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art and ideology

To an uninformed visitor to Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., George Bernard Shaw must appear less like a politically provocative playwright than a town mascot, a patron saint of fudge and souvenir shops. Here, a statue of the Irish-born writer, bearded and balding, gazes benevolently at passersby from a fountain.

This, after all, is the home of the Shaw Festival, which this year celebrates its golden anniversary – 50 years since it began honouring a man then widely considered the second-greatest English-language playwright after Shakespeare, and whose still-impressive catalogue includes Pygmalion (or its musical version, My Fair Lady, playing at the Shaw this year) , Arms and the Man and Heartbreak House.

Everywhere else, though, Shaw's stature has grown shakier. His talky "plays of ideas" are more seldom taught and only infrequently revived. The festival itself has gradually de-emphasized Shaw in favour of his contemporaries and stylistic heirs.

Much more bizarre, though, is a recent spate of virulent online and media attacks on Shaw's reputation as a progressive, if eccentric, humanitarian. His critics tar him as a totalitarian supporter of Hitler and Stalin who wanted to send society's weakest members to the gulag or to develop a "humane gas" to kill them.

The instigator of the commotion is Glenn Beck, the popular Fox News and talk-radio host, whose TV series wrapped up this week. "I don't care that he wrote witty little plays," Mr. Beck has railed. "The man was a monster."

Is Canada's second-largest theatre festival, which draws hundreds of thousands of spectators a year, really dedicated to a man who stood for dictators and exterminations?

A long life, seen through a partial window

Perhaps the most important fact to consider about George Bernard Shaw is that he lived an exceptionally long time – 94 years. He was born in Dublin in 1856, 20 years before Thomas Edison invented the phonograph and almost 40 years before the first motion picture. He died in 1950. That he survived long enough to see sound and pictures recorded together is, ultimately, a mixed blessing.

It allowed Shaw to work on film adaptations of his own plays – and, at 82, pick up a 1938 Oscar for Pygmalion. (Mr. Beck likes to point out that the only people to have received both an Oscar and a Nobel are Shaw and Al Gore.)

But it also means that the existing footage of him comes exclusively from the late years in which he began espousing more reactionary views. As biographer Michael Holroyd has written, "Increasingly, as he grew older, Shaw's imagination flirted pleasurably with death and, in more extreme fantasies, killing."

Clips in which Shaw was heard indulging such fantasies are the first thing you find now if you search his name on YouTube.

The result, for the festival that was launched just 11 years after Shaw's death, has been a small but noticeable surge in troubled inquiries from prospective patrons. Leonard Conolly, president of the International Shaw Society and a professor at Trent University, has been tasked to craft a response. "This wasn't an issue five years ago in the way it is now," he says with a sigh, sitting in its administration offices on a late spring day.

The biggest source of outrage is a short speech Shaw gave that was filmed in 1931 as a "Paramount Sound News Exclusive." In the black-and-white footage, Shaw, with his Irish lilt and a smug grin, seems to argue in favour of making everybody "come before a properly appointed board, just as he might come before the income-tax commissioners," to justify their existence.

"If you're not producing as much as you consume, or perhaps a little more," he suggests, "then clearly we cannot use the big organization of our society for the purpose of keeping you alive, because your life does not benefit us and it can't be of very much use to yourself."

Was Shaw serious? Prof. Conolly does not think so "for one moment" – any more than Shaw's fellow Irishman Jonathan Swift was honestly arguing for the consumption of babies in A Modest Proposal. He notes that Shaw had a history of "adopting personae" to make provocative statements and challenge the status quo.

Others take it at face value. Mr. Beck discovered the footage in a 2008 documentary called The Soviet Story. The Latvian film – a catalogue of communist crimes underscored with menacing music – has been called "the most powerful antidote yet to the sanitization of the past" by The Economist, though a New York Times reviewer deemed it "not dispassionate scholarship" and "so overwrought that at times [it] comes across as comical."

Since then, Mr. Beck has repeatedly aired the clip as part of his attacks on the Fabian Society, the British socialist movement in which Shaw, along with H.G. Wells, Virginia Woolf and children's author E. Nesbit, was a prominent member. Though its height was in the early 20th century, he believes Fabian philosophy continues to exert an influence on left-leaning Democratic politicians today.

"[Shaw]'s critically acclaimed by the establishment," Mr. Beck said on one show. With perhaps his own outdated notion of Shaw's influence in today's schools, he added: "Ask your kids if they learned this: Who dreamt up the gas chambers, the death chambers? … George Bernard Shaw dreamt them up to get rid of the undesirables."

Mr. Beck's idiosyncratic and iconoclastic point of view – in many ways, he and wittier conservative provocateurs such as Ann Coulter and Mark Steyn are the true heirs to the Shavian polemical style – has been spread by his many followers online, who have linked Shaw's musings to Barack Obama's health-care reform and what one blogger called "Sarah Palin's ominous warning about Death Panels."

A weakness for strongmen

On the point that Shaw was a supporter of dictators such as Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin in the 1930s, however, you'll find little disagreement from Shavians. Contrary to Mr. Beck's fulminations, it has been hidden only in plain sight. "It's not a new discovery," says Jackie Maxwell, artistic director of the Shaw Festival.

Shaw was unquestionably a social democrat for the first half of his very long life, as well as an advocate of women's rights and social equality. After watching the Russian Revolution unfold from afar, however, his long-held belief in Fabian gradualism – that the only moral path to socialism was through the ballot box – began to fade. The Bolsheviks "changed the world more in four years than Fabian constitutional action seemed likely to do in four hundred," Shaw wrote. After the First World War, he was increasingly drawn to men of "iron nerve and fanatical conviction."

In the response letter he has penned for the Shaw Festival, Prof. Conolly attempts to put Shaw's emerging anti-democratic attitudes into the historical context of the Great Depression, "with millions unemployed, widespread poverty, and crippling social and economic inequality." Dictators promising quick, comprehensive solutions, whether left or right, won legions of followers.

But insinuations that Shaw was somehow a supporter – or even the architect – of Nazi gas chambers are completely unfounded. While early on he was in favour of appeasement with Hitler, he was entirely consistent in his denunciation of what he called the Nazi Party's "Judeophobia."

In a 1940 speech written for the BBC for transatlantic broadcast, Shaw was set to argue that Britain "ought to have declared war on Germany the moment Hitler's police stole Einstein's violin." According to Mr. Holroyd, the British ministry of information vetoed this speech, in part because Shaw focused too much on Hitler's persecution of the Jews: According to one government official, "millions of Americans and some other people [believe] that this is the only thing he has done right."

Attacks on Shaw's alliance with eugenics likewise overlook the social context: He mainly endorsed what he called "positive" eugenics, which meant letting men and women couple by the "Life Force" (love) rather than basing marriages on wealth and status. Other early progressive eugenicists emphasized family planning and birth control, although some did stray into schemes for social engineering whose dark side would become all too clear under the Nazis.

Still, the blind eye Shaw turned to the cruelties of Stalinism is an enduring stain. In a choreographed visit to Soviet Russia in 1931, he made a series of flippant statements that continue to sting victims of Soviet crimes against humanity – lauding forced labour, making jokes about torture and "liquidation" and denying the famine that killed millions of Ukrainians.

"I have seen all the 'terrors' and I was terribly pleased by them," Shaw joked on his 75th birthday in Moscow's House of Trade Unions, later to be the site of several show trials during Stalin's Great Purge.

While a few, such as Malcolm Muggeridge, came back disillusioned and denouncing this "Fabian Fairyland," Shaw returned filled with religious fervour for the communist cause and, in the words of Mr. Holroyd, "set out to bring the light of the Soviet Church to new audiences round the world." Unlike many of his fellow socialist travellers, he never publicly broke with the Soviet regime.

The plays are the thing

Are Shaw's late-life views on Stalin and Hitler relevant to anyone beyond those who believe in enduring Fabian conspiracies?

"We don't care about him primarily as a public intellectual," Prof. Conolly argues. "For me, what really matters is not these speeches and these sometimes glib, callous, insensitive ideas that he jokes about. It's Major Barbara. It's Saint Joan. It's Mrs. Warren's Profession."

Separating Shaw's positions from his plays can be difficult, however, if only because Shaw sewed them together with long prefatory essays. Indeed, some of the most shocking words he ever wrote come from the prefaces to his plays from the 1930s. Among them is 1933's political comedy On the Rocks, which the Shaw Festival is presenting this season in a new adaptation by Canadian playwright Michael Healey, as part of a new initiative under Ms. Maxwell, the Shaw's artistic director, to "revitalize" some of the more problematic plays now that they are in the public domain.

In that essay, Shaw discusses killing as a political strategy and excuses the "liquidation" of Soviet opponents to communism. And as in Mr. Beck's favourite YouTube clip, he toys with the idea of making people justify their lives: "What we are confronted with now is a growing perception that if we desire a certain type of civilization and culture we must exterminate the sort of people who do not fit into it," he writes – though, again, to what degree he is being ironic is unclear.

What's surprising is that the same person who wrote this preface could at the same time spin out a play free from dogma. Shaw's plays are not polemics – and he often gives the most persuasive speeches to the characters he least agrees with.

On the Rocks concerns a fictional British prime minister, Arthur Chavender, with very few ideas As unemployment increases and the social fabric begins to tear, he finally gets one: He will indefinitely prorogue parliament (the term strikes an amusing contemporary Canadian note) and impose a dictatorship in the United Kingdom. He eventually backs down on his plan to abandon democracy and impose his socialist ideas, however: "I'm not the man for the job," he admits to his wife. "And I shall hate the man who will carry it through for his cruelty and the desolation he will bring on us and our like."

Critical opinion has been divided on whether On the Rocks contains an anti-democratic message or a grudgingly democratic one. But Mr. Healey doesn't think the ideas of the preface are infused in the play – and even if they were, it might still be worth mounting. "I think there's value in any argument that's put well," he writes. "If it's an idea you don't agree with, you have to raise your game to counter it." He notes that Shaw's "industrialists are his most articulate characters and, in On the Rocks, he outlines why socialism is doomed to fail in the place he's spent his lifetime trying to establish it."

The fact is that Shaw was a public figure for much a century. In addition to his plays, he wrote hundreds of essays, gave an untold number of interviews and wrote an estimated quarter million letters. As such, it's hard to say that Shaw was a supporter of any one thing or another. "I think for every quote you can pull from Shaw in support of something or opposed to something, in most cases you can find an alternative somewhere," Prof. Conolly says.

And it's not just the likes of Glenn Beck who can still be irritated by Shaw's statements more than a half-century later.

"He was a famous playwright who wrote 10 or a dozen outstanding plays and then he became a personality, pursued by the press, endlessly and voraciously, for his opinions on anything and everything," Prof. Conolly says. "But that didn't make him an authority on everything and anything. … And, sometimes, I wish he'd just shut up."

J. Kelly Nestruck is the theatre critic for The Globe and Mail.


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