My Astonishing Self: Gabriel Byrne on George Bernard Shaw review: 'If you watch only one celebrity fronted doc this year make it this wonderful film'
If you watch only one celebrity-fronted arts documentary this year — and there’s been no shortage of them to choose from in 2017 — make it this wonderful film.
Written and directed by Gerry Hoban, the man behind last year’s fiery and quirky two-parter A Fanatic Heart: Bob Geldof on Yeats, this is half the length of that production, but arguably twice as informative about its subject.
Which is just as well, because if any writer is in dire need of recognition and rediscovery in his own land, it’s George Bernard Shaw.
Joyce and Beckett are Official Ireland’s literary icons, even though very few among us have actually read them. Whether or not you have a taste for Yeats and Kavanagh, you’re force-fed them at school.
But you won’t find Shaw on the school curriculum. He’s under-appreciated, said Byrne, “the forgotten man of Irish literature. People around Dublin know his name, but perhaps not much else”.
“We probably should have given him greater recognition,” said President Michael D Higgins, one of an impressive roster of contributors that included actors (Ralph Fiennes, Gemma Arterton), theatre directors (Nicholas Hytner, Josie Rourke), historians and journalists (Diarmaid Ferriter, Fintan O’Toole), Shaw biographer Michael Holroyd and comedian Dara O Briain.
The driving force of this excellent, impeccably produced film was the kinship Byrne feels with Shaw. Growing up in Dublin in the 1950s, Byrne felt stifled. “There was some instinct inside me to prove myself against something else,” he said.
When he moved to London in the 1980s, he felt like an outsider. Yet, whenever he returned to Ireland, he felt like he didn’t quite fit in here, either.
Shaw, a Protestant, was similarly ill at ease as a shy young man, eventually feeling neither wholly Irish nor wholly English, even though he spent most of his life in the latter country.
Born into what he called “genteel poverty” in Synge Street (though the family wasn’t so poor as not to be able to afford a nanny, who had a sideline as a prostitute), he was embarrassed about his circumstances, which made his time at the Central Model School in Marlborough Street a deeply unhappy experience.
Shaw’s poverty was nothing like that endured by the working-class of Dublin’s slums, of course, but he saw their deprivation and suffering around him every day, and it appalled him. “There’s the smell of the slums in his nostrils,” said Fintan O’Toole.
It was this burning desire for equality for all that would shape his socialist and feminist beliefs — way ahead of their time — and also inform his plays, including Mrs Warren’s Profession (about prostitution), which scandalised Victorian society, Man and Superman, and his most famous work, Pygmalion — which, despite being sunnily repurposed as the Hollywood musical My Fair Lady, is seriously political as well as seriously funny.
But before the world discovered Shaw, Shaw had to find his place in it. In order to make it in London, he reinvented himself, created a persona. “He had to invent ‘GBS’,” said Michael Holroyd, “he had to become this entertainer.”
In 1904, Shaw enjoyed a residency at the Royal Court — the very theatre where Byrne made his London debut. “He began his run by taking the piss out of the English, and the Irish,” said Byrne. The play was John Bull’s Other Island. David Lloyd George went to see it five times. Edward VII laughed so hard, he broke his chair.
While laughter is what we most associate with Shaw’s plays, a cloud hangs over him: his wrong-headed admiration for fascist dictators. Archive footage from the 1930s captured him praising Hitler and Mussolini, and ending with a fascist salute.
But by then, Shaw was in his 70s, frustrated with democracy’s failure to deliver equality, and naively thought dictators might do a better job. He never admitted in late life that he’d made a terrible mistake.
“He didn’t have the humility to admit he was wrong,” said Fintan O’Toole, “but for all the dark parts of him, he did more than any modern individual to uphold the ideas that everybody could be dignified by their mind, by having the power to think as individuals.”
My Astonishing Self: Gabriel Byrne on George Bernard Shaw is available on RTE Player.