February 21, 2018

The Last Days of GBS

On this day in 1950 George Bernard Shaw died at the age of ninety-four. Up to his very last months, Shaw was able to maintain his writing and political campaigning; to the very end, he maintained his often irascible, always redoubtable spirit. One young journalist who had interviewed Shaw on his 90th birthday, and had said he hoped to interview him again on his 100th, was told: "I don't see why not; you look healthy enough to me." But the barrage of tribute and wonder that came with each passing birthday found Shaw less receptive and, said his housekeeper, "a prisoner in his own house." By his 94th birthday, and after having read in The Times that he had spent a "restful" day, Shaw was ready to explode:
    Restful!!! Restful, with the telephone and the door bell ringing all day! With the postmen staggering under bushels of letters and telegrams! With the lane blocked by cameramen, televisors, photographers, newsreelers, interviewers, all refusing to take No for an answer. And I with a hard day's work to finish in time for the village post. Heaven forgive The Times. I cannot.
Several months later, he broke his leg in a fall in his garden. Though the leg-setting operation was successful, Shaw saw the future and wanted no part of it. When one hospital visitor asked how he was feeling, he replied, "Everyone asks me that, and it's so silly when all I want is to die, but this damned vitality of mine won't let me." Another visitor, attempting to console Shaw by telling him to "think of the enjoyment you've given, and the stimulus," was referred to his famous literary prostitute: "You might say the same of any Mrs Warren." To the doctor who said he might live to a 100 if he would submit to more treatment, Shaw replied by going home -- entering his house behind a large canvas screen held up by his chauffeur and gardener to defeat the gaping crowd. To his housekeeper's admonition that he should not talk about dying, being a national institution, Shaw asked what he had always asked: "What's the good of trying to repair an ancient monument?" Out of kindness, he would take a sip of her special soups, but no more: "How much longer do you want me to lie here paralyzed and be watched like a monkey by those outside?" His last words, just before slipping into the one-day coma that preceded his death, were those of one who had made his own final decision, or at least looked it in the eye: "I am going to die."

As reported in Michael Holroyd's biography, from which much of the above is taken, the news caused the Indian cabinet to adjourn, theater audiences in Australia to rise for two minutes' silence, and the lights on Broadway and in Times Square to be dimmed. Shaw eschewed Westminster Abbey and a public ceremony, but he would have been pleased by two of the 500 who gathered informally: one was a Cockney woman who predicted, "We'll never see his like again"; one was a representative of the women's movement, who unfurled a banner proclaiming G. B. S. "one of our best friends during our fight for the vote," and was escorted elsewhere by the police.

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