By Bill Marx
For any self-respecting Shavian, the major attraction of Canada’s Shaw Festival is the chance to see first-rate productions of plays by GBS and his contemporaries, especially the opportunity to take in ace stagings of scripts that fall outside of the greatest hits list. But during the `80s a close second was the opportunity to talk to the eminent GBS scholar and bibliographer Dan H. Laurence, who died last month at the age of 87.
A literary and dramatic adviser to the Estate of Bernard Shaw (1973-1990), Laurence was appointed as the Shaw Festival’s Literary Adviser in 1983 and served until 1990. I interviewed him a number of times during the late `80s – he spent a good portion of each summer at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario — each conversation another encounter with a one-man Wikipedia of Shaviana who, amazingly, worked without a computer.
His many publications range from his editions of the plays, including one of my favorites, the hardbound Bodley Head, his Bernard Shaw: a bibliography, and a masterpiece of scholarship, his four volumes of Shaw’s Collected Letters, which contain hundreds of pages of GBS’s finest, most entertaining prose. The letters (each missive supplied with Laurence’s illuminating notes) stand as the grievously overlooked Matterhorn of GBS’s genius; I remember asking Laurence to edit a volume of selected correspondence, which would bring the writer’s finest letters into a comfortably compact form.
Laurence talks about what made GBS one of greatest letter writers in English in his preface to Collected Letters 1911-1925:
“Shaw’s artistry assuredly reached its zenith in his correspondence, in its brimming vitality and good nature, its spontaneity, its critical acumen and detachment. Seldom is there anger, but when it surfaces it is impersonal and controlled; where there is chastisement it is complaisant and benevolent. The style is literate, without sign of conscious craftsmanship, bursting with puckish humour, dotted with Dickensian, Shakespearean, or Biblical metaphor, apt historical allusion, musical quotation, and (usually for his translators) amusingly appropriate foreignisms.”
In 1970 Laurence left a post at New York University to move to San Antonio, Texas, which was near GBS’s papers at the Humanities Research Centre in Austin. He had a background in theater, with experience as an actor and director, which explains his theatrical, rather than professorial, demeanor. I remember him not agreeing to sit down for our interviews. He would insist that I follow him – me huffing and puffing, he striding with ease – walking around the grounds of the Shaw’s main theater. I struggled to stick a mic in his face to catch the answers delivered by his commanding voice.
Laurence was a loyalist, sometimes to the point of incredulity. I recall him trying to convince me that Shaw’s embarrassing late play, Geneva, was better than it appeared in the Shaw Festival production. Laurence’s reputation suffered over the past few years because of his public battle with Michael Holroyd, who was chosen by the Shaw Estate to write a biography of GBS. Laurence felt the life of Shaw was his prerogative, and the feud broke out into sniping and insults. The Shaw critical establishment is not happy with Holroyd’s strong-arm Freudian interpretation of Shaw, which was built on the suggestion that GBS’s large-than-life persona was the result of an unhappy, starved-of-parental-affection childhood. Laurence contributed his quota of disdain.
But my memories of Laurence is of a man who was generous with his time and knowledge, whose loving, herculean task of editing the length and breath of GBS’s writing — particularly his fabulous letters — puts Shavians in his debut now and for centuries to come.