[Marxism] A guide to G.B. Shaw on home video

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Mar 23 11:50:39 MDT 2009

A George Bernard Shaw Retrospective

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

(Swans - March 23, 2009)   As Charles Marowitz observes in this special 
edition of Swans on GB Shaw, his plays are rarely performed nowadays. As 
a film critic, I was interested to see what was available on home video 
especially since reading Richard Seymour's The Liberal Defence of Murder 
for a Swans review left me with an unresolved attitude toward Shaw. 
Despite the playwright's socialist politics, Seymour makes the case that 
he was closer to Christopher Hitchens than he was to Swans, pointing to 
a passage in Shaw's Fabianism and the Empire that calls for better 
management of the Empire rather than ending it:

"Our concern in this Manifesto is not specially for the wage-earning 
class, which is taking its own course and reaping only what it has sown, 
but for the effective social organization of the whole Empire, and its 
rescue from the strife of classes and private interests."

Shaw's plays represented a dual challenge to me. Were they the 
masterpieces that my high school teachers insisted they were (Shaw was 
not taught in my college at all)? Were they weak politically despite 
Shaw's socialist reputation? As it turns out, these questions could not 
be answered with a simple yes or no. It is far easier to answer another 
question, which is whether his works still have the capacity to 
entertain and inspire. On this, I can offer an emphatic yes. On the 
politics, one can say that Shaw was limited by his Fabian preconceptions 
but since his plays dealt with class contradictions inside Great Britain 
rather than relations with the colonial world, they are not only 
unobjectionable but positively inspiring. Nobody hated the class system 
more than Shaw, at least those making their living as writers -- that 
is, until the Great Depression turned a whole new generation of writers 
against the decaying social system.

Before launching into a discussion of the six videos I managed to take 
in, let me make a few observations about Shaw as artist. The first thing 
that struck me was how so many different genres appear to be influenced 
by Shaw, from the screwball comedies of the 1930s to PBS Masterpiece 
Theater's "Upstairs, Downstairs." As a shrewd observer of the social 
conventions of the rich and the poor, he found their conflict an endless 
source of artistic inspiration even as he was on record for calling for 
their abolition. Perhaps there is no British playwright who has a better 
knack for mining both the foibles and the strengths of the servant class 
than Shaw -- except of course for Shakespeare.

The other thing worth noting is Shaw's linguistic gifts. Listening to 
his dialog is a reminder of how much Anglo-American culture has declined 
since the 19th century. Just as there will never be another Beethoven, 
there will never be another Shaw. His ability to find the perfect turn 
of phrase for the occasion was obviously the outcome of his exposure to 
great British literature. Anybody who has read Jane Austen will be 
struck by Shaw's flair for the ironic observation. Furthermore, when you 
see some of the more inspired screwball comedies of the 1930s, you will 
recognize immediately that a Preston Sturges not only read his GB Shaw 
both in high school and in college, but absorbed the literary and 
dramatic style completely. Nowadays, in the decline of Western 
civilization across the board, a Hollywood screenwriter is more likely 
to have learned his craft by watching television situation comedies.

Except for Devil's Disciple, all of the videos under review are 
available as DVDs from Netflix and among them all but Pygmalion 
originated as BBC teleplays. Devil's Disciple is available on VHS at 
video stores still stocking them, as well as public libraries. As a rule 
of thumb, the BBC productions are hampered by their "stagy" character 
but distinguished by the quality of the acting, including performances 
by John Gielgud and Maggie Smith.

full: http://www.swans.com/library/art15/lproy53.html

More information about the Marxism mailing list