Allan Massie

Peter Pan Laid Bare

Bernard Shaw II: The Pursuit of Power

By

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Bernard Shaw had a passion for publicity; it was a means of concealing himself from the public. (Where do you hide a leaf? In a tree.) Yet it was also a means of self-affirmation, which enabled him to hide from himself. In this he differed from Wilde, his Dublin contemporary, who used publicity to encourage his true nature to flower. Shaw’s remarkable achievement was to employ his lust for self-promotion and public notice in such a way that he managed to escape the loneliness of the artist bound to his writing-table. Actually he wrote incessantly, but so much of his writing was concerned either to set other people – even the whole world – to rights, or to proclaim his own wisdom, that he can never have felt alone even in his own study; for one thing, his most brilliant and sustained creation, GBS himself, was always there to continue a dialogue.

Michael Holroyd understands that the passion for publicity was the key to Shaw’s success and the evidence of his failure. No writer was ever less the lonely old artist man. Indeed Shaw disliked being thought an artist, because that would have been a recognition of the truth about himself, from which he shrank; he much preferred to be regarded as a propagandist, and, characteristically, trumpeted this view. It took Max Beerbohm – who else? – to see through his pose: ‘in getting away from representation of actual things, you got off your rickety little contemporary platform and ceased your ready improvisings and sat down on the earth and thought out a genuine work of art and achieved something beautiful … You gave to a dramatic work the FORM which you had hitherto felt compatible with your conscience only in direct ratiocinative pleading …’ This was a disconcerting letter for Shaw to receive.

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