The Lesson of the Master
Bernard Shaw gets fresh with Henry James.
“Almost all my greatest ideas have occurred to me first as jokes,” Bernard Shaw wrote in 1909.
Perhaps that’s why Shaw (1856-1950) has fallen out of the English literary canon in recent years. We don’t take jokes as seriously as we should, and nobody took jokes more seriously than Shaw.
Shaw wrote his observation about jokes leading to ideas in a letter to Henry James, a genius of American letters who was something less than a laff riot. (Shaw wrote something similar to Leo Tolstoy, on whom the sentiment fell on similarly deaf ears.)
I encountered this quote in the one-volume Shaw biography by Michael Holroyd, which I’m about halfway through. Holroyd completed a three-volume biography in the early 1990s—I’m reading a later condensation that the publisher rather insultingly labelled “definitive”—which was right about when Shaw started drifting off college syllabi. Holroyd’s biography was lauded as a model of the form, and still is. But it’s been awhile since anyone gave the man much thought. Google “GBS” today and all you get is references to Guillain–Barré syndrome.
I looked up Shaw’s letter to James in an unread three-volume edition of his letters that landed on my bookshelf decades ago for reasons too obscure to explain here. It’s part of a correspondence in which Shaw, rather rudely, urges James to rewrite a play that James, against his better judgment, has submitted to Shaw to produce.
In the exchange, Shaw gets off to a spectacularly bad start. “Shaw’s writing—Bernard Shaw,” he begins, dispensing with the preliminary flattery that the Master would have expected from the younger man, and sounding a little bit like a used-car salesman.
“What that play wants,” Shaw continues, “is a third act by your father.”
James’s father was a minister with socialist leanings who fell hard for the Swedish Christian mysticism of Emanuel Swedenborg. It seems doubtful that James appreciated the reference; people don’t usually like being compared unfavorably with their fathers, especially when dad is a bit of an eccentric.
“People don’t want works of art from you,” Shaw continued. “They want help: they want, above all, encouragement, encouragement, encouragement, encouragement, encouragement, and again encouragement.” This is an excellent way to piss off a guy who elevates the aesthetic principle above all others. The practical stakes were in this instance likely low because James, one of the greatest novelists in the history of English literature, is said to have been a godawful dramatist. But still. You just don’t talk to Henry James like that.
“I happen,” James sniffed in reply, “to be a man of imagination and taste.”
It goes downhill from there.
Shaw back to James: “To oblige me, write that third act at once.” Hey kid, he is telling the author of The Portrait of A Lady. Go out and buy me a pack of cigarettes.
It is then that Shaw declaims on the value of a sense of humor.
“Nothing is commoner than for a man to begin amusing himself with a trifle, and presently discover that the trifle is the biggest thing he has ever tackled.”
I wouldn’t say it’s all that common, but it has been known to happen. Arthur Sullivan wanted desperately to be a Serious Composer, failing to grasp that his lasting genius resided in the popular entertainments he composed with W.S. Gilbert. Francis Coppola thought he was slumming when he made The Godfather when in fact he went slumming only when he made Godfather III.
It happened a lot, though, with Shaw. When Shaw, an impoverished essayist and Fabian activist in good standing with the intellectuals, decided to become a playwright, he was plunging into a literary form that Britain’s cultural mandarins considered trivial and that its censors were forever trying to suppress. Never mind that this was the literary form chosen by the greatest literary figure in English history. (That, kids, would be Shakespeare, to whom Shaw was forever comparing himself, and whose name for some reason Shaw insisted on spelling “Shakespear.”)
Never mind that Ibsen and Strindberg were generating new respect for drama as a literary form, and that Shaw’s fellow Irishman W.B. Yeats was experimenting with it at the Abbey Theater in Dublin.
If the low esteem for stage plays produced in England during the late 19th century and early 20th strikes you as strange, you might want to read a few. Our American Cousin, for instance, is a real stinker. (Writing a few years ago in Slate, I concluded that the aesthetic experience that occupied the Great Emancipator’s final hours was a pretty terrible one, and that whatever else occupied his mind when John Wilkes Booth shouted “Sic semper tyrannis,” Lincoln couldn’t possibly have been wondering how the plot of this creaky farce would resolve itself.) In the United States, theater has fallen into somewhat similar disrepute, as Broadway has come to be dominated by cheesy musicals aimed at the tourist trade, and more ambitious efforts, in New York or in regional theaters, attract little notice from the literary cool kids until the playwright starts writing for the movies or Netflix.
Shaw was not a guy who saw himself as slumming in the theater. He was a capital-S Socialist, but he had a healthy appetite to enlarge his income, and he sought popular success in the theater without compromising his esteem among the intelligentsia. He didn’t start trying until he was in early middle age, and he didn’t acquire a broad audience until late middle age. But by the time he wrote James he’d pulled it off, with plays that take humor very seriously. (Even Shaw’s tragedies are very funny.)
In that confident spirit, Shaw continues in his letter to James: “Almost all my greatest ideas have occurred to me first as jokes.”
Some of Shaw’s great ideas never stopped being jokes. He was a harebraned anti-vaxxer on the basis of his childhood smallpox inoculation not preventing him from getting smallpox as a young man and scarring his face. That’s why he grew his famous red beard. The Doctor’s Dilemma contains some loopy plot elements based on that, though in fairness to Shaw its completely erroneous technical details were based on what at the time was considered cutting edge science. (For all that, it isn’t a bad play. It’s the source of the oft-quoted observation about expert jargon that “all professions are conspiracies against the laity.”)
Then there’s Shaw’s insane 40-letter phonetic English alphabet, to which he left a large portion of his estate when he died at 94. It survives only as his oft-repeated witticism that “fish” could be spelled “ghoti” using “gh” from “enough,” “o” from “women,” and “ti” from “nation.” This is a good example of a joke that’s never going to take you anyplace worth visiting.
Let’s not even get into Shaw’s brief flirtation with fascism, Mussolini, Hitler, etc. That joke was never funny.
The point is that humor is a serious business, and while it doesn’t always lead to insights that can be called genius, it does so often enough that serious writers, including political ones, shouldn’t abandon the field to Comedy Central.