Do not do unto others as you would they do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same.
George Bernard Shaw in "Man and Superman, Maxims for Revolutionaries," p. 227
It may never be known whether George Bernard Shaw would approve of a rather conventional way -- a black tie dinner -- to celebrate the 125th anniversary of his birth. But despite any misgivings the excellent eccentric might have had, that is exactly what about 180 of his admirers did Saturday night in the Sheraton Hotel's Grand Ballroom, to cap a weekend of colloquia in Washington's "First George Bernard Shaw Festival."
The idea for the festival came about a year ago when Cornelius "Con" Howard, author and former press officer at the Irish Embassy, gave a party for W.H. Auden and then had the following dream:
"I dreamt I was having a dinner party for Shaw. He and Auden sat to my left; Evelyn Waugh and Yeats were on my right. Then Shaw leaned over and said 'I'm only happy when Ireland is doing well.' "
That was Howard's inspiration, and most of those who came seemed to have Ireland's well-being in mind.
"It's partly a love of Shaw," noted Worth Hicks, another guest, "a love of the Irish, and a love of Irish whiskey."
Between officers of the Irish Embassy, like Howard and his successor, Richard O'Brien, and members of the American-Irish Foundation, including its former president John Cosgrove, there were as many fans of Erin as there were Shavians, and the two loves seemed inextricably mixed as one promoted the other.
During the dinner of salmon -- for Shaw was a vegetarian and once said all the animals he had not eaten would march at his funeral -- there was even a round of applause for Bloomingdale's new Irish marketing campaign which, said O'Brien, has boosted Ireland's economy.
Shaw has proven to be Ireland's benefactor of more than simply national pride. As Sean Cronin of the Irish Times explained, the royalties from his plays have tremendously nurtured the arts there -- namely the National Gallery in Dublin, the British Museum and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. Granted, said Cronin, two-thirds of the money goes to the English, but "the Irish are grateful for their third." And, he added, "there is no doubt about his loyalties. Shaw took an Irish citizenship."
Actually, according to Stanley Weintraub of Penn State, Shaw was an exile from Ireland; at age 90 he was named honorary citizen of Dublin. But never mind, Shaw was an internationalist. (Besides, technically speaking, his birthday isn't even in October -- it's July 26.) GBS himself wrote, "You'll never have a quiet world until you knock the patriotism out of the human race" ( in "O'Flaherty V.C.").
At least one guest called himself "Irish by osmosis": George Manos, a Greek conductor and concert pianist who founded the Bach music festival in Killarney. Shaw was also a music critic and "very particular toward Bach," said Manos, who called him "a man of good taste." But Shaw might have flinched at this compliment, for he once wrote "A man of good taste . . . meaning a man without originality or moral courage" ("Caesar and Cleopatra").
But of all those who had ideas and anecdotes about Shaw, Eileen O'Casey, wife of the late Irish playwright Sean O'Casey, had the most personal ones to share about the friendship between Shaw and her husband. "Reminiscences make one feel so deliciously aged and sad," wrote Shaw ("The Irrational Knot"). O'Casey called Shaw an "esthetic and fastidious man," and remembered lunches he had with her husband and Lawrence of Arabia. They were all such interesting men, she said, "talking about themselves was enough . . . They were a bit of a mutual admiration society, actually."
Shaw, she said, was "something of a sprucer, was always trying to get Sean to write potboilers to make money. But he never wrote potboilers himself, so how could he expect Sean to?
"I remember them arguing about James Joyce. Sean admired him Joyce immensely. I think he and Sean were closer in mind. But Shaw thought he was too realistic" and didn't like his use of obscenity, especially in "Ulysses." In fact, said Weintraub, Shaw refused to subscribe to the controversial book when it was first published in installments, saying it was too raw and he couldn't stomach it.
"Shaw was a bit of a puritan," continued Weintraub, one of the few bona fide literary scholars present. "He shocked everyone when, in 1914, he used "bloody" in "Pygmalian."
O'Casey recalled the time Shaw sent her children, of whom he was very fond, being childless himself, a box of post cards bearing his picture. "Sell them for pocket money," wrote the flamboyant Fabian.
And shortly before Shaw's death, at age 94, when she was called to his bedside, O'Casey remembered he joked, "If there's an Almighty I have a helluva lot of questions to ask."
After O'Casey's reminiscences, Kathleen Barry of the National Theatre, Donn B. Murphy of the Georgetown National Theatre, Ciaran O'Reilly of Abbey Theatre and Pauline Flanagan performed Shaw's one-act play "O'Flaherty V.C." There were also Irish love songs by harpist Barbara Murphy and a throaty, X-rated "Happy Birthday, Dear Bernard" by Clea Bradford.
Shaw once wrote in a letter, "People must not be forced to adapt me as their favorite author, even for their own good." Was Shaw really the favorite author of all the festival participants? Denis Donoghue, Henry James Professor of English and American Letters at New York University, said, "The guests are here partly because of an interest in representing Irish writers, and asserting Irish identity within a larger structure.
"People are afraid of their identities being obliterated. On occasion they like to remind themselves and each other that their identities are not completely gone."
The Fabian might not have minded. He also wrote, "What really flatters a man is that you think him worth flattering."