laurence housman and bernard shaw


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  • LAURENCE HOUSMAN AND BERNARD SHAWAuthor(s): Katherine Lyon MixSource: Shaw, Vol. 6 (1986), pp. 81-90Published by: Penn State University PressStable URL: .Accessed: 15/06/2014 20:45

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  • Katherine Lyon Mix


    Bernard Shaw and Laurence Housman, younger brother of poet A. E. Housman of A Shropshire Lad, were well known to each other, and to London literary circles, by the middle 1890s. Shaw had come to London from Dublin in 1876, and Housman from Worcestershire in 1887. Housman intended to study art, but soon abandoned his black-and-white illustrating for a free-lance career as a writer. For both men, drama soon became the preferred medium, but Shaw, nearly ten years older than Housman, was an established playwright while Housman was still publishing fairy tales.

    In 1946 Shaw wrote to Housman, who had apparently been troubled by some misunderstanding, "As to the fancied offence, it is widely off the target. Our cordial relations for forty years have never been clouded for an instant. Charlotte would say the same if she were available."1 Shaw's wife had died in 1943.

    Shaw had underestimated the length of their friendship, which had begun in the nineties when both were members of the Bohemian group that met at the home of Edith Nesbit, the poet, and her Fabian Socialist husband Hubert Bland. It was Edith who introduced Hous- man to Shaw when she took him to the City Temple to hear Shaw in informal debate with Belfort Bax.2 In the discussion which followed Housman said if the working class were paid higher wages they wouldn't know how to use them properly. Shaw so demolished him that he never made such a statement again, but at the moment he didn't like Shaw.3

    During the 1890s both men wrote busily but both escaped the mantle of the fin de sicle though Shaw had an essay "On Going to Church" in the Savoy and Housman two drawings in the Yellow Book. The Wilde scandal affected them differently; Shaw drew up a petition to the Home Secretary for a mitigation of Wilde's sentence while Housman was discreetly silent. However, it has been said that in the

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    Pencil sketch of Laurence Housman by G.B.S., dated 13 October 1910. Reproduced by permission of the Iconography Collection, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Cen- ter, University of Texas at Austin.

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    last year of Wilde's life Housman and Shaw, dining at the Caf Royal, took up a collection for Wilde, and Housman carried the money to Paris to pay Wilde's debts.4

    By then Shaw as a new playwright had already suffered from the Lord Chamberlain's banning of Mrs Warrens Profession from presen- tation on the stage. In 1902 Housman began his own dramatic career with a mystery play, Bethlehem, which was also banned by the censor, not for any indecency but because the Holy Family could not be por- trayed in the theater. Housman was furious and at once joined the band of dramatists - among them Shaw, Barrie, Galsworthy, and Su- tro - who were actively protesting the Lord Chamberlain's censor- ship.

    Shaw's plays were usually produced by the Stage Society until in 1904 Harley Granville Barker and John Vedrenne assumed manage- ment of the Court Theatre in Sloane Square as a venue for Shaw's plays. Granville Barker was a talented young actor and producer. Housman had seen him as Eugene in Candida and so admired him that he had asked for an introduction, which led to Barker suggesting that they write a play together. Prunella or Love in a Dutch Garden, a fantasy play, was the result. Barker borrowed the money from Profes- sor Gilbert Murray to produce it at the Court, where it lost money at every performance. Shaw liked Prunella, but he advised Housman to write his next play without Barker.5

    He did just that, though he had Barker's advice and approval when he brought to light The Chinese Lantern. Barker and Vedrenne had now taken over the Haymarket and Shaw's Getting Married was doing well there. However, Shaw thought that younger men not so well known, like Housman and Masefield, should also be given a chance, and so The Chinese Lantern was announced and Getting Married with- drawn. Shaw thought, he wrote to Vedrenne, that "something more fantastic" than his own plays, or Barker's or Pinero's, would be "safer" - Housman's, for example. But Housman's new play was even a worse fiasco than his first. Shaw counted up the cost in pounds and pence, in time and effort, and the Lantern was extinguished.6

    About this time Barker had written his own play, a political tragedy called Waste. It had been promptly banned because of its mention of abortion. For the play to be copyrighted it had to have a public read- ing and this was given on 28 January 1908 in the morning at the Savoy with a distinguished but largely amateur cast: Mrs. H. G. Wells, Mr. and Mrs. Bernard Shaw, Mr. and Mrs. H. Granville Barker (Har- ley had now married the actress Lilian McCarthy), William Archer, and Laurence Housman as the hero, Henry Trebell.7

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    Housman had found no difficulty in the licensing of his plays Pru- nella and The Chinese Lantern, but when he gave Gertrude Kingston his four-act play Pains and Penalties to open her little theater on John Street in 1910, matters were different. The play was a vindication of the honor of Queen Caroline, whom George IV had divorced for adultery. In Housman's version the king and his mistress, Mrs. FitzHerbert, are the offenders and the queen is innocent. Housman believed this had been the true situation, but the censor would have none of it, decreeing that relatives of the present Royal Family could not be presented on the stage. No arguments of Housman moved him. The play had one performance by the Pioneer Players; in the interval after act one, a group of embattled playwrights passed a mo- tion against the newly appointed censor, who had written a play in which a character called Mr. Bleater had written a play Sewage.8 Shaw called Pains and Penalties a "chronicle play," saying it was hundreds of years since a chronicle play had been written for the English stage.9

    Dramatists, critics, and men of the theater so bedevilled Parliament on the censorship issue that eventually a Parliamentary Committee was appointed to hear complaints. Sessions dragged on day after day. Housman and Shaw fought shoulder to shoulder until Housman pro- posed a King's Proctor who would advise a manager as to the propri- ety of a play he was considering. Shaw was definitely opposed. He argued that no individual would have the legal knowledge to advise on all subjects,10 and the King's Proctor never appeared.

    Play censorship was not the only problem stirring controversy in the first decade of this century. Votes for Women was turning the British public into Suffragettes and Anti-Suffragettes. Housman joined the men's branch of the Women's Civil and Political League and threw himself wholeheartedly into the fight. He spoke, wrote, devised strategy, and was arrested for the cause. Shaw was more re- strained. He did sign a petition and said he thought women were particularly fitted to be voters,11 but he refused to speak for them. However, when women prisoners who refused to eat were being forc- ibly fed, he took the platform at Kingsway Hall on 23 March 1913 with the subject, "Torture by Forcible Feeding is Illegal." But he ex- plained he meant for all prisoners, not merely women. He began, "I am not a suffragette speaker," going on to say he had become hard- ened to that reproach having heard it so often at home and from his friend Mr. Laurence Housman.12

    On another occasion Housman persuaded him to come to a meet- ing in honor of Mr. Wicks, who had been arrested for failure to pay his wife's inhabited dwelling tax, a Suffragist ploy. Housman knew

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    Shaw's appearance would ensure a good audience. However, Shaw had no sympathy for Mr. Wicks, declaring that if his wife vio