Bernard Shaw: The Ascent of the Superman

Overview


When he died in 1950, Bernard Shaw was a Nobel laureate hailed as the second greatest playwright in the English language. At the same time, his strangely flamboyant personality, so teeming with eccentricities and contradictions, aroused unquenchable curiosity. Despite many investigations into Shaw's life and art, parts of him—parts crucial to understanding both man and artist—have remained veiled in secrecy. In this critical biography, Sally Peters explores Shaw's background and beliefs, interests and ...
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Overview


When he died in 1950, Bernard Shaw was a Nobel laureate hailed as the second greatest playwright in the English language. At the same time, his strangely flamboyant personality, so teeming with eccentricities and contradictions, aroused unquenchable curiosity. Despite many investigations into Shaw's life and art, parts of him—parts crucial to understanding both man and artist—have remained veiled in secrecy. In this critical biography, Sally Peters explores Shaw's background and beliefs, interests and obsessions, relations with men and women, prose writings and dramatic art. In deciphering the enigma that was Shaw, she uncovers a convoluted and extravagant inner life studded with erotic secrets.

Peters examines the passions of Shaw's life—everything from vegetarianism and boxing to socialism and feminism—and pieces them together in a new configuration, offering a fresh interpretation of his life and works. Striving unceasingly to ascend, possessed of monumental energy, Shaw was in many ways a dazzling example of his idealized superman. But, says Peters, this superman was also a man haunted by phantoms, a man of gender ambivalences and romantic yearnings, and a man who championed will even while believing that his erotic inclinations were the secret mark of the "born artist." Throughout, he was braced by a resilient comic vision as he transformed his life into enduring art.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) was haunted by the idea that he was a reincarnation of William Shakespeare. According to Peters's startlingly incisive biographical study, full of fresh insights, Shaw saw himself as in many ways the idealized "superman" of his plays-the heroic artist as moral, powerful and courageous outsider. Yet Shaw, who hated hypocrisy, was, in Peters's estimate, an arch-hypocrite, touted as a feminist while he played women off each other in triangular relationships and used the threat of physical violence to assert control over his mistress, Irish widow Jane Patterson, whom he "pretended to throw out of (a) window" (in the words of Shaw's diary). Peters, a visiting lecturer at Wesleyan, says Shaw's unconsummated marriage to Charlotte Payne-Townshend was "a protective but sterile womb" and traces his misogyny to overidentification with his cold, selfish mother, who dumped Shaw's drunkard father. She illuminates the vegetarian, teetotaling playwright's obsessions, including his devotion to boxing and mountain climbing and his preference for unbleached, knitted wool clothing. Preaching eugenics, seeking spiritual salvation, Shaw projected his romanticized self-image onto the stage in telling parables for humanity. Photos. (Mar.)
Library Journal
The appearance of yet another book on Shaw testifies to his fascination for both academics and the public. Shaw's life and work have been carefully documented, studied, and analyzed in the last decade, but Peters (a visiting lecturer at Wesleyan) brings another questioning eye to the exploration of the ambiguities and passions that formed this great playwright and thinker. Shaw's sexuality, always a good topic of speculation, is studied here, but one wishes for more insights and in-depth analysis. Peters does devote a chapter to Shaw's close relationship with the actor and playwright Harley Granville Barker, mainly from Shaw's point of view. One may not agree with Peters's conclusions, but they will prove to be of interest to anyone studying Shaw. Recommended for theater collections and academic libraries. (Index and photographs not seen.)-Susan L. Peters, Emory Univ. Lib., Atlanta
Kirkus Reviews
A tendentious, trendy reading of Shaw, with an entirely speculative theory of secret homosexuality.

Examining Shaw's literary ambitions, his passionate yet finally celibate romanticism, and his ostentatiously ascetic lifestyle, Peters (a visiting scholar at Wesleyan Univ.) ostensibly disavows Freudianism but nonetheless takes up its assumptions of suppressed meanings and motives—which only a critic can decipher. Suspicious of the mercurial Shaw, Peters is rightly skeptical about his evasions concerning his shabby-genteel childhood and drunken father, and his protestations of his mother's virtue despite her affair with a Dublin musical impresario. Peters finds in Shaw an ambitious personality given early on to self-deception and dissimulation: a pathologically deluding figure as an embryonic artistic genius in need of a corroborative ideology. The author scrutinizes Shaw's interest in evolution and eugenics in his formulation of his theory of the Life Force and the Superman. She claims the influence on him of sexologists of the period—such as Krafft-Ebing and Havelock Ellis—trying to trap Shaw in the paradox that he could not be either artist or degenerate without being both; thus he had to write in code and to adopt eccentrically austere habits, such as vegetarianism and celibacy, to keep himself in check. Although Peters selectively cites Shaw's diaries and correspondence as reflections of his interior struggle, she renders her argument in either windy rhetoric—Shaw's "ethereal" vs. his "fiery" natures, his masculine/dynamic vs. his feminine/passive aspects—or gender-criticism jargon, e.g., her critique of his epistolary love affair with Ellen Terry.

Riding the current academic hobbyhorses, including gender reversal and "the gaze," Peters offers a rhetorically overloaded version of Shaw's life and work.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300075007
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 2/28/1998
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 344
  • Product dimensions: 5.88 (w) x 8.58 (h) x 0.96 (d)

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 28, 2002

    Inside Shaw

    If Bernard Shaw were not the second greatest playwright in the English language, this biography would not have such significance; and were it not for Shaw¿s multidimensional personality, this book would not possess so many fascinating dimensions. Sally Peters acknowledges her debt, and gives us a work without self-conscious authorship. It is a book that invites reading and rereading. Much has been made of Shaw¿s homosexuality; but Dr. Peters¿ focus is broader and deeper than that. A story, which often reads like the most engrossing fiction, 'Bernard Shaw: The Accent of the Superman,' is a rewarding resource for any serious student of modern drama.

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