The cultural equivalent of Richard M. Nixon’s “You don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore” speech was delivered by a disgruntled forty-one-year-old critic, failed novelist, and undistinguished playwright named George Bernard Shaw in 1898. In his final column as a critic in the then-towering Saturday Review, for which he toiled even as he struggled to get his own plays produced, Shaw lambasted the public for being unworthy of him. “Do I receive any spontaneous recognition for the prodigies of skill and industry I lavish on an unworthy institution and a stupid public?,” he wrote. “Not a bit of it: half my time is spent in telling people what a clever man I am. It’s no use merely doing clever things in England.” He complained, “It is humiliating, too, after making the most dazzling displays of professional ability, to have to tell people how capital it all is. Besides, they get so tired of it, that finally . . . they begin to detest it.”
Well, yes, when you have to notify the public that you’re clever, that does present a problem. Like Nixon, though, Shaw engineered one of history’s great reversals of fortune when, after a quarter of a century of Shaw strenuously seeking the title of genius, the world finally granted it. As late as 1902, the year he turned forty-six, his annual income was only £90—in the neighborhood of £10,000 today. We might not even know Shaw’s name today were it not for the efforts of a single fanatical devotee, the Austrian writer Siegfried Trebitsch, who in that year undertook to translate Shaw’s plays into German and get them produced in central Europe. “Within the year,” writes Shaw’s biographer Michael Holroyd, “Trebitsch began to accomplish what Shaw had been failing to achieve in Britain in more than a decade” by instigating productions of The Devil’s Disciple, Candida, and Arms and the Man. Shaw’s fame in the German-speaking countries shamed Britain, which grew anxious with Continental taste-envy and began to wonder whether it had missed something in the middling playwright. The London theater world created a sensation around Major Barbara,which premiered in his forty-ninth year. Shaw became first a successful playwright, then an even more successful celebrity.