I was delighted with the very warm welcome I received when I addressed the Shaw Society on links between Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw in London last week. Shaw features in my book Wilde’s Women but I added much more detail for the occasion. I have reproduced my script here (warning, it’s a long one!)
OSCAR WILDE AND GEORGE BERNARD SHAW FOR THE SHAW SOCIETY
27 OCTOBER 2016
Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw had much in common. Both Dubliners, born within twenty minutes walk of each other. Both of a similar age: Wilde was less than two years older than Shaw. Both inventive men who remained dogged in their questioning of the status quo. Together, they were recognised as the first Irish playwrights in decades to make an impact on the London stage
Yet, they were wildly different in both temperament and inclination, and, as a result, they developed no more than an uneasy and rather distant relationship. They never became close friends and met on only a handful of occasions, mostly by chance rather than arrangement. Despite this coolness, each held the other’s talent in high regard and both were influenced by ideas conceived by the other.
A little background information to start: George Bernard Shaw was born at 3 Upper Synge Street, in the lower-middle class Portobello district of Dublin city, on 26 July 1856. His father, George Carr Shaw, was an ineffectual, alcoholic civil-servant-turned-corn-merchant. His mother, Bessie, who was considerably younger than her husband, was a rather disillusioned and distant presence. An exceptionally accomplished singer, she introduced music into her son’s life.
At the time of Shaw’s birth, Wilde, aged 22 months, was living twenty minutes walk away at 1 Merrion Square, an opulent residence described by his mother, Jane, who, as Speranza, was a significant literary figure in her native city, as having ‘fine rooms and the best situation in Dublin’. Wilde’s father, Dr. William Wilde was an eminent eye and ear surgeon, and an accomplished author with a keen interest in history and folklore. He was also reckless with money and a notorious philanderer who was involved in a sex scandal, the Travers affair, which broke his spirit.
Although there is no record of them ever meeting in Dublin, Shaw was certainly aware of the brilliant, flamboyant Wilde family. In ‘My Memories of Oscar Wilde’, the biographical portrait he contributed to Frank Harris’s Oscar Wilde, His Life and Confessions’ (1916), he describes his first encounter with William and Jane Wilde:
I was a boy at a concert in the Antient Concert Rooms in Brunswick Street in Dublin. Everybody was in evening dress; and – unless I am mixing up this concert with another (in which case I doubt if the Wildes would have been present) – the Lord Lieutenant was there with his blue waistcoated courtiers. Wilde was dressed in snuffy brown; and he had the sort of skin that never looks clean, he produced a dramatic effect beside Lady Wilde (in full fig) of being, like Frederick the Great, Beyond Soap and Water, as his Nietzschean son was beyond Good and Evil. He was currently reported to have a family in every farmhouse; and the wonder was that Lady Wilde didn’t mind – evidently a tradition from the Travers case, which did not know about until I read your account, as I was only eight in 1864.
Shaw also recalled:
Sir William Wilde…operated on my father to correct a squint, and overdid the corrections so much that my father squinted the other way all the rest of his life.
The explanation for Shaw’s early presence in the Antient Concert Rooms may be that this was the venue used by his mother’s music teacher George John Vandeleur Lee to stage his Amateur Musical Society concerts. In fact, one of Lee’s best-known singers was Bessie Shaw. Incidentally, years later, Shaw appeared on that stage too, as a speaker rather than a singer.
In 1873, when Shaw was almost sixteen, Bessie moved to London with Lee, taking her daughters with her. Lucinda, always called Lucy, the oldest child, became a successful music hall singer. Elinor, the middle child, died of TB in a sanatorium on the Isle of Wight on 27 March 1876. Shaw remained with his father in Dublin, to complete his education and afterwards, worked as an office boy for a land agent, a job he hated. He considered his expertise in literature, theatre and music as hard won when compared to the privileged start enjoyed by Wilde, who had the finest education and moved within rarefied circles from childhood.
In April 1876, Shaw joined his mother and surviving sister in London. In November of that year he was invited to Lady Wilde’s home at Park Street – she had moved to London after the death of her husband. Shaw speculated that Lady Wilde took an interest in him as the brother of Lucy Shaw, who may have been popular with the Wilde boys. He wrote: ‘The explanation must be that my sister, then a very attractive girl who sang beautifully, had met and made some sort of innocent conquest of both Oscar and Willie.’ At that time, Wilde was an undergraduate at Magdalen College, Oxford, taking a degree in literæ Humaniores, or Greats.
Shaw was grateful for Lady Wilde’s kindness and patronage at a difficult time in his life – he was working part-time at the Edison phone company and spending his free time in the reading room of the British Museum attempting to write novels. ‘Lady Wilde was nice to me in London,’ he remembered:
during the desperate days between my arrival in 1876 and my earning of an income by my pen in 1885, or until a few years earlier when I threw myself into socialism and cut myself contemptuously loose from everything of which her “At Homes“ themselves desperate affairs enough ‘were part.
Shaw met Wilde at one of Lady Wilde’s gatherings, an encounter he recalled with mixed emotions. Wilde, he wrote:
…came and spoke to me with an evident intention of being specially kind to me. We put each other out frightfully; and this odd difficulty persisted between us to the very last, even when we were no longer mere boyish novices and had become men of the world with plenty of skill in social intercourse. I saw him very seldom [Shaw recalled possibly between six and twelve’s times from first to last], as I avoided literary and artistic coteries like the plague….
As Shaw developed an interest in socialism, he began to avoid invitations to Lady Wilde’s gatherings, but he met Wilde elsewhere. The first mention of Wilde recorded in his diary is in September 1886, when both were guests at the home of Irish novelist and historian Joseph Fitzgerald Molloy. Wilde, who was also interested in socialism, but had his own distinctive take which differed greatly from Shaw’s and was rooted in individualism, reportedly listened somewhat sympathetically to Shaw’s plans for the establishment of a socialist magazine, although it is also reported that he teased him about its name.
However grudgingly, Shaw admired Wilde. Praising ‘Oscar’s wonderful gift as a raconteur’, he recalled an enjoyable day they spent in each other’s company. What also drew Shaw to Wilde was gratitude when he alone signed Shaw’s petition of 1887 requesting that those involved in the Haymarket riots in Chicago in May 1886 be reprieved. Afterwards, he wrote:
It was a completely disinterested act on his part; and it secured my distinguished consideration for him for the rest of his life.
In November 1887, Shaw wrote in his diary that he ‘had a talk with Wilde’ at Lucy Shaw’s wedding tea at St. John’s Church.
The careers of both Irishmen followed a similar trajectory. As both wrote anonymous reviews for the Pall Mall Gazette, it seems Wilde’s submissions, three to four per month, were occasionally misattributed to Shaw, and vice-versa (Shaw confirmed this to biographer and editor David J O’Donoghue). Shaw would surely not have minded, since he admired Wilde’s style, describing it as ‘exceptionally finished in style and very amusing’.
As a book reviewer, Shaw reviewed Lady Jane Wilde’s Ancient Legends of Ireland in July 1888, and concluded that ‘probably no living writer could produce a better book of its kind’ – faint praise that may have reflected gratitude for her kindness despite his lack of interest in her subject. He also insisted that her ‘position, literary, social and patriotic’ was ‘unique and unassailable’.
On 6 July 1888, Wilde attended a meeting of the Fabian Society in Willis’s Rooms. There, he listened to artist Walter Crane, who had illustrated his The Happy Prince and Other Tales, published just a few weeks before. Crane spoke on “The Prospects of Art under Socialism.” Wilde’s attendance was reported in evening newspaper the Star, as was Shaw’s:
Mr. Oscar Wilde, whose fashionable coat differed widely from the picturesque bottle-green garb in which he appeared in earlier days, thought that the art of the future would clothe itself not in works of form and colour but in literature…. Mr. Shaw agreed with Mr. Wilde that literature was the form which art would take….
Although Shaw, writing to Frank Harris, claimed it was a talk he had delivered that influenced ‘The Soul of man Under Socialism’, several of his biographers, among them Stanley Weintraub and Karl Beckson, believe it was this lecture by Crane combined with a discussion Wilde had with Shaw afterwards.
Of course Shaw and Wilde are recognised primarily as playwrights nowadays. Recognising a connection between their works, in 1893, Wilde initiated a pattern by sending Shaw a copy of Lady Windermere’s Fan, with the inscription “Op 1 of the Hibernian School, London ’93”. He also sent a copy of the French version of Salomé in February 1893, but excluded this from the Hibernian School, reciprocation for Shaw’s gift of his The Quintessence of Ibsenism, about which Wilde wrote:
…your little book on Ibsenism and Ibsen is such a delight to me that I constantly take it up, and always find it stimulating and refreshing: England is the land of intellectual fogs but you have done much to clear the air: we are both Celtic, and I like to think that we are friends….
In this letter Wilde also praised Shaw’s opposition to theatre censorship. As Salomé had just been refused a licence, this was a very welcome stance on the part of his countryman.
When Salomé went astray, Shaw was prompted to write:
Salome is still wandering in her purple raiment in search of me and I expect her to arrive a perfect outcast, branded with inky stamps, bruised by flinging into red prison [PO] vans, stuffed and contaminated by herding with review books…I hope to send you soon my play Widowers’ Houses which you will find tolerably amusing.
He did indeed reciprocate with Op 2, his first play, Widowers’ Houses, in May 1983. Wilde responded with a letter:
I have read it twice with the keenest interest. I like your superb confidence in the dramatic value of the mere facts of life. I admire the horrible flesh and blood of your creatures, and your preface is a masterpiece – a real masterpiece of trenchant writing and caustic wit and dramatic instinct.
Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance became Op 3, while Arms and the Man became Op 4 – Wilde attended the first night in April 1894. They got as far as Op 5, An Ideal Husband, which Shaw reviewed for Frank Harris’s Saturday Review, disagreeing with the assertion of sneering critics that Wildean ‘epigrams can be turned out by the score by any one light-minded enough to condescend to such frivolity’. ‘As far as I can ascertain,’ he went on, ‘I am the only person in London who cannot sit down and write an Oscar Wilde play at will’.
In a certain sense Mr Wilde is our only thorough playwright. He plays with everything: with wit, with philosophy, with drama, with actors and audience, with the whole theatre.
Undoubtedly, Shaw had a high opinion of Wilde’s talent. In an interview with The Star, published on 29 November 1992, he described Wilde as ‘unquestionably the ablest of our [Irishmen’s] dramatists’. When Lady Colin Campbell, who succeeded Shaw as art critic of the World, expressed dislike for A Woman of No Importance, Shaw insisted that Wilde’s epigrams were far superior to the “platitudes” of other dramatists and informed her:
There are only two literary schools in England today: the Norwegian school and the Irish school. Our school is the Irish school; and Wilde is doing us good service in teaching the theatrical public that “a play” may be a playing with ideas instead of a feast of sham emotions…. No, let us be just to the great white caterpillar: he is no blockhead and he finishes his work, which puts him high above his rivals here in London…. (May 1893)
The remark commonly attributed to Wilde that Shaw ‘has no enemies, but is intensely disliked by all his friends’ originates with W.B. Yeats who regarded Shaw as a ‘cold-blooded Socialist’. It is a version of a quote from Dorian Gray. Yet Shaw seemed to accept it as genuine, and told Ellen Terry in 25 September 1896: ‘Oscar Wilde said of me “An excellent man: he has no enemies; and none of his friends like him”‘.
Shortly before the ill-fated action for libel Wilde took against the Marquess of Queensberry began, Shaw encountered him while lunching with Frank Harris at the Cafe Royal. Wilde expressed unhappiness with Shaw’s poor review of The Importance of Being Earnest, and fell out with Harris when he attempted to persuade him to drop the libel case. In 1950, months before his death, Shaw revisited Earnest in a letter to playwright St. John Ervine, describing it as ‘a mechanical cat’s cradle farce without a single touch of human nature in it’. Claiming that he was present at ‘all the Wilde first nights’, he summed up by writing:
It amused me by its stage tricks (I borrowed the best of them) but left me unmoved and even a bit bored and quite a lot disappointed.
Weintraub saw traces of Earnest in Shaw’s You Never Can Tell, which had ‘something of Wilde in it’, specifically he believed, ‘the wordplay on earnestness is too pervasive to be coincidence’. In Man and Superman (1903), Shaw writes: “There are two tragedies in life. One is to lose your heart’s desire. The other is to gain it.” In Lady Windermere’s Fan, Wilde had written: “In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.” In Major Barbara (1905), Shaw’s imperious Lady Britomart bares a close resemblance to Wilde’s Lady Bracknell.
After Wilde was imprisoned, Shaw drafted a petition to the Home Secretary asking that he be released. He discussed its circulation with Wilde’s brother Willie, but the brothers were estranged and Willie, showing little enthusiasm, quipped, according to Shaw: ‘Oscar was NOT a man of bad character: you could have trusted him with a woman anywhere’. Disheartened, Shaw concluded that, since only he and the Reverend Stuart Headlam had signed, it would be of little use ‘as we were two notorious cranks and our names alone would make the thing ridiculous and do Oscar more harm than good’.
Instead, contrary to press policy, Shaw went out of his way to praise Wilde’s work and keep his name in the public eye. Reviewing a minor play by Charles Hawtrey in which Charles Brookfield had a minor role, both men had conspired against Wilde, in the Saturday Review in October 1896, Shaw compared it to ‘the comedies of Mr. Wilde, and insisted: ‘Mr. Wilde has creative imagination, philosophic humour, and original wit, besides being a master of language, whilst Mr. Hawtrey observes, mimics and derides quite thoughtlessly’. In 1897, when it was suggested in literary periodical the Academy that an Academy of Letters be founded, Shaw wrote a letter to the editor suggesting that only Henry James and Oscar Wilde deserved to be nominated. The academy never materialised. Later, Shaw defended Wilde in a lengthy open letter to New York anarchist publication Liberty.
When Wilde was living in Paris after his release from prison, Shaw made a point of sending him his work as it was published and Wilde reciprocated. Shaw’s last contact with Wilde was when the latter sent him an inscribed copy of the Ballad of Reading Gaol from Paris in 1898. In 1905, five years after Wilde’s death, when his prison letter appeared as De Profundis, Robert Ross sent a copy to Shaw. Although Shaw wrote in his biography of Harris: ‘We all dreaded to read de Profundis’, he had a high opinion of it and wrote to thank Ross:
It is really an extraordinary book, quite exhilarating and amusing as to Wilde himself, and quite disgraceful & shameful to his stupid tormentors. There is pain in it, inconvenience, annoyance, but no unhappiness, no real tragedy, all comedy. The unquenchable spirit of the man is magnificent: he maintains his position & puts society squalidly in the wrong – rubs into them every insult & humiliation he endured – comes out the same man he went in – with stupendous success.
Throughout his life, Shaw was asked to comment on Wilde but he generally refused. In his 1918 preface to Frank Harris’s Oscar Wilde: His Life and Confessions titled “My Memories of Oscar Wilde” (actually, a letter, to which Harris added the title and edited the contents, Shaw, rather bizarrely attributed Wilde’s fate to his size, writing: ‘I have always maintained that Oscar was a giant in the pathological sense and that this explains a good deal of his weaknesses’. An odd comment since, although Wilde was well above average height at 6’ 3”, Shaw was almost 6’ 2”.
During the 1930s, Shaw collaborated with Lord Alfred Douglas on a biography of Frank Harris, and the two corresponded. Shaw told Douglas:
I think Wilde took you both [Harris and Douglas] in by the game he began to amuse himself [with] in prison: the romance of the ill treated hero and the cruel false friend.
He also wrote:
The Queensberry affair was your tragedy and, comparatively, Wilde’s comedy’. In a sense this inverts a line from de Profundis: ‘I thought life was going to be a brilliant comedy, and that you were to be one of many graceful figures in it. I found it to be a revolting and repellent tragedy…
In 1940, in a response to an anonymous review of Lord Alfred Douglas’s Oscar Wilde: a Summing Up in the TLS, Shaw wrote to the editor of the Times Literary Supplement discussing the legalities of the case, since this reviewer had stated that Douglas was misled by Shaw in his assessment of Wilde’s conviction. In an interesting commentary regarding the distinction between ‘vice and crime’, Shaw wrote the following:
Oscar Wilde, being a convinced pederast, was entirely correct to his plea of Not Guilty; but he was lying when he denied the facts; and the jury, regarding pederasty as abominable, quite correctly found him Guilty.
He gives no indication as to his own view, merely confines himself to commentary on the law.
According to H. Montgomery Hyde, when reviewing Wilde’s short life, Shaw, who clearly felt some fellowship with Wilde based on their shared nationality declared:
It must not be forgotten that though by culture Wilde was a citizen of all civilized capitals, he was at root a very Irish Irishman, and, as such, a foreigner everywhere but in Ireland.
Previously, he had defended Wilde’s controversial congratulating of the audience after Lady Windermere’s Fan as ‘an Irishman’s way of giving all the credit to the actors and effacing his own claims as author’. He also condemned the critics’ dismissal of An Ideal Husband by claiming that an Englishman ‘can no more play with wit and philosophy than he can with a football or a cricket bat’. He attributed Wilde’s refusal to run from his trials to his ‘fierce Irish pride’.
Oscar Wilde died in Paris on 30 November 1900. Writing to Harris sixteen years later, Shaw concluded:
I am sure Oscar has not found the gates of heaven shut against him; he is too good company to be excluded; but he can hardly have been greeted as, “Thou good and faithful servant’.
An affectionate summation of a man he admired but never loved.