What do we make of Shaw, the most ephemeral Great Man of early 20th-century literature? Naturally, he received the Nobel Prize, and he made himself very rich twice over, partly by writing perky, harmless plays, partly by marrying money. His outstanding virtue as a man was that he could be immensely kind: he was generous to spongers and - a big plus on anyone's marksheet because it was so rare - was prepared to stick up for Wilde at the time of Oscar's fall from grace. As a youngish and middle-aged man, he devoted hours of his time to the largely unrewarding work of a councillor in the St Pancras Ward of London. Thanks to Shaw, the first ladies' lavatory in England was constructed at the top of Parkway in Camden Town. The campaign to build the loo was in its way an archetypally Shavian act of philanthropy, provoking gratifying howls from Tory shopkeepers and local residents who believed that such a provision offended against public decency. Nowadays, the (increasingly elderly?) fans who clamber from their charabancs for matinée productions of Major Barbara or The Doctor's Dilemma have more cause to be grateful to GBS than they know. After all, thanks to the existence of public lavatories for women, the fans can settle back for two or three hours of facile paradox and wholly unmemorable epigram, safe in the knowledge that they can be in all senses 'comfortable'.
LRB 20 June 1996 | PDF Download