Written as a radio play to commemorate the Morris centenary, but never performed.
Although based on historical characters this is a work of imagination; there was no such meeting between Yeats and Shaw – this is an attempt to imagine what they might have said, not a record of what they did say. Apart from a few lines of Yeats’ poetry, and some brief phrases, the dialogue is original.
George Bernard SHAW: An old man’s voice, but very clear and firm; just a slight trace of an Irish accent; speaks rather rapidly. In the underlined passages Shaw functions as a narrator, and his voice should sound slightly different, with an ‘indoor’ rather than an ‘outdoor’ resonance.
William Butler YEATS: An elderly voice, but not so old as Shaw. The Irish accent is much more pronounced.
Clara HAMMOND: The voice of an elderly woman, but vigorous and firm, almost raucous. There is a clear element of working-class Londoner in the voice, but it is not caricaturally cockney. In the underlined passage Clara functions as a narrator in the same manner as Shaw.
William MORRIS: The voice of an educated Victorian, clear and concise, but with a resonant warmth.
The MASTER of an Oxford college, a HECKLER, two DEMONSTRATORS.
* * * * * * *
[OUTDOORS. OCCASIONAL SOUNDS OF WIND.]
SHAW [narrating] It is Saturday, the 3rd of October, 1936. The scene is a country churchyard, the cemetery at Kelmscott in Oxfordshire. It is a fine autumn afternoon, though quite a strong breeze is blowing.
Around the small church, weather-worn graves are scattered among the trees. In the foreground is a low simple grave, with a top like a house roof, looking almost like a large dog-kennel. It bears a simple design and the inscription ‘WILLIAM MORRIS 1834-96′.
An old man approaches. He is tall and very straight, but the signs of age are all too visible. His bald head is high and domed, and he sports a beard.
[A CLOCK STRIKES THREE.]
He stops in front of Morris’s grave. It is George Bernard Shaw, world-renowned playwright and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, one of the pioneers of Fabian socialism. He is narrating his own arrival rather after the manner of the stage directions in his own plays.
He has come to pay tribute to Morris on the fortieth anniversary of his death. Fortieth anniversaries are not generally much celebrated, but Shaw believes. wrongly as it happens, that he will not still be alive when the fiftieth anniversary comes in 1946.
SHAW [as though making a speech] It is forty years today since William Morris died. They would like us to remember Morris simply for his poetry, or for his wallpaper, or as a sentimental apologist for a pre-industrial society. Morris was indeed a great writer and a great designer. But if you never heard him speak to a hall filled with several hundred working men, you could not begin to understand the magnetism that he was able to exercise. He had a moral power that burned within him, which convinced you that the world didn’t need to be riddled with poverty and war and hypocrisy, which told you that humanity was capable of organising itself in a better way.
Morris was above all a practical socialist. He could have had the Nobel Prize if there had been such a thing in his day, but he would stand on the street corner and sell newspapers, or climb onto a wooden stand and lecture to groups of by-standers.
We Fabians had many disagreements with William Morris. We rejected his talk of revolution in favour of slow permeation of the institutions of the state. We won the battle for the soul of the Labour Party, and the followers of Morris were left on the margins of the political struggle. When Labour came to power the results were not so impressive. Ramsay MacDonald’s cabinet had eight Fabians in it; but when the test came, he fled screaming into the arms of his enemy. Morris would never have run away.
Meanwhile in Russia Lenin was following the path that Morris had marked out. We thought he was a wild-eyed creature out of a novel by Conrad or Dostoevsky. Now I think it is time to recognise that on the important things Morris was right.
YEATS He was right about more things than you could ever understand, you rancorous old logician.
SHAW [narrating] Shaw has been so intent on his rather pompous little speech that he has not noticed the new arrival. It is another old man, though perhaps ten years younger than Shaw. He is not quite so tall, nor so straight, and he walks slowly, but there is a sense of almost mystical power about him. It is William Butler Yeats, also a Nobel Prize winner, one of the great poets of the twentieth century and a leading figure in the movement for an Irish national literature. He too has chosen the fortieth anniversary of Morris’s death to pay his tribute, believing, rightly in his case, that he will not live to see the fiftieth. Shaw greets him warmly, pleased to see this figure from his past still alive and well.
SHAW Why Yeats, you mystical old noodle, what a joy to see you. I thought you were still in Majorca with your Indian swami.
YEATS No, I have been back in Dublin these three months; and I am in England to make a radio broadcast. But the Eastern wisdom I gained is still with me.
SHAW Did he turn your brain as well as emptying your pockets?
YEATS Your frivolity is your tragic flaw, the fatal weakness that undermines a great mind.
SHAW [in an assumed Irish accent] Sure ’tis only the sense of humour that we Irish are famous for.
YEATS You should study the philosophy of the East; it might help you to see the unity of being below the surface of things.
SHAW I’ve travelled to the East. I was in Japan.
YEATS I suppose you didn’t even look at the Buddhist temples.
SHAW I did indeed. But any Irishman has grown up with two religions, the Catholic and the Protestant, and neither one truer than the other. If you’ve seen two religions, you’ve seen them all. Strip away the decorations on the surface, and all religions are the same.
YEATS Strip away the paint from the surface, and the canvasses of all the great paintings are the same. You’ve no sense of beauty, Shaw, and that’s why you’re a lesser man than Morris.
SHAW That is perhaps the feeblest insult I have received in eighty years of being insulted. I cannot think of any person I have met, still living or now dead, who was not a lesser man than Morris.
YEATS At last you’ve spoken the truth. I’ve not come here today to spar with you like puppets in a play. I’ve come to pay my homage to William Morris, forty years under the soil, but more alive today than most who pass for being such. He was the greatest man I ever met, and if I could choose to live the life of a human being other than myself, then I have no doubt that I should live Morris’s.
SHAW Yet I thought you had abandoned all sympathy with the socialists many years ago. I remember you attended a few meetings at Morris’s home, but that you soon gave up.
YEATS Indeed I did, and I have no regrets at leaving that tawdry company, except that it took me away from Morris himself, who was as out of place among those grubbers and sharers as a peacock in a pig-sty.
SHAW I wonder if you could have lived Morris’s life. It was not all poetry. Morris spent a good deal of his time on the details of practical politics, writing articles and lecturing to the working men you despise so much.
YEATS Perhaps that was his tragic flaw. But if he dug the ground with his own bare hands, instead of leaving it to his servants, he never surrendered himself to the dung and the root-crops. Read that beautiful dream-tale of his, ‘News from Nowhere’. In his future golden age there will be no politics, just as there are no snakes in Iceland.
SHAW Morris never used the future as an alibi to spare himself the tasks of the present.
YEATS That was his tragedy; Morris was not outside the condition of the human species. Some men are born to be leaders; they have the breath of poetry upon them, they shine with a light more radiant than that of the common mob. Morris knew of a beauty in life that is hidden from most of us.
Such men were born to be leaders, to be like Moses in the desert and show the way to the rest of us. If Morris had a fault, it was a most Christ-like one; in the joy of his own enlightenment he could not bear that any other should be deprived of the joy he had tasted. So he dreamt that old, sad, lying dream of a world in which all were poets and none breakers of stone. He wasted his talent by carrying a burden along with the other mules, instead of realising that he was not a mule at all, but a gazelle.
If Morris had had one touch of genius more, enough to recognise himself for the genius he was, he could have been a true leader. He could have been the Saviour of the Twentieth Century, the Messiah…
HAMMOND He wouldn’t have made much of a Mussolini, you know. He wasn’t good at strutting and posing.
SHAW [narrating] The two men look round to see a new arrival who has approached without either of them noticing, doubtless because both suffer from the deafness of old age. It is a woman of about seventy years of age. She is short but sturdy, with a face that is worn and lined, showing the signs of many hardships and privations; yet behind the wrinkles it is possible to see a personality of great force; there is still the flame of life in her grey eyes. Both men gape for a few seconds, wondering who she is.
YEATS Who are you? What are you doing here?
SHAW Madam, I’m afraid we don’t know you, but we welcome you to our company nonetheless.
HAMMOND I’m very grateful, although since the churchyard is a public place, I have as much right to be here as anyone else. I don’t have the grasp of fine words that you two gentlemen have, so I brought my small tribute to William Morris.
SHAW [narrating] She is carrying flowers, a cheap bunch acquired from the florist in a nearby town.
HAMMOND I didn’t intend to intrude on your conversation, just to make my gesture and leave in silence. But when I heard Mr Yeats here comparing Morris to a fascist duce I couldn’t hold my tongue.
YEATS I hold no brief for Signor Mussolini, nor for any politician of this vile age; but the truth of the situation is that he has brought order and discipline to a country that was in sore need of them. One day our Irish nation will get the leader it needs.
HAMMOND Perhaps you aspire to the job yourself.
YEATS No, madam, I am an old man and the clothes hang loose on my bones. But the people are weak and wild; they need a leader.
HAMMOND Tell that to Amadeo Bordiga, a great orator with a brain like a razor, thrown into jail by Mussolini. Tell that to Antonio Gramsci, the hunchback from Sardinia who became his nation’s greatest thinker. Gramsci, a man like Morris, who could tie poetry to politics without devaluing either of them. Mussolini’s prosecutor said: ‘We must prevent this brain from functioning for twenty years’, and hurled him into a prison cell. Now Gramsci’s health is broken and he lies waiting for death. Franco’s men have butchered Lorca and Hitler is burning books in the street. Ireland would be no place for a poet if O’Duffy and the Blue Shirts had taken over, as you hoped at one time, though I believe you’ve now thought better of it.
SHAW We can hardly embark on a campaign of mutual political assassination before we have been introduced. Though you clearly were a friend of Morris, I’m afraid I don’t remember you. Old men’s memories begin to fade.
HAMMOND I remember you clearly enough, Mr Shaw and Mr Yeats. I was greatly in awe of you when I first encountered such talented men. As I’ve followed your careers since, the level of awe has fallen rather rapidly.
You won’t remember me; I was one of the rabble. One of the young working men and women that Morris used to bring along to meet the poets and thinkers he consorted with. My name’s Clara Hammond – or that’s the name Morris knew me by.
YEATS Clara Hammond…? Surely you are not a real person, but a character in Morris’s book ‘News from Nowhere’.
HAMMOND I’m real enough. You can feel if you like.
SHAW [narrating] Yeats makes as if to squeeze her arm; then, recalling that the lusts of the flesh are behind him, withdraws his hand.
HAMMOND Morris borrowed my name for his novel. Quite a compliment. But before you interrogate me further, I must get some water for these flowers.
SHAW [narrating] She walks away towards the church. Yeats turns to Shaw with a questioning look.
YEATS I have no memory of her; do you think she is genuine?
SHAW I doubt it. How do you think she got here? She doesn’t look the class of person to own a car, and I cannot imagine how else she would have reached this place.
YEATS Shall we send her packing?
SHAW As she points out, we can’t exclude her from a churchyard; and it would scarcely be fitting tribute to Morris to drive a working woman away.
YEATS So what do you suggest?
SHAW That we continue as we were doing, remembering Morris. A familiarity with Morris is not so easy to counterfeit; he was an extraordinary man in every respect. We shall soon find out whether she is genuine or not.
SHAW [narrating] Miss Hammond returns, carrying a small jar of water with her. As she places the flowers by the grave, Yeats turns to her, eager to begin his examination of her credentials.
YEATS Were you the young woman who used to come to Morris’s house at Hammersmith? The one with the glorious yellow hair?
HAMMOND I’m glad you remember those days, Mr Yeats. But I’m sure my hair never imprinted itself on your poetic imagination. It was ruined by the age of fifteen, through carrying boxes on my head in the match-factory.
SHAW So tell us something of yourself, for the debate can hardly be balanced while we are public figures and you remain a woman of mystery.
HAMMOND I was born the same year as Mr Yeats, in 1865. A good year to be born, for I was just of an age to have schooling. Otherwise I might have gone through life like my mother, unable to read and write. Instead I had the luxury of sitting at my desk until the ripe age of ten. Then I went to the match-factory. You knew something of the truth of my situation, Mr Shaw, for you put it in the finest play you ever wrote, ‘Mrs Warren’s Profession’.
YEATS His finest play! I protest! It was a piece of naturalist vulgarity which he did well to work out of his system.
HAMMOND It was his finest play, for it told at least a bit of the truth about the way working people live. Why did you write no more plays of that sort?
SHAW It would have been of little use. As you well know, the Mrs Grundies of England and America – not to mention Ireland – would not allow it to be performed. There’s no point telling the truth if nobody can listen to you.
HAMMOND If the stages of the rich won’t allow the truth, then the working people must make their own theatres, as they did in Russia after the Revolution. If you only tell people what they want to hear, you can never be more than the licensed jester of the ruling class.
SHAW Madam, the history of my failures has been written already.
HAMMOND I went to the match-factory because, as you pointed out, the alternative to the factory was prostitution, and I had neither the looks nor the inclination to make much of a go of that. A year or two later I became a socialist and met Morris. He changed my life as he changed yours, though the results will not be subject to such public scrutiny.
I found out that there was a third alternative that Mr Shaw didn’t put into his play. There was a third choice to being poisoned in the factory and rotting of syphilis on the streets. It was to fight back, unionise, go on strike. We struck in 1885, and again in 1888. The second time we won - more money and safer working conditions.
SHAW I spoke at a meeting in your support.
HAMMOND You did – eventually. But you didn’t mention the matchmakers’ strike in your play. You saw that the world needed changing, but you never looked to who could change it. That’s why your plays are so gloomy, despite your wit…
SHAW I asked for your life-story. Anyone who reads the papers knows mine.
HAMMOND I don’t suppose anyone will write three thick volumes about my life. After the strike I married a young furniture-worker and moved to Tottenham. I got out of the rat-infested slum into a respectable working-class street. I bore two children – thanks to the anarchist birth controllers; otherwise I might have borne fifteen as my mother did.
I joined the British Socialist Party in 1912, and two years later found myself opposing my own leaders when they supported the war. My sons were of military age, so I campaigned against volunteering and then against conscription. I still have a scar on my neck where a colonel’s wife hit me with a plank of wood with nails in it.
YEATS But the sad truth is that we cannot do without war. The stupid and the unhealthy breed faster than the skilled and the intelligent. Without war’s music our civilisation must necessarily decay. Only war can teach the rich and the poor that they belong to one nation.
HAMMOND I’d like to hear you say that to my younger son who still has shrapnel in his foot. If Morris had lived he wouldn’t have supported the war that killed one of my sons, and maimed the other.
SHAW I criticised the war. Asquith said I should be shot for what I wrote.
HAMMOND You wrote such a clever pamphlet that nobody was quite sure whether you were supporting or opposing the war.
SHAW I prophesied that soldiers would shoot their officers and make the revolution.
HAMMOND But you did nothing to encourage them. You told the Irish that of course they couldn’t join the British army, so they should go and join the French. Morris wouldn’t have written a recruiting play to be acted by British officers.
[sigh; brief pause] When the war was over I joined the Communist Party. But I’m afraid, Mr Shaw, that I didn’t find your friend Mr Stalin any more lovable than Mr Yeats’ friend Signor Mussolini. So now I’m in the Independent Labour Party, reviled by many of my comrades as a Trotskyist. I live on a pension of ten shillings a week. A long life and not a very happy one.
YEATS Yet you have come today, so sorrow has not closed your mind to poetry.
HAMMOND Not at all. I like a bit of poetry to take my mind off things. I’ve read most of your poems, Mr Yeats; very pretty some of them are.
YEATS And you’ve brought your little posy of flowers to pay tribute to Morris the poet.
HAMMOND Not really. Morris loved poetry, as he loved all beautiful things. But I’m here today for Morris the revolutionary socialist.
I suppose you two have met a lot of rich people. I haven’t. I don’t see much of the rich, unless they come to sneer at us on picket lines. William Morris was a rich man, yet he was a friend to everyone who was committed to the cause.
He was always a generous man. If comrades were ill, or had had a child they couldn’t afford, then Morris would give them something from his own pocket – always so discreetly that no-one knew of it; some of his best friends actually thought he was mean. He never hesitated to put his money into socialist propaganda – and tried to get his rich friends to support the cause.
SHAW Which they were not very happy to do.
HAMMOND You’re right. I remember once he was invited to lecture in Oxford, about art and democracy. It was when we were still in the Social Democratic Federation with that rogue Hyndman. Morris took a few of us along with him. He said he felt lonely among those Oxford gentlemen, even though it had been his old university.
He showed us the colleges, and helped us to see the beauty of the architecture, despite the horrible restoration work. He said what a pity it was that such beautiful buildings should be filled with such stupid professors. He told us not to be worried that the gates of Oxford were closed to the working classes – we would get a better education in the socialist movement than we’d ever find in a university. Then he took us into the college where he was going to lecture.
[A FEW NOTES OF MUSIC: SWITCH TO AN INDOOR SCENE - A LARGE COLLEGE HALL.]
MORRIS To conclude: the question of art cannot be separated from the question of democracy, by which I mean not just sticking a piece of paper in a box every few years, but the real equality and participation of each and every citizen in the work of society. If art is of value then we cannot tolerate that it should be the property of a few, and not of all. True art cannot flourish in a society in which a leisured handful live in swinish luxury on the toil of the exploited many.
[A MOMENT'S PAUSE, THEN RATHER HALF-HEARTED APPLAUSE.]
MASTER I should like to thank Mr Morris very much for his lecture. It has doubtless enlightened us, and while we cannot all share his conclusions, we must respect the fact that he has steered us into the arena of controversy, which nowadays we seldom escape.
MORRIS If you will permit me, master, I should like to presume on the audience for a few moments more. I can see that some, including yourself master, are not in sympathy with what I say. But those who are can surely not be satisfied with merely applauding my sentiments. There is only one way in which you can put into practice your desire for a society in which true art can flourish – and that is to sign up as a member of the Social Democratic Federation. Without organisation, the cause is only a vague dream. Anyone who wishes a membership form can obtain one from my young colleague, Miss Clara Hammond, who is standing at the front of the hall.
MASTER [shouting furiously] This is an outrage which I cannot permit. I am the master of this college…
[SOUND OF PEOPLE STANDING UP AND MOVING CHAIRS.]
MORRIS [semi-whispered aside] Thank-you Clara; as quickly as you can…
MASTER Mr Morris, you are a guest of this college, but I must demand that you ask your female – er – attendant to desist. I require that you and your guests leave the premises immediately.
MORRIS We will do so. But if you cannot persuade your undergraduates not to join us, we can scarcely be expected to refuse their applications.
[A FEW NOTES OF MUSIC; SWITCH BACK TO OUTDOORS.]
HAMMOND So we left in a rather undignified fashion; Morris was a kind-hearted man, and I think he was worried that the master of the college was going to have an apoplectic fit. But three undergraduates signed up and another gave me a sovereign for Federation funds.
SHAW [chuckles] Well done!
YEATS I’m sure you approve of such tomfoolery and lack of respect for decent procedures, Shaw. But to take a story like that out of its context is to misunderstand what Morris was. He was first and last a poet.
You remember how old Baudelaire compared the poet to an albatross. When it stretches its wings to soar in the azure sky, it is a creature of the gods. But when it lands on the deck, it is a mere parody of a human being, waddling around like a clumsy sailor, so that even the coarsest ruffians in the crew can mock at it.
Morris was that albatross; he was too much a poet to have the graces of society. All his so-called socialism was just a bit of clumsiness, an inability to confer with ordinary mortals. Don’t exalt that clumsiness into a virtue.
HAMMOND I suppose you think Morris’s wallpaper was more important than his politics!
YEATS I do. In his wallpaper he created something new; in his politics he echoed the stale formulae of Karl Marx.
HAMMOND Even if I could afford it, which I never have been able to and never will, the last thing I would put on my walls would be Morris’s wallpaper.
SHAW Tell us why.
HAMMOND If your walls are crawling with beetles and other vermin, as they were in most of the houses I’ve lived in, those flowers and leaves are just too realistic. But above all I hate so-called beauty that is mere decoration. I hate the smug rich who cover their houses with Morris wallpaper, and think that the beauty reflects on their moral character; who think that their hypocrisy, their corruption, the slave wages they pay in their sweat-shops, are all somehow justified by the fact that they have ‘taste’.
There are thousands today with no rooves over their heads, who spend their nights in rainy parks or stinking hostels. Millions more live in vermin-infested slums. Why do they need pretty wallpaper? They don’t need beauty. They need food on the table and money in their pockets.
YEATS Morris would have howled with rage to hear you say that. Men don’t need food first and beauty later; men need beauty as much as they need food.
HAMMOND A comfortable belief for a man who has never gone hungry.
YEATS Come to Ireland. I’ll take you into a poor farmer’s cottage, where food is cooked on the open fire and the hens run around the living-room. You’ll see pictures and prints on the wall – holy pictures and brass ornaments. And why?
HAMMOND [pause] I don’t know – why?
YEATS Poor as you are yourself, your political doctrines blind you to the soul of the poor.
SHAW What soul? A poor man or woman can’t afford a soul.
YEATS But if you say that, you deny your own cause. If the poor are brute beasts, lacking in soul, in sense of beauty, call it what you will – if the poor lack souls, how can they emancipate themselves, how can they be deserving of emancipation?
HAMMOND A specious argument.
YEATS An argument that I’ve taken straight from Morris himself. Atheist that he was, he knew that the poor have souls. He knew that they need beauty as much as they need food, and that you can’t put one before the other. I still respect Morris’s socialism, much as I despise all other versions of that creed of envy and dull materialism. Morris would have known why those Irish farmhouses had their pictures. He knew that the poor needed self-respect and dignity.
YEATS That’s what makes Morris a true poet. And that’s why anyone who is not a poet cannot truly understand what Morris stood for.
HAMMOND It’s you who have no knowledge of what Morris was all about. Morris was a fine poet, he knew that in a world in which beauty is not available for all to share there can be no peace and no justice. But he knew something else, something you never managed to learn from him.
Morris knew what beauty was because he knew what the absence of beauty was. He knew about ugliness, squalor, poverty, war; he knew about exploitation and oppression; he knew about the life of the slums and the sweat-shops, the barracks and the jails. He never pretended to find beauty where there was none to be found.
YEATS There is beauty everywhere, if the eye is not too coarse to perceive it.
HAMMOND Have you heard of James Connolly, Mr Yeats?
YEATS I knew him well.
I write it out in a verse -
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
HAMMOND It’s the worst poem you ever wrote.
SHAW I’ve always thought it was the best.
HAMMOND Do you know how James Connolly died? He was lying wounded in the prison hospital, unable to walk. But English civilisation wanted to send a message to the world. Not just to Ireland, to India and the whole Empire, in case they were tempted to rebel at the end of the war.
They dragged Connolly from his bed, suffering from fever and gangrene. He couldn’t stand, so they draped him in a chair and then shot him dead.
That’s what you call beauty. There’s no beauty in a firing-squad. Morris would have laughed with contempt till he vomited over your miserable little poem.
YEATS You have no sense of tragedy.
HAMMOND I have too much of a sense of tragedy. I’ve seen too many lives warped and destroyed for tragedy to be something to exult in.
SHAW I think you’re being a little hard on my friend Yeats. It is true he has a certain Irish romanticism about him. Morris knew that politics must proceed by reason rather than by violence.
HAMMOND But he didn’t run away from a fight like you did.
SHAW Run away! When did I run away?
HAMMOND Bloody Sunday – surely you haven’t forgotten.
[A FEW NOTES OF MUSIC; SWITCH TO AN OUTDOOR SCENE; A LARGE CROWD OF DEMONSTRATORS CAN BE HEARD SHOUTING AND CHANTING. IN THE DISTANCE A BAND IS PLAYING.]
HAMMOND [narrating] It is the 13th of November 1887. After repeated police attacks on demonstrations of unemployed in Trafalgar Square, a mass march of radicals goes to the Square to defend the rights of free speech and assembly, and in solidarity with the Irish struggle. Leading the demonstrators are William Morris and Bernard Shaw; Morris as usual is carrying a heavy stick. Among the rank and file of the Socialist League contingent is a youthful Miss Clara Hammond.
DEMONSTRATORS [chanting] To the Square! To the Square!
MORRIS Good day to you, Clara. It’s a fine crowd we have here.
HAMMOND It is indeed. I’ve brought five of the women from the factory, who have given up the only day of rest they get to march for the cause.
MORRIS Well done. Make sure that they all buy copies of ‘Commonweal’.
HAMMOND I will.
MORRIS Don’t give any away free. They don’t take it seriously if it’s given free. Do you think any of them can be recruited to the League? We need more socialist missionaries.
HAMMOND I’ll see what can be done, Mr Morris. But our work does not give us much leisure for campaigning.
[SOUND OF FOOTSTEPS RUNNING, CRIES ETC.]
DEMONSTRATOR 1 They’ve read the Riot Act. Watch out for yourselves.
MORRIS Take care, Clara. The police and the army are parasites of property. They care nothing for human life or the protection of womankind; their sole interest is to defend their masters.
HAMMOND I can take care of myself, Mr Morris, I’m young. But a man of your age must be prudent. You can’t run so fast as I can if need be.
MORRIS It is not yet time to run.
[CRIES OF ALARM AND MORE RUNNING FOOTSTEPS.]
DEMONSTRATOR 2 The army are there. They have drawn their bayonets.
SHAW [sounding much younger] An unarmed mob cannot stand against a well-armed oppressor. It is time to face reality and withdraw to fight another day, with another tactic.
MORRIS We cannot abandon the struggle here. We must get to the Square whatever the consequences.
[MINGLED SHOUTS OF 'TO THE SQUARE' AND 'RUN FOR YOUR LIVES!']
MORRIS Now, Shaw, is the time for men like us to take our responsibility.
SHAW Now is the time to skedaddle.
[SOUND OF RUNNING FOOTSTEPS DISAPPEARING INTO THE DISTANCE. MORE CRIES OF 'TO THE SQUARE' AND 'RUN, RUN'. CONFUSED CROWD NOISES, THEN, VERY DISTINCTLY, TWO LOUD SCREAMS.]
HAMMOND The soldiers have drawn their bayonets. There will be deaths.
MORRIS It is sheer murder; the rulers will always resort to violence rather than surrender.
HAMMOND What can we do?
MORRIS The answer is one word. Organise. Organise. We must come back, but we must be organised and disciplined, with scouts, outposts and supports. We must build an organisation that is large enough to stand up even to this.
[MORE CRIES, SCREAMS AND SOUNDS OF RUNNING.]
HAMMOND [narrating] Three dead; two hundred injured; seventy-five arrested.
[A FEW NOTES OF MUSIC.]
SHAW True, I skedaddled. What reasonable man would not have done so? Fight the enemy where he is weakest, not where he is strongest.
YEATS You could have stood your ground, Shaw. Strong blows are a delight to the mind.
SHAW Not much of a delight to the body. You’re a typical Irish romantic.
YEATS The man who is about to be hanged kicks out with his last second of life. Morris would have done so.
HAMMOND He would indeed. He never gave up fighting the filthy system.
YEATS Systems be damned! It’s a matter of a man’s pride, of his sense of what is fine to be seen.
SHAW I’m with Morris. It’s organisation we need, not false heroics.
HAMMOND So you became a Fabian. You urged gradualness when the people were starving. If a woman is hungry it’s not much use to tell her that her great-grandchildren will eat cream buns.
Bloody Sunday proved only one thing: those in power are completely ruthless and will stay there until the legs are cut off beneath them.
SHAW You won’t feed the starving by thrusting your belly at a bayonet. If you must use violence, wait till the time is ripe, as Lenin did. When he called up insurrection, the other side had already collapsed. So he took power with scarcely a casualty.
HAMMOND But now you have abandoned Lenin and become a Stalinist.
SHAW Neither a Stalinist nor a Trotskyist, but a Shawist and a socialist. I met Mr Stalin; a most reasonable man, who appreciates the great problems his country faces, and has some notion of how to deal with them. He wouldn’t like to hear me say it, but Stalin is a true Fabian.
HAMMOND So why is Trotsky, Lenin’s closest ally, hunted across the earth as a fugitive? Why were Lenin’s comrades Zinoviev and Kamenev sentenced to death on the basis of evidence that wouldn’t have convinced an intelligent seven-year-old?
SHAW Stalin is wise, and ultimately humane. But as you have told us, the very idea of socialism has powerful enemies who will stop at nothing to sabotage it. I don’t think Trotsky is a fascist agent. I think he is a romantic Irishman who believes he can summon up revolutions throughout the globe. Such a policy would threaten the very existence of the Soviet Union. It must be opposed.
Stalin is not dealing with the sophisticated members of the Hammersmith Socialist Society. He has to deal with millions of peasants. In such an argument it’s slogans that count. I’ll believe Zinoviev and Kamenev guilty till proven innocent.
HAMMOND Your Fabianism and your Stalinism are all the one thing, aren’t they? You despise the common people. You may have studied Marx, but you missed one sentence – ‘the emancipation of the working class is the task of the working class itself’. That sentence was graven into Morris’s heart. By us and not for us, he used to say. It made him a Marxist till the day he died.
YEATS I find this all futile and tiresome. You’re both trying to coopt Morris for your own petty causes. Morris despised political squabbles, though he put his hands into them from time to time, just as the farmer must soil his hands with dung if the Spring fruits are to blossom. Morris was no saint.
HAMMOND [laughs] Indeed not; he could make a fool of himself as well as the rest of us. I remember a street meeting…
[A FEW NOTES OF MUSIC; AN OPEN-AIR SCENE. THERE IS A HUM OF BACKGROUND NOISE AND CHATTER AS MORRIS SPEAKS.]
MORRIS … there is no need for the world to be an ugly place. The world is not naturally ugly; you have only to walk through the countryside to observe that. And the life of society in most periods of our history has not been ugly.
What has led to ugliness is the pursuit of profit, the construction of factories turning out smoke, poisoning the air and befouling the rivers, in order that the owners, who take good care to live at a considerable distance, may line their pockets, and decorate their homes in gross bad taste.
You may say that machines are necessary in order that our lives may be less arduous and more comfortable. I have no quarrel with that. It is not machines that are ugly in themselves, but rather the arrangement of factories in such a way as to achieve profit for a few rather than the well-being of all.
If machines were used to replace tedious repetitive work, then all would have more time to participate in the work that requires skill and intelligence. The remaining work could be shared out equitably among all, including, I stress, the idle rich. Factories then could be a pleasant place, and…
HECKLER [in an educated public-school voice] Hey Morris! Do you lock your front door?
[LAUGHTER FROM THE SMALL CROWD.]
MORRIS Believe me… what’s that?
HECKLER I said do you lock your front door?
MORRIS Yes, I do.
HECKLER Then you’re a hypocrite, like all the share-and-share-alike crowd. You talk about equal shares, but if I want a share of your fancy goods – or your wife – you’ll fetch a policeman in a flash.
MORRIS Sir, you are not listening to what I say.
HECKLER I don’t need to. I know you’re talking nonsense.
MORRIS I said nothing about equal shares.
HECKLER Aren’t you a socialist then?
MORRIS Socialism is not concerned with equal shares. It is about the common participation of all in the riches produced collectively by the community. The notion of equal shares is a vulgar misapprehension.
HECKLER If I want a bit of common vulgar participation in your big house, it’s a different story.
MORRIS [shouting angrily] God damn you to hell, you ignorant reptile! Damfool! Damfool!
[SOME LAUGHTER, MIXED WITH INDIGNANT MURMURS.]
HECKLER So now it’s blasphemy and foul language.
MORRIS Damfool! Damfool! God damn your soul!
HECKLER I thought you didn’t believe in God!
HAMMOND [whispered aside] Don’t get angry, Mr Morris; you only make things worse.
MORRIS [muttered aside] To hell with them all! Shaw should have done this meeting; he handles hecklers so much better.
[A FEW NOTES OF MUSIC.]
SHAW It was Morris’s one great weakness, the way he would fly into a rage.
YEATS I count it for one of his virtues. He didn’t reckon his reason adequate for all purposes. He had a passionate intensity that is absent in the ordinary politician. Those who have the anger of the gods upon them are the true leaders of the people.
SHAW Spoken like an Irishman.
YEATS You’re an Irishman yourself.
SHAW But not an Irishman who acts as the English expect the Irish to act. Not an Irishman who surrenders to maundering Gaelic mysticism as a substitute for freeing his own country.
HAMMOND Why are you two so obsessed with Ireland?
[THE NEXT SIX LINES ARE SPOKEN VERY QUICKLY, WITH SHAW AND YEATS TALKING AT THE SAME TIME.]
YEATS Keep out of this!
SHAW What’s this to do with you?
YEATS You’re not Irish!
SHAW What do you know of Ireland?
YEATS We’ll settle this between ourselves!
SHAW The Irish don’t need the English to solve their problems for them!
HAMMOND Listen. My grandfather came from Ireland. He lived in a damp filthy cellar in Manchester, and his pig lived in the same room. Because he knew no better he went to work in a factory where the English workers were on strike – and had his head broken open though he got paid less than those on strike had been. So don’t tell me I’ve no right to speak of Ireland. It was for the rights of Ireland that I marched with Morris on Bloody Sunday – the Ireland which he said was starved and gagged by the rulers of Britain.
YEATS It is in the making of a nation that the people discovers poetry.
HAMMOND I told you what your worst poem was. Now let me tell you your best. I may only be a simple working woman, but as you can see I study your poetry. The best is the shortest: it has only two lines.
Parnell came down the road, he said to a cheering man:
‘Ireland shall get her freedom and you still break stone.’
YEATS It’s a poem on the futility of revolution, on the unchanging eternal sorrow of the human condition.
HAMMOND If you think that, then you don’t understand your own poems. It says that the national struggle – your flags and symbols and language – are nothing if the rich are still rich and the poor still poor. The only freedom for Ireland will come when those who break stone leave off work to take society into their own hands.
YEATS You might as well expect women to leave their sewing and take up the affairs of state.
HAMMOND What’s so ridiculous about that? You’re both the same; you think that women and working people are too simple to run the world, so it must be managed in their interest by the enlightened few. Morris used to say that no man is good enough to be master of another man – or woman.
SHAW You are treating me unfairly. I have given constant support to the women’s cause…
HAMMOND We’re most thankful, I’m sure.
SHAW I backed the right of women to vote from the very beginning. I told them to shoot, kill, maim and destroy for the right to vote – speaking metaphorically, of course. And today there is a school-girl somewhere in England who will one day be Prime Minister.
I’ve always taken up the interests of women. When I served on the St Pancras vestry I had to fight for many months to get a free public lavatory for women against those who denied that there was any necessity for such a thing.
HAMMOND Our gratitude indeed. Thanks to the benevolent Fabians we women can now vote and relieve ourselves. Both short trivial actions that have no significant consequences – though to be deprived is certainly no pleasure.
Morris knew that it’s only when we revalue the whole way we work that women will gain true equality. We have to break down the walls between home and factory, between paid labour and domestic duties, between production and the domestic arts. Then women can have the equality they aspire to.
YEATS But how is the change to come? I left the socialists because I believed that change can come only through a change of heart, through love, not through hate and envy and class war. Morris understood what I meant by that, but none of the other dolts had the first idea.
SHAW No wonder. It’s a piece of canting hypocrisy. People will only have a change of heart when they have a change of circumstances. Put five hundred pounds in a man’s pocket and it will work wonders for his heart.
YEATS You live on the surface of life, Shaw; you never see the realities below.
SHAW Most men cannot afford to spend their time looking below the surface. Change the structures of the world, as Stalin is doing, and you will see the changes in the heart following after.
YEATS But the leader will not have the power to make those changes unless he first appeals to the heart. While the Communists talked of wages and working hours, Mussolini appealed to the spirit of the nation and won over men’s hearts. After that he could make the trains run to time.
HAMMOND So the pair of you, the Fabian and the mystic, end up loving dictators; your only quarrel is which dictator to bow down to. I know what Morris would have answered the pair of you.
MORRIS [echo making the voice sound slightly ghostly] This change can only be realised by the efforts of the workers themselves. ‘By us, and not for us’, must be their motto.
HAMMOND You never reckoned much to strikes, Mr Shaw. But if you’d ever studied a strike, you’d know that the effect on the boss who loses his profits is nothing compared to the effects on the strikers. They set out to change their circumstances and end up changing themselves.
[A CLOCK STRIKES FOUR.]
HAMMOND I’ve paid my tribute to the dead; I must get back to the living. Tomorrow Oswald Mosley and his fascists will attempt to march through the East End of London. I shall go to stand with those who are attempting to stop him.
SHAW Mosley – a good man fallen among anti-Semites. I had hopes of him once but now he has no future.
HAMMOND On the contrary – he has the future that we allow him. If we do not stop him now, in a few years time he will be much harder to deal with.
YEATS You are an old woman; shall you fight on the streets?
HAMMOND Not too old to hurl a brick if required. This must not be another Bloody Sunday. We shall not skedaddle.
SHAW [narrating] Shaw frowns painfully, as if seeking to summon up one of the witty epigrams for which he is famous; but he remains silent.
HAMMOND Farewell to you both; we may not meet again. Don’t forget Morris; he was the best man you ever knew.
[THE SOUND OF THREE OR FOUR FOOTSTEPS, THEN A FEW SECONDS OF DEAD SILENCE.]
SHAW [narrating] The two men look around them, as though to bid farewell to Clara; but she has vanished as if she had never been there.
YEATS Where is she?
SHAW I don’t know. I can’t see her anywhere. It’s got a bit misty as the sun sinks. But tell me, Yeats, what is your conclusion? What did you make of our friend Miss Hammond?
YEATS I have no hesitation on that score. She was a ghost, a messenger from the world beyond the grave.
SHAW A ghost!?
YEATS Most men have seen ghosts, though they do not realise it. She was sent by Morris from the spirit world. For the old woman was right in substance, though some of the detail was dross. Morris would be sickened to see the pair of us. We have betrayed the moral impulses that were the finest part of his being. The old woman was the ghost of Morris’s conscience.
SHAW My eyes may not be as strong as they used to be, but I can still see through moonshine. That was no ghost; she was a reporter.
YEATS A reporter?
SHAW I told no-one but my secretary Miss Patch that I was coming here today. It was meant to be a private act of homage to William Morris, a tribute to the finest friend I ever had. But somehow a reporter must have found out and tracked me down.
YEATS How can you be so sure it was a reporter?
SHAW Her stories were a pack of lies. Oh, she’d done some research; she knew a bit about Morris. But she didn’t sign up recruits in an Oxford college; they’d never have let a woman like her through the doors in those days. It was a true story she’d got hold of, but she wrote her own role into it. She was trying to draw me into an indiscretion.
YEATS I think she succeeded.
SHAW My entire literary career has been one long indiscretion; why should I stop now? But she was a fraud.
YEATS Then how was she able to quote a poem which I wrote only a few weeks ago and which has not yet been published?
SHAW [narrating] The two men turn to walk away. As they do so, the figure of Morris appears before them. For a moment they look at each other, each unsure whether the other can also see the apparition.
MORRIS Neither ghost, nor reporter, but living woman. There is no life force, no life beyond the grave, no reincarnation, except the continuity of struggle. Clara Hammond is not one but many. If you doubt me, go to Cable Street tomorrow.
SHAW [narrating] He disappears. The two men begin to walk slowly towards the cemetery gate.
SHAW Maybe you’re right after all, Yeats. I’ve not lived an empty life; I’ve written many books, given hundreds of lectures and sat for thousands of hours on committees. You’ve been a poet and a senator. Yet I suspect that neither of us lived such full lives as Morris.
YEATS It will not be long before we join Morris. The three of us united again in death, as we were in the richness of life and hope on those evenings at Kelmscott House in Hammersmith.
SHAW The new world that will issue from the coming war will be very different from the one we have known. The causes we have fought for may have been won, but there will be new battles to fight.
YEATS Each age, however different, will have its poetry. As we remember Homer, so men of the future will remember Morris.
SHAW The new world will have learnt from the Fabians, but it will still know great poverty amid wealth, war and famine will haunt the planet, and Morris’s message will still be relevant.
YEATS We have sat in the houses of the rich, and appeared on the front pages of the newspapers. Yet a hundred years from now it may be that nobody reads Shaw or Yeats – but William Morris will still be honoured.
SHAW You could be right. Let’s go. It’s far too cold for two old men to be out in the autumn air.
[A CHOIR IS HEARD SINGING MORRIS'S 'MARCH OF THE WORKERS' TO THE TUNE 'JOHN BROWN'.]
What is this, the sound and rumour? What is this that all men hear,
Like the wind in hollow valleys when the storm is drawing near,
Like the rolling on of ocean in the eventide of fear?
‘Tis the people marching on.
Whither go they, and whence come they? What are these of whom ye tell?
In what country are they dwelling ‘twixt the gates of heaven and hell?
Are they mine or thine for money? Will they serve a master well?
Still the rumour’s marching on.
Hark the rolling of the thunder!
Lo the sun! and lo thereunder
Riseth wrath, and hope, and wonder,
And the host comes marching on.