The Last of GBS

November 2: On this day in 1950, George Bernard Shaw died at the age of ninety-four. Each birthday throughout Shaw's last decade had brought a barrage of tribute and wonder, and on his 94th, after having read in the Times that he had spent a "restful" day, Shaw was ready to explode:

Restful!!! Restful, with the telephone and the door bell ringing all day! With the postmen staggering under bushels of letters and telegrams! With the lane blocked by cameramen, televisors, photographers, newsreelers, interviewers, all refusing to take No for an answer. And I with a hard day's work to finish in time for the village post. Heaven forgive The Times. I cannot.

Several months later, he broke his leg in a fall in his garden. Though the leg-setting operation was successful, Shaw found the recuperation tiresome. When one hospital visitor asked how he was feeling, he replied, "Everyone asks me that, and it's so silly when all I want is to die, but this damned vitality of mine won't let me." Another visitor, attempting to console Shaw by telling him to "think of the enjoyment you've given, and the stimulus," was referred to his famous literary prostitute: "You might say the same of any Mrs Warren." To the doctor who said he might live to a 100 if he would submit to more treatment, Shaw replied by going home, entering his house behind a large canvas screen held up by his chauffeur and gardener to shield him from the gaping crowd. He would take a sip of his housekeeper's special soups only out of kindness: "How much longer do you want me to lie here paralyzed and be watched like a monkey by those outside?"

 

As reported in Michael Holroyd's biography, from which much of the above is taken, the news of Shaw's death caused the Indian cabinet to adjourn, theater audiences in Australia to rise for two minutes' silence, and the lights on Broadway and in Times Square to be dimmed. In the Shavian spirit, he declined having his ashes interred in Westminster Abbey, requesting instead that they be mixed with those of his wife and spread about the statue of Saint Joan in the garden of his home in Ayot St. Lawrence, Hertfordshire. A 1902 Arts & Crafts estate, "Shaw's Corner" is maintained by the National Trust just as Shaw left it, his tweedy suits still hanging in the closet.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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