SHAW, GEORGE BERNARD (1856-1950)


The Irish playwright, critic, novelist, and Socialist came to know Wilde's family through his sister Lucy, "a very attractive girl who sang beautifully [and] who had met and made some soft of innocent conquest of both Oscar and Willie". Shaw made his first visit to Lady Wilde's "at home" in Park Street, London, in November 1879; at one of these social affairs, Shaw met Wilde, who, he recalled,

came and spoke to me with an evident intention of being specially kind to me. We put each other out frightfully; and this odd difficulty persisted between us to the very last, even when we were no longer mere boyish novices and had become men of the world with plenty of skill in social intercourse. I saw him very seldom [Shaw recalled possibly between six and twelve’s times from first to last], as I avoided literary and artistic coteries like the plague....

Shaw later wrote that "Oscar was an overgrown man, with something not quite normal about his bigness: something that made [the writer] Lady Colin Campbell [1857-1911], who hated him, describe him as 'that great white caterpillar.' ...I have always maintained that Oscar was a giant in the pathological sense, and that this explains a good deal of his weakness".

Perhaps at Shaw's invitation, Wilde attended a meeting of the Fabian Society on 6 July 1888, in Willis's Rooms, to hear the artist Walter Crane speak on "The Prospects of Art under Socialism." On the following day, the evening newspaper the Star reported:

Mr. Crane believed that art would revive under these new socialistic conditions. Mr. Oscar Wilde, whose fashionable coat differed widely from the picturesque bottle-green garb in which he appeared in earlier days, thought that the art of the future would clothe itself not in works of form and colour but in literature.... Mr. Shaw agreed with Mr. Wilde that literature was they form which art would take....

Robert Ross later "surprised" Shaw by telling him that it was the response to Crane's talk that "moved Oscar to try his hand at a similar feat by writing 'The Soul of Man under Socialism".

Shaw's account of his difficulty in socializing with Wilde reveals the dilemma of two dominant personalities with different moral visions attempting to establish a casual friendship. In a review published in United Ireland (26 Sept. 1891) of Lord Arthur Savile's Crime and Other Stories, Yeats, who also found Shaw difficult to deal with, alluded to him - without naming him - as a "cold-blooded Socialist," of whom, according to Yeats, Wilde said that "he has no enemies, but is intensely disliked by all his friends." Wilde had first used this celebrated remark - unrelated to Shaw - in Chapter 15 of the second version of The Picture of Dorian Gray, where Ernest Harrowden is described as "one of those middle-aged mediocrities so common in London clubs who have no enemies, but are thoroughly disliked by their

friends...." This often-quoted and often-revised remark reappears in somewhat different form in the writings of Shaw and others. In a letter to Ellen Terry on 25 September 1896, Shaw gave his own version: "Oscar Wilde said of me 'An excellent man: he has no enemies; and none of his friends like him"'.

Wilde and Shaw exchanged books and letters, perhaps as a means of maintaining their distance from each other. When Lady Windermere's Fan was published in early 1893, Wilde sent an inscribed copy to Shaw: "Op. 1 of the Hibernian School, London '93". Stanley Weintraub writes that the "joke was more than half in earnest since the two were the first Irish playwrights in decades to make a major impact upon the London theatre". When the French version of Salome was published, Wilde sent Shaw a copy "in purple raiment" as a reciprocal gesture for Shaw's presentation to him of his The Quintessence of Ibsenism, about which Wilde wrote:

...your little book on Ibsenism and Ibsen is such a delight to me that I constantly take it up, and always find it stimulating and refreshing: England is the land of intellectual fogs but you have done much to clear the air: we are both Celtic, and I like to think that we are friends....

When, for some reason, Wilde's play was delayed in the mails, Shaw wrote:

Salomé is still wandering in her-purple raiment in search of me; and I expect her to arrive a perfect outcast, branded with inky stamps, bruised by flinging from hard hands into red prison [i.e., post office] vans, stifled and contaminated by herding with review books....

In the same letter, Shaw informs Wilde that he will soon be sending him a copy of Widowers' Houses, which he expects Wilde to find "tolerably amusing": "Unfortunately I have no power of producing beauty: my genius is the genius of intellect, and my farce is derisive brutality. Salomé's purple garment would make Widowers' Houses ridiculous; but you are precisely the man to appreciate it on that account." Shaw, who had seen Lady Windermere's Fan, urges Wilde to "follow up hard on that trail; for the drama wants building up very badly; and it is clear that your work lies there".

When Widowers' Houses appeared in May 1893, Shaw sent a copy to Wilde, who hailed it as

Op. 2 of the great Celtic School [Op. 3, A Woman of No Importance, was enjoying a great success in the theatre]. I have read it twice with the keenest interest. I like your superb confidence in the dramatic value of the mere facts of life. I admire the horrible flesh and blood of your creatures, and your preface is a masterpiece - a real masterpiece of trenchant writing and caustic wit and dramatic instinct. I look forward to your Op. 4 [The Philanderer]. As for Op. 5 [An Ideal Husband], I am lazy, but am rather itching to be at it.

Shaw habitually defended Wilde against his critics, as though enacting the myth of two imaginative Irishmen besieged by the unimaginative, puritanical English. In a letter to Lady Colin Campbell, who had succeeded Shaw as art critic of the World and who disliked A Woman of No Importance, Shaw wrote in May 1893 that she was wrong to "rail thus at Oscar" and that Wilde's epigrams were far superior to the "platitudes" of other dramatists:

There are only two literary schools in England today: the Norwegian school and the Irish school. Our school is the Irish school; and Wilde is doing us good service in teaching the theatrical public that "a play" may be a playing with ideas instead of a feast of sham emotions.... No, let us be just to the great white caterpillar: he is no blockhead and he finishes his work, which puts him high above his rivals here in London....

In 1895, when critics attacked An Ideal Husband, Shaw counter-attacked in the Saturday Review (12 Jan.): the critics, he argued, assumed that Wildean "epigrams can be turned out by the score by any one light-minded enough to condescend to such frivolity. As far as I can ascertain, I am the only person in London who cannot sit down and write an Oscar Wilde play at will.... In a certain sense Mr. Wilde is to me our only thorough playwright. He plays with everything: with wit, with philosophy, with drama, with actors and audience, with the whole theatre".

In reviewing The Importance of Being Earnest the Saturday Review (23 Feb. 1895), Shaw was less impressed, though he was "amused" by the play despite his reservations: "...unless comedy couches me as well as amuses me, it leaves me with a sense of having wasted my evening". Shaw denigrates farce-despite his description of the "rib-tickling" nature of Earnest - as compared to the emotional d intellectual capacity of comedy to serve social sues. Later, Shaw expressed his belief that Earnest, "clever as it was," was Wilde's "first

really heartless play," seemingly a "pot boiler" that represented "a real degeneracy produced by his debaucheries. I thought he was still developing; and I hazarded the unhappy guess that The Importance of Being Earnest was in idea a young work written or projected long before...".

Responding to Max Nordau's Degeneration (1895), with its hostile attack on Wilde in the chapter on the Aesthetes and Decadents, Shaw defended him in a lengthy open letter to the New York anarchist publication Liberty (12 July) with he witty title "A Degenerate's View of Nordau"; revised, it appeared as The Sanity of Art (1908). Despite the press's attitude towards Wilde, who was often treated as a "witty trifler," Shaw later wrote that he took Wilde "seriously and with scrupulous good manners. Wilde on his part also made a point of recognizing me as a man of distinction by manner, and repudiating the current estimate of me as a mere jester." When Wilde was arrested, Shaw's impulse was to rally to him in his misfortune, and my disgust at 'the man Wilde' scurrilities of the newspapers was irresistible." Shaw's view of Wilde's "perversion" was that it did not imply "any general depravity or coarseness of character". Shaw was convinced that "never was there a man less an outlaw than [Wilde]". In 1940, Shaw wrote to the editor of the TLS that "Oscar Wilde, being a convinced pederast, was entirely correct to his plea of Not Guilty; hut he was lying when he denied the facts; and the jury, regarding pederasty as abominable, quite correctly found him Guilty".

After Wilde's imprisonment, Shaw drafted a petition to the Home Secretary for an early release and showed it to Willie Wilde. Although Shaw and the Rev. Stewart Headlam (who had provided bail for Wilde during the trials) were prepared to sign it, Shaw warned Willie that it would be "of no use, as we were two notorious cranks, and our names alone would make the thing ridiculous and do Oscar more harm than good". When the petition received little support, it was dropped.

In July 1895, Shaw began writing a new play, later titled You Never Can Tell, which would - as Weintraub writes - "have something of Wilde in it, emanating from the very heartless play that Shaw had disliked and responding to Shaw's own sense of [Earnest's] chilly mechanical ness". Echoing Earnest, Shaw's play depicts a similar search for a father, who, however, is found in a dentist's office. Other echoes occur, as in the figure of Mrs. Clandon, who is another Lady Bracknell. But, says Weintraub, the most convincing evidence that Shaw was influenced by Earnest is that "the wordplay on earnestness is too pervasive to be coincidence".

Though the press adopted a policy of not mentioning Wilde during his imprisonment, Shaw alluded to him in several drama reviews. In the Saturday Review (17 Oct. 1896), for example, while judging a minor play, Shaw remarked on the superiority of Wilde's comedies: "...Mr. Wilde has creative imagination, philosophic humour, and original wit, besides being a master of language". When the Academy (6 Nov. 1897) suggested the founding of an academy of letters and listed forty possible nominees as "Immortals," Shaw protested in a letter to the editor on 13 November that the "only dramatist, besides Mr. Henry James, whose nomination could be justified is Mr. Oscar Wilde" (H. G. Wells also proposed Wilde for the academy, which never materialized).

When The Ballad of Reading Gaol was published, Wilde sent Shaw an inscribed copy from Paris, but their relationship had ended with the trials. In 1905, when Wilde's prison letter appeared as De Profundis in a cut version, Robert Ross sent a copy to Shaw, who wrote to thank him:

It is really an extraordinary book, quite exhalerating and amusing as to Wilde himself, and quite disgraceful & shameful to his stupid tormentors. There is pain in it, inconvenience, annoyance, but no unhappiness, no real tragedy, all comedy. The unquenchable spirit of the man is magnificent: he maintains his position & puts society squalidly in the wrong - rubs into them every insult & humiliation he endured - comes out the same man he went in - with stupendous success.

To the end of his life, Shaw continued to be intrigued by Wilde and his work. In Man and Superman (1903), for example, a character offers a bright saying: "There are two tragedies in life. One is to lose your heart's desire. The other is to gain it." Wilde had provided Shaw with the witty pattern in Lady Windermere's Fan: "In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it." Katharine Worth has suggested that Wilde's aphorisms in "The Soul of Man under Socialism" could be the "raw material (perhaps they were) for The Revolutionist's Handbook which Tanner flourishes in Man and Superman". Tanner's reaction to Violet Robinson's presumed motherhood echoes Jack Worthing's reaction to Miss Prism's similar state in Earnest. In Major Barbara (1905), Shaw's imperious Lady Britomart is remarkably like Wilde's Lady Bracknell, and Andrew Undershaft is a self-possessed munitions maker who, as an embodiment of the Life Force, expresses his social vision in witty, mysterious paradoxes - a transformation of a Wildean dandy into a Shavian hero.

In 1918, Shaw contributed to Frank Harris's Oscar Wilde: His Life and Confessions a preface titled "My Memories of Oscar Wilde" (actually, a letter, to which Harris added the title and edited the contents), and in 1938, Shaw edited Harris's biography with the assistance of Lord Alfred Douglas, who provided comments on the work. During this time, Shaw wrote to Douglas: "I think Wilde took you both [Harris and Douglas] in by the game he began to amuse himself [with] in prison: the romance of the ill treated hero and the cruel false friend. Once you see the character of this make-believe, all his lies and your imaginary crimes become merely comic". When Shaw completed his editing of the biography, he wrote to Douglas: "...I agreed with all your notes and made no attempt to improve on them.... I hope its publication will do you a service as shewing for the first time that the Queensberry affair was your tragedy and, comparatively, Wilde's comedy".

Just months before his death in 1950, Shaw wrote to the playwright St. John Ervine to offer his harsh judgment of Wilde's greatest play, a judgment not substantively different from his 1895 review:

Do not let yourself be trapped into the silly cliché that The Importance is Wilde's best play. It's a mechanical cat's cradle farce without a single touch of human nature in it. It is Gilbert and Sullivan minus Sullivan. The other plays - except, of course, the boyish [Duchess of] Padua - have the conventional woman-with-a-past plot of their day; and the feeling of which they are full is a bit romantic: but the characters are all human, and their conversation the most delightfully brilliant in the annals of the English stage, knocking Congreve and Sheridan into a cocked hat.

In the same letter, Shaw finally concedes that he had borrowed from The Importance of Being Earnest: "I was present at all the Wilde first nights, and enjoyed them intensely, except The Importance, which amused me by its stage tricks (I borrowed the best of them) but left me unmoved and even a bit bored and quite a lot disappointed."

References: Bernard Shaw, Our Theatres in the Nineties, 3 vols. (1932); Shaw, "Oscar Wilde," The Matter with Ireland, eds. Dan H. Laurence and David H. Greene (1962); Shaw, Collected Letters, 4 vols., ed. Dan H. Laurence (1965-1988); Stanley Weintraub, ed., The Playwright and the Pirate: Bernard Shaw and Frank Harris, a Correspondence (1982); Katharine Worth, Oscar Wilde (1983); Shaw, Agitations: Letters to the Press, 1875-1950, eds. Dan H. Laurence and James Rambeau (1985); Michael Holroyd, Bernard Shaw, 3 vols. (1988-91); J. L. Wisenthal, "Wilde, Shaw, and the Play of Conversation," Modern Drama (Spring 1994); Karl Beckson, "Oscar Wilde's Celebrated Remark on Bernard Shaw," N&Q (Sept. 1994); Shaw, Theatrics, ed. Dan H. Laurence (1995); Stanley Weintraub, "'The Hibernian School': Oscar Wilde and Bernard Shaw," Shaw's People (1996).