An Independent Shavian

Jacques Barzun was not only my professor at Columbia University, but is the first name on the Advisory Board of the Bernard Shaw Society. He has engaged in a lively ongoing correspondence with the editor of the Society’s journal The Independent Shavian, Professor Richard Nickson, who then publishes the letters to the delight and edification of our members. In From Dawn to Decadence, Professor Barzun wrote of Bernard Shaw’s letters that “most of them are small essays on subjects he was master of.” Here is a letter from JB that is perhaps worthy of GBS:

September 27, 2005

The latest Shavian most enjoyable as usual. The New York Times extended itself in space and understanding for the anniversary of our man. I never thought that I would live to read a phrase such as: “that paragon of theatrical incandescence, Saint Joan.” Don’t they know in the newsroom that none of Shaw’s supposed plays are theatre but only long-winded arguments? But they were weak on his ultimate[ly?] religious view of life.

In his day even admirers such as James Agate did not see him in the round. He put Shaw 10th in his list of the ten best playwrights and gave as a reason his supposed lack of passion and depth of knowledge about people. The fact is that most people are the ones lacking in passion and depth of knowledge — of themselves and everybody else.

Those critics did not see that filling a theatre repeatedly as Shaw did (even in German translation) is evidence that he knew what drama is, and by the same test his survival to this day confirms the fact, when all the Pineros and Galsworthys, with their supposed mastery of the stage, are nowhere on it.

Of course, I shouldn’t be surprised if this lasting power seemed to decline and the public ceased to support Shaw productions. This is what is happening to classical music. In both cases it is and will be the audience that fails, being mostly ill educated, conditioned to short attention span, with a head full of none but current ideas and what appeals to a childish sense of humor.

Sorry to reminisce. At times I long for a good production of Major Barbara, untampered with by the director.

Rhoda Nathan, Professor Emerita of American Literature, Hofstra University, is president of The Bernard Shaw Society.

The Jacques Barzun Centennial