Tuesday, November 2, 2010

GBS dines out

It’s sixty years to the day since the death of the great Irish playwright and social commentator, George Bernard Shaw, often called just GBS. He was a prolific and famous writer in his day, a celebrity in fact, and remains the only person to have been awarded a Nobel Prize (for Literature) and an Oscar (for the screen adaptation of his play Pygmalion). For a decade or so, when a young man, Shaw kept diaries, though they were lost for many years, and not published until the 1980s. A few extracts - that focus on his vegetarianism, and on the poet Shelley, a vegetarian hero of his - can be found online.

Shaw was born in Dublin in 1856, the son of a civil servant. He had a haphazard education, but remained in Dublin after his mother had moved to London, and worked in an estate office. However, in 1876, he too moved to London to join his mother’s household, which provided him with enough money to live without working while he tried to become a writer. He wrote novels, which weren’t published, and ghosted a music column, before becoming more successful with his journalism, especially for Pall Mall Gazette. By the early 1880s, he had become a committed socialist, and was a charter member of the Fabian Society, formed to promote socialism, and a founder member of the London School of Economics.

Influenced by the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, whose realist theatre shocked Victorian society, Shaw turned his attention to plays, the first of which were produced in the 1890s, plays such as Mrs Warren’s Profession, Arms and the Man and Candida. By the end of the decade, he had established himself as a leading playwright. He had also married, Charlotte Payne-Townshend, an Irish heiress and fellow Fabian. In 1906 they moved into a house, now called Shaw’s Corner, in Ayot St Lawrence, a small village in Hertfordshire, where they lived for the rest of their lives.

Many significant plays followed in the period before the First World War - including Major Barbara, The Doctor’s Dilemma, and Pygmalion - usually dealing with political, social or moral issues and almost always full of comedy and or verbal wit. And after the war, Shaw’s status as a playwright continued to grow with plays such as Heartbreak House, Back to Methuselah, and The Apple Cart. In 1925 he was awarded the Nobel prize for literature; and in 1939 he won an Academy Award for adapting Pygmalion for a 1938 film screenplay directed by Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard.

Although some of his later plays were overwrought with discussion and argument to the detriment of the drama, he remained a household name and public figure through to his 90s and his death on 2 November 1950 - sixty years ago today. For more biographical information see Wikipedia, British Library or the Nobel Prize or Spartacus Educational websites.

Between 1885 and 1897, Shaw kept a journal writing about his day-to-day life in brief and in a style of shorthand. However, these diaries were lost in his lifetime, and only resurfaced after the war in a bombed warehouse. Then, in the years before his death, they were partially transcribed by his long-time secretary, Blanche Patch. Thereafter, others were involved in the same task until Stanley Weintraub, one of the leading scholars on Shaw, completed, what Penn State University Press described as, the ‘definitive transcription of the Shavian shorthand, complete to the last ha’penny noted’. This was published by PSU Press in the mid-1980s, in two volumes with extensive annotations by Weintraub, as Bernard Shaw - The Diaries.

In the diaries, according to the PSU Press blurb: ‘We not only meet Shaw striving daily to make something of himself; we also encounter the people on the fringes as well as within the vortex of radical politics in late Victorian England. . . We also learn what it costs to buy a newspaper, get a haircut, ride the Underground [etc. and] about Shaw’s bedtimes (accompanied and unaccompanied), mealtimes (hasty and vegetarian, with only breakfasts at home), and his crowded life of conflicting appointments and activities often so overlapping as to cause him to miss many of them.’

An extensive collection of very brief (and doubly annotated!) extracts from the diaries can be found on the website of the International Vegetarian Union (IVU), which says this: ‘There were almost daily references to restaurants visited, showing that Shaw seems to have had no problem finding vegetarian food in London, where there were dozens of vegetarian restaurants - his only real problems were in Germany and Italy. He made very frequent visits to several vegetarian restaurants, detailed below, and to many other restaurants and cafes of varying quality, but never any mention of any problems with them.’

Here are a few extracts, which either focus on vegetarianism or on Shaw’s love of Shelley, who was also vegetarian. The first extract is as found on the IVU website (i.e with lots of annotations, some from the book, and some additional ones). The others are also from the IVU website, but without many of the annotations.

19 July 1885
‘Sunday. Joynes’s at Tilford. (9.5 train from Waterloo. - With the Salt’s and Joynes at Tilford. Bathed, tricycled, walked, played, sang and back at Waterloo at 21.45. (Henry Stephens Salt, ex-master of Eton, socialist, vegetarian, founder of the Humanitarian League, biographer of Thoreau [though most of that came a lot later] His attractive but lesbian wife Catherine, a sister of James Leigh Joynes, acted as occasional unpaid secretary for Shaw and enjoyed playing pianoforte duets with him on the Salt grand on his visits to Tilford.) [this is the first mention of Salt in the diaries, but it implies that they already knew each other well.]

6 July 1886
‘Cocoa etc. at Orange Grove’

10 February 1888
‘I unexpectedly made a row by objecting to a smoking concert.’ [Most vegetarians were anti-tobacco.]

6 November 1888
‘When I got to Birmingham I went to a vegetarian restaurant in Paradise St. and dined.’

13 March 1889
‘Read a paper on ‘Shelley’s Politics’ to the Shelley Society, at University College. . . worked all afternoon at the Shelley lecture. There were only half a dozen people there.’

10 January 1891
‘. . . we dined at the Porridge Bowl together.’

27 January 1891
‘. . . had tea together at the Aerated Bread Shop at the corner of Parliament Square.’

10 February 1892
‘Was commissioned by the Shelley Committee to take a hand in business of getting a cast for the performance of The Cenci.’ [This was to be a private performance of the Shelley play about incest which had been banned from public showing.]

6 August 1892
‘Worked so hard at the article on Shelley for The Albermarle in the train that I felt quite sick during the last 15 minutes of the journey.’

1 July 1893
‘Art and Literature Dinner at the Mansion House. Left the Mansion House with Norman, with whom I walked to Blackfriars. I could not eat; my feelings as a musician and vegetarian were too much for me; and save for some two or three pounds of ice pudding I came away empty.’

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