BERNARD SHAW AND THE ACTRESSES by Margot Peters

BERNARD SHAW AND THE ACTRESSES

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Peters isn't completely wrong in suggesting that Shaw biographers have tended to minimize the importance of women--actresses and emancipated females especially--in his life and work. And this biographical study is engaging, often convincing too, whenever it zeroes in on the stated theme: ""the impact of women in general, the actress specifically, on Shaw's art."" Peters makes it clear that when Shaw embraced Ibsen's New Woman he saw her as Janet Achurch or Elizabeth Robins, so their personalities affected his versions of that Woman. Later, also, Janet's marriage would color Candida; and maternal Ellen Terry, submissive Lilah McCarthy, and tempestuous Stella Campbell would all affect, in practical as well as emotional ways, the shaping of the great Shaw female roles. Unfortunately, however, these sorts of connections are only a small part of this long, unfocused history. The bulk of it is instead the minutely detailed chronicle of the ups and downs of Shaw's tetchy, mostly Platonic relations with all these moody women (plus his mother and sister, first carnal love Jenny, Annie Besant, tough wife Charlotte, and others); and Peters fails to endow most of the goings-on--jealousies, betrayals, triangles, spats, feuds, tantrums--with literary significance. Nor does she use all this week-by-week data to build a fresh or particularly coherent psychosexual portrait of Shaw-the-lover or Shaw-the-feminist: it's hardly news that he was a puritan who loathed sex but loved love--and Peters' scholarship, while providing dozens of examples, never supplies enough interpretive depth or development to make Shaw's selfish, often nasty ways genuinely understandable or sympathetic. As a result, most readers will probably nod in agreement when Peters reports that Ellen Terry ""could not distinguish between his various romances; she only knew she was rather tired of hearing about them."" Nicely written, with some good points along the way--but ultimately undone by too much unintegrated and sometimes overfamiliar (e.g., the Shaw/Terry love-by-correspondence) material; all in all, the ideas here would probably have emerged more satisfyingly from a non-chronological essay format.

Pub Date: June 27th, 1980
Publisher: Doubleday