03 December 2015

Eric Bentley On Bernard Shaw

by Kirk Woodward

[As Kirk says in his opening paragraph below, he’s written for ROT before on the subject of Eric Bentley and George Bernard Shaw (the posts are noted below).  He’s now returned to the blog with a commentary on Shaw as limned by Bentley, drawn mostly from Bentley’s 1947 book Bernard Shaw (New Directions Books; also the 1957 revision).  As Kirk says, Bentley and Shaw are the two writers he enjoys reading most. and, I dare add, among those he admires most as well.  That doesn’t at all mean that he can’t see their deficiencies and faults, and his criticism here is evenhanded and equitable, even as it ends up being largely laudatory.  That’s not unexpected, of course, since both writers are eminently praiseworthy men.  If you are a Shaw fan, as I am, you will find here lots of interesting facts and ideas.  If you don’t know the great Irish playwright, the grandfather of My Fair Lady and The Chocolate Soldier, this is an interesting start on becoming acquainted with the writer who had ideas about all manner of topics.]

I suppose the two writers whose work I most enjoy reading are Eric Bentley, the writer on drama, and George Bernard Shaw, the playwright. I have written in this blog before on both Bentley (“Eric Bentley – An Appreciation,” 4 December 2012; http://rickontheater.blogspot.com/2012/12/eric-bentley-appreciation.html) and Shaw (“Bernard Shaw, Pop Culture Critic,” 5 September 2012; http://rickontheater.blogspot.com/2012/09/bernard-shaw-pop-culture-critic.html). The two share the characteristic of longevity: Shaw (1856-1950) lived to be ninety four, and Bentley (b. 1916) as I write this is still with us at the age of almost one hundred.

But the two have more significant connections. It appears that they never met, but Shaw is one of the two artists Bentley is most identified with. (Bertolt Brecht is the other.) Bentley wrote that “perhaps I was the first to write a book on Shaw without ever having met him.” This is not actually so; H. L. Mencken (1880-1956) was the first, with George Bernard Shaw: His Plays (1905). Mencken never met Shaw either.

But Bentley has written extensively, and more significantly than Mencken, on Shaw. Aside from frequent references scattered throughout Bentley’s writing, there is the book Bernard Shaw (1947, amplified by additional material in 1957); an obituary, “Bernard Shaw Dead,” in In Search of Theater (1953); an essay, “Shaw in 1978,” in Thinking About the Playwright (1987); and a video interview about Shaw (also featuring the actor Philip Bosco) for the television program Theater Talk (PBS, 11 May 2011; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ws-oNJaCxes).

Of these works, in the video interview Bentley, sounding magisterial and rather British (he was born in England and migrated as a young adult to the United States) is particularly good on Shaw’s “feminism” and his handling of sexual and gender roles. His eulogy is a fine summary of Shaw at his best, and the 1978 essay of Shaw is an equally good commentary on Shaw at his worst, when he supported some of the most brutal dictators who have ever lived.

And then there’s the book Bernard Shaw. Shaw himself approved of it, writing (at the age of 91) that it was “the best critical description of my public activities I have yet come across.” In the foreword to the book, Bentley describes how his earlier ideas about Shaw – mostly unfavorable – came to seem insufficient to him, and how he determined to deal more thoroughly with Shaw’s complexities as an artist and a thinker.

The first time I read the book, some years ago, what impressed me the most was the complexity; I could hardly make heads or tails of it. I often simply could not understand what Bentley was saying. I’m sure I read the book with insufficient attention; I’m sure I’ve gained at least some sense of the context of the book since the first time I read it; and I’m sure I was partly thrown by Bentley’s completely unacademic approach to writing.

Bentley has said that he believes criticism should read like one person talking to another about something important to both of them, and that’s how he writes. Although Bentley was Brander Matthews Professor of Dramatic Literature at Columbia University for many years, in his books, unlike many academic writers, he doesn’t rely on the opinions of others; he doesn’t always back up his contentions with sources; he doesn’t base his conclusions on scholarly consensus. He considers himself an authority, and writes like one. And he feels no need merely to present a thesis, to defend it, and finally to summarize it, tying everything up neatly. If a subject is complex – and Shaw is a highly complex subject – then Bentley honors the complexity.

I imagine he learned much about this approach to writing from reading Shaw himself, who never hesitates to make bold assertions, to contradict himself when he feels it necessary, and to present himself as the final authority on many questions. How Shaw does these things, and why, make up much of the substance of Bentley’s book.

Obviously, then, there is much too much in the book for me to boil it down to a few pithy sentences. Nevertheless, I am going to take a slightly systematic approach here, listing a few of the things commonly said about Shaw’s work, and offering some of Bentley’s responses. I won’t always write that “Bentley says . . .” but I will indicate when I’ve drifted into my own opinions or phrasings. Unless otherwise identified, indented quotations are from Bentley, not Shaw.


Shaw was a socialist nearly all of his adult life, and he promotes his economic beliefs energetically in a number of books and prefaces, most systematically perhaps in his book An Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism (1928). Even there, however, he is not a typical “socialist writer,” and his work tends to make both socialists and Marxists nervous. He often emphasizes points that seem minor to other theoreticians, and dismisses points that others regard as major.

Shaw’s speech is “slanted” the wrong way. He does not include his audience in an embrace. He does not court the approving smirk of any group. Not content with “bewildering the bourgeois,” he bewilders the liberal too.

The reason for this (Bentley says) is that the essence of Shaw’s work is aesthetic and ethical. Shaw creates art with ethics as its subject.  This can be seen even in his writing about economics:

It was Ruskin who . . . argued that economics is not a realm of impersonal laws but a realm of human regulation, potentially a branch of human welfare. It was Ruskin who taught Shaw that there are only three ways of procuring wealth – working, begging, and stealing – and that capitalism condemns many to beg by allowing a few to steal.

This insight strikes me as a powerful one, and one that cuts across various economic theories. Shaw’s economic theory, then, is at heart an ethical one. And John Ruskin (1819-1900) was not primarily an economist, but an art critic! Ethics and aesthetics.

And it is remarkable how seldom socialism makes an overt appearance in Shaw’s plays. It frequently appears in his prefaces; but, Bentley points out, the prefaces were ordinarily written after the plays, taking themes from the plays and elaborating on them, but in ways the plays do not. Shaw mostly saves his promotional statements for his prefaces and speeches, letting his plays make his points by inference – one can almost say that his characters illustrate what Shaw feels must happen in a world in which socialism is not the rule.


This is one of the most frequent criticisms of Shaw’s dramaturgy, and some outstanding critics have made it. However, it’s so seldom true that it may be considered almost always false. Bentley does point out that “one of Shaw’s worst tendencies is to create characters who have no function except to illustrate a point” (for example, the Burglar in Too True To Be Good). However, even then, those characters are not necessarily mouthpieces for Shaw’s opinions.

In fact, one of Shaw’s most important qualities is “his unequalled gift of sympathizing with both sides.” Anyone who has acted in one of Shaw’s plays can testify to this. Perhaps the best known examples are the Inquisitor in St. Joan, whose speeches Shaw deliberately makes as plausible as Joan’s, and Undershaft, the capitalist prince in Major Barbara with an answer for everything.

One reason Shaw’s critics accuse him of being a puppeteer to his characters is that they talk so well. But, as Bentley points out, even in that respect, “. . . Shaw’s way is the dramatist’s way. For him ideas perform like characters. In aid of this special gift he re-introduces the pre-naturalistic convention that stage characters may be endowed with an artificial amount of self-consciousness.” Shaw’s characters do know, and articulate, a great many things about themselves that in “everyday life” they might not. (A vivid example is Alfred Doolittle in Pygmalion, with his acute awareness of his own social position.) But this does not mean they are speaking for Shaw; instead, “[In Shaw] every person is right from his own point of view.”

A good corrective for the idea that Shaw uses his plays as mouthpieces for his ideas is to read them again, and to read as many of them as possible. One then notices, as Bentley says, that “Shaw has seldom used his drama of ideas for the depicting of easy ideal solutions for hard real problems.”

In other words, Shaw is a real dramatist. His plays show people in emotional conflict. What’s more, as Bentley says, Shaw’s characters “hardly ever duplicate each other.” How could they? Shaw asserts “that man is primarily a feeling, not a thinking animal,” and he approaches his characters that way. Emotions are explosive and unpredictable.

Many great moments in Shaw’s plays occur when a character finds herself or himself behaving in a way that astonishes the character as much as it astonishes other people. Notable examples can be found at the conclusions of The Devil’s Disciple, Pygmalion, The Shewing-Up of Blanco Posnet, and the significantly titled Captain Brassbound’s Conversion. 

Even so, some say, Shaw’s characters may not be his mouthpieces, but nevertheless. . .


Which ideas? For example, Bentley points out, Shaw promotes, not one, but three different ideas on how the human species can be improved: eugenic breeding (Man and Superman), longevity (Back to Methuselah), racial triumph of non-Europeans (also Back to Methuselah, the Chinese in Part Three, “The Thing Happens”). “The remarkable thing,” Bentley says, “is the nonchalance with which each of these recipes is adopted and dropped.”

Does Shaw actually believe in the ideas he proposes? Only, says Bentley, to the extent that they help us to see ourselves as we are. In other words – my words – they are essentially poetic images, against which we can size up our own lives and our beliefs. With ideas, as with characters, Shaw is using them dramatically, as characters who help us see ourselves ethically:

[Shaw] communicates, not directly, but by impersonation.

When we ask what Shaw has been doing if he has not been contributing to philosophy, theology, or science, the answer is that he has been making a moral analysis of contemporary civilization.

If we take him too literally, we run the risk of missing his critique of our times. “The final conflict,” Shaw writes, “is not then between . . . scientific arguments, but between the cruel will and the humane will.”

Shaw has said many things which as they stand are not true. Yet he is much less deceiving than many writers with Truth on their sleeve and Facts in their filing cabinet. For he knows that the distinction is not between Truth and Untruth but between partial truth with one motive and partial truth with another.


Or is it rather science that can’t be trusted? Shaw clearly sees the limits of science, as he demonstrates vividly in The Doctor’s Dilemma, and in his fervent protests against animal vivisection. In Bentley’s words:

The new priest [the Scientist], moreover, is inferior to the old in two important respects. First, he has no help to offer either in morality or in that expansion and development of consciousness which is the fruit of “religious experience.” Second, his authority undermines itself by too frequent changes of doctrine: the cloak of infallibility sits ill on priests who change their minds.

Again, Shaw’s view of science, like his view of everything else, is ethical.

Bernard Shaw used to incur ridicule when he inferred that if you began by baking a dog for the furtherance of science you would end by baking your mother for the furtherance of science. Yet atrocities very like this were perpetuated in the German concentration camps. Again Shaw’s remark was extravagant; but again its extravagance was as nothing compared with the extravagance of what actually happened.


It is usually a mistake, in my opinion, to assume what a person’s religious beliefs “really” are, based on what they say they are. I have had a great deal of experience to the contrary. In the case of Shaw, Bentley points out that, again, Shaw’s “religious” beliefs frequently appear to change either in substance or in expression, for the reason that, again, he is not writing as a theologian but as an artist trying to get us to take a good look at ourselves.

The famous Shavian “life force,” for example, is sometimes presented as a conscious being, sometimes as a principle of natural evolution. “Shaw is not talking about God in the Christian sense but about human ethics. . . . It is chiefly a use of religious language” (italics mine). So “God” becomes “a symbol for the ideal,” “hell” the condition of living in poverty and ignorance.

There’s no question that Shaw was always fascinated by religion. (He did define the word more widely than many people do.) He was also an acute observer of its history. He lived in an era greatly influenced by the Enlightenment, and he saw its effects, which we can also see today:

When religion is mainly negative, the rejection of religion seems mainly positive, and men can be enthusiastic about a vacuum.

It’s exciting to throw off the shackles of old beliefs, but something will replace them. Bentley paraphrases Shaw:

Free thought has overthrown theology but, through doing so, has come to value reason too highly. In fact the whole weakness of free thought lies in its rationalism. A double weakness: it is weak in itself, and it fails to see the strength of its antagonist, religion. Once a free-thinker realizes that he has feelings and thoughts within him which science only pooh-poohs he will return to any church which claims these feelings and thoughts as its own.

Whatever the specifics of Shaw’s beliefs may have been, what he was not was a pessimist. Arthur Gelb and Barbara Gelb, in their outstanding biography O’Neill, point out that while Eugene O’Neill had children, O’Neill resolutely turned his back on the present and the future (and on his children), preferring to contemplate and emotionally live in the past; while Shaw, who was childless, faced resolutely towards the future.

Shaw prefers the optimist to the pessimist conclusion because he is alive and intends to go on living. He is interested only in a philosophy that one can accept as one’s philosophy of life. Pessimism is not such a philosophy because if one really believed it one would not wish to live at all. Optimism – at face value an attitude as arbitrary as pessimism – has more vitality because it is necessary to continued living. And that life should continue is a presupposition of all moral philosophy. On at least one occasion Shaw grants that pessimism has more to be said for it than optimism. But this only strengthens his main argument. If all the evidence is for dying and we go on living, then we are all the more compelled to accept existence “irrationally” as a wager.


This is certainly true, although it needs to be carefully examined. As I said above, Bentley is much harder on Shaw in his 1978 essay than he is in his book, where his main point is not to criticize Shaw’s sentimentality about dictators (although he does), but to illustrate that, as he says, Shaw frequently uses character names (Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin) as shorthand for ideas. In any case, the larger issue – Shaw would say it is larger – is that

Shaw has always been seeking, like Plato before him[,] a way of uniting wisdom and power.

If Shaw more than once mistook an actual disastrous human being for an ideal, so did Plato. It is ironic, though (and extremely painful), that Shaw fell into this trap, because a central element of his ethics is the distinction between the ideal and the real, a distinction he says he learned from Ibsen.

Bentley calls this distinction “the struggle of the inner light of genuine conscience and healthy impulse against conventional ethics,” and it’s a theme that recurs throughout Shaw’s writings as early as in Mrs. Warren’s Profession (written in 1893, although first produced in 1902), which presents prostitution not as a moral failing, but as an economic necessity. Our ideals and our realities are often quite different. Shaw uses the contrast as a rich source of comedy; one thinks, for example, of how disappointed his listeners are when the Swiss mercenary soldier in Arms and the Man admits that he fills his holster with chocolates, which he finds much more useful than bullets.

But Shaw also sees the tragedy in the dichotomy, since, he claims, we tend to build society on the misleading ideals rather than on the troublesome realities. Bentley points out Shaw’s “. . . increasing uneasiness over the gulf between theory and practice, talking and doing, right and might,” a theme that achieves tragic proportions in Major Barbara (1905) and Saint Joan (1923).


He did – he loved Shakespeare. But, as Bentley says, “Shaw is not a literary critic at all. . . . Shaw has not denied the existence of aesthetic criteria; he has only said that they are not paramount.”  In Shaw’s analysis of literature – for example, Shakespeare – Bentley explained:

Shaw is only discussing orders of morality. . . . His limitation is that he does not trouble to understand the drama of earlier periods on its own terms. He is merely disgusted by Webster and Congreve. . . . his complaining of the lack of philosophy and higher motive in (for example) the history plays [of Shakespeare] shows only that Shaw is judging Shakespeare by the standards of Ibsen. . . . Shaw is confessing that he likes only what Shakespeare has in common with Ibsen and is not interested in what he has in common with Webster. . . .

*  *  *  *

I hope I have provided enough examples to show that Bentley’s book on Shaw is provocative and worthwhile for more than just its insights on Shaw himself. My recent re-reading of the book has helped me get beyond my growing conviction that a great deal of what Shaw says is just plain wrong – that he is the Prince of Special Pleading. But, as Bentley points out, Shaw’s method is impersonation (he is a dramatist, after all) – he makes provocative statements and stands behind them. And, as Bentley does not point out, Shaw, an Irishman, is skilled in blarney.

Besides, Shaw’s spirit – I wonder if he would object to my putting it that way – shines through almost everything he writes, and it is bracing, challenging, and encouraging. As Bentley says,

He is one of the few important modern artists who have not been dismayed by their own estrangement. . . . Shaw declined the easy path of the disillusioned radical into pessimism or other-worldliness. His sense of catastrophe and failure is balanced by his genius for admiration and love.

[I met Bentley once—somehow I was invited to a birthday reception at Applause Books on the Upper West Side—his 70th, I think.  I have no idea how I got on the guest list, but I went anyway.  I remember chatting with Bentley—can you actually chat with Eric Bentley?—but I don't remember about what!

[I was at the time editing the in-house newsletter for a now defunct stage directors’ organization, the American Directors Institute.  ADI arranged conferences for directors and artistic directors with speakers and panel discussions, covering many topics of interest to its constituency.  ADI’s founder and artistic director, Geoffrey Shlaes, had invited Bentley to be the keynote speaker at one of those conferences, and he declined.  I wish I’d kept the two letters he wrote to Shlaes turning down the invitation, but I ran excerpts from it in Directors Notes in the Winter 1986 issue of that house newsletter.  with ADI’s members.  Among Bentley’s provocative thoughts, the theater writer wrote: “I don’t believe in a Director’s Theatre. . . .  No director is needed: the function is properly performed by either the playwright (Molière, Brecht) or the leading actor (Booth, Irving)” and “A constant irritant is the Nutty Production.  You set a story in another time and another place—the more inappropriate, the better.  That is how to make your name as a brilliant young director.”  He also declared that “while in technology there is progress, in the arts there is not; otherwise Arthur Miller would be a better playwright than Aeschylus.”  Along with his disparagement of directors, Bentley also called dramaturgs “Ph.D. gofers” and warned that he’d “remove [dramaturgs] one day before removing [directors].”]

[Eric Bentley . . . ever the iconoclast.

[As for the great playwright: he was easily one of my favorites as an actor.  In fact, I once declared that I hoped to do his plays all my life as he wrote parts for me from my young manhood right up until old age.  Things didn’t quite work out that way, but I still have an affinity for the plays.  In August 2006, my mother and I joined a group from Bethesda, Maryland’s Round House Theatre to travel to Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Canada, for the Shaw Festival.  The Shaw plays we saw there were Arms and the Man(my all-time favorite Shaw; Captain Bluntschliis one of the roles I always wanted to do) and Too True To Be Good, both of which get a mention in Kirk’s article.]


  1. My first comment disappeared into the aether. Will try to reconstruct it. A very high hat-off to Kirk Woodward for his impressively reasoned and argued resume' of Bentley's book, which, i not being a fan of Shaw, haven't read and wouldn't have known about. (I do and highly esteem Bentley's "The Thinker as Playwright," which appeared in its 4th edition in 2010.)

    1. Thanks, Robert. I'll make sure Kirk knows about this remark. (Sorry about the lost Comment; I'd have loved to see it.)