George Bernard Shaw (1856 – 1950):
“If You Want to Tell People the Truth, Make Them Laugh, Otherwise They’ll Kill You.”
Shaw is one of my favorite figures in history. He was a man of Theatre and Film, a vegetarian, a Socialist, and a rabble rouser.
My first impression of Shaw as an important person was from my parent’s original Broadway cast album of My Fair Lady (1956), the Alan J. Lerner and Frederick Lowe musical based on Shaw’s play Pygmalion (1913). The cover of the album features a drawing of Shaw as God the puppeteer, pulling the strings of Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison as marionettes. My image of God is still decidedly Shavian.
Shaw was born in Dublin but moved to London when he was 20 years old. His considerable achievements and prosperity happened in England, but he remained essentially Irish, the way I see it. He had tremendous success as a music and literary critic, but he is most famous for writing more than 60 excellent plays. He continued to write right up until his passing when he was 94. Shaw was fiercely proud of being a Free-Thinking Humanist, dedicated to presenting the cause of Human Rights for all.
“A man of my spiritual intensity does not eat corpses.“
But who knew that Shaw was also an early Gay Rights activist? In 1889, Shaw recognized that the harassment, arrests, and punishments given to homosexuals was a violation of basic Human Rights. He wrote to the editor of a London newspaper:
“I am sorry to have to ask you to allow me to mention what everybody declares unmentionable. My justification shall be that we may presently be saddled with the moral responsibility for monstrously severe punishments inflicted not only on persons who have corrupted children, but on others whose conduct, however nasty and ridiculous, has been perfectly within their admitted rights as individuals. To a fully occupied person in normal health, with due opportunities for a healthy social enjoyment, the mere idea of the subject of the threatened prosecutions is so expressively disagreeable as to appear unnatural. But everybody does not find it so.
There are among us highly respected citizens who have been expelled from public schools for giving effect to the contrary opinion; and there are hundreds of others who might have been expelled on the same ground had they been found out. Greek philosophers, otherwise of unquestioned virtue, have differed with us on the point. So have soldiers, sailors, convicts, and in fact members of all communities deprived of intercourse with women. A whole series of Honoré de Balzac‘s novels turns upon attachments formed by galley slaves for one another – attachments which are represented as redeeming them from utter savagery.
“Women, from Sappho onwards, have shown that this appetite is not confined to one sex. Now, I do not believe myself to be the only man in England acquainted with these facts. I strongly protest against any journalist writing, as nine out of ten are at this moment dipping their pens to write, as if he had never heard of such things except as vague and sinister rumors concerning the most corrupt phases in the decadence of Babylon, Greece and Rome. I appeal now to the champions of individual rights to join me in a protest against a law by which two adult men can be sentenced to twenty years penal servitude for a private act, freely consented to and desired by both, which concerns themselves alone. There is absolutely no justification for the law except the old theological one of making the secular arm the instrument of God’s vengeance. It is a survival from that discarded system with its stonings and burnings; and it survives because it is so unpleasant that men are loath to meddle with it even with the object of getting rid of it, lest they should be suspected of acting in their personal interest.
We are now free to face with the evil of our relic of Inquisition law, and of the moral cowardice, which prevents our getting rid of it. For my own part, I protest against the principle of the law under which the warrants have been issued; and I hope that no attempt will be made to enforce its outrageous penalties in the case of adult men.“