Happily Ever After?

Those of you lucky enough to have caught the staged reading of The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism at Fertile Ground 2020 (still one last chance! Click here.) will likely be wondering how much of it actually happened and how much we authors made up, and also what happened after the Fictional Fabian Food Fight went down. The truth is, as always, right here on the internet (which was kinda predicted by H.G. Wells himself)!

Though based on actual historical events, TIWGTS is a work of fiction. The characters here really did engage in a fierce debate over these issues and the future of socialism and the Fabian Society in 1906-10. But all dialogue is invented by the authors. Most of the debate happened in letters and committee meetings over two years, not in one night at a swanky restaurant.  

 In reality, the fight culminated in a pair of debates at Fabian conferences, with the last one devolving into Wells vs. Shaw. The purported debate was over relatively arcane proposal for a reorganization and rewrite of the organization’s charter, but in reality it came down to who’d run the Fabians: Wells and his younger generation supporters, or the “Old Gang” as they were known of leaders who’d been running it more or less from the outset, including Shaw and Sidney Webb. Wells overreached and Shaw, a master speaker and debater (as Wells acknowledged) unlike Wells, who wrote later he spoke mostly into his necktie, outmaneuvered his younger frenemy, who had to withdraw his proposals in the face of certain defeat, prompting an exodus of his young followers. 

In fact, we were originally going to dramatize the big climactic debate between Shaw and Wells mentioned in the play, but it just wouldn’t have translated to the 21st century stage. (A chastened Wells himself said that he’d been tempted to describe the “tempest in a Fabian teapot”  himself later but thought it would be too boring for anyone to care. We looked it all up in really obscure original pamphlets of the time -- and we agree.) Instead, we translated it into a rock-throwing riot in a cafe on a single night, which was much more fun for all involved, including the audience. 

But the issues they were fighting over were real. 

  • Should the Fabians join up with the emerging Labor Party, as Wells wanted (though he later changed his mind, finding them too-anti-small business)? Eventually they would become a kind of think tank for the party, thanks to Beatrice and Sidney Webb. But there would always be a cultural difference between the laborers who made up the leadership and the Fabian intellectuals whose commitment was less personal.

  • Would your wife be every man’s wife under H.G. Wells’ socialism, as Parliamentary conservatives claimed, thanks to his book In the Days of the Comet, which appeared that year? He did believe in Free Love (what we now call polyamory) but was willing to keep it out of the Fabian playbook. He did advocate for government protection of women and children from abandonment, which cynics saw as a way of sparing serial philanderers like him the need to pay child support.

  • Should Ellen dump Shakespeare for Shaw? That happened a little earlier, and the play she wound up appearing in wasn’t Major Barbara (which was the one Shaw was actually writing at this time, with the title character modeled on Beatrice, to her disdain) but a revival of an earlier Shaw play, Captain Brassbound’s Conversion, which he’d written for her to star in before she got cold feet. 

  • Should Shaw leave politics for playwriting? He’d been trying to make the move for a few years but also felt responsibility to the Fabian Society he’d basically co-founded and helped steer. When Beatrice thought of bringing Wells in to lead them, Shaw was torn: he wanted out but wasn’t sure Wells had the patience with people or sensitivity to compromise to actually get anything done. And he was probably a little resentful of all the attention Wells was getting. 

  • Should Wells take over the Fabians? He thought their policy work might be useful to implementing the socialism he’d long advocated, but was rightly suspicious that the bossy Shaw would keep trying to run things through Wells, whom Shaw wanted to think of as a protege (they’d met years earlier when both were reviewing an Oscar Wilde play) and to whom he was forever Shaw-splaining, even to how to respond to Shaw’s own attacks on his positions in Fabian debates! Shaw really saw himself as a puppet master, and manipulating the characters in his plays proved much easier than getting Wells or Ellen or anyone to do what he was sure was right for everyone. 

  • Could Wells really keep his paws off college students? No. He had affairs with the daughters of prominent Fabians and wound up, as noted in the play, living with one of them in Paris (with the reluctant approval of his beleaguered wife Jane) and, at her request, fathering a child -- until the scandal grew too fierce and they arranged a marriage of convenience to a friend.

After the Fight

In fact, we were originally going to dramatize the big climactic debate between Shaw and Wells mentioned in the play, but it just wouldn’t have translated to the 21st century stage. (A chastened Wells himself said that he’d been tempted to describe the “tempest in a Fabian teapot”  himself later but thought it would be too boring for anyone to care. We looked it all up in really obscure original pamphlets of the time -- and we agree.) Instead, we translated it into a rock-throwing riot in a cafe on a single night, which was much more fun for all involved, including the audience. 

Wells and Shaw and Sidney Webb were elected to the Fabian executive board immediately after the great debate, and Shaw offered the three of them the chance to write a new charter for the organization together. He wanted to keep Wells’s energy -- and his young followers. But Wells’s heart wasn’t in it. He was already tired of the endless debates, he failed to follow up on his commitments, and he was already in great demand as a touring speaker, writer and author, and distracted by his many flings, leaving little time for or interest in committee meetings and organizational politics he later admitted he was no good at. He left the organization quietly, for good, two years later.

Beatrice found it difficult to forgive Wells what she regarded as his mistreatment of Jane and his shameful behavior, though she and Sidney did support his failed run for Parliament the following year and they (and Shaw) always sent each other copies of their new books. Eventually, they did become cordial social acquaintances again, though always with a slight degree of coolness. 

Beatrice led the Fabians from the executive board before retiring, exhausted, during World War I. She and Sidney stayed together till she died, continuing to publish books and articles and to advocate for socialism, although their fervor blinded them (and for awhile, Shaw, though not Wells to Stalin’s horrors, which were really state capitalism, not socialism). Beatrice and Sidney created legacies like our modern welfare state that have long outlived them, and spread even here to benighted America. Medicare, the Oregon Health Plan, school lunch programs — you can thank Beatrice for laying the groundwork. Shaw always said that in his political writings, he was merely “Beatrice Webb’s mouthpiece,” and contributed many to publications she funded, including the influential New Statesman magazine, whose editor fired Shaw after too many disagreements. But Beatrice still talked Shaw into financially supporting it till his death. That magazine, like the London School of Economics (most famous graduate: one Michael Jagger, who went on to become a singer of note), lives on too. 

Shaw and Charlotte also stayed together till her death. And Stella Campbell? She did indeed star in Shaw’s next, and greatest play: Pygmalion. He wrote the part of Eliza Doolittle for her, about a working woman who a smart guy tries to make into something more than she was. Wonder where he got that idea?

Shaw’s writings paved the way for Britain’s welfare state and social democracy. His “The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism” became a big best seller. Even today, for a mere two dollars and 99 pence, one may simply downblog it from somewhere called Amazonia. Shaw won the Nobel Prize for his dramas — and he wrote over a hundred, as many plays as Wells wrote books — history, fiction, essays and more.

Ellen Terry went on to a long career in theater even into her old age. And yes, she married the hot young actor. 

Shaw and Wells kept up a lifelong friendship and correspondence that has been collected in book form (a valuable resource for us), sometimes joining forces, more often debating and disagreeing. Wells asked Shaw once why two people who liked and admired each other so much and agreed on so much always ended up bickering. “You might as well ask why the sky is blue and the leaves are green,” GBS wrote back.  If you care about the truth and making the world better, then you have to fight for your beliefs — without taking it too personally or permanently losing our friendships. That’s something we 21st century American twitters could learn.