I have recently finished Joseph Pearce’s biography of G.K. Chesterton. It is a sufficient retelling of Chesterton’s life. Sufficient because though it is a handy compendium of original letters and material, it avoids diving into the deeper aspects of Chesterton’s life and work.
What impressed me most, however, was seeing George Bernard Shaw’s letters to Chesterton. Chesterton and Shaw disagreed on, well, everything but that didn’t stop them from becoming good friends. Master wordsmiths and statesmen, their public and private correspondance was laced with an unparalleled wit. Surprising to me was the force of Shaw’s insistence that Chesterton write for the stage. Shaw, who was most famous for his work in theatre, holds no rhetorical blow back in this private letter urging Chesterton to write a drama:
“What about that play? It is no use trying to answer me in the New Age: the real answer to my article is the play. I have tried fair means: The New Age article was the inauguration of an assault below the belt. I shall deliberately destroy your credit as an essayist, as a journalist, as a critic, as a Liberal, as everything that offers your laziness as a refuge, until starvation and shame drive you to serious dramatic parturition. I shall repeat my public challenge to you; vaunt my superiority; insult your corpulence; torture Belloc; if necessary, call on you and steal your wife’s affections by intellectual and athletic displays, until you contribute something to the English drama. You are played out as an essayist: your ardour is soddened, your intellectual substance crumbled, by the attempt to keep up the work of your twenties in your thirties…Nothing can save you now except a rebirth as a dramatist. I have done my turn; and I now call on you to take yours and do a man’s work.”
Shaw attempted to use Chesterton’s wife on his side. Before arriving at Chesterton’s home for a weekend visit, he sent this appeal to Mrs. Chesterton:
“I want to read a play to Gilbert…I want to insult and taunt and stimulate Gilbert with it. It is the sort of thing he could write and ought to write: a religious harlequinade. In fact, he could do it better if a sufficient number of pins were stuck into him. My proposal is that I read the play to him on Sunday (or at the next convenient date), and that you fall inot transports of admiration of it; declare that you can never love a man who cannot write things like that; and definitely announce that if Gilbert has not finished a worthy successor to it before the end of the third week next ensuing, you will go out like the lady in A Doll’s House, and live your own life–whatever that dark threat may mean…”
No record of the event itself exists. And a pity, too.