Mr. Shaw’s Profession

How a celebrated 20th century British playwright and critic is just what Oregon arts need today

by MARIA CHOBAN

I must honestly warn the reader that what he is about to study is not a series of judgements aimed at impartiality, but a siege laid to the theatre of the XIXth Century by an author who had to cut his own way into it at the point of the pen, and throw some of its defenders into the moat. (1)

George Bernard Shaw is back onstage in Oregon. I haven’t seen Portland Center Stage’s production of Major Barbara, which closes this weekend, but ArtsWatch’s Marty Hughley has. But I’m glad Shaw is back because Oregon needs his badass role-modeling as a theater, music, film, book, graphic arts reviewer right now!

Portrait of the arts journalist as a young man.

Portland has reached a stage in its artistic evolution comparable to London’s when Shaw arrived on the scene there in 1876.

The St James’s Hall players have been allowed to fix their own standard of excellence for a long time past; and they have certainly not abused their monopoly: their standard is fairly high. But considering their position in London, London’s position in England, and England’s position in Europe, a fairly high standard is not high enough. The best string quartet in London ought to be one of the wonders of the world. (2)

A devoted advocate of socialism, while his sometimes Swiftian stances on social issues could be controversial, his prescience could extend to politics:

From the beginning the useless people set up a shriek for “practical business men.” By this they meant men who had become rich by placing their personal interests before those of the country, and measuring the success of every activity by the pecuniary profit it brought to them and to those on whom they depended for their supplies of capital. (3)

Over the next six decades, Shaw built his reputation as the greatest music critic past, present and future, as declared by Punch and is also acknowledged as one of the greatest drama critics. In America, Broadway theaters and Times Square blacked out the lights for a minute of reverent silence when he died in 1950 at 94—from complications of a fall while pruning trees in his garden.

By then, he’d written thousands of reviews, letters and other articles about concerts, plays, art, film, books and more that changed English theater and music dramatically—and for the better.

Stalking Shaw (mostly) chronologically, I am concurrently reading my way through three volumes of his complete music writings, three volumes of his own compiled theater reviews, four volumes of letters, two volumes of diaries, four volumes of Michael Holroyd’s biography. Why? Because I believe London became the cultural capital he believed it could become, mostly because he fought unceasingly with his critic’s pen to make it so. And in seeing how his London before he laid siege looks so like our Portland (and all of Oregon) today, with plenty of talent and potential, I believe that if we fight like Shaw, we will live to see Oregon reach those same heights.

Dramatic Origins

Shaw’s understanding of drama made him the greatest writer about plays, if not of them. He was also our greatest music critic. That’s no surprise, since he was literally born to drama and music. During his childhood, Shaw’s mother and his music teacher and ineffectual alcoholic father shacked up in a country cottage and a townhouse in Dublin, (with the three children) in a tense, but superficially civil menage a trois. The teacher paid the rent on both places while Shaw’s mother acted as his all-around amanuensis, including serving as accompanist, score and parts writer when they’d produce amateur operas in Dublin. After a decade, the pair left Dublin for London with Shaw’s two sisters, stranding 16-year-old Bernard with his father.

Shaw unhappily endured six sporadic years of formal schooling. At twenty, escaping Dublin, his father and his soul-killing clerical job, Shaw moved to London and immediately sliced and diced the London music scene, ghosting music reviews for the singing teacher. The autodidact eschewed clerical work, choosing to spend his time at the British Museum library reading and writing.

Critical Difference

Shaw began his career as a critic in 1876, reviewing music concerts for The Hornet. At first, his reviews were considered a joke.

Signor Gayarre’s Raoul was simply below criticism. (4)

Outlandish, impolite, funny, Shaw believed he “could make musical criticism readable even by the deaf.” (5) The joker evolved into The Godfather: “[T]he world listens to Shaw’s judgements and with what almost reverential eye it looks to him for light and guidance,” (6) wrote Robert Sherard.

What made Shaw our greatest critic? He had three qualities in combination that very few possess: The ability to instantly see what makes a performance good and what makes it bad; the wit to write (on a tight deadline) in an outlandishly entertaining way that won him a wide readership; and most crucially, the backbone to speak the uncomfortable truth, without worrying about who it might offend.

The Godfather tackled many of the same issues in London that Portland faces today.

• Ticket prices too high for anyone but the wealthy

“[t]here is practically no regular provision made at any time throughout the year for the mass of people who like good orchestral music, but who cannot afford to spend more than a couple of shillings [$18] a week on gratifying their taste…”(7)

Shaw then breaks down the total cost of attending classical performances and shows how it can amount to two or three times as much as a typical family could afford to spend on entertainment in a week—around $50 per person.

“The consequent of concerts on the patronage of comparatively rich people is shewn by the fact that they cease when the moneyed classes leave London, and commence when they return.”(7)

Contrasting this with the more populist-priced Promenade Concerts, Shaw observes:

In spite of the fact that these concerts cater for two classes of people, each of which frightens the other away from them, they have proved beyond all question that classical music, a complete orchestra, and admission at one shilling [$9.00], will attract a crowd in London. That is to say, one of our public needs is a weekly concert of good orchestral music for one shilling.(8)

• Under-prepared gigging local musicians

As there is no possibility of sufficient rehearsal, … it is part of their qualification to get through a part in which they are not even letter-perfect, much less note and letter-perfect… How many singers, when they have once picked up enough of their part to get through it without disgrace [if, even that]… ever give any further study to its details? At the ordinary theatres a hitch is as exceptional an occurrence as the forgetting of the Lord’s Prayer...” [bold, underlining is mine. MC] (9)

I’ve witnessed all these transgressions in the vast majority of the many Portland concerts I’ve attended. A couple of exceptions: The Delgani string quartet, ARCO PDX.

 • Overrated actors

I believe I recognized some of the members of the company—generally a very difficult thing to do in a country where, with a few talented exceptions, every actor is just like every other actor—but they have now faded from my memory. (10)

There’s a great Shaw rant at one of the actors in a production of Major Barbara in John Longenbaugh’s story for ArtsWatch.

• Programming based on reputation rather than quality

When I listen to an English play I am not troubled by not understanding when there is nothing to understand, because I understand at once that there is nothing to understand. (11)

I can endure, for a strictly limited time, the splenetic, cynical pessimist, who lashes and satirizes the abundant follies and weaknesses of mankind … But your maudlin pessimist who, like Mr Jerome K. Jerome, says “We are all hopeless scoundrels; so let us be kind and gentle to one another”: him I find it hard to bear. (12)

Here and now as there and then, too many theaters opt to produce award winning plays that have no overall emotional arc, just a bunch of what Shaw called “mere situation[s] hung out on a gallows of plot.” (13) A few I saw just this year: The Humans, Death and the Maiden, The Thanksgiving Play.

I’d rather clench my jaw through the timelessly tense Oleanna, than roll my eyes at the bloodless Pandora-pastel-hued Spinning into Butter. I’d love to see the wicked Iphigenia 3.0 fully staged instead of another Portland lame liberal take on another ancient Greek tragedy/comedy/drama. My favorite Portland festival, btw, is Portland’s celebration of its own playwrights: Fertile Ground. I’ve come away crazy about at least one play in some sort of development that blew up my insides, even if it’s not yet ready for prime time. This year it was Revelations; last year, Iphigenia 3.0.

• Timid arts criticism

I spare no effort to mitigate inhumanity, trying to detect and strike out of my articles anything that would give pain without doing any good. Those who think the things I say severe, or even malicious, should just see the things I do not say. I do my best to be partial, to hit out at remediable abuses rather than at accidental shortcomings… So stubborn is the critic within me, that with every disposition to be as goodnatured and as popular an authority as the worst enemy of art could desire, I am to all intents and purposes incorruptible.” (14)

Let’s bury Portland-Nice. Our arts journalism needs to be more honest about Oregon arts’ fixable shortcomings. Bernard Shaw is the bar we aim for if we want to be worthy of something more than a Portlandia parody.

Didactic Drama

The irony of Bernard Shaw is that while he’s the greatest Entertainment/Arts critic ever, he’s remembered today not for those withering and ultimately constructive reviews, but instead for his plays, which reached euphoric heights of critical and popular acclaim. In 1926 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. In 1938 he won an Oscar for adapting his play Pygmalion to the big screen. But even his friend and fellow critic William Archer thought Shaw’s plays were philosophical diatribes shoehorned into the template of a theater script.

Ever the altruist and social reformer, when Shaw first encountered Henrik Ibsen, he sensed the future of theater lay in confronting social issues. Shaw knew that what the wealthiest city in the world, with 30% poverty, needed was NOT another melodrama, romance, or well-made-play. As a critic, Shaw bullied London into accepting realism in the theater by championing Ibsen’s plays in his reviews, even writing the 185 page The Quintessence of Ibsenism.

And as a playwright, Shaw went to work educating the public, not narcotizing them. Brilliant as a critic, he was less so when trying to emulate Ibsen in his own plays. In Major Barbara, Shaw delineates characters broadly. They are caricatures quipping, void of vulnerability. There are plenty of witty lines in Major Barbara. They sound hollow, didactic.

SHIRLEY [angrily] Who made your millions for you? Me and my like. What’s kep’ us poor? Keepin’ you rich. I wouldn’t have your conscience, not for all your income.

UNDERSHAFT. I wouldn’t have your income, not for all your conscience, Mr Shirley.

I have only read one-tenth (and counting) of Shaw’s 60 plays. Unfortunately, my first was Major Barbara and I almost didn’t give him a second chance. Happily, my second was Pygmalion, where Shaw was able to get his politics across: the proper English accent lands you in the highest English caste, although it doesn’t necessarily guarantee a secure happy future. But in the autobiographical character of Professor Henry Higgins, Shaw also quietly, poignantly, confesses his own inability to open himself emotionally, forgoing a potential loving relationship. The ending is a lovely downer, unlike the Oscar-winning movie adaptation for which Shaw wrote the Hollywood screenplay in 1938, or My Fair Lady, the 1964 musical based on the movie. I’d love to see Portland produce Shaw’s original vision.

Shaw in 1911.

Also on my recommended list is Mrs. Warren’s Profession, banned for nine years after Shaw wrote it. In Mrs. Warren’s icy supposedly well-intentioned daughter, I see ugly judgmental Portland Liberals and Progressives—me included.

A third option: John Bull’s Other Island. Shaw captures the difference between (how an Irishman views) the English soul and the complicated Irish soul. Perhaps Corrib or Readers Theater?

Shaw’s plays are still being produced, not just here in Oregon, but also on Broadway. Whatever their ultimate impact, Shaw made a lasting difference as a critic. He lived to see the bar raised, thanks to his herculean efforts! The average singers on stage in London became (and remain) much better than when he started haranguing the milieu.

The notion that singing has deteriorated in the present century is only a phase of the Good Old Times delusion. It has, in fact enormously improved… We are now idolizing the singers of sixty years ago in this fashion. This does not impose on me: I have heard them. The extraordinary singers were no better than ours; the average singers were much worse. (15)

One hundred years after Shaw began his siege in 1876, James Harley reports a changed milieu in London where ticket prices are affordable and contemporary classical music plentiful:

My listening focus during my three years in London [1982-5] was on 20th century concert music, and hearing this music was easy, as there were often several such concerts every week, and tickets were cheap.

James Harley: Confessions of a Modernist April 12, 2018

And in theater, Shaw doggedly led the change for which kinds of plays got produced. English actors are now regarded as some of the best in the world, instead of just a few talented exceptions in a herd of forgettables.

So mediocre theater and music can change, helped by strong, honest criticism. But it ain’t gonna change overnight.

It has been denounced in these pages before, and will be again, as something may be done to extirpate a flagrant nuisance by complaining of it with sufficient persistence. (16)

Artswatch contributor CS Eliot Shawpening his critical claws on GBS.

As he later put it, tongue in cheek:

The English do not know what to think until they are coached, laboriously and insistently for years, in the proper and becoming opinion. For ten years past, with an unprecedented pertinacity and obstination, I have been dinning into the public head that I am an extraordinarily witty, brilliant, and clever man. That is now part of the public opinion of England; and no power in heaven or on earth will ever change it. I may become the butt and chopping block of all the bright, original spirits of the rising generation; but my reputation shall not suffer: it is built up fast and solid, like Shakespear’s, on an impregnable basis of dogmatic reiteration. (17)

I’ll share more Shaw in future stories, when his wisdom can help Oregon lift its standards to what I know it can reach.

Portland pianist Maria Choban, ArtsWatch’s Oregon ArtsBitch, blogs at CatScratch.

Citations

1. Bernard Shaw: Our Theatre in the Nineties volume 1, page v

2. Bernard Shaw: From Shaw’s Music: The Complete Musical Criticism of Bernard Shaw ed. Dan Laurence, vol. 1, p. 401-2 1989 edition; from Theater Orchestras 21 November 1885

3. From the preface to Heartbreak House 1919

4. Bernard Shaw: Shaw’s Music, v. 1, p. 117 from Signor Gayarre’s Self-Complacency 25 April 1877

5. Shaw’s Music, v. 1, p. 30

6. Bernard Shaw, “Frank Harris and Oscar Wilde” by Robert Sherard, p. 27, 1937

7. Bernard Shaw: Shaw’s Music, v. 1, p. 272-3 from A Substitute for Strauss 27 June 1885

8. Bernard Shaw: Shaw’s Music, v. 1, p. 273 from A Substitute for Strauss 27 June 1885

9. Bernard Shaw: Shaw’s Music, v. 1, pp. 435-6 from Palmy Days At The Opera January 1886

10. Bernard Shaw: Our Theatres in the Nineties v. 1, p. 44 from An Old New Play and a New Old One 23 February 1895

11. Bernard Shaw: Our Theatres in the Nineties, v. 1, p. 156 from La Princesse Lointaine 22 June 1895

12. Bernard Shaw: Our Theatres in the Nineties, v. 1, p. 225 from More Masterpieces 26 October 1895

13. Bernard Shaw: Our Theatres in the Nineties, v. 1 p. 8 from Two New Plays 12 January 1895

14. Bernard Shaw: Our Theatres in the Nineties, vol. 1, p. 247-8 from The Case For The Critic-Dramatist 16 November 1895

15. Bernard Shaw: Shaw’s Music, v. 3, p. 767 from We Sing Better Than Our Grandparents!  11 November 1950

16. Bernard Shaw: Shaw’s Music v.1, p. 422 from Saint-Saens and Raff 12 December 1885

17. Bernard Shaw: Our Theater in the Nineties, v. 3, pg. 385 from Valedictory 21 May 1898

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