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.