(Holroyd’s article appeared in the Guardian, 2/10.)
At first sight Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman, which opens at the National Theatre this month, is a complex, monumental composition – “quite the biggest thing he has done”, decided Beatrice Webb, to whom he had read it over “three delightful evenings”. But, she added, it was “not a play”.
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It was, however, many other things, beginning with a long Epistle Dedicatory in the shape of a letter to Arthur Bingham Walkley, the theatre critic of the Times, who regarded Shaw as a brilliant journalist but an awful dramatist; and ending with some clever revolutionary sayings purported to be written by the central character of the comedy, John Tanner (“Member of the Idle Rich Class”). Altogether it struck Max Beerbohm, who succeeded Shaw as theatre critic of the Saturday Review, as a “complete expression of the most distinct personality in current literature”. Nevertheless, he came to the same conclusion as Beatrice Webb: Shaw was playing with everything and yet he was no playwright. “Every phrase rings and flashes,” Beerbohm wrote. But this brilliant lucidity and mastery of dialogue was “quite unsuited to the stage”.