George Bernard Shaw’s rural Hertfordshire home, Shaw’s Corner (where he lived from 1906 to 1950), is a marvellous setting for outdoor theatre, and my birthday expedition this year was to a performance of his 1919 play Heartbreak House there on Saturday 26 July. On a glorious summer’s evening the actors put in spirited performances, with Captain Shotover being the star as far as I was concerned; and the first hour or so was very lively, even if the content seemed rather silly at times. But thereafter things got tedious, as the antics of these Chekovian upper-middle-class misfits dragged on and on. Fortunately, there was a revival of interest towards the end, as we saw the war and its Zeppelin attacks impinging on this hapless bunch. The audience (or at least, that part of it sitting around me) seemed as vapidly middle-class as the characters themselves, discussing its latest holidays in Hawaii, Los Angeles or Singapore in the intervals, rather than, say, the current savage Israeli campaign in Gaza.
So in terms of Shaw on the Great War, as we today mark the centenary of its outbreak, I’m inclined to turn away from Heartbreak House itself to the provocative formulations in his 1914 ‘Commonsense on the War’ article, which I quoted in my talk on ‘William Morris and the First World War’ at the Morris Gallery on 19 June. There he finely recommends that ‘both armies should shoot their officers and go home to gather in their harvests in the villages and make a revolution in the towns’, which is pretty much Lenin’s line on that imperialist bloodbath: take the weapons the ruling class gives you, and turn them against that ruling class itself.
My paternal grandfather, Henry Smith Pinkney (1894-68 – pictured above), served in the war with the Royal Artillery in France, and in later years joined the Communist Party of Great Britain, so I can assume that he too would have agreed with the Shaw/Lenin position, at least retrospectively. So in the great national wallowing in emotion we are going to get today from church, government and media, and amidst all the repulsive rhetoric of ‘sacrifice for their country’(pro patria mori), those coldly analytic terms ‘capitalism’ and ‘imperialism’ need to be kept firmly in mind. Working-class lives in their millions were brutally wasted as British and German ruling classes fought over territory and profits, and the only decent thing to come from that four-year spree of industrialised mass-killing was the Bolshevik Revolution itself.