(Feingold’s article appeared on Theatermania, 11/4.)

A famous image of George Bernard Shaw comes from his lifelong friend, the critic and Ibsen translator William Archer. When Archer first met Shaw, in the British Museum Reading Room, the then-novice playwright was alternately studying two books: Marx’s Das Kapital and the orchestral score of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Viewed superficially, the image conveys the wide range of Shaw’s interests (economic theory and opera), and of his skills (foreign language, musical notation), as well as his passion for everything new and radical: Das Kapital had not yet been translated into English; Tristan had just had its London premiere.

Closer scrutiny reveals a less pleasant aspect: Shaw’s lifelong fascination with theories that would give rise to totalitarian systems. The intellectual path from Marx led to the Soviet empire, the anti-intellectual path from Wagner’s ecstasies to Nazism. Shaw in later life was not wholly immune to either ideology, and put both in his plays. The disillusioned characters of Too True to Be Good try to enter a new socialist state, the “United Federation of Sensible Societies” or “UFSS” (an obvious allusion to the USSR), which declines to admit them. In Geneva (1938), Shavianized cartoon versions of Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco defend their policies.

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