05 September 2012

Bernard Shaw, Pop Culture Critic

by Kirk Woodward

[Once again, Kirk Woodward comes in with an interesting take on a familiar figure, this time the great Irish playwright, critic, and writer-thinker George Bernard Shaw. Shaw is one of the cultural personalities whom Kirk esteems above most others, an interest he’s had since before I knew him. He’s read and seen many, if not most, of Shaw’s plays—and I confess that his works are among my most favorite, too, though I don’t know nearly as much about the man and the artist as Kirk does. For instance, though I have also read or seen (and even performed in) a number of Shaw’s plays, I’ve only read a little of his criticism. Kirk has made a point over many years of digging into writers, composers, and thinkers about whom he’s curious and in whom he’s interested. What little criticism of Shaw’s I’ve read has been limited pretty much to his theater writing—he was a drama critic and reviewer long before he started writing plays himself—but Kirk’s read his music criticism and much of his other writing as well. In other words, this is one more case in which Kirk knows something about his subject that’s well worth listening to. And once again, he takes his ideas into a somewhat unexpected direction. ~Rick]


George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) is best known as a playwright, but he excelled in so many other fields that it's hard to keep track of them. In particular, he was a remarkable reviewer, covering, over a period of years, the subjects of books, pictures, music, and theater. His theater reviews, collected as Our Theatre in the Nineties (Constable and Company Limited, London, 1954, in three volumes), stand out in my mind above everything else of its kind, and some consider his music reviews to be even better. One reason is that Shaw refused to be confined to just the contents of the art he was reviewing.

It is odd that I would praise this characteristic of his writing, because in my book The Art of Writing Reviews (available at Lulu.com) I insist that a reviewer should focus directly on the work being reviewed, without reference to its history, the personality of its author, its production background, and so on – that a reviewer should tell us what this work is like, and then, having understood it, if desired make some judgment about it.

However, most of us aren't Shaw – none of us, actually. Shaw was uniquely equipped by experience and knowledge to do exactly what he urged the theater of his time to do – to bring the world around it into the theater, to write plays that reflect life as it is rather than life as other plays have portrayed it.

In demonstrating how this should be done, Shaw brought into his work – not just his plays, but all his writing and speaking – elements of economics, politics, morality, religion, social relationships . . . whatever seemed to him to pertain to the world that was related to the work at hand. In the course of his theater reviews he definitely does give a strong sense of what the play in front of him is like. But he doesn't review it in a vacuum. He gives his work the context of the life around it.

In the process of writing, Shaw became, among other things, what I have not seen him acknowledged as being: a culture critic. More precisely: Shaw is a remarkable critic of popular culture, noticing many phenomena that often escape notice because they are so familiar to us, and being one of the first to do so. A few illustrations:


* On articles, polls, and shows that rank artists in some sort of best-to-worst sequence (American Idol can serve as an example):

But this business of giving orders of merit to artists as if they were boxing for points is silly. (Letter to the Arts Gazette, 31 January 1920)

* On artists who feel the need to show off at the expense of already worthwhile pieces:

Confronted with a Shakespearian play, [the director] stares into a ghastly vacuum, yet stares unterrified, undisturbed by any suspicion that his eyesight is failing, quite prepared to find the thing simply an ancient, dusty, mouldy, empty house which it is his business to furnish, decorate, and housewarm with an amusing entertainment. (“The Dying Tongue of Queen Elizabeth,” Saturday Review, 11 February 1905)

* On the Internet, with “social media” and with all the other recent and dramatic ways that the availability of art has blossomed – the proliferation of means of communication was beginning in his era, and Shaw was conscious of it. He saw that the infant communication revolution meant a huge boost for popular interest in many kinds of art:

Thanks to the development of the literary and artistic sides of the daily newspapers, to the gramophone, the pianola, and wireless, the supply of journalists with a knowledge and love of art, and a cultivated sensibility to refinements in artistic execution, is much greater than it was. (Saturday Review, 7 November 1925)

So he would not have surprised by the effect of the Internet on reviewing, where every purchaser of a DVD on Amazon is invited to think of herself or himself as a critic.

Those few examples of criticism of popular art demonstrate that Shaw knew his subject, and knew how to write about it. However, he was not just an observer – he was a thinker, and he thought in an organized way about popular culture.

What exactly do we mean in talking about “popular” culture and popular art? We are essentially talking about money, and not just enough money to support life in a garret, but significant amounts of dough. It is worth noticing at the beginning of this discussion that Shaw does not make a distinction between commercial and "real" art. We are often tempted to dismiss, say, television sitcoms as "not real art" because the main motive for their creation is profit.

Shaw will have none of that, as reflected in his famous remark to Samuel Goldwyn that "You're only interested in art, I'm only interested in money." Goldwyn had money, so he could afford highfalutin' attitudes about art if he wanted them. Shaw wanted to make money, and did his best to. In particular, he managed the profits of his plays as though he were a penny-pinching industrial tycoon.

But notice that the distinction between “commercial” and “good” art is not the same as the distinction between “popular” and “high” art. Shaw rejects the first distinction, but embraces the second. What’s more, he sees relationships between the two. Shaw's view of “commercial” and “high” art as related to each other has implications for both kinds of art. For popular art, Shaw’s attitude insists that high standards are possible within it. For high art, Shaw’s attitude destroys pretention and insists on grounded thought.

Whether one works in the field of high or popular art, it does not seem sensible to Shaw that an artist might not care about being paid; such an attitude would strike him as an affectation or a pathology. Here, as in so many other areas, I believe he's correct. There is no reason that the purest artist shouldn't want to eat. A much saner attitude is that expressed by Noel Coward, who said that, like Shakespeare, he wrote his plays for two purposes: to do work of which he was proud, and, by so doing, to earn his living.

For Shaw, bringing Shakespeare into the discussion only confirms his point. Shaw has no patience with those who doubt that Shakespeare wrote the plays associated with his name. Those who wonder how the merchant's son from Stratford could have written Those Great Plays, Shaw would say, are overlooking the very reason that he did write them: because he wanted a career, wanted his theater to prosper, wanted fame and recognition for his work. Why not? Who doesn't?

. . . an author is a person who has to eat and drink and clothe himself, and . . . therefore they must not perform a play without paying a little at any rate to the man who wrote it. (“Playwrights and Amateurs,” 1933)

Shaw’s interest in the relationship between art and money is one of his strengths as a critic of popular culture. He understands the relationship on a practical level, as illustrated by his facility for examining box office returns for trends. This may sound prosaic, but Shaw was deeply interested in where his theater was going, and he knew that this meant “following the money.” Shaw frequently reports on the economics of the West End theater of his time, with a thorough understanding of the conditions in which theaters, including small “independent” theaters, operate. “I have to think,” he wrote to The New York Times (2 June 1912),

of my pocket, of the manager’s pocket, of the actors’ pockets, of the spectators’ pockets, of how long people can be kept sitting in a theatre without relief or refreshments . . . I have to consider theatrical rents, the rate of interest needed to tempt capitalists to face the risks of financing theaters, the extent to which the magic of art can break through commercial prudence . . . in short, all the factors that must be allowed for before the representation of a play on the stage becomes practicable or justifiable . . . .

The best contemporary example of commentary of this sort that I know of is William Goldman’s The Season, an indispensible book about one Broadway season (1967-1968), seen from every angle. Shaw anticipates Goldman in his focus on the tangible foundation of cash that art is built on.

What does Shaw see when he examines the accounts of the theaters of his time? He sees that in the short run, popular art makes money where high art does not. At the same time, not all popular art makes money. Why doesn’t it? Ordinarily we don’t ask this question; we just assume that some shows, films, etc., succeed and others don’t. But if popular art really is popular, why doesn’t it always succeed? What’s the problem? Shaw’s answer is that in general popular art has limited vision. It tends to look at other popular art for its content – in other words, it tends to be derivative and imitative. Its subjects seem sure-fire, but they only go so far.

What are the subjects of popular art? One extremely common subject, Shaw says, is the idea that love is the be-all and end-all of everything, “in unquestioning obedience to the law of the realm of romance, that love is strong as death and jealousy cruel as the grave” (Saturday Review, 30 November 1895). He has no patience with this notion:

As I have already had to point out in criticizing romantic dramas, love can be more easily baffled and jealousy more safely braved than any of the other passions, in spite of the fact that both social discipline and criminal law are sentimentally relaxed to an alarming degree in favor of people who act on the romantic theory, even to the extent of committing murder.


Obviously many people disagree with Shaw about the central place of love in art, but a look at popular art in general suggests that he’s correct, both in his observations that love, usually meaning romantic love, is at the heart of most of it, and that after a while the subject may get the slightest bit boring through repetition, leaving the door open for other subjects frequently encountered in popular art, such as sex; patriotism and its close companion, military valor; crime and the fear of being arrested; religion, especially if connected with the idea of punishment (for somebody else); and sentimental views of motherhood and children.

Could works of art about topics other than Love Love Love, and the other familiar staples of popular art, succeed? It’s a continuing question. Shaw dedicated his career to demonstrating that they could.

Shaw, then, sees no necessary artistic distinction between commercial art and art that doesn’t bring in much money; but he does distinguish between popular (sometimes he says “low”) and high art. He also sees a difference between worthwhile and poor art:

You cannot draw a line and say, “On this side is professional work, and on the other is amateur.” The only meaning that the words ever had is that on one side there is bad work and that on the other there is good work. (“Playwrights and Amateurs,” 1933)

It’s out of the scope of this essay to elaborate on what Shaw considers high art to be. I will only suggest his approach through a quotation from a review dated 11 April 1896:

. . . though plays have neither political constitutions nor established churches, they must all, if they are to be anything more than the merest tissue of stage effects, have a philosophy, even if it be no more than an unconscious expression of the author’s temperament.


High art, then, takes us into a greater understanding of life (“a philosophy”), where popular art tends to repeat already-established, second-hand attitudes toward life. The difference is significant, and we feel we know it when we see it.

But Shaw also sees that the difference between popular and high art expresses itself in curious ways. Shaw is the first observer I am aware of who noticed the odd phenomenon that a piece of popular culture may be massively popular, and then suddenly and completely lose its appeal, with almost no transitional period. I have experienced this with many television shows that I have watched for seasons, and suddenly cannot watch for love or money, for example “Mad About You” and “Rosanne,” both popular and worthwhile shows that I cannot imagine wanting to see again, ever. Writing in 1910 in a letter (“Mr. Trench’s Dramatic Values”) to the Saturday Review, Shaw responds to a remark by Irish poet F. H. Trench that inferior art can outsell finer products, in the way that (my illustration, not Shaw’s) Abie’s Irish Rose had a longer initial run than St. Joan. Shaw notes that such a phenomenon can occur, and then acutely continues:

But to all wildly popular things comes, suddenly and inexorably, death without hope of resurrection. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men cannot set the street pianos playing Nancy Lee again, though the tune is as good as ever it was, and they once played nothing else. No book within our recollection had so made a vogue in America as Du Maurier’s Trilby; the elders of Trilby’s day said there had been nothing like it since Uncle Tom’s Cabin. But the American booksellers still talk of the miracle of Trilby’s death. They aver that the demand stopped in one day.


Art that is popular only because it is popular, Shaw suggests, is art that will come and go. The power to last is a power given only to great art. We still care about Shakespeare; we can barely remember the new TV shows of last year, or what won last year’s Academy Award for Best Song.

Shaw demonstrates that popular and high art have important relationships with each other, but he does not pretend that they are the same. They have their own spheres and their own audiences:

All forms of art rise with the culture and capacity of the human race; but the forms rise together: the higher forms do not return and submerge the lower. . . . The success of [the higher] plays depends upon the exercise by the audience of powers of memory, imagination, insight, reasoning, and sympathy, which only a small minority of the play going public at present possesses. To the rest the higher drama is as disagreeably perplexing as the game of chess is to a man who has barely enough capacity to understand skittles . . . (Appendix to The Quintessence of Ibsenism, first edition, 1891)

But, Shaw points out, they also influence each other. Using the example of Ibsen’s impact on the theater of his time, he writes:

In the drama then, we may depend on it that though we shall not have another Ibsen, yet nobody will write for the stage after him as most playwrights wrote before him. (Appendix)

The point Shaw makes here is a crucial one. We might assume that popular art will always drive out high art, because it brings in more money; and often that seems to be the case. But, as Shaw puts it, popular art is of one sex, and sterile; it tends to repeat itself, imitating other popular art, as we continually see in television, where a show called “innovative” is usually just cruder or more violent than its peers. So fatigue, boredom, even contempt is built into popular art over the long haul.

Great art, on the other hand, Shaw says, is the result of contact between art and actual life, and opens new territory for the mind, heart, and spirit. So high art is where art gets its newness, even if popular art doesn’t want to acknowledge the fact. Popular art depends on high art to show it the way to new forms and new ideas.

Popular art ordinarily tries to keep its distance from great art, but it can’t help noticing that there’s something new there, and trying to absorb some of it. The result is that even if great art is unpopular, it influences popular art, and in so doing, nourishes it. We see this phenomenon all the time, for example in music, where no one after the Beatles could write as well as they did, yet no one could write without an awareness of what the Beatles had done; or in film, where the innovations of, say, D. W. Griffith were impossible to ignore by anyone who made films after him.

But, Shaw notes, just because popular art is influenced by great art does not mean that great art replaces it:

No one need fear on this account that Ibsen will gradually destroy melodrama. It might as well be assumed that Shakespeare will destroy music-hall entertainments, or the prose romances of William Morris supersede the Illustrated Police news. All forms of art rise with the culture and capacity of the human race; but the forms rise together: the higher forms do not return and submerge the lower. (Appendix)

So popular art owes high art a debt, Shaw suggests. He then draws the somewhat radical conclusion that popular art should support high art because it is nourished by it. Popular art owes high art a debt, Shaw says, and it ought to pay that debt.

So, Shaw says, why should theaters, in his example, not be organized so that “high” and “popular” art can exist together? In a review dated 30 January 1897, he writes that, for example:

If Mr. [George] Alexander [an actor and manager], instead of handing over Magda to fail in the evening bill at another theatre, had produced it and [German playwright Hermann Sudermann’s] Sodom’s Ende and so forth at a series of matinees of the Saturday Pop class, financing them from the exchequer of the kingdom of Ruritania [in other words, by using some of the proceeds of more popular plays], and aiming solely at the nourishment of the drama and the prevention of stagnation in public taste, he might have laid the foundations of a genuine classic theatre, in which the cultivated people who never dream of going to the theatre now would take their boxes and stalls by the season, and the hundred thousand people who go to the St James’s twice a year would be represented financially by four thousand going once a week.

The same point may be made today, and to some extent Shaw’s advice has been taken. (The Shubert organization, for example, Broadway’s largest producing entity, invests a certain amount of money each year in less conventional theater through the Shubert Foundation.)

The bigger problem today is an attitude of indifference toward the importance of art in much of society, particularly in the related areas of politics and education, an attitude that has been documented by Richard Kramer in this blog. Shaw lived in a similar era. He saw the problem, but he did not give up hope.

It is a tribute to Shaw’s importance that his views on popular art are as interesting as his plays, and that both are vital today. He was able both to diagnose the relation between popular and high art, and to do something about it by creating art that straddled both worlds. We might perhaps try to profit from his example.

[The quotations in this article are taken from the following books: Bernard F. Dukore, Bernard Shaw, Director (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1971); Bernard Shaw, Our Theatre in the Nineties (three volumes) (London: Constable and Company Limited, 1954); E. J. West, ed., Shaw on Theatre (New York: Hill and Wang, 1958).

[One commercial note, so to speak: Kirk mentions his book,
The Art of Writing Reviews, which I suggest is worth a read. But what I really want to point out here is that I spent four posts on ROT commenting on the book back on 4, 8, 11, and 14 November 2009. In addition to reading Kirk’s book itself, it might be worth having a look at my side remarks—they’re like marginalia except I typed them up for public consumption. (I think of it as a kind of Talmud to Kirk’s Torah—though I doubt he’d see it quite that way!)


[Now, a personal note on Shaw. I suggested that he’s one of my favorite playwrights, and when I was trying to be an actor, I thought I could make a life just doing his plays—Eugene Marchbanks in Candida when I was still in my 20’s; Napoleon in The Man of Destiny (whom I did get to play!) when I was in my 30’s, Undershaft in Major Barbara or Alfred Doolittle in Pygmalion when I was graying. I never got to do enough of his work—I probably couldn’t have gotten to do enough; there’s no such thing—but I loved every chance I got to do one. I liked doing Shakespeare, Noel Coward, Oscar Wilde, the great Americans Tennessee Williams and George S. Kaufman (among others), Chekhov, Ibsen, Strindberg, Molière, and so on, as well as the moderns and the contemporaries. But I could have lived and died doing Shaw. A number of years ago, I got to go up to Niagara-on-the-Lake in Ontario for a week at the annual Shaw Festival. I think I saw eight shows there—hog heaven for me—and two were Shaws, including one of my absolute favorites, Arms and the Man (Bluntschli’s another part the playwright wrote for me), and one I’d never seen, Too True To Be Good.

[Shaw is also the author of one of the best statements on freedom of expression I may ever have read. It’s from the 1913 revision of
The Quintessence of Ibsenism: “The plain working truth is that it is not only good for people to be shocked occasionally, but it is absolutely necessary to the progress of society that they should be shocked pretty often. But it is not good for people to be garotted occasionally, or at all. That is why it is a mistake to treat an atheist as you treat a garotter, or to put ‘bad taste’ on the footing of theft and murder.” It’s why I’m a First Amendment absolutist.]


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