Shaw--and Wells

Irish born, FRANCIS HACKETT came to America in 1901, was trained as a journalist, amd served from 1914 to 1922 as an associate editor of the New Republic. Then he cut loose as a free lance and in 1929 began the publication of those biographical volumes which were to establish his reputation: Henry the Eighth appeared in 1929, and it was followed by his Francis the First, and then by his novel Queen Anne Boleyn. Though now an American citizen, he has never lost touch with Ireland, and at the time of Shaw’s death he wrote to Mr. Justice Frankfurter this sapient, perceptive letter appraising the great dramatist.


SHAW — and Wells! Yes, the postdated obituary that Wells left on file is chock-full of the old antagonism. The giraffe and the bull! A very combustible Wells and an asbestos Shaw. The antagonism had plenty of raw material to work on.

But there is another side to the inhuman logic which outraged Wells, and which might have warped Shaw forever. He was a born crank, a theorist, a dislocated citizen, a man of unpopular causes, physically meager though distinguished, with a poor tummy and migraine. He was a moralist, a Puritan, and an argufier. The amazing thing, with all this, was Shaw’s practicality. Out of this bramble of a man came the brilliant blossom — nothing sensuous, no perfume, but a thin fragrance and a sweeping form. With all the obvious limitations of his temperament, his brain was firstrate, and his brain was used for effectiveness. For rhetoric, I mean, not for critical fidelity or circumspection. His Ibsen wasn’t Ibsen, not the real, historic Ibsen. His Wagner wasn’t Wagner. He used them for pamphlet material, just as he used Marx, in the higher literary politics. The gift was histrionic and forensic.

When he was a dramatic critic, he used each review as a vehicle for propaganda. His wasn’t a soul with enough feminine in it to make him absorb the other fellow’s theme and purpose. The Shakespearean hermaphrodite — which Wells says was a “synthesis,” an Incorporation presumably like Helena Rubinstein Inc. — could not serve the Voltaire in Shaw. Shaw didn’t care to understand. He intended to provoke, to tease, to confuse, and to win by gaining a laugh. What he had to say about George Meredith’s “comedy” was experienced in the way of the world. Shaw was Congreve with a sociological brain, giving the theater a new subject matter, a new thesis, but by method natural to the Anglo-Irish milieu, which is one of mental gymnastics appropriate to a society where the English in exile took to conversation as the only form of riches to be had without pain.

That’s why Shaw, the whole refracting prism in his cut-glass mind even when he was a clerk in a Dublin land agent’s office, recalled his encounter with Parnell, their client, as an encounter with a deucedly disagreeable person, or some such phrase. Parnell had no gift of the gab. And Shaw was not humble enough to recognize that the inarticulate landlord might be the architect of a new state. The architecture that Shaw admired, and that he was ravished by, was the architecture of his ideas, to which Parnell would have been insubordinate. Ireland, in any event, was no place for Shaw’s particular affluence. The Irish can’t peddle fluid conversation to one another. There’s too much of it. They have to go to the Sahara of London. In that Sahara they are usually forced to be water boys on hire to Fleet Street, just “journalists,” which Shaw avoided because his mother was there to support him. He matured in the ten years she gave to him, from twenty to thirty, when most men are warped into earning their living. He was allowed to become a critic of society by being protected against it during the apprentice period.

Of course this humiliated him. And so, probably, did Mr. Lee’s presence in his mother’s domestic life. Shaw was a retarded male on this account; a drunken father, of whom he was ashamed in a sense, a mother on the fringes of bohemian Bloomsbury, giving music lessons, her adorer near by who had followed her from Ireland. And Shaw absorbing Marx, the avenger, with William Morris as the antiseptic heroic artist, and sex excluded, or made comic, or denied. Maybe Wells, who did not deny sex, was right about Shaw’s aversion to the physical, but this could have been part of the exile’s detachment from community. Shaw was inventing a community of ideas. And the heroine in that might be Beatrice Potter. I don’t say it was an eroticism of statistics, but it enabled him to see her as a figure walking out of William Morris’s sagas, into Candida and Major Barbara and Joan of Arc. History for Shaw was a chance to give Fabianism a fancy dress while knocking over the conservative waxworks. His people are alive in this fancy dress because they are from living contemporaries and not historic resurrections. His documentation equips him to bluff. And his audiences want him to bluff. The past gave him a mere scaffolding, except in Joan.

Stamina is the supreme fact about him. He was a penniless adventurer, strictly speaking, but a young hardheaded Cromwellian coming back to a pursy England, and stripped for combat — stripped of roast beef, of tobacco, of drink, of comfort, of placatory romanticism, of philandering, of intrigue or platitude. He was an anatomist of society where Robert Louis Stevenson was a knight-errant and costumier. He was an ironist where all the Scots, Barrie and the lot, were sentimental. He was straight where Oscar Wilde was sinuous. He was sky-blue incorruptible where Wilde was a heavylidded pasha. Shaw gave evidence of real brains by grasping economic interpretation so early and so fearlessly. His greatness was in uniting this clean line of perceptiveness with comedy; and his sense of the hard reality of money, in spite of what Wells says, came from his antagonism to a society that softens the artist’s muscles though flattering his vanity.

Where would Shaw have been in the theater without a bit of capital? He would have failed to penetrate it, as Henry James did and as Conrad did. Shaw took the prostitute stage as he found it and spent years fighting his way into it. His victory over the whole whorish “entertainment” idea, the decerebrated theater, is very remarkable. And he did it as gaily as Mozart in opera. Comedy was his weapon. Pygmalion is festive. It’s fun. I didn’t realize it at first. I resented its frivolity in 1914. But the fresh fire is in it, the bright zest of comedy.

Shaw, just the same, knew the importance of being earnest. He might have been a Gilbert, a Gilbert in search of a Sullivan. But the very thing that made it impossible for him to write novels — the alienation from community — liberated his verve as a social critic. And he took his chessmen for this game from the most unconventional sources — the Salvation Army, the brothel, the dentist’s office, the medical profession, the philologist — not the leisure class, not the “artists,” until The Doctor’s Dilemma. He utilized history as the nonacademic wrote it, history with the bombast extracted from it. All this was part of his integration as a social critic. He had to invent his audiences as well as his theater, London polytechnic audiences, Queen’s Hall audiences, cheap-edition people, autodidacts, the predecessors of the London School of Economics. Shaw came in with the bus; he was part of London’s urban facilities. France couldn’t see it, but Germany could. Germany had the same polytechnic public, the same industrial contemporaneity, and gave him his biggest revenue.

Shaw was as naturally effervescent as Heine. His comic spirit is his one universal human touch, and it’s as traditional as the circus. One great Frenchman saw it, Anatole France, and when they met, these brothers in arms, France made Shaw blush by kissing him on both cheeks. Shaw could blush! Tolstoy, on the other hand, was annoyed by the gadfly, and wrote in his diary, “Shaw’s triviality is astounding!”

At times, to his wife’s horror, Shaw was diabolically impish. When the P.E.N. dinner celebrated H. G. Wells’s seventieth birthday, Signe and I went to London for it, and that was the night Shaw paid his sly tribute to Wells — “as a son, and as a brother, and as a father!” The English sense of indecency was not vivid enough to take it in for a moment. Then they rose to it and laughed. Wells was too pugnacious not to be furiously angry, yet how could he hit back? Shaw had done it so lightly that the malice was like a vaccination scratch, oh but how telling, how final! A man who could laugh at himself would have had immunity, but Wells hadn’t. Comedy calls for social sense, celerity, finesse, and also for detachment. And this was the gift from heaven that Shaw exploited so audaciously. His rapier wasn’t the duelist’s. Shaw wasn’t bellicose. It was the gymnast’s. I don’t think he was cruel with it. Cruelty, as I’ve experienced it, comes from callousness plus a vigorous sense of superiority. Shaw felt superior but he wasn’t callous. He was disdainful, in effect, but in reality he did not disdain. He burned like anthracite, and nothing smudged his life, none of that fuscous resentment which beclouded Wells, who really was much more genial and greedy and full of gusto. Shaw picked his way like a well-bred fastidious animal. He didn’t brawl. But of course he outwitted his opponent if he could. I think he had a merciless conceit of the Montgomery kind, which isn’t cruelty. It asks no quarter. It confesses no weakness. It accepts life as warfare. It loves fame. And it is isolated.

Even when Shaw wept for Charlotte, he was outside his grief. The poor fellow couldn’t be long inside his emotions. He couldn’t surrender. And the generosity of the profuse Shakespeare temperament, with which Churchill is touched, is completely alien to Shaw. The salt of his wit preserves him from stupidity at the cost of humanity — what Tolstoy meant by saying he had more brains than was good for him. That salt didn’t allow him to sink deep in the overwhelming calamity of life if it’s taken with sympathy. He bobs up in spite of himself. He didn’t feel for Italians when he praised Mussolini, or for Germans when he praised Hitler. He even identified himself with the overdog. I think that was histrionic in him. And he wasn’t easily fraternal.

But he was a comrade-in-arms just the same. St. John Ervine lost a leg in the First World War, and I think I remember correctly when I say that Shaw gave Ervine 600 pounds so that he could have time in which to get back. I have copies of letters Shaw wrote to Æ when Æ was fighting to save the Irish Statesman after the Catholic attempt to knock it out by bringing a libel suit. Shaw gave Æ hundreds of pounds, and he was ready with a dry friendliness to back him up to the limit. I’m sure he was accessible to many demands on him. He didn’t value money as such when he gave away the Nobel money, 7000 pounds, the minute he got it. And gave it away with Strindberg in mind. No, he was glad to have the golden bullet in his arsenal, but he wasn’t a miser or a skinflint.

I met him half a dozen times. “Why don’t you have a big limousine to pick you up after your long lecture and take you home without further effort?” I asked him that after a lecture on Ricketts and Shannon. He had been walking alone down to Southampton Row, and I fell into step with him. He laughed. “If I were a Cardinal Wolsey, that sort of thing would be natural, but I have nothing of that in me. Money is wasted on me!” And then he skipped across the street and took the Tube back to Whitehall.

That lecture was unadvertised, given to an etchers’ and engravers’ club meeting in Red Lion Square. Open to the public. Shaw wasn’t witty. It was rather garrulous and formless, but modest, easy, and, yes, “fraternal,” one craftsman talking to other craftsmen. I went alone, out of curiosity. Earlier I had heard him give a big address on Kingsway, and went with S. K. Ratcliffe. S. K. told him who I was. “H’m,” said Shaw with something like acerbity. “Hackett! Hackett!” Not much percentage in that encounter. That talk was supposed to be imposing, but it was deficient in vitality, and I can’t, even remember what it was about. The platform wasn’t his game. He wished to carry it off histrionically, but the wish defeated the object. A good speaker forgets himself. He couldn’t forget himself, or rather submerge the threshold so that his inner self could pour out. He was buttoned up. He looked superb, however, with a dark red silk handkerchief and a dark blue suit, and his bearing was proud. Irish gentry! The severity relieved by the quizzical unruly eyebrows and the ironic beard. His eyes were like a poacher’s, however. He snared in spite of the gamekeepers.

We happened to lunch with him the day that Beatrice Webb had a big operation. Sidney Webb was at the table, deep in the misery of anxiety, his mind absent and at the hospital. Lion Phillimore had brought us. It was she who had brought Shaw and Charlotte together, I think, and Shaw, to please her, said, “You may think we’re best sellers but she’s written a book that has gone into thirtyfive languages!” It was hard going. Mrs. Shaw lifted her chin above her prejudices and preoccupations like a walled-in reverend mother being kind to the outsiders. No walls about Shaw, but he knew he shouldn’t unleash his mind. We sat on the sofa afterwards, and he talked of the Irish Academy. “They thought I was going to pay for the whole thing,” he said with a twinkle. “A queer fellow, Yeats. Dead against the Black and Tans, but when his own place was threatened he wanted them poured in.” Both he and Mrs. Shaw were strong for De Valera. We could not get very far with that. It wasn’t a good occasion. Even the lunch was soggy — vegetables brought to their ultimate defeat by an English cook who had no love in his heart. But Shaw, with his long, spare bones, had no lust in him for sheer delectation.

He was living on Adelphi Terrace the first time we saw him, in 1920. It is true, as Wells says, there were three or four Bernard Shews on the walls or on pedestals. But what is a striking individual to do? His wife likes him to be painted — and when he has been painted, where are you to put the painting? Not on the floor. Then you look from one to the other? Naturally. I don’t think it proves vanity, though vanity may be a by-product of a world-wide furor. Some Chinese had just been to see Shaw, and he asked them to put any question they liked to him. They said, “What about Ireland?” “Think,” Shaw exclaimed, “they came from across the world, and then they asked me about this cabbage garden by the sea!” But Ireland was disentangling itself from a great power, and that interested the Chinese. Signe asked him if he’d gone down to air-raid shelters during the war. Oh, he was too lazy, he said. But he’d thought of putting in luminous paint on the roof in German a message to the Luftwaffe, “Please fly on. Here lives Bernard Shaw!” That was comic, and we enjoyed his telling us.

I bet he could have been fun! And certainly my one juicy accidental encounter with him, some ten years later, showed him capable of giving with both hands. I told you of it, I’m sure, meeting him at twilight in Cambridge Circus on an isle in the traffic jam. “I suppose I may speak to you, after reading you for thirty years,” I said as we stood shoulder to shoulder. “It’s too long to read anyone,” he said. Then I reminded him of my name and said I’d just crossed from Ireland. “Ah,” he said, “I’m in the middle of a gorgeous book by an American called Hackett.” “About what.?” “Henry the Eighth.” That was a moment! We walked along together, and he talked of biography. I felt so cocked up that I went back to an art dealer’s and bought a Picasso etching I’d been wobbling about. “What has happened to you?” asked the dealer. “It must have been something extraordinary.” It was extraordinary. Unpremeditation makes any compliment extraordinary.

Felix, his appetite for publicity was a terrible thing, a pernicious appetite. How is a man to avoid it who has a gift for posing and whose least word is recalled because he is so pungent? He could sharpen the salad of conversation at will, and here am I, retailing every word he said. In the end, however, he lived for it. He teased the public, it teased back, and then he repeated. It became a vice and, like all vice, had something joyless in it.

But Shaw was a big, big man, no matter how he succumbed to the show business. The first thing he asked us in 1920 was, “How is Frank Harris?” Given Shaw’s Puritanism and the fact that Frank Harris was reputed a great scamp in England, he might well have shrunk from him. But in his young days Harris had given Shaw his start as a dramatic critic, and Shaw put down Harris’s difficulties to a natural extravagance and love of splash and champagne. He valued the man in Harris, the swashbuckler in him, and carried this to mixing his life, his Life in fact, with the bravo. I knew Harris. He had asked me to take on the editorship of Pearson’s when he was leaving America. I didn’t want to be an editor. But I admire unbreakable loyalty to a friend who is up against the hypocrites. Shaw did not desert Oscar Wilde.

Thank heaven Shaw’s wife had money. But her money, and the service Frank Harris did to letters by taking his stuff, were only by the way. His talent for the theater was simply astounding, and would have conquered anyway. His sure-footedness in its dialectic, before he began to indulge himself, is any craftsman’s joy, though Broadway was too brutally numb to know it. Joan of Arc is simple enough for a child to understand. It’s as fresh as a daisy. His gift for situation goes with fertility of invention, alacrity in devising contrast, power of impact, and novelty of thinking. That shining hook can catch the best minds of an epoch. (How could such a man eat such morose Brussels sprouts!) But to have kept his zest Shaw had to have character of flawless purity. Eternal vigilance preserved his work in an independence of tradition that Voltaire didn’t match. Shaw was athletic and vivacious, springy by temperament, and his temperament persisted after the brain began to flag and the productiveness to become flabby. The paradox of his Communism — Stalin’s portrait in his bedroom — seems to me to be temperament dominating the critical spirit — temperament and devotion to the enshrined Webbs.

He should have been in a circle of artists, not sociologists. He contracted the habit of dominating his associates, and that is an enormous mistake because it means associating with satellites. He is at his kindest in Lady Gregory’s Journal, since she knew how to bring out the congenial squire in him. If there’s no great open fire in him, more a sort of ingenious central heat, and none of that prepossession by nature which keeps Shakespeare green, he still can’t help diffusing the delights of his clear and sparkling mind, so full of refreshment and so luminous when he forgets to tease. He was of noble steel, and he knew how to play with it. . . .

How much more there is to say!