Churchill and George Bernard Shaw: Less than Meets the Eye

Churchill and George Bernard Shaw: Less than Meets the Eye

“Churchill and Shaw” is excerpt­ed and con­densed from my “Great Con­tem­po­raries” arti­cle for the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project. For the com­plete text please click here. (Sub­scribe to reg­u­lar Hills­dale Churchill posts by scrolling to the bot­tom of any page to “Stay in touch with us” and fill­ing in your email.)

“Loud cheers rent the welkin”

Win­ston Churchill was not a hater, with the sin­gu­lar excep­tion of Hitler—“and that,” as he said, “is pro­fes­sion­al.” Churchill also loved the the­atre, and ipso fac­to the plays of George Bernard Shaw. Shaw was a left-wing polemi­cist who in 1931 vis­it­ed and praised Stalin’s Rus­sia. Churchill laughed off Shaw’s pol­i­tics while acknowl­edg­ing his lit­er­ary genius.

Shaw was as enthu­si­as­tic about the Sovi­et Union as Churchill was cen­so­ri­ous. Churchill com­pared Lenin to a typhoid bacil­lus; Shaw called him “the one real­ly inter­est­ing states­man in Europe.” In 1931, Shaw joined a par­ty led by Nan­cy Astor on a well-pub­li­cized Sovi­et tour. Shaw described Stal­in as “a Geor­gian gen­tle­man.” At a Moscow din­ner he declared: “I have seen the ‘ter­rors’ and I was ter­ri­bly pleased by them.”

This was too much for Churchill, who despised hypocrisy. Shaw, after all, had made a for­tune in cap­i­tal­ist Britain. Shaw, Churchill wrote, was “the world’s most famous intel­lec­tu­al Clown and Pan­taloon.” His descrip­tion of Shaw’s Moscow recep­tion was classic:

The Rus­sians have always been fond of cir­cus­es and trav­el­ling shows. Since they had impris­oned, shot or starved most of their best come­di­ans, their vis­i­tors might fill for a space a notice­able void…. Mul­ti­tudes of well-drilled demon­stra­tors were served out with their red scarves and flags. The massed bands blared. Loud cheers from stur­dy pro­le­tar­i­ans rent the welkin….

Com­mis­sar Litvi­noff, unmind­ful of the food queues in the back-streets, pre­pared a sump­tu­ous ban­quet; and arch-Com­mis­sar Stal­in, “the man of steel,” flung open the close­ly guard­ed sanc­tu­ar­ies of the Krem­lin and, push­ing aside his morning’s bud­get of death war­rants and let­tres de cachet, received his guests with smiles of over­flow­ing comradeship.

Exchanges and ripostes

Shaw for his part enjoyed needling Churchill in equable spir­it. In 1928 he sent WSC his mag­num opus, The Intel­li­gent Woman’s Guide to Social­ism and Cap­i­tal­ism. In 1934, Shaw wrote to praise Churchill’s Marl­bor­ough as “very good read­ing [but] bad­ly dam­aged in places by [excess] Macaulayisms.” Cut­ting back on Macaulay “is eas­i­ly with­in your grasp,” he wrote WSC. “And for­give me for med­dling; but the book inter­est­ed me so much I could not keep quiet.”

In 1937, Churchill reprised a 1929 sketch of Shaw in Great Con­tem­po­raries, and Shaw appar­ent­ly enjoyed it. (It is cer­tain­ly worth the read­ing today—Churchill at his lit­er­ary best.) Shaw liked it, but Churchill had described “The Red Flag” (Labour Par­ty hymn) as “the bur­ial march of a mon­key.” Not so, Shaw protest­ed. “The Red Flag” was actu­al­ly “the funer­al march of a fried eel.”

An exchange of barbs denied by both sides

Shaw’s emphat­ic dis­missal in his own hand of the “bring a friend” exchange. (By kind per­mis­sion of Allen Pack­wood, Churchill Archives Cen­tre, CHUR 2/165)

We are con­stant­ly asked to ver­i­fy a famous exchange. Shaw writes: “Am reserv­ing two tick­ets for you for my pre­miere. Come and bring a friend—if you have one.” Churchill replies: “Impos­si­ble to be present for the first per­for­mance. Will attend the second—if there is one.”

Though it’s love­ly repar­tee, both of them denied it.

Five years ago Allen Pack­wood, direc­tor of the Churchill Archives Cen­tre in Cam­bridge, blew the sto­ry apart. In the Churchill Papers he found a set of let­ters (CHUR 2/165/66,68) in which both Shaw and Churchill denied the exchange. The play in ques­tion was “Buoy­ant Bil­lions” (1948).

Adamant denials

On 15 Sep­tem­ber 1949 Derek Tatham, rep­re­sent­ing the Lon­don book­sellers Alfred Wil­son, wrote to Shaw: “Intend to use the fol­low­ing story—have you any objec­tions?” Tatham gave a slight­ly dif­fer­ent ver­sion of Churchill’s reply. He says he will attend the open­ing per­for­mance and give the oth­er tick­et to a friend for the sec­ond per­for­mance, “if there was one.”

An out­raged Shaw scrawled on Tatham’s enclo­sure in his own hand: “The above is not only a flat lie but a polit­i­cal libel which may pos­si­bly dam­age me. Pub­lish it at your per­il, whether in asser­tion or contradiction.”

Undaunt­ed, Tatham wrote to Churchill, say­ing he intend­ed to pub­lish the sto­ry, “togeth­er with this typ­i­cal Sha­vian­ism, in fac­sim­i­le,” in a new mag­a­zine devot­ed to books and lit­er­ary top­ics. Did Mr. Churchill have any comment?

Churchill’s sec­re­tary, Eliz­a­beth Gilli­att, replied emphat­i­cal­ly on the 16th: “I am desired by Mr. Churchill…to inform you that he con­sid­ers Mr. Bernard Shaw is quite right in call­ing the inci­dent to which you refer ‘a flat lie.’”

We have found noth­ing fur­ther on Derek Tatham (H.D.S.P. Tatham). There is no evi­dence of the lit­er­ary mag­a­zine he planned ever being pub­lished. There is no oth­er con­tem­po­rary appear­ance of the Shaw-Churchill exchange. This has not pre­vent­ed it from being wide­ly accept­ed for years. A Google search for “bring a friend, if you have one” nets 77,000 hits. We have not searched all 77,000.

3 thoughts on “Churchill and George Bernard Shaw: Less than Meets the Eye

  1. If Shaw was lying in the ini­tial denial, would Churchill have called him out? I think unlikely.

    A good point, but Shaw’s emphat­ic denial, threat­en­ing to sue any­body who quot­ed it, sug­gests he was fair­ly deter­mined to claim it nev­er exist­ed. Lack­ing any fur­ther proof, we have to take them at their word. -RML

  2. I feel your pain. I’ve dined out on that one a score of times. Here’s what to do. Say they both hot­ly denied it, but if it isn’t true it is so much in char­ac­ter for them both that it ought to be.

  3. I believe this exchange. It has always seemed total­ly in char­ac­ter—- denial just rein­forces it. What proof do I have? None! I like it too much to give it up. If we believed every denial by nota­bles— “I was quot­ed out of con­text” for exam­ple— we would be left with no pub­lic and con­tro­ver­sial state­ments by politicians.

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