Swans Commentary » swans.com March 23, 2009  



A George Bernard Shaw Retrospective


How I Found Shaw


by Isidor Saslav



Pic: "George Bernard Shaw" - (From the cover of <em>Time,</em> Dec. 24, 1923) - Size: 10k
George Bernard Shaw
(From the cover of Time, Dec. 24, 1923)



[ed. This article is a revised, expanded, and edited version of an identically titled article that appeared in the Autumn 2008 issue of The Shavian, the journal of the London, U.K., Shaw Society.]


(Swans - March 23, 2009)   When I was 13 in 1951, back in Detroit, we used to subscribe to William Randolph Hearst's Detroit Times (now defunct). I still remember receiving, tossed in front of our apartment door, the issue with Hearst's full-page, full-face picture on the front on the occasion of his death in 1951. (Hearst as a personality later became more meaningful to me, not only through Orson Welles's movie, Citizen Kane, but especially through Hearst's hosting of George Bernard Shaw at San Simeon in 1933. More about Shaw and the Shaw collection in its proper place.)

An early political memory was hearing Republican senator Joseph McCarthy speak on the radio on February 9, 1950, promising to deliver to the American public his list of 205 communists in the state department or elsewhere in the government. At that time I was a rabid right-winger, having brought myself up on the Reader's Digest and its classic brand of anti-communism. I waited impatiently for McCarthy's next news conference and for that list of names. Of course he produced no list of any kind and it was easy for me to tell what sort of a charlatan he was. I always found it peculiar that after that example of his deceptions it took the American public such a long time to catch on to this political swindler. It was obvious even to an 11-year-old (me) what a crook he was. In February 2000, National Public Radio documentarized Joe McCarthy and his rise to prominence on the 50th anniversary of that infamous speech.

After that disillusionment my political orientation shifted 180 degrees and I became a Nation-New Republic boy from then on. My teenage heroes became Thomas Paine and George Bernard Shaw, both of whom I discovered when I was about 15. (Still keeping "faith" with my atheism I attended a rally on the steps of the Texas capitol in Austin in 2007. I hope there are more of us in Texas than the straggly few who showed up for that rally.) And speaking of Texas Shaviana, it was a privilege for Ann [ed. the author's spouse] and me to have been able to drive just a few miles west to Fort Worth's Bass Center not too many seasons ago to hear and see the world premiere of a musical based on Shaw's play, The Admirable Bashville. This musical, entitled Bashville in Love, was composed and produced by none other than Swans' own Charles Marowitz, and a successful adaptation it was too. So Charles's long absorption in things Shavian lends special weight and interest to his review of Candida, published here.


(Or as George Bernard Shaw so brilliantly put it, "America is the land of the free, where everyone is free to suppress the liberties of others.") How up to date is that? Just like most everything else Shaw ever said.


Cass Tech, my high school, was important to me from the literary as well as the musical point of view. During the 45 minutes it took me every day to commute between Dexter near Clairmount past Grand Boulevard and down Livernois to Cass for our daily 8:00 AM symphony orchestra rehearsals (and in the afternoon another 45 minutes back) I was able to read and study many a good book! Above all I remember the plays of George Bernard Shaw in the classic red and white Penguin editions of those days as being my main reading fare: The Devil's Disciple, Caesar and Cleopatra, Man and Superman, The Doctor's Dilemma, St. Joan, Arms and the Man, etc. What exhilarating and liberating reading they were! They still are.

During those days of my initial infatuation with Shaw I remember visiting someone's home and seeing on his shelves about a foot's worth of Shavian volumes. Wouldn't it be nice, I said to myself, if I too could have such a collection of Shaw's books? Thus began the major non-musical project of my life, the Shaw collection. Begun during my college days at Detroit's Wayne State University, today the Shaw collection is comprised of some 8,000 items, mostly books. It has taken all those some five decades to continually track down anything and everything I can find related to Shaw, whatever it was he ever said (and there was a lot of it!), his own first editions, plus books about his circle, the influences on him, and those whom he in turn influenced.

The collection began at Charles Boesen's bookstore, right across from Wayne State University's old music building. (The music department has since moved into Old Main, a few blocks south.) Charles was the brother of one of my Detroit Symphony Orchestra colleagues, violinist Jack Boesen. I bought three books from Charles and still have the receipt. One of the books was the quite rare first edition of Shaw's first published play, Widowers' Houses (1893). The price on the receipt says $5! A few years ago the same volume showed up on eBay. That was the first time I had seen that book again in 40 years. The owner was asking $600. I don't know if the seller ever got any offers at that price but he assured me via e-mail that his asking price was based on the current market. That's nice. Not exactly a $5,000,000 Stradivarius but a substantial percentage increase nonetheless.

After collecting in most parts of the English-speaking world, including Australia and New Zealand (even in Frankfurt, Germany, for the German translations), one adventure (March 1998) took me to the used-book-store capital of the world, Hay-on-Wye in Wales. In this little Welsh village smaller even than Overton, Texas (population 2,400) where I now live, (like Shaw's own Ayot St. Lawrence, a tiny place in which to headquarter oneself) were to be found no fewer than 36 used book stores! There, during a five-day residency, with side-trips to Malvern and Hereford, I managed to acquire many an item that had taken me all those decades to uncover! (Such as an actual copy of Dickens's Hard Times in the Waverley Edition of 1912 with preface by Shaw. Often reprinted but try to find an actual original!)

I visited in Malvern Catherine Moody, the daughter of a Malvern painter-in-residence whose group portrait of the leading lights of the Malvern Festival of the 1930s graced the theater wall and program books of those days. Catherine was kind enough to send me a color photograph of the group painting, which includes Shaw of course, along with other luminaries such as James Bridie, J. B. Priestly, A. K. Ayliff, etc. From Hay-on-Wye I carried home 70 pounds of books in one bag, 70 pounds in another (the airline limit), and shipped still more of them home by mail. I had planned to carry these books with me by train, just as I had come, back to Heathrow airport. But I soon discovered that no way was I going to be able to drag 140 pounds of books transferring from one train to another through various stations along the way. So I wound up paying for a taxicab (!) from Wales to Heathrow airport at a cost of about $130. (Shh! Don't tell anyone!) Oh, well, I figured, add it to the cost of the books at $1 a pound extra! I spent one day early at the airport weighing each of those impossible 70-pound bags to make sure they weren't over limit (they weren't). God forbid that I might have had to pay astronomical overage charges.

It's said that many teenagers go through (or used to go through) a Shaw phase before moving on to other enthusiasms. But in my case it was a phase I never outgrew; and I still revel in the exhilaration his works, his writings, his style, and his personality and persona as the great iconoclast possessed of deep emotions aroused by unfulfilled visions of social justice (not to mention autobiographical unresolved family situations) brought, and still bring, to my life. I need but open and begin to read any volume in the collection and, whatever my previous mood might have been, soon be awash in amazed laughter at what this great comic genius is able to produce with a few choice turns of phrase.

One example of the great iconoclast is a story I like to relate. It took place during my days as concertmaster of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, 1986-92. One afternoon I was hosting a get-together at my home on Ohiro Road in Wellington. Present in our living room was an enthusiastic group of young people, students of high school and college age. I read to them as an example of authentic Shaviana a letter, which Shaw had written in the 1930s. This letter was published for the first time in 1986 in the Harvard Magazine.

The article told of the efforts of a Harvard graduate, a Dr. Sears, back in 1936, to encourage Shaw to accept an honorary doctorate from Harvard on the occasion of the tercentenary of the school's founding. Shaw replied in words to the effect that, while thanks for the good thought, he didn't think it appropriate for him to be accepting honorary degrees from schools such as Harvard because for many years he had been advocating that the best thing that places like Harvard, Yale, Oxford, Cambridge, the Sorbonne, etc., "and other such ancient corrupters of youth" could do would be to burn themselves to the ground and sow the ground with salt so that they could never arise again. I never will forget the astonished look on the faces of the young people in that room to hear such anarchic and revolutionary sentiments regarding such treasured icons of our society issuing from the pen of one who had so long preceded the revolutionary 1960s!



More on G. B. Shaw

GBS: The Future Of A Rebel, by Peter Byrne

Probing GBS, by Charles Marowitz

A Guide To G. B. Shaw On Home Video, by Louis Proyect

Giftless Amateurs Bug Shaw And Shay, by Art Shay


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Internal Resources

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About the Author

Isidor Saslav on Swans (with bio).



Please, feel free to insert a link to this work on your Web site or to disseminate its URL on your favorite lists, quoting the first paragraph or providing a summary. However, please DO NOT steal, scavenge, or repost this work on the Web or any electronic media. Inlining, mirroring, and framing are expressly prohibited. Pulp re-publishing is welcome -- please contact the publisher. This material is copyrighted, © Isidor Saslav 2009. All rights reserved.


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This Edition's Internal Links

GBS: The Future Of A Rebel - Peter Byrne

Probing GBS - Charles Marowitz

A Guide To G. B. Shaw On Home Video - Louis Proyect

Giftless Amateurs Bug Shaw And Shay - Art Shay

Welcome To The Digital Zephyr - Martin Murie

A New Zephyr Breezes Over The Worldwide Prairie - Gilles d'Aymery

Blame The Media - Michael Barker

Feral Reserve: My Solution To The Financial Crisis - Michael Doliner

Zimbabwe: Constructive Engagement - Femi Akomolafe

With My Father, To Where Eagles Dare - Raju Peddada

Poverty - Far - Multilingual Poem by Guido Monte

Social Democracy, Anyone? - R. Scott Porter

Blips #83 - From the Martian Desk - Gilles d'Aymery

Letters to the Editor

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Published March 23, 2009