Friday, May 21, 2021

no longer a Shavian mystery

A couple weeks ago I wrote of a letter than Winston Churchill had sent to King Edward VIII, just before the king's abdication, encouraging him to fight against it, and including the comment "For real wit Bernard Shaw's article in to-night's Evening Standard should be read. He is joyous."

What did Shaw write? I wondered. I consulted Michael Holroyd's massive 4-volume biography of Shaw, which said nothing. Academic library sources that could give further info are unavailable right now. But a couple of commenters on various iterations of this blog had some clues. One of them had access to the letter in Martin Gilbert's books of Churchill documents, which provided a source reference. Another Googled (using what terms? they didn't say) and got the same info.

The piece was called "The King, the Constitution and the Lady," and is reprinted, apparently nearly in full, in Hesketh Pearson's Bernard Shaw: His Life and Personality (first published 1942, last revised 1961). This is a far shorter and more entertaining biography than Holroyd's, consisting largely of quotations from Shaw's works and from letters to Pearson. Where Holroyd concentrates on what Shaw did, Pearson is more interested in what Shaw thought and what he was like.

Together with an introduction, the piece consists of a "fictitious dialogue." Though in play format, it's not considered one of Shaw's plays in any list I've seen, even though some that are included are very short. In it, the king cleverly outmaneuvers the stolid prime minister and archbishop of Canterbury. He says that if the church won't marry him, he'll have a civil wedding. (Yes, but he'd still be Head of the Church, so that doesn't solve the problem.) He says that "the people are behind me" and that a King's Party would win an election called on the issue. (Utterly mistaken.) He says nobody would accept his brother as a 'real' king as long as he himself was around. (That didn't turn out to be true, either.) He demands that if the PM and archbishop forbid his marrying Mrs. S., that they name who he should marry. (That demand doesn't follow at all.) They say it should be someone of royal blood (pretty much an obsolete expectation after WW1) and not an American. (Contrary to some ideas, nobody objected to Mrs. S. being an American; it was her serial divorces that bothered them.)

Fortunately for the British polity, the real prime minister was far more savvy than the sap in Shaw's dialogue, and convinced the king that if he insisted on the woman he'd have to abdicate, and this conclusion had already been reached by the time this piece was published.

Holroyd's one comment on the abdication is that Shaw made "an approving reference" to it in the play he was writing at the time. I checked on this too. The play was Cymbeline Refinished, and it says the opposite of what Holroyd implies. Guiderius refuses to accept heirship to the throne, saying that as king he would be, among other things, "Not free to wed the woman of my choice." So that's the same position Shaw takes in the dialogue.

But then, Shaw's political instincts were not always of the best. According to Pearson, where everybody else was terribly frightened of the Nazi-Soviet treaty, Shaw was convinced it was proof of a long peace to come. To the fact that everyone disagreed with him, Shaw replied, "Am I mad?" Evidently.

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