Mr. Shaw’s Insistent Demand

When one breathes Irish air, one becomes a practical man. In England I used to say what a pity it was you did not write a play.

—GEORGE BERNARD SHAW, 1909

Chesterton’s first play, Magic: A Fantastic Comedy in a Prelude and Three Acts, caused a considerable stir when it was first staged in 1913. Despite a mixed reaction from critics, it was in many ways an auspicious debut.

Kevin Belmonte, Defiant Joy: The Remarkable Life & Impact of G. K. Chesterton, from Chapter 17


“He is something of a pagan,” said Chesterton of George Bernard Shaw, “and like many other pagans, he is a very fine man.” The assessment hints at the complexity of their relationship. The prolific playwright, critic, essayist, and Irishman George Bernard Shaw first met Chesterton in 1901. They disagreed about nearly everything, but they remained friends for a tumultuous yet playful 35 years. Of Shaw’s more than 50 plays, American audiences are most familiar with Pygmalion, on which the musical My Fair Lady is based. Shaw wanted Chesterton to write a play as well, but Chesterton repeatedly said no.

In Chapter 17 of Defiant Joy, Kevin Belmonte writes:

Shaw, however, would not take no for an answer. Two and a half years later, on April 5, 1912, he opted for a change in tactics and wrote to Frances. Saying he wished to visit them at Overroads in the near future, he sought to enlist her help in a friendly conspiracy. “I want to read a play to Gilbert,” he said,

“to insult and taunt and stimulate [him] with it. It is a sort of thing he could write and ought to write: a religious harlequinade. In fact, he could do it better if a sufficient number of pins were stuck in him. My proposal is that I read the play to him on Sunday (or at the next convenient date), and that you fall into transports of admiration of it; declare that you can never love a man who cannot write things like that; and definitely announce that if Gilbert has not finished a worthy successor to it before the end of the third week next ensuing, you will go out like the lady in A Doll’s House, and live your own life—whatever that dark threat may mean.”

Do you have a friend who is also an adversary?

D I G  D E E P E R


Kevin Belmonte

Kevin Belmonte holds a BA in English from Gordon College, an MA in Church History from Gordon-Conwell Seminary, and a second master’s degree in American and New England Studies from the University of Southern Maine. He has twice been a finalist for the prestigious John Pollock Award for Christian Biography, and in 2003, his biography, “William Wilberforce,” won that award. On several occasions, he has served as a script consultant for the BBC, and also for the PBS documentary, “The Better Hour.” For six years, he was the lead script and historical consultant for the critically-acclaimed film, “Amazing Grace.” He has spoken in a wide array of noteworthy settings, from the Houses of Parliament in London, and gatherings of legislators in Washington, D.C., to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. For several years, his biography of Wilberforce has been required reading for a course taught by David Gergen on leadership and character formation at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

Sources & Resources

George Bernard Shaw to G. K. Chesterton, 30 October 1909, as quoted in Maisie Ward, Gilbert Keith Chesterton (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1943)

Darren Sumner, “Beloved Enemies,” Christian History Magazine-Issue 75: G.K. Chesterton: Prolific Writer & Apologist (Carol Stream, IL: Christianity Today, 2002).

Kevin Belmonte, Defiant Joy: The Remarkable Life & Impact of G. K. Chesterton (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2011).

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Rick Wilcox

Editor in Chief | Literary Life