His politics and analysis are out of fashion, but 150 years after his birth, George Bernard Shaw still makes us laugh, says Ivan Wise
"I like flowers. I also like children, but I do not chop off their heads and keep them in bowls of water around the house." For many, George Bernard Shaw disappeared off the syllabus years ago. But his one-liners are still with us. So frequently are his witticisms cited that the broadcaster Nigel Rees established the rule: "When in doubt, ascribe all quotations to George Bernard Shaw." His most famous legacy to the British theatre may be Pygmalion and Henry Higgins's challenge to teach a Covent Garden flower girl to speak like a duchess, but his greatest achievement among his 50 plays is that much of their humour still sparkles.
Shaw, born 150 years ago this month, was initially renowned as an acerbic music and dramatic critic. He criticised Shakespeare for his "moral platitudes, his jingo claptraps, his tavern pleasantries, his bombast and drivel", and his dissenting voice became greatly feared by performers. When Shaw retired from writing reviews, the actor Sir Henry Irving said with relief: "I should be delighted to pay his funeral expenses."
Shaw's early works as a playwright embodied his maxim: "The secret of success is to offend the greatest number of people." He wrote about the greed of slum landlords, the hypocrisy of society's attitudes to prostitution and the entrapment of marriage. But he knew that if he wanted to get an audience's attention, ranting would not be sufficient - he continually had to surprise people by making them laugh. When a woman is exposed as a prostitute in Mrs Warren's Profession , she says casually:
"It's only good manners to be ashamed of it." The Lord Chamberlain's office did not appreciate such flippancy and banned the play for 30 years. When a writer friend lost a leg in battle, Shaw tried to console him by writing: "For a man of your profession two legs are an extravagance."
He was prepared to find the humour in every situation, accepting nothing as taboo. His maxim was: "Life does not cease to be funny when people die any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh." Not everyone agreed. Leo Tolstoy wrote to him to complain: "You are not sufficiently serious." Shaw replied: "The world might be one of God's jokes and we must try to make it a good joke instead of a bad one."
Shaw found it hard to be reverent. When the Dickens Fellowship organised a mock trial of John Jasper for the murder of Edwin Drood, in an attempt to solve the mystery of Charles Dickens's unfinished novel, Shaw played the foreman. He was the only one who did not take the proceedings earnestly, announcing: "If the learned gentleman thinks the convictions of a British jury are going to be influenced by evidence, he little knows his fellow-countrymen." His fellow performers wanted a solemn discussion. Shaw preferred to lark around.
Central to his comic style was the cultivation of an arrogant persona, which would guarantee him press coverage. It may not have entirely been an act, but he undoubtedly had some style. After the performance of his play Saint Joan , Shaw was asked if he was turning Catholic. He replied: "There's no room for two Popes in the Roman Catholic Church." Although he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1935 and an Oscar for Best Screenplay in 1938, he was not interested in peer recognition. He once stated: "I despise honours. It is enough that I am a Bernard Shaw, and that is the highest order of merit." But he didn't always have the last word.
Mrs Patrick Campbell, the first actress to play Eliza Doolittle, once said to him, exasperated: "When you were quite a little boy somebody ought to have said 'hush' just once."
Since Shaw's death in 1950, his works have been frequently condemned by critics and academics. W. H. Auden accused him of being "all brain and no body", Malcolm Muggeridge wrote: "Shaw got everything wrong", and A. J. P. Taylor concluded: "He has nothing to say." Shaw's plays have been written off for insufficiently engaging the emotions, and he has been criticised for his failure to oppose totalitarianism. Yet we should now be in a position to judge the output of a comic writer by the one criterion that actually matters. Shaw's longevity will not be determined by his outdated views, but by his ability to entertain.
He was cynical, subversive and fiercely critical of all organised religion and politics. But the principal reason why he is relevant today is because he can still make you laugh. One of Lady Astor's children, who knew he was a vegetarian and loathed blood sports, asked: "Do you hate killing for pleasure?" Shaw replied: "It depends upon whom you kill." Comments such as that don't go out of date.
Ivan Wise is editor of the Shavian and he will speak at the George Bernard Shaw 150th Anniversary Conference on Saturday, July 22, at the University of London. www.sas.ac.uk/ies