A few days ago I discovered an article - whose author is a professor at the Erasmus School of Economics - on when Nobel Prize laureates in literature had peaked in their production. That is to say, "When did Nobel Prize Laureates in Literature Make Their Best Work?" The idea is simple - like most good ones - you take all the Nobel laureates in literature and determine how old they were (and how far into their life span) when they produced their finest work. The tables in the article speak for themselves, so I am not going to reproduce - let alone interpret - their data. What I found puzzling, though, is how one is supposed to determine what the best work of an author is. It may be obvious in a few odd instances, but not so much in the case of Shaw. To add fuel to the fire, the play that is taken as Shaw´s milestone to determine his peak productivity is Arms and the Man.
So I took matters into my own hands and created a little survey (available here, and still accepting responses) to share among the Shavians I could forward the form to. The final results will be published in a few days.
This, of course, led me to think about whether Shaw himself had ever said anything as to which play was his best. After all, this is a blog for Shaw quotations. Well, as usual, Shaw had something to say about that, too. Apart from other statements that were modalized in ways that are open to interpretation, I think three specific passages stand out among the rest.
First, in a letter to Ellen Terry (dated May 28, 1897) he writes that Mrs Warren's Profession is "much my best play; but it makes my blood run cold: I can hardly bear the most appalling bits of it. Ah, when I wrote that, I had some nerve." Admittedly, the letter was sent long before he had written many of the other masterpieces of drama that can arguably be measured against Mrs Warren's Profession.
Also, in an inscription to Frank Harris under a list of six of his plays (Heartbreak House, Great Catherine, O’Flaherty VC, The Inca of Perusalem, Augustus Does His Bit, and Annajanska), he highlights Heartbreak House and notes that it was "rightly spotted by the infallible eye of Frank Harris as My Best Play." This anecdote is quoted in the Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 2001 , and duly annotated, as usual, by John R, Pfeiffer in the "Continuing Checklist of Shaviana" (SHAW 23).
Finally, my favourite. As many of you probably remember, the preface to Shakes Versus Shav begins with the words: "This in all actuarial probability is my last play and the climax of my eminence, such as it is." Regardless of the obviously comic tone of the whole piece, it is interesting to note how little an author cares about posterity when he realizes that he is losing control over what his works mean and how they are represented.