Page 10, 2nd December 1938

2nd December 1938
Page 10
Page 10, 2nd December 1938 — SHAW'S "GENEVA"

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Locations: GENEVA, The Hague, London, Chicago


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Limitations Of Intellectual Brilliance

TO refrain from making Bernard Shaw's Geneva the subject of comment in a week when the play is made available to the London public (at the Saville Theatre) would be something of an insult to our secular prophet. Shaw has his limits : " I am flattered by the implied attribution to me of Omniscience and Omnipotence," he' writes, " but I am also infuriated by the unreasonableness of the demand. I am neither Omniscient nor Omnipotent."

Still there is a great deal to be said for the man who, when asked to contribute to a Leftish symposium on the Jewish pogrom, in a so-called " Independent " weekly, begins by enumerating the occasions when we and the Americans behaved very much as the Germans are doing today : " To go fie further back than Cromwell's attempt to exterminate the Irish, we have persecuted Catholics, Protestant dissenters, Quakers, Welshmen, Highlanders, Irish ' Shinners,' Chinese, Japanese, negroes, Indians, Australian blacks, Asiatic hilltribes, sometimes to the extreme of shooting them at sight. The United States evidently feel strongly on the subject; but it is difficult for them to take a high moral tone with General Goering in view of the Ku-Klux-Klan, the lynching of negroes, and the anti-prohibition gangsters of Chicago and other centres of American civilisation."

Shaw, one may say, has never in his long life succeeded in providing the world with even one really constructive suggestion to help it in its difficulties. In the article from which the above words are quoted the best he can do is to suggest a medical examination of the dictators to find out whether their measures are legitimate legislation or pathological phobia : if the latter, the League must certify them as lunatics. His power lies in his amazing accuracy and quickness in detecting intellectual inconsistencies and unveiling hypocrisies, a power which implies the gift for understanding up to a point even the springs of human behaviour with which he has the least natural sympathy, as for example the mediaeval Church in St. Joan and the greatness of the saint herself. But he fails the moment he touches upon the universal significance of any human behaviour, thus completely misinterpreting the significance of St. Joan's behaviour. Shaw is the surgeon of his times, able to probe as far as any physical instrument will go and with infinite delicacy of touch, but as unable to explain the meanings in relation to the whole as is the instrument which he wields with such delightful ease.

THE STORY OF THE PLAY We need not expect anything more than such analysis from Geneva. But the interest of the play, as with all Shaw's more serious works, lies in the double measure it affords; it measures the distance between his own analytical faculty and that of the public (i.e., politicians, press, public opinion), and it measures the distance between himself and those glimpses of the universal significance of human behaviour to which Shaw himself is wholly blind but which many men of far smaller intellectual calibre can attain through insight or spiritual enlightenment.

The story of the play is simple. The " Intellectual Co-operation Committee " of the League is reduced to the work and services of a young Cockney secretary from Camberwell, Miss Begonia Brown (Alison Leggatt). One morning, by chance, a number of men and women who have reason to complain of the way they have been treated by governments, stumble into the ramshackle offices of the Committee to find out what can be done about their grievances. Begonia Brown hits on the idea of formally bringing their accusations to the notice of the Court of International Justice at The Hague. The first and completely unimportant effect of this move is to start a world sanctions-war that sends the Briti41 Foreign Secretary (Ernest Thesiger) post-haste to Geneva where he meets the Judge of the International Court (Alexander Knox). These events form the substance of the first two short acts and prepare the way for the real play, the third act in which the three dictators Bombardone or Mussolini, Battler or Hitler, and Flanco de Fortinbras or Franco (Cecil Trouncer, Walter Hudd and R. Stuart Lindsell) defend themselves in person against the plaintiffs, a Jew, a Labour-democrat, an anarchistic widow and a Soviet Commissar. The British Foreign Secretary, it should be said, is present with a watching brief, but he is made in effect a fellow-defendant with the three dictators.


The reader will probably be surprised to hear that a Russian commissar is among the plaintiffs instead of a Stalin among the defendants. The ostensible reason for this is a passage of arms in the first act where the very worst kind of Anglican Bishop (H. R. Hignett) lodges a complaint against the Soviet for corrupting his butler with Bolshevik ideas and is countered by the most intelligent possible Commissar (Arthur Ridley) with the accusation that the Church is corrupting the Soviet with its missionaries. The bishop who has a weak heart faints three times (the third attack proving fatal) at such ideas and leaves the Commissar as a plaintiff for the court scene. The real reason is of course that even Shaw with his analytical power is scarcely in advance of the public in his views about Soviet Russia—a disturbing thought. His prejudice in this matter has made him lose the opportunity of improving even the theatrical effect. He, no doubt, has his consolation when a section of the audience heartily applauds the Commissar for stating that Russia now belongs to the Russians after having applauded with equal heartiness the indictment against Hitler for trying to make Germany belong to the Germans.

But apart from this gross error, Shaw has made few mistakes in his analysis of what England, Germany, Italy and Spain stand for.

DIFFERENCES BETWEEN DICTATORS England, rejecting all ideologies and even thought itself, succeeds in getting it both ways throughout by instinct and diplomatic skill. Her genius lies in drawing red herrings across the ideologists' path, a trick which Mussolini can generally detect, but Hitler never. Her philosophy is crystallised when a deaconess asks the court whether all present are willing to love one another after the Gospel precept. All stand up and with one voice shout: "No!"—except England which slowly answers : " Well, not indiscriminately."

Mussolini (who may owe a good deal to Mr. Cecil Trouncer's difficulty in making himself look anything but a genial bully and bragster) comes off well. He has assurance, knowledge, the inborn gift of leadership and a sense of humour. And if he is not quite as certain of himself as he looks, he knows he can act well enough to deceive everybody. He stands for the simple and heroic virtues which men in their hearts love, and he can turn every democratic pretence in his own favour : " I am what I am and you are what you are " he says to the complaining little Labour democrat, " and that is why I am where I am and you are where you are."

Franco is represented as the man of action, the Catholic, the officer and the gentleman who sees life as a battle between the " gentlemen " and the " cads." The undiscerning may mistake this for the old school tie, but Shaw, one imagines, did not mean it that way, and there is truth in the way in which he did mean it. Franco has a withering contempt for Mussolini who has only succeeded in fighting a war against unarmed savages and for Hitler who is terrified of war. Only under his command are their soldiers of any use.

If Franco comes off best, Hitler seems to come off worst. He has none of the assurance of Mussolini and none of the courage of Franco—unless it be the inner courage of the natural coward, the natural introvert, the tortured soul. He is the civilian who has known the horrors of war and seeks to prevent it again through pandering to his inferiority cornplex by arming to the teeth. He is the man of the bourgeois people, seeking for some mystical people's soul as opposed to Mussolini's defiant trust in the outward State. He bursts into tears under stress. Only the sufferings of his people have made his uncomfortable success possible, and only once does he rise to the heights when he indicts the world for their behaviour to Germany and their vile campaigns of insults and lies. No, perhaps on reflection he comes off best, the moral best, but because of the twistings and perversions in his battered soul, the most dangerous.

" EXECUTION CHAMBER" It will be seen even from this brief description how far ahead of British public opinion about the dictators and about this country is Bernard Shaw. He is of course drawing caricatures, but they are the work of a mind infinitely superior in judgement to, let us say, David Low. But one still has to face the awkward fact that Shaw's insight is inferior to those of the subjects he caricatures so skilfully and fairly, inferior, perhaps, even to David Low's. Having bared their souls of all that critical intelligence can see in them, Shaw is simply stumped. He has no suggestion or hint of a suggestion to offer. With extraordinarily little conviction he contrasts the moral weight of eternal justice with the physical weight of earthly power. The curtain goes down as the Judge keeps on whistling to keep up his courage that after all they came, they came to the Court.

But as Shaw knows very well, no court of abstract justice will ever worry either dictators or ordinary men. Nor, on the other hand, can we leave them to their fate, to the chance that the world (as is suggested in the play) will suddenly move out of its orbit condemning all men to immediate death, for our fate is bound with theirs and another world will follow the destruction of this one.

Short of the world being an " execution chamber, dealing as expeditiously as possible with a continuous procession of new victims," to use J. W. Dunne's words, there is only one possible solution. It is a pity that Bernard Shaw's intellectual powers blind him to it. He is getting very old • . .

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