My Last Visit With Shaw
VINCENT SHEEAN, who began his writing as a foreign correspondent and who scored his first international success with Personal History, was abashed — as any young writer would be — on his first meeting with George Bernard Shaw. But Shaw took a liking to him and to his wife, Diana Forbes-Robertson. He was invited again to the Victorian house on the edge of the little village of Ayot St. Lawrence, and as he came to know the great man and his charming wife Aunt Charlotte, his veneration for Shaw deepened and became articulate. These are the impressions of his last visit with George Bernard Shaw in the spring of 1949.
by VINCENT SHEEAN
ON a spring day in 1949 my wife and I drove down from London to Ayot St. Lawrence, in Hertfordshire, to see Mr. Bernard Shaw. It was the Fourth of June, the annual festival at Eton; it was also Derby Day; and by the vagaries of the lunar calendar it was at the same time the Whitsun week-end. London was a deserted city, bathed in summer light like a stage setting awaiting its actors. Once we left the city, all along the way there were intrepid youths and maidens in shorts and T shirts, riding bicycles or simply running, flexing their muscles, preparing for some mysterious test of fitness or saluting the sun. I was by no means unaware of the blossoming countryside through which we drove, but for the most part my mind was busy with our illustrious host, his wit and wisdom, his rebellious intellect and ins irrepressible kindness.
More than once I had made this journey. Over a period of fifteen years, at intervals I had grasped in my hand the green sheet of directions, hired a car, proclaimed our destination, and set forth, secure in the knowledge that no chauffeur could possibly go wrong if he did everything this sheet of paper told him to do. For these directions were Mr. Shaw’s own most careful composition, on which he worked for years, correcting and abridging when he judged it necessary, so that it was virtually foolproof. My recollection is that fifteen years ago the green sheet was about twice as long and twice as detailed. The print certainly filled the whole paper at that time, with no room at the bottom for writing. This time the directions had a written addendum: —
Mv DEAR DIANA:—
Vincent had better come on Saturday. I shall be free at 4 or later. Hadn’t he better bring his wife, if she can bear the spectacle of a doddering old crock who might be her great-grandfather?
The only bearable way of getting here is by car from door to door. Without the printed directions above you will lose your way in the lanes; but if you have no car, hire from Fred Day. Telephone Kensington 5257. He specializes in Shaw visits, and knows the way.
This visit was of a special nature. On previous occasions — too few, indeed, and all before the war — I had gone in response to the invitations of Mrs. Shaw, the kind and valiant mother-bird, the good soul now departed, for whom my own affection had sprung up unbidden from the moment I first saw her in Forbes-Robertson’s house in the winter of 1935. After 1940 I had not been to Ayot St. Lawrence again — only to Whitehall Court, in London, where there were always a few to lunch and much talk, even up to the bombing days. This had been the London habitat of the Shaws ever since the old Adelphi on the river, where they used to live, was torn down to make way for a huge modern building. It was in Whitehall Court that I heard Shaw say some of the most startling things that fell upon my ears in 1940. The French, he said, on that awful day when France fell, will be happy now; they can at last join the Germans and turn on the British Empire, which is what they have always wanted to do. (I was shocked when he said it; but how right he turned out to be!) On the same day he remarked that he would be the correct person to negotiate with Hitler, since he and Hitler were the only two men living who had read Richard Wagner’s Art and Society. (Again he was right, as I know now; then I was only startled.)
Copyright 1050, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston 16, Mass. All rights reserved.
Between Whitehall Court, the quiet London flat, and Ayot St. Lawrence, the unbeautiful but comfortable late Victorian house embowered in the Hertfordshire lanes, everything I had known or seen of Shaw was framed. Once only I had seen him elsewhere, in the Adam drawing room of my fatherin-law Forbes-Robertson’s house in Bedford Square. That was when I met him first, when he and Mrs. Shaw came to lunch and he darted across the room, shook my hand and said: “So this is the celebrated author of —" I was so embarrassed that I hardly dared utter a word for the rest of that lunch. Mr. Shaw was newer unkind, and did not mean to be then — on the contrary, I suppose he meant to lift me from the depths of my awe; but it was inevitable that I should think he was making mock of me.
THE impressions of any writer of another are likely to be tinted or twisted by purely professional peculiarities, such as the extreme familiarity which the writing itself engenders. That is to say, I spent such a very large part of my first youth reading Shaw’s plays and prefaces that I felt myself to be among the familiars of his mind long before I ever saw him. I used to go up to the smoking room in Mitchell Tower, next to Harper Library in the University of Chicago, and read those works for hours on end. That room was hardly ever used (undergraduates as a rule did not know of its existence) and I spent innumerable hours with Shaw in those days after the First World War.
It would be difficult to convey to anybody of another generation what a liberating wind came from his words. It was the opening of doors and windows, the welcome flood of the morning sun. As a result I was always on my guard, in after years, against Shaw’s occasional habit of quoting himself. ("I read that once and will not forget it,”I used to say to myself, “and why does he think he has to tell me now?”) That was a slight impediment to my correct appreciation of his personality. Another was his habit of giving unnecessary information about his own work, which I felt I knew about as well as anybody who was not a specialist in it. He once said to me: “I wrote a comedy sonic years ago called Pygmalion,” and I was convulsed with an internal fury. I know now that I was foolish and he was right: a great many people may not have known that he wrote a comedy called Pygmalion. Everything is possible. But for some years I was blinded towards Shaw’s absolute sincerity and honesty by this habit he had of telling me things I already knew. To me he was the greatest writer of our time, and also by all odds the most famous, so that every time he gave me information of this sort it only meant (to me) that he regarded me as an ignoramus.
And awe, too, awe itself, which any younger writer must feel for one so old and famous, is an impediment. Shaw did his best to get me out of that. His method was to compare me to Colonel T. E. Lawrence, who had greatly frequented the Shaw household and who had been “shaken with awe,” Mr. Shaw said, “about what he called gr-r-reat writers.” Shaw’s insistence upon an analogy between Lawrence and me was probably, I see now, as much for my own good as anything else. It was a form of therapy. By making fun of Lawrence he hoped to get some of the same snarls and snags out of my own composition. According to his thesis, Lawrence and I both suffered from the same disease, which he called (in the phrase from Ibsen’s Master Builder) “the sickly conscience.”According to Shaw, this malady had never existed in the past; Lawrence and I were the principal examples he could think of; and we could not possibly have lived at any time except the twentieth century. He once developed this theme at the greatest length (to my intense distress) until Mrs. Shaw told him to stop.
But as the years passed and I did somewhat conquer my “awe,” our few meetings turned into something of rare value to me. I saw in him a leonine courage and an intelligence so incisive that it made most of what passed for “thinking” in our time look like a form of embroidery. His wit was natural, flowing, incessant, and represented on the surface what was fundamentally his attitude towards life; but the words in which it was expressed were an art. lake all art, they came not by nature alone. He had worked. He had in fact penetrated the language as few writers ever do. Actors have told me that his lines are easy to memorize, in spite of their length, because of the inner connections between them: the progressions have inevitability. What is more, the lines have cadence, and if an actor leaves out a word or substitutes another the cadence is as much destroyed as it would be in Shakespeare. During the rehearsals of Caesar and Cleopatra fifty years ago my mother-in-law, who was sitting with Shaw in the darkened theatre watching a scene, was suddenly entranced by the line of the slave Britannus: “Only as Caesar’s slave have I known true freedom.” She turned to Shaw impulsively (she was only twenty) and said: “Oh, Mr. Shaw, you really ought to write poetry.” He boomed back at her: “My dear Miss Elliott, I never write anything else.”
This poet, warrior, and sage appeared to a large number of people in his own generation and for a generation or two afterwards in the guise of a clown, perhaps of a gifted clown, but with the unmistakable clownishness just the same. It was by turning things topsy-turvy that he set them straight. His formidable central gift was aesthetic; it was for the creation of works of art. (H. G. Wells told me that long ago. “Don’t make the mistake of taking Shaw as a thinker,”he said. “That’s secondary. Primarily and all the time, don’t you know, his is an aesthetic gift.”) These works of art were at their best before I was born or just after I was born, perhaps, but they reached their general recognition just as my generation was ready to read them. The gap is therefore tremendous, since Mr. Shaw’s best plays were all written after he was forty and fully half of them after he was sixty. He may perhaps belong — does, I think — to the period called “the turn of the century,” and therefore the “sickly conscience” was always alien to him. Across such gulfs it is sometimes hard to communicate.
Now, on this visit to Ayot St. Lawrence, I was going for the first time on business. One of the popular magazines had sent me to ask Mr. Shaw if he would write an article or essay for them, of whatever length, on his views of the twentieth century in midstream. We were approaching the year 1950, the “grand climacteric" according to some systems of belief, and it was rightly held that Shaw’s remarks could not fail to be illuminating.
But there were two drawbacks. First, Shaw was old, approaching then his ninety-third birthday; second, anything to do with business always did put him on the defensive. I had been in Paris for the conference of the foreign ministers of the four principal powers (the “Big Four”) and proposed to come over to London for one week-end to see him. I wrote him a note from Paris, and also asked my wife, Diana Forbes-Robcrtson, to telephone from London to Ayot St. Lawrence to make an appointment. (We were then divorced, which Mr. Shaw apparently did not know; we were remarried the following December.) His first response was to send her the green sheet of directions with the written note. She then sent him a telegram saying I had a project to submit, and he replied: —
MY DEAR DIANA:—
Since writing to you your telegram has arrived with the alarming intimation that Vincent is coming to submit a project to me. Now I don’t want him to he disappointed and have his tedious journey for nothing.
It is on the face of it absurd to submit a new project to a man of 93. It is even more hopeless to enlist a man without a penny to spare. Vincent thinks I am under 40 and have millions.
Make him read the enclosed printed card which he must take very seriously. I am selling all my London books and furniture, and changing into a cheaper flat, to scrape together enough cash to avoid being sold-up by the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
The only people who have any spare money now are financiers whose gains on the Stock Exchange arc exempt from taxation. I am taxed 19/6 in the pound to a point which leaves me only a subsistence income.
Vincent must write me off as no good for anything.
The pink ticket enclosed with this note said: —
“Mr. Bernard Shaw receives daily a mass of appeals from charitable Institutions, religious sects and Churches, inventors, Utopian writers desirous of establishing international millennial leagues, parents unable to afford secondary education for their children: in short, everybody and every enterprise in financial straits of any sort.
“All these appeals are founded on the notion that Mr. Shaw is a multimillionaire. The writers apparently do not know that all his income except enough to meet his permanent engagements is confiscated by the Exchequer and redistributed to those with smaller tax-free incomes or applied to general purposes by which everyone benefits.
“Clearly Mr. Shaw’s correspondents cannot have his income both ways: in cash from himself and in services from the Slate. He does not complain of this system, having advocated it for more than half a century, and nationalized all his landed property; but now that it is in active and increasing operation it is useless to ask him for money; he has none to spare.
“He begs to be excused accordingly. No other reply to appeals is possible.”
I believe my wife then spoke to Mr. Loewenstein, Shaw’s secretary, on the telephone, assuring him that this was not a fund-raising expedition, and was told to revert to the original plan.
THUS, on the Saturday afternoon of maximum preoccupation for the rest of England — Derby Day and all that — we passed through the lanes and the bosky dells and came to the Victorian house set back at the crossroads on the edge of the little village. The driver a specialist in Shaw visits — drove in knowingly over the gravel and then took his place near the gate of exit. We rang the bell and found ourselves in a hall which did not seem to have changed for years. Sunshine was flooding in from the garden. The pink-faced maid who let us in said she did not know where Mr. Shaw was but she thought he was walking outside. We decided, after a few minutes, to go and find him. The first place I looked, of course, was across the slope to the summerhouse opposite, on the other side of the garden, where he used to do much of his writing. I remembered well having seen him come swinging along from that place through winter or summer weather, robust and indefatigable. But there was no Shaw to be seen; the garden was empty. Then, as we looked round, he emerged from a clump of shrubbery down on the right and began to walk slowly up the garden path towards the house. We went to meet him swiftly.
My first feeling was one of shock and terror. I had not expected this fragility. For a moment I almost thought he was a ghost; I was sorry I had come to disturb so august a shade. But then he began to talk, a little slowly it is true, and moreover our progress up the garden walk was preternaturally slow, but I began to feel, after all, that nothing had changed that time had taken away a little color, a little solidity (a little of the too, too solid flesh), but had touched nothing essential. This was Shaw, all right, the unmistakable original article and no other. Only once he said something that reminded me abruptly of how many long years he had passed in this garden. My wife admired the row of tall poplars that stood over against the ridge at the end of the garden opposite the house.
“Ah, yes,”Mr. Shaw said, “they shoot up with the greatest celerity. One moment you look at them and they are knee-high, and the next moment they tower above you.”
A few decades more or less could not have been more cavalierly dismissed.
But it was when we came at last to the house and to the familiar small silting room at the end that he really shed the years. Seated in his own chimney corner, beside the unlit fire (it was a warm day), and resting his extraordinary head against the back of a tall chair, everything came back to him at once — the resonant voice and the panoply of words, the range of subject and the vivacity of attack upon each in turn. He bad walked very straight, it is true — there was no bend in that back — and had spoken with his usual crystalline clarity, even in the garden, but here in his chimney corner he was at ease and in command.
The little maid brought in a table groaning with tea and all sorts of food and cakes for Dinah and me. I looked inquiringly at Mr. Shaw.
“Go ahead and have what you like,”he said. “It’s a meal I don’t take.”
(I was reminded of years ago when it was a meal he did take, and Aunt Charlotte — I am sure she never knew we used to call her Aunt Charlotte, but she wouldn’t have minded anyhow — used to give us so much food we could not eat it all; and Mr. Shaw, in the midst of lecturing me on what part of the cake to eat, consigning the greater part of it to perdition as “muck,”got so engrossed in his own talk that he crumbled and ate all the “muck" that he had forbidden me.)
He talked a little about diet; he would not have been himself without at least a reference to that subject. Somebody had sent him a machine from America which seized upon raw vegetables and shredded them into a sort of pulp; this substance constituted Mr. Shaw’s main meal at midday. In the evening he supped on milk and bread or biscuit, with perhaps a little fruit.
“Most people suffer from protein poisoning,”he said, not too pointedly. “It’s one thing I’ll never have.”
THOUGH the subject of diet we progressed to Mahatma Gandhi, and Shaw really got into his stride. The meeting with Gandhi, to which he referred, must have taken place in 1931 when the Mahatma was in London for the Round Table Conference on a Constitution for India (boycotted by Nehru). I had always thought Gandhiji stayed his whole time in London at a settlement house in the East End, but apparently there was some interval when he had quarters in a more upholstered part, of London.
“He was staying in Kensington,”Shaw said positively, “in a big house.”
(It would have been like Gandhiji to go to the house of some Indian friend to receive the Shaws — to spare them the journey to the slums.)
“I went there with my wife and we were shown into a room bare of all furniture except for three armchairs. I could see the blanket against the wall where Gandhi had been sitting, but he sat in an armchair as we did. We had the usual polite preliminaries and then I said to him: ‘Now, look here, Gandhi, wouldn’t you be more comfortable on the floor?’ He said as a matter of fact he would, and he sat on the floor from then on while we continued to sit in our armchairs.”
The anecdote left me quite breathless for a moment; I could hardly tell which of the two, Shaw or Gandhi, was putting the other at a disadvantage, but I know that in my own experience I could not have endured sitting on a chair with Gandhi at my feet. Shaw could.
“We had a talk about the situation of the day, and a great deal about food and diet and such matters, as we were both cranks,” Mr. Shaw continued with gusto, remembering more of the story as he went on. “And then it came time to go. Gandhi got up and insisted on seeing us to the door. He wanted to know if we had a car. I said, ‘Certainly not; we never keep a car in London; we shall find a taxi.’ He said he would find us a car. I protested, but it was in vain; he was an obstinate little man. He accompanied us out of the house and across the drive to the street where there was standing a long row of magnificentlooking motorcars of an obviously private ownership and use. He picked out one of the most splendid of these vehicles and urged us to get into it. We did so in some bewilderment and then I said: ‘Why, look here, Gandhi, there’s no driver for this car.’ He said not to mind, he’d find us a driver; we said our farewells and sat back, wondering what would happen next. Presently there appeared a majestically handsome young man in a most resplendent uniform. He got into the driver’s seat and asked us where we wanted to go. We were in fact going to a cinema in Leicester Square to see a new film.
“The young man delivered us at our destination and the motorcar was most comfortable. We thanked him when we got out and then afterwards, when we were already seated in the cinema, it occurred to me that I might quite properly have given him a tip. I put three shillings into a twist of paper — a florin and a shilling, I remember — and summoned a page boy to deliver the money. Presently the page boy came back and told me the driver did not want a tip. The twist of paper was pressed into my hand and it was not until afterward that I discovered it contained only the florin. The shilling had vanished.”
Mr. Shaw paused to reflect for a moment about the vanished shilling of twenty years ago.
“On the following day,”he said, cheering up, “we received the visit of the majestic young man who had driven us to the cinema. He had come to pay his respects. He was the Maharajah of Something-or-other. And it appears that all the Indians in London, whether maharajahs or millionaires or whatever, had placed their motorcars at Gandhi’s disposal during his visit to London, and since he couldn’t possibly use them all they simply lined up there and waited!”
This afforded Mr. Shaw great amusement, no doubt as an example of the irrationality of Orientals; and indeed it would be hard to account for such behavior under the Marxian view. Since I had been in India a good deal of late, it did not seem to me so astonishing. I told him what Gandhi had said to me: —
“In everything that I have read of Bernard Shaw s there has been a religious center.”
Suddenly Mr. Shaw became very serious and leaned his head on his hand. After a pause I heard him speak, perhaps not even to me.
“That’s true,” he said. “That’s very true.”
THE somber moment was gone before I fully realized its meaning; it was the only one I ever saw with Bernard Shaw. To hasten its passing I outlined for him an article in which he would give his views of the twentieth century.
“Oh, good heavens no,” he said. “I can hardly remember anything for ten minutes at a time. How could I write about the twentieth century? Besides, it’s a poor laggard century. It’s never been able to catch up with me. No, no. Now mind you, Vincent, you must make all the money you can out of it, but don’t count on me for any writing. Besides, how do I know I should see the thing in print? And why should I labor for the Chancellor of the Exchequer? No, no, count me out.”
And then he began to talk about the twentieth century with a fine thrust and parry of words, like a man fencing with himself. He said it had started out well, equipped for great adventures in reorganization and development.
“But nobody can tell,” he said with complete seriousness although at the same pace, “what might have happened in the first half of the twentieth century if it had not been thoroughly disrupted by two savagely destructive wars. It had the material for a tremendous evolutionary jump, a great advance in the general wealth and welfare, when these two wars came along and tore the whole thing apart, and the second one was worse than the one before.”
He was pensive for the briefest pause, and then resumed in a deliberately brighter vein, as if he had looked over his rapiers and chosen this one with precision.
“Now I wonder who the great men of the century might be?” he remarked, and proceeded without waiting for a reply. “There’d be Stalin, of course, first of all. That Stalin,” he said admiringly, “he’s got a fist on ‘um!”
I wondered why he said Stalin and not Lenin, who was, after all, the creator of Stalin and of everything else in the Bolshevik revolution; but as he pursued his discourse I saw that he was talking of living men only — hence two or three significant omissions.
“Then of course you’d have to say Einstein, too,” Shaw continued. “That’s in a different realm of ideas but obviously he’s remade his world. And then who? Well, I suppose you might say Nehru, but he’s getting a little old.”
This was too much for me.
“But, Mr. Shaw,” I protested, “he’s only sixty.”
“Sixty, is it?” said Shaw. “Well, then, maybe he’s been in jail too long. Anyhow he came to see me here last autumn and I thought he seemed a little old. Well, then, who else? I might really add a fourth, if modesty did not forbid.”
He enjoyed this joke as much as we did and then launched forth into a long reminiscence about his visit to Stalin twenty-odd years ago. He had gone to Russia in 1927 with Lord and Lady Astor and had been received by Stalin with them. It appears that Lady Astor, who was then at the height of her career in the House of Commons, took charge of the meeting and did not permit Shaw to get a word in edgewise. He did have some slight exchange with Stalin, but on the whole derived his impression of the Soviet dictator’s strength and good sense from the talk of the others. At one point it seems that Lady Astor began to harangue Stalin about his welfare workers, district visitors or housing inspectors or something of the kind. She was especially incensed that, in what she had seen, too much of this work was done by men.
“You send me one competent woman to Plymouth,” she told the dictator, “and I‘ll teach her how to do the job.”
The visit to Russia ended soon afterwards and the Astor-Shaw party returned to England; within a few days there had turned up in Plymouth not one competent woman, but six.
It was no part of my plan or wish, with a man of Mr. Shaw’s age and eminence, to engage in argument. What I did think then, and developed in talk with my wife on the way back to London in the car, and have thought dozens of times in the past fifteen years, is this: that Mr. Shaw has consistently ignored the brutal violence of Stalin’s rule over his own people. In such remarks of his as I have heard, and in his frequent letters to the Times as well as in other printed work of these late years, Shaw has emphasized the reconstructive social enterprises of the Soviet Union, its work in the direction of a new society, to the exclusion of everything else. For a pacifist vegetarian to take this view meant that he must tune excluded from his mind everything of a contradictory nature, such as the wholesale extermination of peasants in the collectivization of agriculture, or numerous other immense human sacrifices on a scale never seen since ancient Mexico. If I had been able to get a word in edgewise in other years, before he became so extremely venerable, I should have asked Mr. Shaw about this, and if he had made the usual reply that “you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs,”I should have asked him to name the number of eggs. I have never quite understood how a nonviolent, vegetarian pacifist can approve of the utter disregard for contemporary life which characterizes Stalin’s battle for the problematical future. This question, however, I never had a chance to ask.
Curiously enough, in the whole of this disquisition Shaw did not once mention Roosevelt or Churchill. All those who are dead, among them friends of his such as H. G. Wells and worldshakers such as Lenin and Gandhi, were as if they had never been.
When an hour was up we rose to go, for fear of tiring him. I remember that as we stirred about the room, preparatory to departure, my wife’s eye was taken by a gilt statuette on the chimney piece. It was not beautiful, but beautiful objects were not much in Mr. Shaw’s period (comfort was preferred). Aside from a bust of himself by Prince Paul Troubetzkoy this gilt figurine was the only thing in the room that had the slightest pretension to the status of art. My wife touched it and asked what it was.
“That’s what they call an Oscar,” Shaw said. “They give it as an award in Hollywood for the best film of the year. I don’t know why they call it Oscar. They’ gave it to me for Pygmalion.”
We looked at it with interest, not only because we had heard of this award and never seen it, but also because we (or at least I) wondered at the extraordinary presumption of those who awarded it to Shaw.
“It’s not real gold,” he said. “It’s just a sham.”
When we went out of the door he came along with us. Only a few years ago he used to scamper about that graveled front like a two-year-old, acting as master of ceremonies for the visiting chauffeur. Now he was more sedate, and on emerging from the house took on again that extraordinary air of fragility that had struck me so much an hour before. He satisfied himself that we could get through the gate and also that the chauffeur knew the way back to London.
“He can’t fail, Mr. Shaw,”I told him, “because he has your green sheet of instructions.”
“Ah, you’ve kept it,” he said, pleased. “That’s right. You stick to that and you can’t go wrong.”
We left him there, standing in the road outside his own gateway, straight as an arrow, wispy while hair and beard blowing, the aged lion to whom we and all in our time owed so much.