George Bernard Shaw

‘Should Theatres be Municipalised?’

Bernard Shaw’s speech at the Whitefriars Club Dinner, 16th February 1906
From Whitefriars Journal, vol. III, no. 2, April 1906, pp. 23-24.

Mr George Bernard Shaw was the Club guest on February 16th, and there was an unusually large attendance, the company numbering about ninety. Friar Clement Shorter acted as Prior for the evening. The topic of conversation was ‘Should Theatre be Municipalised?’ Mr Shaw said Yes. He declared that he had nothing more to say, and at once proceeded to make a singularly fluent speech, full of paradox and epigram. He spoke of actor-managers and of the percentage of profit accruing from successful plays. The stage movement, he said, was analogous to the literary movement. When he began writing it was at a time when everybody, owing to free education, was becoming literary. That was a very different thing from becoming educated, so the man who wrote for educated people did not take with the general public. Mr Sutro could do other things that The Walls of Jericho, and an endowed theatre therefore became a necessity for Mr Sutro and himself, Mr Shaw. The municipalised stage would not interfere with ordinary theatrical enterprise or the popularity of musical comedy: but the London County Council should endow a theatre for the support of the serious play. When the best serious plays could be enjoyed in Vienna at a charge of three-pence admission to the gallery, owing to a subsidy, he did not see why the same thing should not obtain in London. In Vienna his, Mr Shaw’s, plays did not draw. Why? Because they were too good to be popular. So they were placed in the classical repertoire, and in that way given a hearing. He wanted to see classical plays, as good as his own, played frequently in London.

Friar Alfred Sutro moved that the after-dinner proceedings should be extended beyond the usual time, and this being agreed to, the discussion was continued by Mr G. E. Morrison, Mr J. B. Mulholland, Mr Mostyn Piggott, Dr Kimmins, Mr Fredk Wheland, the Rev. F. A. Russell, and Friars, Richard Whiteing, Robert Donald and Gilbert Coleridge. The arguments and remarks were carefully reviewed by Mr Bernard Shaw in a long and amusing speech. Referring to the remark that Dickens could not have written a good play, he disagreed, he said, because Dickens was nothing if not dramatic. To say that Dickens’s characters were not dramatic on the stage was absurd. Why, several of his, Mr Shaw’s, best characters in his most successful plays had been cribbed from Dickens. His last words to all playwrights when hard up for ideas or characters were, ‘Go to the Dickens!’

To this rather short report in the Journal should be added recollections of this dinner by Friar J. A. Hammerton (1871-1949, described by the Dictionary of National Biography as ‘the most successful creator of large-scale works of reference that Britain has known’, published in his Other Things than War. Musings and Memories (London: Macdonald, 1943, pp. 25-27, 29).

On Friday, February 16, 1906, I happened to be one of a small company gathered in a Fleet Street club room, where we dined and wined worthily while our distinguished guest ate his apples and lettuce, before listening to an address by Bernard Shaw, whose dislike of the baptismal George had not yet led to its suppression. Those of the company present who still survive, if their memory is as retentive as mine, will endorse my account of the amusing incident which, more than the brilliant sense and blatant egotism of the speaker, made the evening memorable to me. Shaw, who was to state the case for a national theatre, had a good deal to say about an English dramatist who could be emulated by a cat and whose plays, compared with his own, figured in the repertory of the state theatre at Berlin as one to five, or in some such disparity. We were getting used to that sort of talk from him even in 1906. In the discussion which followed one of the speakers was Mostyn Piggott, noted in his day as a ready-witted and challenging after-dinner orator. Piggott alone of those present was in full evening dress, it being the custom of the fraternity to dine in ‘morning dress’, or ‘lounge suits’, which had but recently displaced the old frock-coat. Piggott apologised for his dress clothes needlessly, as several of our members being dramatic critics had occasionally to be garbed for a theatre engagement following out early club dinner and had to dine in the uniform of the dress circle and stalls. But he made a slanting dig at our famous guest, while caressing his flowing Victorian moustache of ruddy hue, by stating that the reason for his expanse of white shirt front and his ‘tails’ was that he had to proceed to one of the theatres as soon as he had finished his brief contribution to the discussion in order to assist, as the French put it, at the first night of the revival of a play by the despised English dramatist referred to by the guest of the evening in such terms of invidious comparison with himself: ‘a play that has enjoyed thousands of revivals in all parts of the world and in all civilized tongues during the more than 300 years that have gone by since it was first produced.’

Immediately after touching off this squib, Piggott had to leave the dinner table, and it was fortunate for him that he went, else his face would have been not less red than his hair if he had stayed to hear the Shavian response. This I shall endeavour to summarize in something like Shaw’s own words, but with no suggestion that I can do more than give an impression of his Tommy-gun answer to the squib.

‘When I was still a hard-up dramatic critic on the Saturday Review, I was asked one day by Mr R. B. Haldane if I’d care to meet two or three friends of his at dinner in his flat in Whitehall Court: Mr Asquith, Mr Arthur Balfour, and one or two others. A men’s party. On my accepting he said (doubtless out of consideration for my impecunious condition) “Don’t trouble to dress”. Now this presented me with no small problem, for the only decent suit I possessed at that time was an evening one needed for my work as a theatre critic. My two everyday suits were shabby in the extreme, but as such they were the best my limited means enabled me to obtain. If he had only said nothing at all about “not dressing” I could have gone in my swallow-tails with the best of them! But here I was forced to buy a new reefer suit in blue, which I could ill afford, just to go “not dressed” and that fine swallow-tail get-up lying there asking to be worn. Well, you can imagine my astonishment when I stepped into the lift a Whitehall Court to bump into Mr Asquith complete with snowy white front and full evening dress. Still, I thought that Mr Haldane might have forgotten to tell him not to dress and Mr Asquith had assumed there would be no departure from the regular society custom of the time. But when we stepped out at Mr Haldane’s landing and the door was opened to us, I was amazed to see our host himself coming across the hall to greet us in full evening dress. This I thought the unkindest cut, for I had expected my host at least would keep me in countenance; and already arrived, garbed like the others, was Mr Arthur Balfour. Alone among that dinner party wearing a reefer suit bought at ruinous expense was I, feeling that I could have held up my head with the best of them if I had only been permitted to wear my professional get-up… As for the fact that Mr Piggott has had to dress up like that to witness a Shakespearean revival, I will only say that if it is necessary to wear those clothes to enjoy one of Shakespeare’s plays there must be something the matter with the play.’

[By the time it was recounted in Hesketh Pearson’s Bernard Shaw: His Life and Personality (London: Collins, 1942), the story had taken several different (and inconsistent) twists, as Friar Sir John details, but he continues: ‘It is enough that it may have happened both ways in the fertile imagination of the intellectual wizard of our age. But it seems to me that there is a certain entertainment value in drawing attention to the matter in a spirit of friendliest criticism, for, never more than an admirer of the protagonist and long inclined to be antipathetic to the man as a clown of genius, I found myself completely won over to him on the human side in this great and final biography which I have been reading with such absolute delight. I can imagine no higher praise for any biographical work than the fact that it has not only confirmed the reader in his admiration for his subject, but has brought the man in all his motley nearer to one’s heart.’]

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Dinner to Mr. Bernard Shaw

October 29th, 1920
Prior: Friar A. G. Gardiner
Topic for Discussion
Report written by Friar W. Francis Aitken

The Prior, in a tribute to the brilliant and provocative qualities of our Guest as writer and speaker and his position in the literary and public life of his time, said that to attempt to introduce him to the Friars would be as needless as to attempt to introduce the Nelson Column to the Londoner.

Mr. George Bernard Shaw, in opening the debate, formulated a threefold indictment of (1) Capitalism; (2) Its effect upon Journalism; and (3) What he described as the New Foreign Policy.

About the time when he was born Capitalism could make out something of a case for itself. It had led to certain industrial developments and provided many cheap things. But for years the thing itself had been breaking down. The recent labour troubles were but incidents in this breakdown. It had reduced journalists – us – to a condition of prostitution, Modern journalists sold their souls as well as their pens.

There was a time when the journalist was distinguished by the possession of a certain style, of which Thackeray had given examples. In the past, politicians tried to influence him. In the past, newspaper proprietors had shared the kind of priestly privilege he had enjoyed. To-day, politicians owned newspapers as part of party organisation. Capitalists bought newspapers as a matter of business, and the work of the journalist was controlled in a very practical way. He gave examples, citing one case in which a journalist of exceptional personality and striking talent had proved stronger than the power that had sought to suppress him.

Journalists made the mind of the nation; the men who did this had a greater influence on the destiny of the nation than the men who made the laws. But the men who wrote in the newspapers wrote at the dictation of the men who owned them; and they omitted according to the same dictation.

What was a Proletarian? He was the man who worked, as distinct from the man who lived by owning. In this country, the comparison was between the one-tenth who owned and the nine-tenths who worked; but the wealth was divided in the proportion of nine-tenths to owners and one-tenth to workers. Our problem was how to introduce the Dictation of the Proletariat, to see that everyone lived by work.

The Great War had introduced a new set of ideas much more grave than existed before. He referred to what he called the New Foreign Policy, especially as this affected Ireland. We were now told that war could be waged by means less costly than great battleships – by submarines and poison gas. It was pointed out that submarines could easily be built in Ireland and could be sheltered in Irish harbours; that poison gas could be made there as cheaply as poteen. Therefore, that country was ‘a fearful danger’ to England and it was necessary thoroughly to subjugate her, to revert to the policy of Strongbow or – for Strongbow was a gentleman by comparison – another whose name was still remembered in that island.

Journalists were going to be asked to convince people that this policy was necessary, and they had been reminded that the word of any official was to be taken against that of any journalist – not any Irish journalist, but any journalist; and the policeman was all-powerful.

Whither would this policy lead? What of France? What of America? What of the rest of the world? Was England to try to subjugate the whole of the rest of the world for the same reasons that she must subjugate Ireland? It was an impossible policy. But, represented as it would be in fragments, it might not seem impossible.

The only alternative was a policy of international peace. International Proletarianism must be the base of this alternative policy. It could not be founded on Capitalism or Feudal Militarism. The speaker closed with a reference to the sinister results that might attend the efforts of those who were trying to bring about a return to the old order in Russia.

Friar George Sampson said a great deal that Mr. Shaw had said was vitally true. The condition of journalism was deplorable. The London press of today lacked that solid body of sound criticism it had when ‘GBS’ wrote on music and ‘WA’ on the drama in The World of the nineties. Causes were prejudged by suggestion. There was poison in the placard. Pointing to the danger of an uneducated majority, he thought our system of education had proved a failure, that elementary school children were being turned into labour fodder, and urged that a liberal education should be every child’s birthright.

Friar Hamilton Fyfe thought it would be a good thing if everybody had to work; but brain workers and manual workers must be on an equality as workers. Journalism was, perhaps, not in quite so bad a position. In that room was one man who had given up a splendid position for conscience sake. It was possible to get on better terms with the Capitalist than with Capitalism.

Dr. Haden Guest regarded the phrase ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’ as an idea comparable with the cheap things introduced by Capitalism. As to Russia, the present ‘dictatorship’ there was one of journalists and doctors principally; it included only three ‘working men’. As a lifelong Socialist, he looked forward with confidence to seeing a Labour Government in power in this country – a Government, by the people who worked against the people who did not work. There was a general objection to hearing the truth. Leadership involved responsibility as well as privilege. To use force to bring about good things meant destruction. What was wanted was construction. Journalists had great responsibilities as well as privileges; they had to write what they knew to be true, not merely what they were paid to write.

Friar W. H. Helm emphasised the fact that Labour did not mean simply manual toil. The Labour Party must recognise this. Capitals were a cause of trouble as well as Capitalists. London was not England; Paris was not France. There must be a closer relation between talk and reason. We suffered from the prolixity of the bureaucrat. The four great beasts of Revelation were Aristocracy, Democracy, Capitalism and Labour.

Friar G. B. Burgin, in an anecdotal speech, recalled an early incident of The Idler days, which drew from Mr. Shaw, when he replied to other speakers, some delightfully intimate confessions relating to his first steps in journalism.

Sir Philip Gibbs said there remained one consolation to the journalist: no one paid the slightest attention to him.

Mr Shaw, who had used an ordinary reporter’s note-book during the debate, stood up with this in one hand and marked with a pencil held in the other, the points to which he replied as he disposed of them. Sir Philip Gibbs had provided them, in his records of the battles on the Western Front, with a model of what a journalist could do with his material. He thought our system of education a success. Drawing upon his recollections of a shop steward who favoured direct action, he remarked on the possibilities of thought that was the outcome of action. Truth could only be told to those prepared to receive it. If English literature could be taken as a guide to national character, the Englishman should be the embodiment of honesty; but it was found that the ordinary Englishman honoured honesty when honesty was the best policy. As to those who had the courage to leave newspapers the policy of which they could not approve, he had never yet written for a paper of which he could say he approved.