Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Contemptible George Bernard Shaw



I saw a performance of Shaw's Major Barbara(1905) in Spring Green Wisconsin Friday night. What a charming production it was! And what a colossal jerk and fool Shaw was!

The great H. L. Mencken, author of the first book on Shaw ever published (1901), later wrote a classic essay on Shaw called "The Ulster Polonius" (August 1916). In it, he wondered how Shaw's pamphlets and play "kicked up such a pother" despite the fact that that, like most plays, his works consisted mostly of platitudes (a thesis Mencken also applied to the plays of Ibsen). Why all the fuss, he asked? The answer, he said, was fairly simple. “[Shaw] practices with great zest and skill the fine art of exhibiting the obvious in unexpected and terrifying lights.” Nearly all of Shaw's premises, despite his horrific tone, were really "bulletproof."

Viewing the denouement of Major Barbara, I could only wonder what premises HLM was thinking of. Adolphus decides to take over Undershaft's munitions factory because he has decided that the only way to really improve the world is to kill off the privileged elites. His fiance, Barbara, gives up working to save the souls if the poor, on the grounds that poor people can't be sincerely interested in virtue and goodness. From now on, she will preach to the comfortable inmates of Undershaft's manicured company town.

Bulletproof? Bah! Both their ideas -- that of Barbara as well as that of Adolphus -- seemed to me obviously wrong. As the last act slowed down to make Shaw's didactic points, I made a mental list of other things that Shaw was either obviously or demonstrably wrong about:

We should all be comfortably prosperous, because that will free us to be good. This will surely happen if the government micromanages the entire economy. The Soviet experiment is a good example of this and will succeed. Meanwhile, the unfit and feeble-minded should be "humanely" put to death (see above video).* And nobody should be vaccinated. By the way, the Americans should abolish their constitution because it prevents the "good" FDR from doing more or less whatever he wants.

It can't be a coincidence that one man was so consistently, horribly wrong about so many important things. There must be some explanation -- maybe some killer premise that implies all the rest. I don't know enough about Shaw to say what the explanation is, but something tells me there has to be one.
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* On the other hand, Shaw was a vegetarian because he did not want people to "murder" innocent pigs and chickens.
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