scarcely a hint of an alternative way of living emerges: as with Wagner, the redemptive vision of the love of a good woman is sometimes offered, but it in no serious way resolves the contradictions that have been revealed with that remorseless technique for the uncovering of ghosts that Ibsen perfected. As with Shakespeare and Brecht, Ibsen brings a world out into the open. Yet ‘open’ is not really quite the word one wants, for his art—even in Peer Gynt, the most ‘open’ of his plays—is much less open than theirs, much more caught up in the obsessions and neuroses it portrays, with a certain ingrowing overintensity against which Brecht himself was consciously in reaction in his sustained attempt to open up the world for twentieth-century men and women.

Between Ibsen and Brecht the best of the dramatists—

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Checkhov, Strindberg, Synge, O’Casey, even Pirandello—all contributed to the opening up of Ibsenite drama. Of all these the most original, the most brilliant and the hardest to characterise, is Bernard Shaw. His plays are remarkably unlike anyone else’s, so that in seeing him historically, as one must, one is in no danger of undermining his idiosyncrasy. And since he saw himself historically, never for an instant considering his art timeless or spaceless, there is no excuse for our not doing so.

Unlike Brecht, who frequently used Ibsen’s middle-period plays as examples of the sort of drama he mistrusted and sought to avoid. Shaw looked on Ibsen as a liberator and presented him as such to the public, especially in The Quintessence of Ibsenism, first published in 1891, but later revised in 1913 after Ibsen’s death. The Quintessence, everyone agrees, tells us more about Shaw than about Ibsen. It makes Ibsen’s plays seem more didactic and consciously ‘progressive’ than they are and exaggerates those elements which it suited Shaw’s own purposes to stress in his determination to épater le bourgeois. Shaw seized on Ibsen because his plays, unlike almost all contemporary drama, struck him as truly serious. He represented, Shaw said, that ‘new spirit’ which alone could grapple with the needs of the time.

The ‘new spirit’ is not altogether easy to define. Shaw associated it explicitly with Mozart and Wagner, Checkhov and Tolstoy, Samuel Butler and the later Dickens: figures whose highest common factor of novelty doesn’t spring spontaneously to mind. Put negatively, the new spirit was what George Eliot and Matthew Arnold hadn’t got. Its absence struck him particularly in the work of Henry James, one of whose plays he described in the nineties in the following terms:

Mr Henry James’ intellectual fastidiousness remains untouched by the resurgent energy and wilfulness of the new spirit. It takes us back to the exhausted atmosphere of George Eliot, Huxley and Tyndall, instead of thrusting us forward into the invigorating strife raised by Wagner and Ibsen.

This gives us an important clue if we link the mention of George Eliot, Huxley and Tyndall with another statement of Shaw’s, made in connection with his discovery of the supreme importance of the ‘economic base’. This time he is describing (to his biographer Archibald Henderson) his experience of

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listening in 1882 to a speech of Henry George and suddenly seeing his own intellectual development in a new light.

It flashed on me for the first time that ‘the conflict between religion and science’, . . . the overthrow of the Bible, the higher education of women, Mill on Liberty, and all the storm that raged round Darwin, Tyndall, Huxley, Spencer and the rest, on which I had brought myself up intellectually, was a mere middle-class business. Suppose it could have produced a nation of Matthew Arnolds and George Eliots—you may well shudder . . .

This explicit linking of the intellectual forces he had come to reject with ‘a mere middle-class business’ seems to me very important. Shaw never committed himself to a Marxist position and kept up a running battle against Marxian economics; but reading Capital was a decisive event in his intellectual development and, even before that, he had clearly been influenced by the sort of approach we have come to call Marxist. That description of so much serious Victorian thinking as a ‘mere middle-class business’ indicates what it was that attracted him about the creative artists in whom he recognised a ‘new spirit’. Wagner, Tolstoy, the later Dickens, Ibsen had all broken through to forms of art which couldn’t justly be subsumed within the category ‘a mere middle-class business’. Their work expressed and stimulated an ‘invigorating strife’ which their more class-bound confrères sought to muffle or cover up. The art imbued with the ‘new spirit’ had the effect of opening up the nature and problems of bourgeois society in a manner which those whose work could be described as a mere middle-class business were without the resources to achieve.

What linked the purveyors of the ‘new spirit’ was not a shared philosophy in the more formal sense of the word. Nor was it something easily covered by even a loose use of the word ‘ideology’. It was, rather, the ability to ‘open up’ through their art the world into which they had been born. What The Magic Flute, Little Dorrit, The Ring of the Nibelung, Peer Gynt, Anna Karenina, The Cherry Orchard and Heartbreak House have in common isn’t at all easy to define. Marxists have tended to use the word ‘realism’—indicating that good art uncovers reality and perhaps there is no better word: yet one can’t help feeling that it’s a word with as many snags as advantages, implying either too much or too little and tending to play down the

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importance of artistic form. If I stress the phrase ‘opening up’ it is to try to suggest that an important part of the achievement of those in whom Bernard Shaw recognised the new spirit was their reaching out for forms that liberated themselves and their audience or readers from a certain kind of emotional relationship towards art which generates its reduction into a mere middle-class business.

Shaw picked out two aspects of Ibsen’s plays which particularly appealed to him. One he called ‘realism’, which he associated with an extension of subject-matter—the serious treatment of people (servants, workers, ‘common people’) and situations which remained on the fringes of ruling-class art, the other he called ‘discussion’—and he claimed that the introduction of this analytical element into his plays was Ibsen’s most significant technical innovation. Shaw probably exaggerated the ‘discussion’ element in Ibsen (the sort of thing that occurs in the last act of A Doll's House when Nora insists on analysing her marriage); but if he did so it was, from his point of view, in a good cause; for what he was urging was the need for a drama that made the audience think as well as feel and forced them to re-examine cherished emotional attitudes and assumptions. His remark that ‘the question which makes the (Ibsen) play interesting is which is the villain and which the hero?’ indicates what attracted him to Ibsen and also the extent to which he was himself rejecting the Aristotelian view of drama with its emphasis on some kind of ‘identification’ of the audience with the progress of the hero.

Yet, for all his propaganda on behalf of Ibsen, Shaw always recognised that his own plays were quite different in kind from the Norwegian’s: ‘My own drama’ he wrote (in 1904) ‘is utterly unlike Ibsen in its stage methods and socialist view of human misery.’ It is an important statement, not only because it should warn us against thinking of Shaw as a sort of Ibsen manqué, but also because of its linking of form with ideas. It was Shaw’s socialism that made him want a new form of drama, not simply a drama which might have a propagandist usefulness, though he didn’t despise that.

Shaw played up Ibsen and played down Shakespeare. Brecht did the opposite. Shaw, despite the important distinction between himself and Ibsen I have just emphasised, saw Ibsen primarily as a liberating force. Brecht, operating nearly half a

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century later (though he died only six years after Shaw) and in a very different socio-historical situation, had to reject Ibsenite drama, This was not, of course, because he didn’t appreciate Ibsen or recognise his greatness, but because—a committed Marxist in a sense Shaw never was—he felt himself able to develop a dramatic theory far more thoroughgoing and radical than Shaw—caught up in the British situation—was able to contemplate. Through his rejection of the whole Aristotelian theory of drama, with its emphasis on ritual, catharsis and the special role of the hero, Brecht was able to evolve a new basis for the opening up of the drama as an integral part of the opening up of the social world. He saw Ibsenite drama as, for all its power and honesty, trapped in the categories of bourgeois ideology and dragging its audiences into a sort of complicity with the bourgeois attitudes it so relentlessly exposed. Shaw, as we’ve seen, to some extent took a similar line, emphasising his differences from as well as his debt to Ibsen: yet he was unable to develop for his own practice a theory as basically helpful as Brecht’s ‘epic theatre’.

It is not difficult for us, with our easier hindsight, to recognise that Shaw was tentatively but insistently feeling his way towards the kind of dramatic theory that was to serve Brecht. And it is not yet possible, in any case, to make a long-term assessment of the value of Brecht’s theories (nor would he, with his insistence that the proof of the pudding is in the eating, want us to rush into one). Yet it seems to me useful to look at Shaw’s practice in the light of Brecht’s theory and I suspect that some of the current underestimation of Shaw’s writing comes from a failure to see the two outstanding socialist dramatists of the twentieth century sufficiently in relation to one another.

When Raymond Williams writes (in the passage quoted above) of the ‘emotional inadequacy’ of Shaw’s plays he seems to me to be expecting a Shaw play to be essentially like an Ibsen play in structure and mode of operation. That is to say, he seems to assume that the shape and structure of the play is governed by the shape and structure of the emotional situation which the dramatist is concerned to convey, so that the experience of the audience involves a high measure of ‘identification’ with the movement of the situation which is evoked on the stage. Now, I would not wish to argue that Shaw never works in this way: the endings of Candida and Saint Joan are instances and they are

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examples of Shaw at his most vulnerable. But I see them as somewhat exceptional: not in the sense that there are necessarily more good bits than bad ones in a Shaw play, but in the sense that they lead us away from his most basic originality.

That originality, I would suggest, lies most centrally in his concern about ideology and in his discovery of a dramatic structure—based on wit—which frames that concern in a creative way. The concern with ideology I have already touched on, his determination to create a drama that was more than a mere middle-class business. Shaw’s plays are about power: it is his obsession, and an obsession which marks him out from the bulk of nineteenth-century British writers who run away from questions of power as from the plague and accept a bourgeois view of politics as a sort of professional technology. That is why it is misleading to describe his plays as ‘drama of ideas’. What he is interested in, above all, is the power of ideology—that is to say, collections of ideas, attitudes, feelings and prejudices linked together by their relationship to certain general needs and aims, the needs and aims of certain people at a certain time. The coherence of an ideology lies, in practice, in the part it plays in serving the needs of a class. The very conception of an ideology rests on the recognition that ideas are themselves not ‘pure’ but gain their hold over men’s minds through the importance they acquire as forces serving or preventing the realisation of felt and discovered needs. This Shaw came to understand, as a sort of revelation, in the eighteen-eighties. It took him a decade to discover how to incorporate his knowledge in a style. But a style is precisely what differentiates a play like Mrs Warren’s Profession (in the nineties) from the bourgeois drama of the day. Because its subject is prostitution it took thirty years for the curtain to rise on a public performance of Mrs Warren’s Profession, but when it goes up, the curtain (an ordinary west-end curtain in a west-end theatre, as middle-class as you like) goes up on an ordinary west-end theatrical scene and the people on the stage seem to be just like the people Pinero or Henry Arthur Jones or Tom Robertson or Wilde (at least before The Importance of Being Earnest) put there. But when they begin to talk you discover they are not the same people at all: or, rather, the same sort of people revealed in quite a new way and therefore different people. It is Shaw’s style that has transformed them and that style is by no means a matter of tricks or technique or ‘literary’ qualities. The

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style is the ability to convey the power of ideology in the shaping of a human situation.

When Raymond Williams writes that despite our respect for his great wit we have to recognise the emotional inadequacy of Shaw’s plays I think he is underestimating the part wit plays in Shaw’s dramatic art. Wit, in a play like Major Barbara, is not an embellishment which improves the play, it is the motive-force which informs its very structure and movement. There is a moment in the second act of that play, set in the Salvation Army shelter in the East End, when Barbara introduces her father, the capitalist arms-manufacturer Undershaft, to the poor man Peter Shirley who has been forced, to his humiliation, to accept help from the Army. The following exchange takes place.

BARBARA . . . By the way, papa, what is your religion? in case I have to introduce you again.

UNDERSHAFT My religion? Well, my dear, I am a Millionaire. That is my religion.

BARBARA Then I’m afraid you and Mr Shirley won’t be able to comfort one another after all. You’re not a Millionaire, are you, Peter?

SHIRLEY No; and proud of it.

UNDERSHAFT (gravely) Poverty, my friend, is not a thing to be proud of.

SHIRLEY (angrily) Who made your millions for you? Me and my like. What’s kep’ us poor? Keepin’ you rich. I wouldn’t have your conscience, not for all your income.

UNDERSHAFT I wouldn’t have your income, not for all your conscience, Mr Shirley.

What is involved here is not a dramatic situation embellished by a prettily-turned exchange of dialogue. The wit is basic to the whole enterprise and informs its very nature including the conception and presentation of character. The perception that a society in which one has to choose between conscience and income is intolerable is precisely what Shaw’s play is about: not about the love-affair (if that’s the word for it) between Barbara and Cusins or the family problem of who is to inherit the Undershaft millions. What I am driving at is that the dialectical wit which everyone recognises as a feature of Shaw-s plays is the very basis of his dramatic method and the structural principle on which the plays are built. This is why people who expect Ibsen-type plays often complain that Shaw’s ‘fizzle-out’, fail to

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achieve the sort of emotional climax the audience, imbued with Ibsen/Aristotelian anticipations of how a play should work, expects. If the endings of Shaw’s plays are often arbitrary and almost incidental it is because the resolution of the situations—the interplay of forces—he has evoked remains for the future to work out: the air-raid in Heartbreak House, for example, brings the play to an end but is in no sense emotionally ‘inevitable’: it has no cathartic effect on the audience and the producer who tries to impose such an effect is wasting his time.

Running through a good deal of criticism of Shaw as a dramatist lies the complaint that, for all his talent, he is not truly serious: he spoils his good mind. There is, of course, plenty of justification for such criticism in the sense that the plays are very uneven with far too many bad jokes and irritating idiosyncrasies which time has not been kind to. But basically, I believe, the complaint is a disastrous one, sweeping aside Shaw’s triumphs along with his failures. Again, Brecht can help put the perspective right. Writing in 1926 when he was in his twenties and Shaw was seventy, he said:

Shaw has applied a great part of his talent to intimidating people to a point when it would be an impertinence for them to prostrate themselves before him . . .

It will have been observed that Shaw is a terrorist. Shaw’s brand of terror is an extraordinary one, and he uses an extraordinary weapon, that of humour . . .

Shaw’s terrorism consists in this: that he claims a right for every man to act in all circumstances with decency, logic and humour, and sees it as his duty to do so even when it creates opposition. He knows just how much courage is needed to laugh at what is amusing, and how much seriousness to pick it out. And like all people who have a definite purpose he knows that there is nothing more time-wasting and distracting than a particular kind of seriousness which is popular in literature and nowhere else . . .

Brecht was not, of course, so naive as to use the word terrorist blindly. He knew very well that terrorism in the revolutionary movement implies attitudes characteristic of the petty bourgeoisie rather than the working class and he wouldn’t have disagreed with Caudwell’s (or Lenin’s) analysis of Shaw’s political position. The word terrorist does indeed indicate one of Shaw’s artistic weaknesses: just as the political terrorist easily becomes bomb-happy, the intellectual one tends to be idea-

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happy and Shaw could seldom resist a bright idea, even when it disrupted his own deeper purposes. But Brecht’s remarks do much more than put a finger on one of Shaw’s weaknesses: they also indicate his strength.

Behind what Brecht has to say about Shaw lie his own experiences of and reaction against a ‘particular kind of seriousness’, the German kind which found its expression not just in the heaviness of so much Romantic art but in a technique of obfuscation to which Marx in particular brought his special attention. Brecht’s description of Shaw as a ‘terrorist’ is extraordinarily apt, especially when the word is linked with an emphasis on his humour or (as I would prefer to call it) wit. That image of Shaw the terrorist upsetting an applecart containing bourgeois concepts of what is and what isn’t serious seems to me very much to the point, not only because it characterises Shaw’s role in a plausible way but because it forces us to think about the whole concept of seriousness.

One of the most helpful ways of looking at much ‘Modernist’ literature of the early twentieth century is, I think, to recognise its role as puncturing or undermining the sort of seriousness, the sort of consciousness and therefore the sort of art which nineteenth-century capitalist society all the time tended to generate and encourage. Shaw and the modernist writers of his time had little sympathy for one another (T. S. Eliot said that Shaw as a poet was stillborn) but I think it may be fruitful to stress what Shaw and Brecht and the modernists had in common: an assault on the forms of bourgeois realism.


SOURCE: Kettle, Arnold. “Bernard Shaw and the New Spirit,” in Rebels and Their Causes: Essays in Honour of A. L. Morton, edited by Maurice Cornforth (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1978), pp. 209-220.


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