Books, Arts & Manners

G. K. Chesterton and George Bernard Shaw: An Ambivalent Literary Relationship

G.K. Chesterton (left) in 1915; George Bernard Shaw in 1914. (Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division)
The Christian writer and apologist remains a superbly judicious guide to the modernist Nietzschean, the most influential English-language dramatist of the 20th century.

George Bernard Shaw lived to be 94, dying 70 years ago, in 1950, and was for several decades, along with H. G. Wells, the most influential writer in the world, winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925 and becoming quite wealthy after early adult years of real poverty in London. His play Pygmalion (1912) was turned into the musical My Fair Lady by Alan Jay Lerner and became the most successful show in theater history, running in New York for over six years (1956–1962), closing only after 2,717 performances in New York and 2,281 performances in London, and was followed by an award-winning motion picture.

Professor Christopher Wixson of Eastern Illinois University has written a very good new book, George Bernard Shaw: A Very Short Introduction, and, in 2021, Oxford University Press is bringing out new scholarly editions of several of Shaw’s dramatic and prose works. Like his sometime Fabian-socialist comrade Wells, Shaw was explicitly a modernist and a secular-utilitarian evangelist; unlike Wells, the dramatist Shaw’s great literary weapons were humor, satire, and irony. Shaw’s seemingly extreme and often paradoxical views were leavened by a genius for wit and humor that his younger and less long-lived contemporary G. K. Chesterton (1874–1936) illuminated in saying “by laughter only can you destroy evil without malice.”

Chesterton was a friend of Shaw but also an ideological opponent, who often debated with him on public stages, defending with uncommon eloquence a traditional “mere-Christian,” natural-law view of the human person and human history, as opposed to Shaw’s aggressive, multifaceted modernism, his feminism, Nietzscheanism, socialism, vegetarianism, “creative evolutionism,” and eugenics. He also wrote a great short book on Shaw, published early in the latter’s career (1909), to which he added a final chapter on the intervening 25 years of Shaw’s life and work in 1935, the year before Chesterton’s own death. Shaw’s long life, voluminous literary output (the 1938 collected edition contained 33 volumes and Shaw still had a dozen years to live), and vast influence have attracted authoritative volumes by numerous scholars and biographers, including Malcolm Muggeridge’s close friend Hesketh Pearson (1942), St. John Ervine (1956), the distinguished Anglo-American theater scholar Eric Bentley (1947 and subsequent editions), and Michael Holroyd, who wrote a multivolume biography (one-volume edition, 1997). Yet both Bentley and Ervine claimed that Chesterton’s short, early work on Shaw was the best, with Ervine calling it “the best book on Shaw that has been written and . . . probably . . . the best that ever will be written.” (Similar claims have been made for Chesterton’s books on Saint Thomas Aquinas, Charles Dickens, and Robert Browning and for his The Victorian Age in Literature.)

Both Shaw and Chesterton were great intuitive thinkers with an astonishing capacity for precise, vivid locutions and literary formulations, for witty and profound insights. They also shared another rare personal quality — a kind of magnanimous sincerity that could deal with opponents with a disarming candor and generosity that often evoked admiration and even friendship across ideological lines. Chesterton’s brief, brilliant 1909 study of Shaw was augmented with that concluding 1935 chapter (not, alas, always reprinted with the original), in which he said, “I can testify that I have never read a reply by Bernard Shaw that did not leave me in a better temper or frame of mind; which did not seem to come out of an inexhaustible fountain of fair-mindedness and intellectual geniality.” Yet the Chesterton–Shaw controversies were not just literary shows for a mutual-admiration society: The younger man deeply and forcibly criticized Shaw’s views and even his public effect. Both were, like Wells, public intellectuals and moralists and believed that the stakes in their controversies were real and high, a matter of true and false worldviews and moral valuations.

But in order to understand Chesterton’s considered view of Shaw, it is important to realize what in Shaw’s personality and work he admired. In the period in which Chesterton came to maturity, 1880–1914, “science announced non-entity and art admired decay,” in his words in 1908. Various kinds of nihilism succeeded the romantic, revolutionary Prometheanism of the French Revolution and its sequels in 1830, 1848–49, and 1871, with Darwin and Nietzsche perhaps the deepest and most forbidding iron nails pounded into the coffin of humanitarian idealism.

Oscar Wilde (1854–1900), a witty Dublin Protestant-atheist Irishman like Shaw, but of a very different class, stamp, and implication, wrote that natural science, “by revealing to us the absolute mechanism of all action, [frees] us from the self-imposed and trammeling burden of moral responsibility.” Wilde’s resultant, post-Christian aesthetic immoralism shocked and mocked the “earnestness” of late Victorian Britain in witty prose and plays, including the satirical wit (and homosexual implication) of The Importance of Being Earnest (1895). Both Shaw and Chesterton had an intimation that Wilde’s witty persiflage actually disguised deep decadence, an argument made brilliantly several decades later by the American Jewish moralists Philip Rieff (“The Impossible Culture: Wilde as a Modern Prophet,” 1982–83, reprinted in The Feeling Intellect, 1990) and Daniel Bell (The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, 1976; “Beyond Modernism, Beyond Self,” 1977). From Wilde came the Bloomsbury aesthetes and, we may say, nearly the whole world of the modern arts.

Yet both Shaw and Chesterton were themselves noted wits (both sometimes even accused of being paradox-mongering buffoons), and in fact Shaw shared much of the iconoclasm of his countryman Wilde, becoming a self-described feminist, Nietzschean, Ibsenite, and Wagnerite. But for Chesterton one of Shaw’s great achievements was his deep, abiding hatred of aestheticism — Shaw even insisted that the Puritan evangelist John Bunyan (The Pilgrim’s Progress) was a greater writer than Shakespeare, and frequently, unaccountably, made orthodox statements, such as “There is a soul hidden in every dogma” and “Conscience is the most powerful of the instincts, and the love of God the most powerful of all passions.” Along with T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral (1935) and Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons (1960), Shaw’s play St. Joan (1924) is one of the wisest, wittiest, and most sympathetic dramatic depictions of Christian religious belief in the last hundred years.

Both Shaw and Chesterton believed that the root problem of modernity was Darwinism, the acceptance of which made it impossible to resist its moral corollary, social Darwinism, and therefore plutocracy, amoral capitalism, imperialism, racialism, and militarism. Shaw wrote in the preface to Man and Superman (1903): “If the wicked flourish and the fittest survive, Nature must be the god of rascals.”

Though Shaw was a small-p protestant religious heretic (he argued that Joan of Arc was an early Protestant, like Hus and Wycliffe), Chesterton asserted that he was a true if eccentric Puritan moralist. Shaw’s critique of Darwinism was profound, especially in the long preface to his mammoth play Back to Methuselah (1921): The literary critic R. C. Churchill has called this preface “the wittiest summary of the Darwinian controversy ever written” (see especially the sections from “Three Blind Mice” onward). In his own 1944 postscript to the play, Shaw, while still insisting on the need to give up the Protestant creed (and all other Jewish and Christian creeds) of his youth in the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy in Dublin, held that Darwin’s exclusion of mind and purpose from nature was wrong and destructive: Unless we can reclaim mind, will, and purpose as realities in some kind of non-Darwinian, “creative evolution,” we “fall into the bottomless pit of an utterly discouraging pessimism.”

Shaw’s predecessor Samuel Butler (1835–1902), and his Franco-American successor and admirer Jacques Barzun (1907–2012), have made similar arguments, arguments given renewed strength more recently by the American philosopher Thomas Nagel (see my “Rationality vs. Darwinism,” National Review, 2012). Shaw’s resistance to determinism, and his insistence on the irreducible reality of human consciousness and will in nature and history, elicited Chesterton’s profound respect and admiration. In his final, 1935 chapter on Shaw, written in the last year of Chesterton’s own life, he said of the older man’s achievements in drama over the previous 40 years: “He has improved philosophic discussions by making them more popular. But he has also improved popular amusements by making them more philosophic.” He added that Shaw was “one of the most genial and generous men in the world.”

Yet Chesterton’s admiration and approval were shadowed by a sense that Shaw had great deficiencies and that his influence was ambiguous and in some cases malignant. Born 18 years earlier than Chesterton, Shaw outlived him by another 16, his life encompassing both world wars, unprecedented destruction, and the fundamental disproof of his early progressivism and cosmopolitanism. His early Fabian socialism led him to become an influential communist fellow traveler. The famously exuberant, energetic Shaw told his biographer Hesketh Pearson, a close friend of Malcolm Muggeridge, that, in the post–World War II world, he wished when he went to bed that he would never wake again.

Like H. G. Wells, he was threatened with “an utterly discouraging pessimism” when his political hopes came to seem almost completely vain. Commenting on the significance of Aldous Huxley’s satirical dystopia Brave New World (1932), even before George Orwell’s 1984, an English writer quoted by Chesterton in his 1935 chapter said, “Progress is dead; and Brave New World is its epitaph.” Beyond the world of fiction, in the world of actual human tragedy, works such as Elie Wiesel’s Night and Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago may be said to have proved the point unanswerably: Human progress may be possible, based on willed choices, but there is certainly no mystical, progressive, propulsive purpose immanent within history.

Chesterton’s argument about Shaw from the beginning was that he was in three ways an outsider, ways that gave him a unique perspective and insight but that also prevented his understanding what Chesterton thought of as a fundamental piety that had been characteristic of Western civilization and Western societies at their best: Shaw was a Protestant Anglo-Irishman who disdained his own country and left it permanently for London; he was emotionally, intellectually, and politically a fastidious Puritan moralist who could not, however, believe any longer in the Puritan God; and he was a Nietzschean-socialist futurist whose disgust with the human past and its traditions made him an ultimate outsider to any particular historical community or continuity.

Free from what Chesterton called the “vile” aesthetic philosophy of his also-cosmopolitan Irish countryman Wilde, “a philosophy of ease, of acceptance, and luxurious illusion,” Shaw read and was deeply affected by Nietzsche after having committed himself, in mind, action, and loyalty, to the Fabian-socialist cause, making lifelong friends and allies of Sidney and Beatrice Webb, whom he was instrumental in getting buried with full honors in Westminster Abbey in 1947. But reconciling Nietzsche with socialism was a lifelong conundrum, and it should be no surprise that Shaw came to admire “strong men” beyond the bourgeois-democratic tradition and temper — such as Mussolini, Stalin, and the British fascist Sir Oswald Mosley. “Stalin has delivered the goods,” the celebrity Shaw wrote in 1931, the year of his state-conducted tour of Russia with his friend Lady Astor. A photo of the two of them in a chauffeured car on Red Square in Moscow is on the cover of David Caute’s indispensable book The Fellow Travellers: A Postscript to the Enlightenment (1973), a brilliant documentation of the lamentable credulity of Western intellectuals in confronting Lenin, Stalin, and what the Webbs called the “new civilization” of the Soviet Union. Shaw died in his English country house in 1950 with a signed photograph of Stalin on his mantelpiece.

Chesterton’s brief study of 1909 and its even briefer 1935 sequel were thus profoundly apt in assessing Shaw’s greatness and his folly. He saw that Shaw was really no democrat, that his admirable public spirit had in it something cold, abstract, theoretical, and even Platonist in the sense of Plato as an elitist authoritarian; whereas Chesterton himself was truly a kind of democrat, actually liking “the common man” and assuming that human beings across time had come to certain conventions, traditions, and sentiments that usually had in them some important truth. (This idea profoundly influenced the Chestertonian William F. Buckley Jr.)

Much of Shaw’s greatness was properly destructive of illusions and self-interested shibboleths and bromides, what Kant called “the radical evil” — the use of the language of ethics as a screen for self-interest or self-love. An outsider to Victorian England, Shaw saw how post-Christian Great Britain habitually used such screens, and he mocked them with hilarious and hygienic effect. Barzun claimed that Shaw was in the true dramatic tradition of Aristophanes and Molière, and Shaw himself said, “My business as a classic writer of comedies is to chasten morals with ridicule.” He was proud of reintroducing to English drama “long rhetorical speeches in the manner of Molière.” Barzun called him “a 20th-century Voltaire.”

Yet Shaw’s positive criterion by which to measure and ridicule folly and vice was fatally ambiguous, eclectic, and inconstant, as Chesterton pointed out, more in sadness than in anger. Shaw could deplore scientism, what he called “the anti-metaphysical temper of nineteenth century civilization” (preface to St. Joan), and thus excoriate the inhuman and subhuman implications of Darwinism, and he could sincerely invoke the conception of a Godhead immanent in all human beings. His critique of scientistic imperialism in promiscuous, cruel vivisection finds a resonant echo in our time in our better protocols for animal experimentation, as John P. Gluck in his Voracious Science and Vulnerable Animals (2016) has movingly shown.

But often his clear, confident moral rectitude is just a muddle; as his character Barbara Undershaft, the Salvation Army “Major Barbara” of his 1905 play, says after her loss of faith, “There must be some truth or other behind this frightful irony.” Shaw’s close friend Beatrice Webb castigated the play as “amazingly clever, grimly powerful, but ending . . . in an intellectual and moral morass.” The same could be said of a number of the plays — absurd outcomes, without the later, post-Shaw intention of celebrating absurdity (Beckett, Sartre, Pinter, Albee; Tom Stoppard is a salutary exception — Shaw’s true successor). Some of the plays are almost unbearably tedious, such as the vast Back to Methuselah, despite its brilliant prose preface. In a notable attack on Shaw, the actor and playwright John Osborne, who had acted in provincial productions of many of the plays, asserted in 1977 that “Shaw is the most fraudulent, inept writer of Victorian melodramas ever to gull a timid critic or fool a dull public.” It is not difficult to agree with him that the much-praised Candida (1900) is “an ineffably feeble piece” and that “it is hard to think of anything more silly.”

Shaw’s biggest box-office success was the poignant, strangely pious St. Joan (1923), written especially for the actress Sybil Thorndike (1882–1976), which made her career. Some of the plays still make powerful reading and seeing — Pygmalion, Androcles and the Lion, and Arms and the Man are marvelous comedies. His prefaces are often lucid and profound, his music criticism expert, eloquent, and memorable — for example, his early championing of Beethoven is deeply moving. His literary criticism is sometimes classic and even lapidary, as in his famous 1912 introduction to Dickens’s novel Hard Times.

But Chesterton was right to think that trying to synthesize Nietzsche and socialism — and ultimately communism — was to produce fool’s gold and destructive illusions. Writing after his own painfully revealing year in Moscow in 1932–33, as a correspondent for the Manchester Guardian, Malcolm Muggeridge, a favored relation of Shaw’s close friends the Webbs, who was raised on Shaw in his London socialist home, deplored Shaw’s fellow-traveling propaganda for Communist Russia, whose reality the acute Shaw failed to recognize in his 1931 guided tour or for the 20 years of his life that remained. Chesterton’s ambivalence about Shaw as man and writer remains a superbly judicious guide to the most influential English-language dramatist of the 20th century; and Chesterton’s own body of writing, in several genres, remains a golden thread by means of which the sanest and most salutary elements of the classical-Christian literary, ethical, and political tradition made their way into the apocalyptic 20th century, and make their way to us.

M. D. Aeschliman recently retired after 25 years as professor of Anglophone Culture at the University of Italian Switzerland and is also professor emeritus of education at Boston University. The third edition of his The Restoration of Man: C. S. Lewis and the Continuing Case against Scientism was published in 2019 and in French translation this year. In 1987 he edited a new edition of Malcolm Muggeridge’s 1934 novel Winter in Moscow.

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