Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 23, 2009

A Guide To G. B. Shaw On Home Video

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 5:54 pm

Pygmalion, the finest film version of a Shaw play, can be seen on youtube

(Swans – March 23, 2009)   As Charles Marowitz observes in this special edition of Swans on GB Shaw, his plays are rarely performed nowadays. As a film critic, I was interested to see what was available on home video especially since reading Richard Seymour’s The Liberal Defence of Murder for a Swans review left me with an unresolved attitude toward Shaw. Despite the playwright’s socialist politics, Seymour makes the case that he was closer to Christopher Hitchens than he was to Swans, pointing to a passage in Shaw’s Fabianism and the Empire that calls for better management of the Empire rather than ending it:

“Our concern in this Manifesto is not specially for the wage-earning class, which is taking its own course and reaping only what it has sown, but for the effective social organization of the whole Empire, and its rescue from the strife of classes and private interests.”

Shaw’s plays represented a dual challenge to me. Were they the masterpieces that my high school teachers insisted they were (Shaw was not taught in my college at all)? Were they weak politically despite Shaw’s socialist reputation? As it turns out, these questions could not be answered with a simple yes or no. It is far easier to answer another question, which is whether his works still have the capacity to entertain and inspire. On this, I can offer an emphatic yes. On the politics, one can say that Shaw was limited by his Fabian preconceptions but since his plays dealt with class contradictions inside Great Britain rather than relations with the colonial world, they are not only unobjectionable but positively inspiring. Nobody hated the class system more than Shaw, at least those making their living as writers — that is, until the Great Depression turned a whole new generation of writers against the decaying social system.

Before launching into a discussion of the six videos I managed to take in, let me make a few observations about Shaw as artist. The first thing that struck me was how so many different genres appear to be influenced by Shaw, from the screwball comedies of the 1930s to PBS Masterpiece Theater’s “Upstairs, Downstairs.” As a shrewd observer of the social conventions of the rich and the poor, he found their conflict an endless source of artistic inspiration even as he was on record for calling for their abolition. Perhaps there is no British playwright who has a better knack for mining both the foibles and the strengths of the servant class than Shaw — except of course for Shakespeare.

The other thing worth noting is Shaw’s linguistic gifts. Listening to his dialog is a reminder of how much Anglo-American culture has declined since the 19th century. Just as there will never be another Beethoven, there will never be another Shaw. His ability to find the perfect turn of phrase for the occasion was obviously the outcome of his exposure to great British literature. Anybody who has read Jane Austen will be struck by Shaw’s flair for the ironic observation. Furthermore, when you see some of the more inspired screwball comedies of the 1930s, you will recognize immediately that a Preston Sturges not only read his GB Shaw both in high school and in college, but absorbed the literary and dramatic style completely. Nowadays, in the decline of Western civilization across the board, a Hollywood screenwriter is more likely to have learned his craft by watching television situation comedies.

Except for Devil’s Disciple, all of the videos under review are available as DVDs from Netflix and among them all but Pygmalion originated as BBC teleplays. Devil’s Disciple is available on VHS at video stores still stocking them, as well as public libraries. As a rule of thumb, the BBC productions are hampered by their “stagy” character but distinguished by the quality of the acting, including performances by John Gielgud and Maggie Smith.

full: http://www.swans.com/library/art15/lproy53.html


  1. Shaw was repulsive. He was really hot on eugenics, advocating publicly-funded euthanasia for the “mentally unfit”. He also had a level of Stalinophilia that went above and beyond what was de rigeur for left-leaning intellectuals of the time, glibly dismissing the famine from the First Five Year Plan as “a pack of abominable lies” or some other turn of phrase.

    Comment by Steve — March 23, 2009 @ 10:12 pm

  2. I think there’s an interesting discussion that could be held about Shaw the man, but perhaps Steve can explain how these political failings are reflected in his plays. I noted his pro-imperialist outlook but found no hint of that in the plays.

    Comment by louisproyect — March 23, 2009 @ 10:30 pm

  3. Well, it seems to me that perfect separability between a man and his work is just as hard to argue as the utter unity of the two. At any rate, I can’t imbibe Shaw’s witty social commentary without a damn foul undertaste. I get the impression of a man who either didn’t mean what he said and was just engaging in subversive posturing, or believed the right thing for entirely the wrong reasons.

    Comment by Steve — March 23, 2009 @ 11:29 pm

  4. I guess you’d better stay away from Richard Wagner.

    Comment by louisproyect — March 23, 2009 @ 11:32 pm

  5. “Nowadays, in the decline of Western civilization across the board, a Hollywood screenwriter is more likely to have learned his craft by watching television situation comedies.”

    Hmm. Could that be why I rarely go to movies any more?

    Comment by Austin — March 24, 2009 @ 9:30 am

  6. Hi Louis. Two of the best critiques of Shaw from a Marxist perspective are Annette T. Rubinstein’s “The Great Tradition in English Literature from Shakespeare to Shaw” — see vol. II and the chapter on Shaw. Another is Alick West’s “A Good Man Fallen Among Fabians”. Rubinstein comments:

    “However, at the very outset we find a fatal flaw in his understanding of Marx—a flaw which accounts for so much in his subsequent career, and is itself so easily accounted for in terms of his whole background. Shaw himself summarizes the matter when he tells us of:

    ‘… the enormous advantage the founders of the Fabian Society had in their homogeneity of class and age.. There were no illiterate working-men among them; there were no born- poor men; there was not five years’ difference between the eldest and the youngest.’

    “As we have already seen in his comment on William Morris (see p. 864) as well as in the one above, the vital element of Marxism which the young intellectual could not accept was the importance and potential leadership of the uneducated, uncultured working class. Shaw’s own special isolation in both personal and class terms, his long and arduous sell-education which he jealously — and no doubt correctly — vaunted as superior to that of most university graduates, and his extraordinary brilliance and verbal facility, all made it almost impossible for him to accept or even conceive of working-class leadership.”

    And on Shaw’s view of Empire, she writes:

    “Yet even this hardly prepares us for the imperialistic pamphlet Fabianism and the Empire in 1900 in which Shaw justified and supported the Boer war.

    “Here we have a willfully unrealistic view of the disinterestedness of imperialism which can be compared only with Walter Lippman’s fatuous exposition of the disinterestedness of big business, written in 1929, as an uneasy apologetic for his own betrayal of his youthful socialism.

    “Shaw says, in part:

    ‘. . . democracy in the popular sense of government by the masses, is clearly contrary to common sense…. The result is that our constitution, whatever it may be nominally, is in fact a plutocracy…. The primary conditions of Imperial stability are not the same throughout the Empire. The democratic institutions that mean freedom in Australasia and Canada would mean slavery in India and the Soudan.

    ‘. . . Great Power, consciously or unconsciously, must govern in the interests of civilization as a whole; and it is not to those interests that such mighty forces as gold-fields, and the formidable armaments that can be built upon them, should be wielded irresponsibly by small communities of frontiersman. Theoretically they should be internationalized, not British-Imperialized; but until the Federation of the World becomes an accomplished fact we must accept the most responsible Imperial Federation available as a substitute for it.’”

    All of which bears out Seymour’s point. But as you say, there is little or no reflection of this in Shaw’s plays.


    Comment by Richard Fidler — March 24, 2009 @ 12:46 pm

  7. If we measure Shaw against a hypothetical perfect Marxist thinker, G.B.S. isn’t going to make it by a long shot. We can’t compare him to a perfect Marxist playwright of his time with equivalent skill at play writing. There was no such person. Had he existed, he wouldn’t have been produced on the London stage, which was strictly a middle-class affair. So all we can do is take what we find worthwhile in Shaw and refuse the rest. But that’s what we do with any author whether he’s read Das Kapital or not.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — March 24, 2009 @ 4:01 pm

  8. When I was a red diaper baby I heard a story that during some big workers’ march back in the day, probably the British General Strike of 1926, things in the streets and on the barricades apparently got a bit too rowdy for the old Fabian Shaw so full of fear and loathing he was reported to have said something like – Are we sure we want the victory of this class?

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — March 25, 2009 @ 3:17 am

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