George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde & LGBT Advocacy
Granted, that was in another country, and well over a century ago. But landmark trials are less about the parties involved than they are about the law. The Prop 8 case will be less a referendum on the fate of Kristin Perry and her wife, and more a referendum on what sorts of issues the people of California can address via referendum. Regina v. Wilde would decide, for nearly a hundred years anyway, which was more legitimate, Wilde’s personal sexuality or the law forbidding its carnal expression.
Almost thirty years after Wilde’s death, both the UK and USA were up for another legal tangle involving homosexuality and literature, charging that the sapphic novel, "The Well of Loneliness" by Radclyffe Hall, was obscene. Britain ruled it so, but American courts (one in New York’s jurisdiction) let it pass.
What these last two cases, three decades apart, have in common is an ancillary figure who objected to both proceedings and sought relief for each defendant. Like Wilde, he was a witty Irish expat devoted to the theater. And like "The Well of Loneliness," he made his first American appearance in 1928, 85 years ago this August.
George Bernard Shaw first made his mark as a critic and ended his career as an author of theatrical masterpieces. But he never lost his flair for expressing an opinion, and it was rarely one that Victorian society found agreeable. Arguably one of the most progressive individuals of his age, his advocacies seem prescient enough now to make Lady Gaga’s meat dress stunts resemble so much chopped liver.
His promotion of pacifism, vegetarianism, anti-vivisectionism, and feminism isn’t exactly controversial today. His views have gained enough acceptance, if not outright adoption, to make one wish he had pushed for the Second Avenue Subway (in a depressing reminder, construction on this line actually began when Shaw was still alive). Even his aversion to vaccination has found support among many in the home-school crowd, which is not too far a cry from Shaw’s largely autodidact education. He was antagonistic towards traditional marriage, religion and profiteering, and was a devoted member of the Fabian Society, a group that preached the kind of socialism that was actually socialism.
Motivated by human rights
"More than anything, Shaw was motivated by human rights," says David Staller, the Artistic Director of Project Shaw, which produces monthly readings of the playwright’s work, featuring some of New York’s most celebrated stage actors. Recent participants have included Tony winners Richard Easton, Tyne Daly and Nikki M. James, plus scores of others.
There next reading is of "Too Good To Be True" on June 24th. Click here for more information.
"I founded this eight years ago because George W. Bush was reelected and I was concerned about human rights," Staller maintains. When asked if he’d mind being quoted on what some patrons might consider a provocative statement, he stalwartly responded, "Oh, I wish you would."
Staller’s own sensitivity to human rights began in childhood. After his parents split, Staller spent summers visiting his father in London, who lived there with a male partner. Homosexuality would not be legalized in England until 1967 (and not throughout the UK as a whole until 1982).
For years he has shared a letter attributed to Shaw, decrying the British laws against homosexuality. It reads in part:
"[W]e may presently be saddled with the moral responsibility for monstrously severe punishments inflicted ... on others whose conduct ... has been perfectly within their admitted rights as individuals."
The letter goes on, unelliptically:
"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."
Staller notes the reaction to the letter has often been contentious. "People have threatened me," he says. "They accuse me of making it up."
To be sure, a Google search turns up plenty about Shaw, but almost nothing about Shaw’s views on homosexuality and its legal status during his time. For a man with such an eclectic array of causes, and a man of the arts at that, who surely would have been personally acquainted with gays and lesbians, the silence is striking. The only other source for Shaw’s letter came from an online blog post, which credits Staller as the source for the editorial. The internet being what it is, one wonders where this letter came from.
"The letter was written by Shaw on November 26, 1889, to Henry Labouchere’s weekly journal, ’Truth,’" confirms Sir Michael Holroyd, one of Britain’s leading biographers, and author of the most acclaimed one of Shaw, a four-volume chronicle published between 1988-92.
"Labouchere was an influential member of Parliament who was responsible for adding an amendment to the criminal law under which Wilde was brought to court. He considered the two years’ hard labor inadequate punishment. So Shaw was writing to a paper that would hardly be sympathetic to his opinions."
The Labouchere Amendment is the equivalent of Jim Crow in LGBT history, at least in Britain. In one of those quirky twists that can only come from a parliamentary system, the dreaded law was put forth by a member of the self-described Liberal Party. Labouchere’s own private life tangoed on the border between irony and hypocrisy. Allegedly agnostic, he was also a theater producer and sired an out-of-wedlock child with one of his actresses. He would ultimately marry his child’s mother when her first husband died.
Labouchere felt Wilde’s sentence was too lenient, and wanted to see the writer serve at least seven years in prison. Shaw, for his part, devised a petition for remission of Wilde’s sentence altogether.
"But he couldn’t find anybody else to sign it," says Holroyd. "So he withdrew it."
Of course, for a man whose profession was to make a literal spectacle of his worldview, this reticence to go it alone seems out of character. As the "quintessential Ibsenite," surely worse things could be said him than that he stood against the world, in favor of what he considered a just cause.
"Shaw believed there was a difference between justice and punishment," argues Holroyd. He didn’t think much of punishment, the biographer says, and there was the risk that unless he could muster more than a solitary hiccup of objection to Wilde’s sentence, then Wilde’s punishment might be exacerbated by the niggling.
This is an assessment with which Staller agrees. He asserts that Wilde had a very influential effect on Shaw, and Project Shaw intends to explore that on October 21 with a reading of Wilde’s short stories.
"Shaw wrote characters who were gay," Staller emphasizes, pointing out a character unsubtly named Lesbia in the play "Getting Married," which has been on Broadway four times since 1916, last produced there in 1991. The role of The Man in "Village Wooing," according to Holroyd, was based on pioneer biographer (and another Holroyd subject) Lytton Strachey, an acknowledged homosexual. A character in Shaw’s novel "Immaturity," Hawkshaw, was based on Wilde himself.
His point, says Holroyd, was "that various preferences in sexual relations were part of normal human nature."
During Wilde’s imprisonment, as his image was being redacted from the national psyche (producers would remove his name from productions of his own plays), Shaw worked just as hard to keep it visible, mentioning him in articles and notices. A mere six months after Wilde’s conviction, Shaw publically nominated his name as one of the "immortals" suited for membership in a proposed academy of letters, an idea inspired by the noted body in France.
But was this enough for the original artist-activist? Wouldn’t a tighter clenched fist have been expected of a man who personally knew people subject to this sort of persecution, who personally knew someone being punished? Or might his views have simply been the trappings of a narcissistic eccentricity, so many meat dresses?
"I wish he had said more about sexual rights," acknowledges Staller. "Shaw told us to love ourselves," he says, a message he repeats to several interest groups on his lecture circuit. "If I ever read anything where Shaw [contradicted] that, I couldn’t do this anymore."
It strikes one that even for the 19th century, Shaw’s most promulgated views were hardly dangerous, just different. Eschewing meat, rather than chewing it, wasn’t illegal, and letting one’s wife speak her mind made a man henpecked, not hangable.
Even professional socialism was more a hobby for intellectual men of leisure, unlikely to provoke serious threat and jeopardize their royalties or inheritances. And the Fabians didn’t think much of violence anyway.
But Wilde was barely-living proof that being gay carried a heavy penalty indeed, something far more severe than a snide review or monocled sneer.
One of the passages from Shaw’s letter to "Truth" supposes that men failed to protest laws like the Labouchere Amendment "lest they should be suspected of acting in their personal interest." If Shaw voiced too loud an opposition on this issue, might he risk more than he felt prudent, perhaps being outed, or at least presumed gay himself, and open to the legal consequences of the time?
Shaw’s own sexuality has been the subject of speculation, and fueled by the nature of his marriage, which most scholars contend was never consummated. But Holroyd doesn’t believe that Shaw was gay himself, and a celibate matrimony offers no valid rebuttal. In the autobiographical "Sixteen Self Sketches," Shaw states that he found chastity to be as much a passion as the intellect, and that a union between two young people with a fruitful womb "must not be lumped in with childless partnerships between middle-aged people who have passed the age at which the bride can safely bear a first child."
The Supreme Court has entertained arguments with such a slant in Hollingsworth, and Shaw seems to have penned a rejoinder to them all:
"Do not forget that all marriages are different."
"My own view is that Shaw loved his mother very much," says Holroyd. "But his mother didn’t love him. So he resolved never to put himself in that situation again." A companion can be as stimulating as a lover, the supposition goes, when nothing more is expected. And Shaw didn’t need to be gay in order to stand by what he said in his letter to "Truth."
As an ardent feminist, Holroyd reminds us, he would gain no direct or inherent benefit from that crusade. Yet many of his plays read like a preemptive answer to the chronic, modern complaint of the dearth of bold and dynamic roles for women. Indeed, the traditional social roles of men and women are plumbed in Shaw’s 1897 comedy "You Never Can Tell," in which twins Gloria and Philip represent "reassigned" gender roles as a matter of course. Project Shaw is slated to co-produce a full run of the play with the Pearl Theatre Company in the autumn.
Nor was Shaw necessarily afraid of being hauled into court for his principles, according to Holroyd.
"I think Shaw risked going to jail when he took part in the Bloody Sunday march through London on November 13, 1887, and also when he refused to give the Inland Revenue any details of his wife’s income."
Neither Holroyd nor Staller can point to any specific correspondence between Wilde and Shaw following the trial. Their personal relationship always dragged a shadow of ambivalence behind it, two men with a great deal in common, but almost accidentally. Shaw left Dublin for London to become something he wasn’t, Wilde to escape what he was.
"He did what he could," Holroyd says of Shaw’s support for Wilde. "But he was not good at tragedy, really. He was a comedian."
Project Shaw stages monthly readings at the Players Club in Manhattan. For information about their mission and programming, visit www.projectshaw.com or call 212-352-3101. Their next reading is "Too True To Be Good" on Monday, June 24, 2013, 7pm, at The Players, 16 Gramercy Park South, NYC, NY. $30. For tickets and more information, call 212-355-7823 or visit The Project Shaw website.
Sir Michael Holroyd is one of Britain’s foremost literary biographers, whose works have been in print since 1964. He was awarded the CBE in 1989 and knighted in 2007 for services to English Literature. He is the recipient of the Golden PEN Award, the David Cohen Prize for Literature, and many others. In addition to his four-volume life of George Bernard Shaw, he has written biographies of Augustus John, Lytton Strachey, and the families of Ellen Terry and Henry Irving, as well as a memoir, "Basil Street Blues" (2008). His latest book, "A Book of Secrets: Illegitimate Daughters, Absent Fathers," as well as several other titles, is available on Amazon. For more information, visit: http://www.amazon.com/wiki/Michael_Holroyd/ref=ntt_at_bio_wiki
"The Well of Loneliness," by Radclyffe Hall, is also available on Amazon, and can be read online via Project Gutenberg Australia.
Project Shaw photo information: FIRST ROW: Victor Slezak, Jeremy McCarter (writer), Mara Davi, Donna Lynne Champlin, Israel Horovitz (writer),; SECOND ROW: Tom Viola, David Cote (writer), Michael Feingold (writer), Sean Dugan, Jim Brochu,; THIRD ROW: Simon Jones, Josh Grisetti, Robert Simonson (writer).