George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), Anglo-Irish author of more than 60 plays and winner of both the Nobel Prize for Literature (1925, for the totality of his literary contributions rather than for any specific work) and an Academy Award (Oscar) (1930, for Pygmalion), as well as prolific producer of literary and music criticism, focused most often on social issues. He supported equality of political rights for women and protested what he saw as exploitation of workers; his socialist idealism was bone-deep, to the point where he refused to believe news of famine in the supposed agrarian paradise of the Soviet Union, despite all evidence of that system’s failures.
While on a 1933 world tour, Shaw made his first and only visit to the United States. He made a single major address during that visit, one sponsored by the Academy of Political Science at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House, on 11 April 1933. His talk, “The Future of Political Science in America,” was broadcast by radio from coast to coast and later published in both authorized and pirated versions.
“Finding myself in an opera house with such a magnificent and responsive audience, I feel an irresistible temptation to sing,” he began. And while he may not literally have sung, he gave a long and perceptive address on American politics, culture, history, education, and the future he envisioned for the country. While he found much to praise in the American people themselves, most of his remarks were blisteringly critical of capitalism and American culture.
Except insofar as they were entertained by the wit and oratorical brilliance of the speech, most Latter-day Saints probably did not enjoy the sharp rebuke of America’s shortcomings. They certainly must have done an aural doubletake, though, when they heard this in the midst of the speech:
… You know, if you study American history – not the old history books; for almost all American histories until very lately, were mere dustbins of the most mendacious vulgar journalism – but the real history of America, you will be ashamed of it, because the real history of all mankind is shameful. But there is hope in bits of it. I wonder how many of you have ever studied the history of the Latter-day Saints; one of the most extraordinary episodes in the white settlement of the world. You should do so; for it shows Americans doing something for reasons which would astonish me very much if I saw the same thing being done for the same reasons in England.
There was a time when the Mormons were so few in number that they were in very great danger of being killed by their pious neighbors because their views were unpopular. But they were themselves a very pious people. They were brought up with the strictest old-fashioned ideas with regard to the relations of the sexes and the sanctity of marriage: marriage, of course, being the established monogamous marriage of the Christian west.
Well, their leader went to these pious men and women and said to them, “I want you to take to polygamy. I want all you men to have as many wives as you can possibly afford instead of one wife.”
Think what a terrific thing that was to say to such people! I do not know any more moving passage in literature than that in which Brigham Young describes how, after receiving the appalling order, he met a funeral on his way home and found himself committing the mortal sin of envying the dead. And yet Brigham Young lived to have a very large number of wives according to our ideas … and to become immortal in history as an American Moses by leading his people through the wilderness into an unpromised land where they founded a great city on polygamy.
Now nothing can be more idle, nothing more frivolous, than to imagine that this polygamy had anything to do with personal licentiousness. if Joseph Smith had proposed to the Latter-day Saints that they should live licentious lives, they would have rushed on him and probably anticipated the pious neighbors who presently shot him. The significant point in the case was that the reason he gave them was a purely political reason. He said “Unless we multiply our numbers, we are lost; and we can multiply our numbers rapidly only by polygamy. And, therefore, whatever our prejudices, whatever our feelings may be, if we are to save the Church of the Latter-day Saints from annihilation by the superior numbers of its enemies in this State, we must take to polygamy.”
And they did it. That was the wonderful American thing. A body of Americans were capable of changing their lives and discarding their most deeply rooted ideas for a purely political reason! That makes some of you laugh. I am very glad. Whenever in the search for truth I hit the nail exactly on the head, there is always a laugh at first; but nothing that I shall say tonight is more significant than that illustration of American capacity for political action. … I really do entertain a hope – I think I am the only person in the world who entertains it so far; but after my preaching tonight some of you may begin to entertain it – that Americans, in spite of all the follies of the past, in spite of your obsolete Uncle Jonathan, in spite of your ridiculous hundred-percent American, may yet take the lead in political thought and action, and help to save the soul of the world. …
[Note: Ellipses in interior sentences are the punctuation of the original; nothing has been omitted.]
Four years later, the editors of the Improvement Era wrote to Shaw asking permission to reprint that section of his speech. Shaw returned their letter, having underlined the request and adding these words:
By all means. Send me a copy of ‘The Era’ containing it if you are not too busy to remember.
G. Bernard Shaw. 26th May, 1937.
The article was published in the July 1937 issue, without any discussion or disputation of the accuracy of Shaw’s remarks. I find it fascinating that at a time when the Church was fighting so hard to stamp out the unauthorized practice of polygamy and excommunicating so many who defied priesthood direction in the matter, the Church would publish such an article. I think the flattery of having been favorably noticed by so prominent a world figure overrode any potential sensitivity. Can’t imagine such a thing being published in the Ensign today!