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Book Review : Final Letters Help to Spell Out Details of Shaw's Life

June 16, 1988|RICHARD EDER | Times Book Critic

Bernard Shaw. Collected Letters 1926-1950, edited by Dan H. Laurence. (Viking: $45. 946 pp.)

"I am of the true Shakespearean type," George Bernard Shaw wrote, referring to his fancied retrospective rival and match in personal intangibility. "I understand everything and everyone, and nobody and nothing."

Of all the provocative phrases in the final volume of Shaw's letters, this is one of the few that strikes at the man's core. It claims, in effect, that he has none. You could regard it as one more deflection by the master of the art; except that Shaw's insistence on his fundamental corelessness has, beyond the jest, a shiver of something that if it is not tragic, it is unexpectedly moving.

Quick and Contrary

People were always mistaking him for Prospero and holding him responsible for his consequences. Certainly, with his white beard and his relish in his own eminence, he looked the part; but he had a vital need to think of himself as Ariel, quick, contrary and elsewhere.

The 740 letters in this fourth volume bring to an end not only Shaw's life but the formidable accomplishment of the editor, Dan H. Laurence. Take it together, the 2,500 letters, painstakingly sought out and held together by meticulously researched head-notes, are as vital and as living a biography as the Irish playwright and polemicist is likely to get.

Over the 27 years of his labor, Laurence has become something of a monument himself. There is certainly a grand-old-man tone to his introduction and commentary. Like his subject, he does not undervalue himself. Alluding to the "rapturous critical reception," he writes that the main problem for his publishers was "which encomiums to select for quotation."

As for the carpers, he adds, "It is amusing now to look back over the yellowing cuttings to review their remarks." Presumably the encomiums, unyellowed, were printed on a better class of newsprint. In any event, it is hard to carp about much, other than occasionally to wish that the more obscure recipients of the letters had been re-identified for the present volume.

It begins in 1926, as Shaw was being awarded the Nobel Prize. Naturally, he termed it "a hideous calamity." He received floods of mail asking for financial assistance, he writes; and more copious floods when it was learned that he had given away the prize money. Anyone who could afford to do that clearly had to be a soft touch.

He was, in fact. He might grow impatient at requests for assistance--"Charles, you are a Bother; and good men say 'Damn!' when they see your handwriting"--but he made a practice of tearing up the checks people sent to repay his loans. When Beatrice Webb was ill, he sent 1,000 to Sidney Webb on the grounds that this kind of thing was good for the health.

Generous Nature

The forms his generosity took could be as comically ferocious as his plots. He had written off a loan to Sir Edward Elgar until it turned out that when the composer died, he left an income but no ready cash to his daughter. Shaw sued the estate; and gave the daughter the proceeds.

Shaw's best plays were behind him, though "The Apple Cart" and "The Millionairess" were still to come. There is some lowering of epistolary fire toward the end, and a tendency to go on and on about phonetic reform and taxes. But, like its predecessors, this volume is a treasure of paradox, wit and the astonishing cheerfulness with which Shaw put people right.

Attacks and misfortunes he treated with enormous gaiety. They left him free, where praise or favors had a tendency to imply a claim. He was equally cheerful about others' misfortunes, and his letters of condolence were as comforting as a cold bath.

As bracing too, he hoped. Learning that H. G. Wells' wife had terminal cancer, he thought to console by writing that the life force "is making a lower class of tissue and the problem is to get it back to the right road and the higher tissue." Charlotte Shaw had to send two letters of apology.

Shaw wrote regularly to actors about their performances in his plays. He instructed one performer to concentrate on diction and planning ahead, and not to worry about emotions. "What business has an actress with feelings?" To an actor who played excessively slowly, he wrote that the play ended so late that "I had not time to come round and murder you."

Skewered Woolly Sounds

He could be witty on everything from the workings of his automobile to the electoral politics he imagined must have gone on inside the convent when his friend, Laurentia McLachlan, was chosen abbess. Discussing idiomatic writing for musical instruments, he skewered Sibelius' woolly sounds by writing that he "impersonates every instrument."

He analyzed the uninspired speaking style of Sidney Webb, one of the founders of the Fabian Society. "Part of his immense efficiency was due to his never doing anything better than was necessary; a limit fatal to fine art on the platform."

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