Page:EB1922 - Volume 31.djvu/20

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George Bernard Shaw, who was born in Dublin in 1856, came of English Protestant middle-class stock. " I am a typical Irishman," he says; " my family came from Yorkshire. My father was an ineffective, unsuccessful man, in theory a vehement teetotaller, but in practice a furtive drinker. I never learnt any- thing at school, a place where they put Caesar and Horace into the heads of small boys, and expect the result to be an elegant taste of knowledge of the world. I took refuge in total idleness at school, and picked up at home quite unconsciously a knowl- edge of that extraordinary literature of modern music from Bach to Wagner, which has saved me from being at the smallest disadvantage in competition with men who only know the gram- mar and mispronunciation of the Greek and Latin poets and philosophers. For the rest my parents went their own way and let me go mine." He combined the unaccustomed arts of critic, logician and sceptical journalist. He was haunted by wit, largely of the caustic variety of Samuel Butler (the author of Erewhon). The conferencier of a silken skein, he drew an audience like a magnet, but he ridiculed English ideas of a " sport " and a " gentleman," his unpopularity flaring in 1914 in a tract called Common Sense and the War. To him a typical Englishman was a wildly absurd and enthusiastic fellow (Nelson); Wellington, a typical common-sense Irishman, was better. Church and public- school ideas became his butts. He preferred the provocative method to any other. From critic and quasi-novelist he became playwright. His first play, Widowers' Houses, written in 1885, was not produced until 1892, and then with scant success. He followed this with The Philanderer (1893), a satire on the eman- cipated woman, and Mrs. Warren's Profession, a treatment of commercialized vice, which was refused performance by the censor. Arms and the Man, a brilliant satire on military glory, Candida (1894), The Man of Destiny (1895), a mock-heroic skit on Napoleon, and You Never Can Tell (1896), a farcical treatment of the New Woman, followed. These seven plays were all dis- tinguished by their attack upon some time-honoured sham, their reduction to reality of some pretentiously false view. Per- haps because of their slight success as acting plays, Shaw pub- lished them in two series, Plays Pleasant and Unpleasant (1898). He made the prefaces to these volumes elaborate comments on the technical and social qualities of the plays; and, further to guide his readers, he expanded the stage directions into full descriptions, character sketches and explanations, thus adapting the play to a public which was accustomed to read novels. Prose drama was once more restored to the library. The later plays were more immediately successful on the stage, but Shaw con- tinued to publish them as books, and, by the aid of the prefaces, to use them as effective propaganda for his views on art, the theatre, history and society. He attacks the illusion of history in Caesar and Cleopatra, and of romantic morality in The Demi's Disciple, published in Three Plays for Puritans (1900). In Man and Superman (1903) he represents courtship as a war of the sexes, and man as the victim of woman, who is the incarnation of nature's purpose and the will to live. In John Bull's Other Island (1904) he attacked English domination of Ireland, and made the preface a powerful arraignment of military rule in Egypt. He attacks poverty in Butlerian vein in the persons of those weak members of society who accept it, and looks forward to their extinction with the extension of a better race. The attitude, called " pragmatism," of accepting as true only beliefs that will work, is shown by his attack on the ideas of reform by punishment, or of the improvement of society by marriage and the home. In such volumes as Androcles and the Lion and', later, Back to Methuselah, he conversationalizes and essayizes at the same time, giving modern dialect the benefit wherever possible.

The psychology of the end of our period has forced us, more or less, to isolate these four outstanding personalities, Hardy, Barrie, Wells and Shaw, as representing the most dominant forces of contemporary influence. But an enumeration of other prominent living representatives of English letters in 1921 shows that there had been no falling-off in distinction since the century opened. A list of some 50 would find honoured veterans (Morley, Frederic Harrison, Bryce, Trevelyan) side by side with long-

established critics in Saintsbury, Gosse, Sidney Colvin, W. P. Ker; dramatists in Pinero and Henry Arthur Jones; and, among the middle generation, writers of genius already fully recognized before 1900 in Rudyard Kipling, William Watson, W. B. Yeats, Alice Meynell and Robert Bridges. With them may be named, in alphabetical order: Lascelles Abercrombie, Maurice Baring, Max Beerbohm, Hilaire Belloc, Arnold Bennett, E. F. Benson, Laurence Binyon, " George Birmingham," Augustine Birrell, John Buchan, G. K. Chesterton, A. Clutton-Brock, A. Conan Doyle, Joseph Conrad, W. H. Davies, Walter De La Mare, C. M. Doughty, Oliver Elton, John Galsworthy, Charles Graves, Rider Haggard, Maurice Hewlett, R. S. Hichens, Anthony Hope- Hawkins, A. E. Housman, W. H. Hudson, Stephen Leacock, Sidney Lee, W. J. Locke, E. V. Lucas, J. W. Mackail, Stephen McKenna, Compton Mackenzie, John Masefield, George Moore, Henry Newbolt, Alfred Noyes, Herbert Paul, A. Quiller-Couch, Walter Raleigh, George W. Russell (" A. E."), Owen Seaman, May Sinclair, De Vere Stacpoole, A. B. Walkley, Hugh Walpole, Margaret Woods, Israel Zangwill.

In fiction, preeminently among literary productions, the tem- porary displacements of popular vogue are numerous. During 1910-21, while the cult of Henry James and of Joseph Conrad had gathered strength, the genius of Rudyard Kipling had found no new utterance. The most characteristic writers of fiction during this period were Wells, Arnold Bennett, Galsworthy, Compton Mackenzie, Stephen McKenna, E. V. Lucas, W. J. Locke, W. L. George, Hugh Walpole, Gilbert Cannan and May Sinclair. A great change had come over the spirit of fiction and its frankness since the days of the eminent Victorians. " Psycho-analysis " had become its theme. Galsworthy's Dark Flower and Beyond are almost entirely taken up with the analysis of sex-attraction; Wells and Shaw are strangely intent upon the life-force; and with writers like Compton Mackenzie, W. L. George, D. H. Lawrence and Gilbert Cannan, it becomes almost an obsession. The emancipation for which the novelists of an earlier generation had sighed was achieved with a lack of effort that was almost instantaneous in the 20th century.

Yet withal, the humanitarianism of Galsworthy ^.nd the dra- matic regionalism of Arnold Bennett have formed solid enrich- ments of the literary stock in English fiction. Note must be taken, too, as characteristic also of the two last-named, of a fine vein of literary epicurism in those contemporary writers to whom style is inseparable from ideas. Among novelists who are also essayists this has been a marked feature of the work of Hilaire Belloc and E. V. Lucas; hardly less marked in the case of Filson Young; most marked of all in that of George Moore, whose Brook Kerith and Helo'ise and Abelard stand out as perhaps the most deliberately "artistic" pieces of English composition in the period. The epicurism of George Moore is even more definitely embodied in those intimate records of his Irish literary associations (Hail and Farewell: Ane; Salve; Vale) which may well be, to a later generation, more interesting than anything in his fiction. Nor from this selection of contemporary epicures in style can reference be omitted to the writings of Max Beer- bohm (Works; More; Yet Again; A Christmas Garland; And Even Now) an ironist of delightful fastidiousness.

England is proud of her ironists. When Samuel Butler, the author of Erewhon, died in 1902, his views were set forth in the posthumous novel, The Way of All Flesh, one of the seminal satires of to-day. In his union of logic with irony Butler belongs with Huxley and Matthew Arnold, as he is their peer in the mas- tery of a superbly clear and idiomatic English style. He differs from them in that he possessed also a certain gnome-like impu- dence of fancy, which led him into strange ambiguities and throws a veil of seeming irresponsibility over much of his writing.

Outside fiction, it is remarkable how much of the wealth of English belles leltres has revolved round historical biography and world history, as systematized in great men and "heroes." The conclusion of Swift that history was formed by the essence of innumerable biographies may indeed seem to have been demon- strated in recent years by the production in England of the Dictionary of National Biography and by such individual cases as