The true things it contains, however, make it worth reading. M. Hamon sees, for instance, what many critics have failed to see, that in his dramatic work Mr. Shaw is less a wit than a humorist:—
In Shaw’s work we find few studied jests, few epigrams even, except those which are the necessary outcome of the characters and the situations. He does not labour to be witty, nor does he play upon words.... Shaw’s brilliancy does not consist in wit, but in humour.
Mr. Shaw was at one time commonly regarded as a wit of the school of Oscar Wilde. That view, I imagine, is seldom found nowadays, but even now many people do not realize that humour, and not wit, is the ruling characteristic of Mr. Shaw’s plays. He is not content with witty conversation about life, as Wilde was: he has an actual comic vision of human society.
His humour, it is true, is not the sympathetic humour of Elia or Dickens; but then neither was Moliere’s. As M. Hamon reminds us, Moliere anticipated Mr. Shaw in outraging the sentiment, for instance, which has gathered round the family. “Moliere and Shaw,” as he puts it with quaint seriousness, “appear to be unaware of what a father is, what a father is worth.”
The defence of Mr. Shaw, however, does not depend on any real or imaginary resemblance of his plays to Moliere’s. His joy and his misery before the ludicrous spectacle of human life are his own, and his expression of them is his own. He has studied with his own eyes the swollen-bellied pretences of preachers and poets and rich men and lovers and politicians, and he has derided them as they have never been derided on the English stage before. He has derided them with both an artistic and a moral energy. He has brought them all into a Palace of Truth, where they have revealed themselves with an unaccustomed and startling frankness. He has done this sometimes with all the exuberance of mirth, sometimes with all the bitterness of a satirist. Even his bitterness is never venomous, however. He is genial beyond the majority of inveterate controversialists and propagandists. He does not hesitate to wound and he does not hesitate to misunderstand, but he is free from malice. The geniality of his comedy, on the other hand, is often more offensive than malice, because it is from an orthodox point of view geniality in the wrong place. It is like a grin in church, a laugh at a marriage service.
It is this that has caused all the trouble about Mr. Shaw’s writings on the war. He saw, not the war so much as the international diplomacy that led up to the war, under the anti-romantic and satirical comic vision. I do not mean that he was not intensely serious in all that he wrote about the war. But his seriousness is essentially the seriousness of (in the higher sense of the word) the comic artist, of the disillusionist. He sees current history from the absolutely opposite point of view, say, to the lyric poet. He was so occupied with his satiric vision of the pretences of the diplomatic world that, though his attitude to the war was as anti-Prussian as M. Vandervelde’s, a great number of people thought he must be a pro-German.