Published: February 2005
George Bernard Shaw was a novelist, a journalist, a polemicist, a socialist, a forthright quipster, and a Nobel Prize-winning playwright. His name, in his time, was second to Shakespeare’s. His plays, in the early 20th century, were widely performed.
Born in Dublin, Ireland in 1856 to a failed corn-merchant and a professional singer, Shaw was an emotionally neglected child who received minimal schooling, and his intellectual and artistic curiosity received no encouragement from his family. In literature, as in all of his interests, he was self-taught. As a young man, he moved to London, where, for 10 years, he found only intermittent employment and little success as a writer. He spent the bulk of his days in the gas-lit library at the British Museum, writing fiction no one would publish, and eventually, nonfiction that earned higher public regard. Gradually, he built up a reputation as a reviewer of books, plays, art, and music. He began to make a living for himself in several periodicals under the name “Corno di Bassetto”—’basset horn’ in Italian—a low-pitched clarinet, that, according to Shaw, “the devil himself could not make…sparkle.” By 1895, he had dropped the pseudonym, and become a leading theater critic for the Saturday Review under the now-famous initials “GBS.”
London, in the late 19th century, was rife with debating clubs and radical societies, and Shaw befriended several progressive-minded intellectuals. The British Museum’s Library—then frequented by activist scholars and political zealots—served not only as his office, but as a salon of sorts, where Shaw socialized, discussed, and cemented his radical politics. By the 1880s, he had become both an ardent socialist who pushed for political reforms, and an outspoken newspaper critic who called for political engagement in the arts. He was a fervent advocate of the “new theater” of Ibsen, and at age 37, he wrote his first play, Widowers’ Houses. Over the next five decades, 50 scripts were to follow and by the turn of the century, Shaw’s works, and time, were in international demand.
Two years ago, Boston College’s John J. Burns Library acquired what London’s Sunday Times called “one of the world’s most important collections” of materials by, about, and belonging to, Shaw. Manuscripts, photographs, cartoons, and letters reveal a cranky, vegetarian, health-obsessed, literary dynamo whose wit still delights, even if his political theories and messages now seem retrograde and occasionally offensive.
For almost 50 years, the collection of 3,400 items belonged to Samuel Freedman, a rare book and manuscript dealer from western Massachusetts. Freedman began his search for Shaviana in the 1950s after discovering an original proof of Shaw’s one act, Overruled—one of only 25 copies ever printed—in a New York City antiquarian bookshop. The proof included a slipcase with Shaw’s inscription, “The original title was Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted, but an American playwright got in beforehand with it; and I changed it.”
Originally a collector of Mark Twain material, as well as the occasional Auden, O’Casey, Miller, Beardsley, and Hemingway piece, Freedman was taken with his Shavian find, and embarked on a hunt for any, and every, piece of relevant material. Over years of dedicated searching, he accrued what amounted to a magpie’s nest of a collection, built from odds and ends that reveal the life and character of one of Western literature’s most distinct, refined, and influential voices.
The exhibit, titled Mr. Shaw’s Time is Filled Up for Months to Come, will be on display in the Burns Library until March 31, 2005.