Shaw Biographer Is Fully At Home in His Subject's World


BERNARD SHAW: VOLUME II: 1898-1918: THE PURSUIT OF POWER by Michael Holroyd, New York: Random House, Illustrated, 416 pp., $24.95

MUSIC critic, drama critic, novelist, polemicist, reformer, and playwright; a Shelleyan visionary, a Swiftian satirist, champion of Wagner and Ibsen; vegetarian, socialist, feminist; founder of the Fabian Society, tireless foe of censorship, tedious proponent of a 42-letter phonetic alphabet, George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) presents so many facets that it becomes difficult to view him as a coherent personality. What are we to make of his infatuation with dictators? His running battle with the ghost of Shakespeare? His contempt for democracy? His worship of the ``creative evolutionary'' principle he called the ``Life Force?''

Between the famous Shavian wit, on the one hand, and the silliness of some Shavian ideas, on the other, it becomes all too easy to consign him to the category of a ``gadfly.'' And the coldness that seemed to lie at the core of Shaw's geniality further undermines our propensity to take him seriously. Yet, as Michael Holroyd's brilliant biography keeps reminding us, Shaw was a serious thinker, and, no mere disembodied voice, but a vulnerable and passionate human being.

In the second volume of this three-volume work, Holroyd continues the formidable task of integrating the dazzling, seemingly contradictory parts of Shaw's character into a whole that is greater than their sum. Volume I, ``The Search for Love,'' saw young ``Sonny'' (as he was called) through an unhappy Irish boyhood and years of struggle and obscurity in England. Following the lead of his mother and sisters, Shaw was dismissive of his alcoholic father. He adored his mother, who, in turn, was dismissive of her only son. Shaw's ``search for love'' involved him with a number of women, but the woman he finally married in 1898 was to serve less as a wife than as a kind of maternal caretaker.

Against the background of this mariage blanc, the drama of the second volume unfolds: Shaw's ill-fated attempt to rescue actress Ellen Terry from the baneful influence of actor-manager Henry Irving; his work for the Fabian Society, churning out position papers on everything from imperialism and the Boer War to tariffs versus free trade; and, of course, his continuing struggle as a playwright. At the time he published his 12th play, ``Man and Superman,'' in 1903, his 49th year, he was, Holroyd reminds us, ``still almost wholly unknown to British audiences,'' forced into the expediency of publishing plays no one would produce or having them staged abroad - in Germany, Austria, Ireland, America - before they were produced in England.

Yet in this period, the breakthrough occurred, as plays like ``Major Barbara,'' ``John Bull's Other Island,'' ``The Doctor's Dilemma,'' ``Getting Married,'' ``Androcles and the Lion,'' and ``Pygmalion'' finally found their audiences. Shaw reveled in controversy, cheerfully debated G.K. Chesterton, posed for countless portraits and busts, simultaneously spreading his own fame and helping artists with the commissions. ``He is not a serious man trying to be frivolous,'' explained critic Max Beerbohm. ``He is a serious man who cannot help being frivolous, and in him height of spirits is combined with depth of conviction more illustriously than in any of his compatriots....''

Holroyd is alive to the seriousness of Shaw's intentions and ideas, and he provides crisp expositions of Shavian thought. He also senses the emotional undercurrents. His account of Shaw's battle against censorship is not only a fascinating reminder of how unfree a country Britain was, but also inspires in the reader something of the frustration and anger that Shaw must have felt. Holroyd sees this frustration as an important source of Shaw's growing disgust with democracy, even though elitism seems always to have played a large part in Shaw's Nietzschean world-view.

Admiration for Shaw does not prevent Holroyd from recognizing when his subject was simply wrong-headed, nor does it inhibit him from practicing biographical psychoanalysis: ``The Shavian emancipation of women,'' he notes, ``was, in any case, a complicated self-protective maneuver that turned her either into a piece of biological machinery for the production of children superior to their parents, or else an isolated freak - a man in petticoats wedded to work...'' But when Holroyd is reductive, one suspects he is usually right. He is not out to make a great man seem smaller, but to provide credible explanations for baffling behavior.

Elsewhere, the reductiveness is counter-balanced by an imaginative expansiveness that enables him to see hidden dimensions. His portrait of Shaw's impetuous middle-aged passion for the magnetically beautiful actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell reveals the intensity of a love that almost wrecked Shaw's marriage. Later, in describing Shaw's unflagging and principled criticism of the conduct of the World War I, Holroyd makes vivid the fever of jingoism that isolated Shaw.

What makes this book such a pleasure to read is that the biographer is so manifestly at home in the milieu he's chosen to depict. Not only are we treated to choice samples of Shavian wit and wisdom, but so many of the people surrounding Shaw - H.G. Wells, Arnold Bennett, Harley Granville-Barker, Beatrice Webb, G.K. Chesterton - come off sounding as scintillating as Shaw himself.

And Holroyd, commenting on their comments, can match them, point for point: He concludes an account of Shaw's meeting with the Swedish dramatist Strindberg with a quote from Thomas Mann contrasting the human tragedy, suffering, and sacrifice found in Strindberg, Tolstoy, and Nietzsche with Shaw's lack of such qualties. ``Was he [Shaw] beyond such things?'' asks Mann, ``or were they beyond him?'' ``Shaw's tragedy,'' Holroyd responds, ``lay in the need to suppress such things; Strindberg's in the need to so horrifically enact them. That Shaw felt the force of that enactment, and acknowledged its indestructability, is indicated by his subsequent actions [on Strindberg's behalf], '' which Holroyd proceeds to list. This is the kind of ability to engage, and judiciously interact with, one's subject that makes for a genuinely great biography.

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