[From My Archives]* On Shaw, or How a Dead Playwright Transformed My Adolescence and Altered My Life

When I set out to do this essay, I realized that writing about George Bernard Shaw would be rather like writing about my first (real) love: a little daunting, a little dangerous and, ultimately, mostly about me, for we tend to see ourselves reflected in others as steadfastly as we implant ourselves firmly in what we read.

This was far from my mind, and years beyond my psychological grasp, when, at age eleven, I had my first encounter with the work of The Great Man while watching our newly installed cable television. I came across the 1941 film version of ‘Major Barbara’ on the Disney Channel. Starring Wendy Hiller, Rex Harrison and Deborah Kerr (in her film debut), I was entranced by the story of the upper-crust English girl who horrifies her family by joining the Salvation Army. Seemingly endlessly looped in rotation, I viewed it again and again, the black-and-white cinematography enhancing the idealism, as I saw it then, of the story. I was that girl, after all, in many ways, once you took away the English accent and the wealth. Any story, either on film or page, that I could throw myself into, head long, was all right with me.

At some point I realized that the film was based on a play, so off to the library I went. I came home with a volume of Shaw, slim and inconspicuous looking. If I was entranced with the film, I was positively enamored with the play. This was the start of a literary love affair that has followed me down the years, all twenty of them and counting. It shows no signs of abating, perhaps because we have been through too much together, Shaw and I, as I matured from girl to woman, reader to writer.

I was a prodigious reader, and reasonably precocious. I read everything that I could get my hands on, high or low. I had spent the previous summer reading bits of Shakespeare and Homer and teen romances by the boat load; for sixteen-year-olds were still the height of glamour to me no matter how many sonnets I read. Shaw changed that. While the ‘Sweet Valley High’ and ‘Sisters’ series still held their place in my blooming pre-teen heart, from this point on the classics ruled. I wanted to read every book written in the nineteenth-century and every novel to come out of Russia. Biographies of dead writers were like candy to me. Nothing much has changed. I’ve expanded my reading list to include books from several other centuries and countries and I read history voraciously.

Shaw was the impetus for this personal and, dare I say it, intellectual revolution. As I matured, I grew to appreciate his surly, sardonic wit coupled with a singularly bold and brilliant egoism. Perhaps this is because I possess something of a wild, untamable humour myself. This is, I think, hitting the nail fully on the head. To read things into the written words of others is human nature. We all do it. To find commonality with the writers themselves is a small grace. It satisfies the ego to know that we share qualities with “great” people. It makes us all human. Shaw was a vegetarian. So am I! It’s cool to identify but, having written that, Shaw was an individual. So am I! He helped put me on the path to finding my great passions (it’s no exaggeration to state that I would not be a writer were it not for him). I’m incredibly thankful for that as much as I’m grateful for the joy and challenge that reading his work still brings me. Yeah, dead writers still rule.

*This piece was first published in ‘The Atomic Tomorrow’.

Biographical Goods: George Bernard Shaw, an Irishman, was born in 1856. He wore many creative hats throughout his extraordinarily long career: novelist, critic, platform speaker, playwright, Nobel Prize winner and curmudgeonly celebrity. He was a socialist, Fabian, and vegetarian. His play ‘Pygmalion’ was morphed, decades later, into the highly successful musical ‘My Fair Lady’. He was a renowned wit and teetotaler who co-founded the London School of Economics. He died in 1950, aged 94.


George Bernard Shaw-The Man, the Legend, the Muse-Image via Wikipedia

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