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The Puppet Player: Bernard Shaw (one-volume definitive edition)
by Michael Holroyd
833 pp.; $45
When George Bernard Shaw was born—in Dublin, Ireland, in 1856—Franklin Pierce was President of the United States, and the rumblings of civil war were still distant. In Britain, the thirtysomething Queen Victoria had yet to lose her be loved consort, Albert. William Wordsworth, an eyewitness to France's Revolution and a poetic innovator before the turn of the century, had been dead but six years. Europeans were growing accustomed to the noise and speed of railways, but the telegraph promised to overcome space in a very different way. And in London, personal and family problems were distracting Karl Marx from the studies in political economy he had been pursuing so assiduously in the British Museum's Reading Room.
When Shaw died—at Ayot Saint Lawrence, England, in 1950—Harry Truman was President of the United States. Nagasaki and Hiroshima still lay in radioactive rubble, as did much of Germany. Mao Zedong was consolidating his power after his successful revolution in China; war was breaking out in Korea. Many of the great figures of international modernism were dead, or had their best work behind them. Elvis Presley was a 15-year-old in Tupelo, singing and playing his guitar. The first baby boomers—including Bill Clinton—were approaching school age.
No previous period of human history had seen such wide-ranging and pervasive change. Shaw not only witnessed it; he was a key part of much of it. While Victoria still sat on the throne, Shaw the music critic taught London audiences to appreciate the strange new music of Wagner; Shaw the drama critic praised the innovative drama of Strindberg and Ibsen; Shaw the political activist helped to shape the Fabian Society, that curious attempt to convert the British ruling classes to socialism. Somewhat later, he reinvigorated the London stage by introducing fierce social debates—about ...