A young friend who was in high school as recently as 1940 was telling Dr. Boli a story about his school days. He remembered an English test on which one of the questions was “Who is the greatest living playwright in the English language?”

Our young friend answered “Noel Coward,” but his answer was marked wrong. The correct answer was “George Bernard Shaw.”

There was a long period when it was a known fact that George Bernard Shaw was our greatest living playwright. It was propagated as certain knowledge by English teachers, newspaper critics, and movie newsreels. It was as much an undisputed fact as that Belgrade was the capital of Yugoslavia, or that there were nine planets in the solar system. From one source to another, the knowledge spread as undeniable truth.

But where did this supposed fact come from? How did such a consensus develop? Looking back on those years, Dr. Boli has come to a conclusion that seems obvious in hindsight. Those ripples of certainty moving across the stagnant pond of English literary thought emanated from George Bernard Shaw himself. He himself told us that he was our greatest playwright, our clearest thinker, our wittiest conversationalist, our most important intellectual; and he told it to us so insistently and so often that we came to believe him. After all, he ought to know.

Some of that reputation persists to this day. In his Wikipedia article, we read that “His ironic wit endowed English with the adjective ‘Shavian’, used to characterize observations such as: ‘My way of joking is to tell the truth. It’s the funniest joke in the world.’” This is, Dr. Boli believes, a fair and typical sample of the ironic wit Shaw employs sparingly in his essays.

Dr. Boli brings up Shaw because he was just reading some of those essays, which he does every few decades or so. He was hoping that, having passed his second century a while back, he would at last be old enough to appreciate the gigantic intellect of G.B.S. But alas, it seems he will need a few more decades. The word that currently comes quickest to his tongue to describe Shaw’s writing is “insufferable.”

It is not that Dr. Boli disagrees with what Shaw is saying. One must expect that one will have some differences of opinion with any writer; Dr. Boli enjoys many writers whose politics he finds simply abominable. No, the insufferable thing is Shaw’s way of insisting that he himself is infallibly right, and that you are either in agreement with him or too stupid even to be worth the trouble of convincing. This is the sort of attitude that wins followers among the weak-minded; Dr. Boli has seen more than one insufferably pedantic high-school history teacher surrounded by a groveling rabble of admirers who spent their spare time reading Ayn Rand.

But what does the rest of the world think of G.B.S. these days? Dr. Boli was surprised to discover that a Google search for those once-famous initials demands quite a bit of scrolling before one comes to anything to do with George Bernard Shaw. He was surprised, but apparently he was small-minded enough to be pleased, to see that at least two unpleasant diseases have crowded Shaw out of the first page of search results.

So Dr. Boli throws the question open to the Internet at large. Do we still think G.B.S. was the towering figure of his age, the greatest intellectual of the first half of the twentieth century? Or do we just shrug and think that he wrote some plays that were amusing in their way?

And if not Shaw, then who was the greatest living playwright in 1940? Dr. Boli saw a splendid production of Blithe Spirit in Pittsburgh last year, and on the strength of it he is inclined to say that the greatest English-speaking playwright alive in 1940 was Noel Coward.


  1. Harold Pinter was alive in 1940, but as he would have been a ten-year-old-boy being evacuated from London during the Blitz to go live in Cornwall, we can only assume he was too busy climbing through wardrobes into alternate fantasy dimensions full of talking lions to really impress the world with his authorial skills just yet.

    Arthur Miller was just getting his start in 1940, the year his first play was published, and I don’t think it was quite a good enough effort to instantly rocket to the front of the class.

    Tennessee Williams was actively writing by then, but wouldn’t achieve fame or notoriety until four years later when The Glass Menagerie was published.

    Eugene O’Neil, however, was very active by 1940, having won the Nobel Prize for Literature four years prior. So he’s probably the biggest competition for Noel Coward.

    But was Eugene O’Neil part of a suicide-squad of robotic soldiers played by celebrity impersonators alongside android versions of Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, and Abraham Lincoln? Nope. But Noel Coward was.

    • Dr. Boli says:

      Groucho Marx in Animal Crackers: “If I were Eugene O’Neill, I could tell you what I really think of you two. You know, you’re very fortunate the Theatre Guild isn’t putting this on. And so is the Guild.… Pardon me while I have a strange interlude…”

  2. Murray Antoinette says:

    Don’t overlook Clifford Odets. His work, while also insufferable, is so for the exactly opposite reasons that make you detest GBS.

  3. Tracy Altman says:

    GBS’ greatest contributions to thought and literature were his public debates with G.K. Chesterton. Chesterton needed an opponent with Shaw’s style, the better to demonstrate the problems with Shaw’s substance.

  4. Sigivald says:

    Shaw was a playwright?

    I’d always thought he was an essayist, no more.

    (I would perhaps tend to agree with Mr./Mrs. Altman, above.

    Chesterton may not have written a play [though I suppose many of his works would be easily adapted], but he beats Shaw as a thinker any day.)

    • Anon says:

      Chesterton actually did write a few plays, at least one of which, Magic, can be found online: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Magic:_A_Fantastic_Comedy.
      As for Shaw, my personal opinion has always that he wrote great plays, but terrible essays.

    • Dr. Boli says:

      G.K.C wrote a whole book on the subject of G.B.S. Is it wrong to admit that one would rather read a whole book on Shaw by Chesterton than a whole book by Shaw on anything?

      • Dunno, I’ve never actually read anything by Shaw OR Chesterton, but I did see a great production of Major Barbara in Wisconsin a few years back, and quite enjoyed it. It had some flaws to be sure, but it’s been a long time since I simultaneously so loved and hated a character as the old arms merchant guy in that play. Best blowhard authorial self-insert character prior to Jubal Harshaw in Stranger in a Strange Land.

        • Dr. Boli says:

          You should probably try Chesterton. Start, perhaps, with his chapter on Shaw in Heretics. Chesterton’s opinions may infuriate you, but every sentence is polished into a quotable gem. In fact, Chesterton is so universally quotable that, when Dr. Boli started his occasional journal of quotations, he made it a rule never to quote from Chesterton, because it felt like cheating.

  5. Might the greatest living playwright in 1940 have been Dr. Boli himself?

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

    • Martin The Mess says:

      Do radio plays count? All of the stage productions I can recall being reproduced or excerpted in this magazine were by Irving Vanderblock-Wheedle or other authors, not the good doctor himself. The Captain Pleonasm and Sir Montague Blastoff scripts and so forth tend to not have a credited author, so we can assume those might be by Dr. Boli.

      But it has been brought to my attention that Tom Stoppard was alive in 1940, having been born in 1937. Still, I doubt the teacher in the original tale would have accepted him as an answer.

  6. Ben Ieghn says:

    This good chain of discussion really demonstrates the high caliber of Dr. Boli correspondents – I enjoyed following along! I suppose when forced to objectify something as subjective as “greatest”, quantitatively, perhaps G.B.S. would be the correct choice (in 1940) – but the commentary offered here certainly seems to prove that greatness doesn’t necessarily equate with endearment, at least in hind-sight…

  7. Nemo Maximus says:

    George Bernard Shaw was a filthy Nazi sympathizer and enthusiastic eugenicist. As the kids say today, he is problematic.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *