George Bernard Shaw has been dead for 31 years, but his words -- and there were many of them -- live on. This year marks the 125th anniversary of his birth, and Shaw celebrations are under way, produced by dedicated groups of Shavians who, like dignified fan clubs, revel in stories, detailed analyses and discussions of the man many have described as one the world's finest playwrights.
Washington's "First George Bernard Shaw Festival," sponsored by an ad hoc group of admirers, began yesterday with a colloquium spiced appropriately with wit and a modest amount of disagreement. Shaw would have appreciated the former and encouraged more of the latter, although the notion of more than 100 people listening to an analysis of his work compared with other "modernist" writers or a description of the Marxist influence in his work might have struck him as quite silly -- when there are so many other things, like the future of mankind, to discuss.
"The plays of Shaw have but one flaw," said Professor Stanley Weintraub of the University of Pennsylvania, reading from a postcard he had recently received. "His characters talk and talk and talk and talk . . ." Weintraub, the editor of an annual Shaw review as well as "the Portable Bernard Shaw," joined Denis Donoghue, a tall, gray-haired former Dublin professor who is now a professor of letters at New York University, and Richard Ohmann, author of "Shaw: The Style and the Man," and an English professor at Wesleyan University, at a table set on the stage in the Folger Theatre.
"People assume that all Shaw's characters were Shaw," Weintraub said. "The trouble with this is that they argued with themselves."
Although Ohmann raised some eyebrows with his analysis of Shaw as a Marxist, it was Donoghue who seemed to cause more controversy with his suggestion that Shaw was a man of thought rather than feeling, when compared with writers such as Yeats and T.S. Eliot. Probably few people have wondered, as Donoghue has, at the "strange, ambiguous and partial presence Shaw has in modern literature." He argued that "modernist writers professed to despise ideas, which they regarded as dead, or congealed feelings," while Shaw "had no hesitation in separating ideas from feelings."
"He did write about feelings," grumbled one woman. "He was a playwright."
Irish Ambassador Sean Donlon, who introduced the colloquium and the speakers, said that he was one who as a student sat at Donoghue's "feet at University College in Dublin . . . Most of us -- I for one -- could never understand what he had said."
Twenty years later, Donlon admitted at the reception hosted by his embassy following yesterday's talk, he understood his former teacher no better. "Oh, no," Donoghue laughed. "You haven't improved at all."
A woman in a green hat came up to Weintraub and said she'd always loved the story "where he says 'you let go that goat.' "
"I'm not familiar with that story," Weintraub said.
"You know, it was the first evidence of his charisma. When he said 'you let go that goat,' " she said.
Weintraub looked politely blank. But he added that the story about Shaw and Isadora Duncan is not quite true.
"Supposedly she suggested to him that they have a child together, that would have his brains and her body, and he said 'But what if it had your brains and my body?' Actually that came from a novel he wrote before Isadora was born. You know he wrote five novels that were not successful. The dialogue was great but the rest of it was too talky. You see, he was a playwright before he knew it."
Weintraub said that many of the stories about Shaw, who in this day would be considered somewhat eccentric for being not only a socialist but a vegetarian and an anti-vivisectionist, came from his own writing. For example, when Shaw was a music critic writing under the name of Corno di Bassetto (literally bass horn) he created not only that character but other characters as well. He wrote once of having come home from a ballet so ecstatic that he danced a few steps in the square in front of his house before going home. A policeman, coming to see if he was drunk, found that he was merely delighted, and joined in the dance, as did various and sundry other people who chanced upon them. This fanciful anecdote, Weintraub said, became known as a true story.
The festival continues with a dinner dance and program tonight, and a telecast of a one-man show on WETA tomorrow at 2 p.m.
Host Coilin D. Owens had the last word at the colloquium, however. "Deoch a' dorais," he said, which means come have a "drink at the door." Shaw might not have approved. He was a teetotaler.