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The Great Fight by George Bernard Shaw (1919)

[Paper delivered at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association, San Francisco, CA, December 2008]

George Bernard Shaw is, along with Byron, Hemingway and Mailer, the most celebrated author who was also a true aficionado of boxing. A recreational boxer in his younger years, he wrote what  is surely the first serious novel in which boxing is a central theme, Cashel Byron’s Profession  (1883).  Later in life, as has been amply documented, he engaged in a personal friendship and substantial correspondence with the intellectually inclined heavyweight champion of the world Gene Tunney.  Less well known is The Great Fight, a long essay by Shaw first published in The Nation and later privately published in the US as a stand-alone pamphlet, chronicling the bout between Frenchman Georges Carpentier and Englishman Joe Beckett, for the heavyweight championship of Europe, held in London on December 4, 1919.

When Shaw arrived at Holborn Stadium that evening, it had been thirty-five years since he had attended a boxing match, due to what he considered the miserable quality of English boxers.  Having seen the fight, he declares that it will be thirty-five more years before he attends another… “except when Carpentier is one of the performers.”[1]  Shaw is not explicit as to why this particular bout compelled him to return to ringside after such a long absence.  It is nonetheless clear that it was not because he believed Joe Beckett was the first British boxer worthy of attention in thirty-five years but rather because of  what he had read about the prodigious skill and powerful charisma of Georges Carpentier.

This is ironic, since Shaw takes pains to distinguish himself in the essay from what he calls  “descriptive writers,” presumably sportswriters for the London dailies.  They have, he implies, been indulging in simplistic black-and-white, David-and-Goliath scenarios, in order to hype the matchup.  He suggests that he, as both a serious writer and a connoisseur of the art and science of boxing, will not engage in the  facile comparisons or  florid “description” found in the newspapers.  It is important to note here that Carpentier was indeed the favored subject of the “descriptive” sportswriters of the day, an athlete whose speed, power and matinee-idol good looks sent journalists into veritable swoons of flowery admiration. Despite Shaw’s withering disdain for them, these rhetorical excesses must have nonetheless had their effect on him, since he did show up to Holborn Stadium in the clear expectation of seeing something spectacular and extraordinary.

Shaw’s description of Beckett is quite restrained and lacking in rhetorical excess of any kind; his features are “non-Grecian” and he “can be described exactly as a very sensible-looking man.”  Restraint and objectivity evaporates, however, when Shaw first catches sight of Carpentier:

A burst of cheering made me look around again to the gangway; and this time I was startled by a most amazing apparition: nothing less than Charles XII, “The Madman of the North,” striding along the gangway in a Japanese silk dressing-gown as gallantly as if he had not been killed almost exactly 201 years before. (6)

To his credit, Shaw is well aware of the effect the “apparition,” had on him:

I have seldom received so vivid an impression; and I knew at once that as this could hardly be Charles, he must be either Carpentier or the devil.  Being in that line myself I was under no illusion as to genius being invincible.  I knew that Mr. Beckett might turn out to be Peter the Great, and that Charles might be going to his Poltana; but genius is genius all the same, in victory or defeat. (6)

This moment in Shaw’s text is a telling one, displaying on the one hand his genuine belief in Carpentier’s genius and the visceral effect the sight of that tangible genius had on him, and, on the other, an irony about the entire enterprise.  He is well aware that his fanciful Charles XII/Peter the Great analogy is, on some level, silly and he clearly intends it a means of slyly mocking the “descriptive” writers.  Playful and mocking as it is, however, ultimately Shaw is entirely serious about Carpentier’s “genius” and not afraid to say so, both here (“genius is genius, all the same”) and elsewhere in the essay.

Aside from his pugilistic genius, which Shaw will elaborate in his account of the fight itself, the Frenchman has the genius of showmanship, a seemingly innate sense of the theatrical.  In direct contrast to the dour journeyman Beckett, Carpentier is a champion who knows just which gestures to make in response to an adoring crowd and just how to make them:

Carpentier rose at the crowd, and would have had it forty thousand instead of four if he could.  He was at home with it, he dominated it; he picked out his friends and kissed hands to them in his debonair way quite naturally, without swank or mock modesty, as one born to move assemblies. (6)

Setting aside, for the moment, his encomium to the Frenchman, Shaw returns to a more objective mode and proceeds to assess the two bodies in the ring as boxing machines, demonstrating his pugilistic bona fides in contrast to the ill-informed “scribblings” of “descriptive” writers:

Beckett, who was trained, if anything, a little too fine, has a compact figure, a boxlike chest, stout, stumpy arms useful only for punching and a thickish neck too short to take his head far out of harm’s way.  Carpentier, long and lithe, has a terrible pair of arms, very long, with the forearms heavy just where the weight should be.  He has a long chest, a long reach, a long head.  Nobody who knew the ABC of boxing could doubt for a moment that unless Beckett could wear him down and outstay him, and stand a good deal during the process, he could not win at the physical odds against him except by a lucky knockout. (6)

However, the great novelist and playwright soon reverts to being unable, unwilling or uninterested in maintaining an entirely technical, objective posture when writing about Carpentier. Expertise and analysis quickly give way to comparisons of Carpentier to Greek statues (if not gods)—Shaw’s text thereby recycling a cliché that is a staple of the endless accounts of Carpentier’s beauty “scribbled” by the “descriptive reporters”:

[Carpentier] was like a man on springs; and the springs were not in his heels but in the balls of his feet.  His diaphragm tenue was perfect.  Whether his lady instructor was Mrs. Diana Watts or Dame Nature, she had turned out a complete Greek athlete.  This really very remarkable and gymnastically important phenomenon has been overlooked, partly because it has not been understood, but partly also because the change in Carpentier’s face when he sets to work is so startling that the spectators can see nothing else. The unmistakable Greek line digs a trench across his forehead at once; his color changes to a stony grey; he looks ten thousand years old; his eyes see through stone walls; and his expression of intensely concentrated will frightens everyone in the hall except his opponent, who is far too busy to attend to such curiosities. (7)

The fight itself was a famously brief affair, a knockout by Carpentier in the first half of the first round.  As Shaw says, “[t]here was no fight.”  Rather, he says, there was a “superb exhibition spar, with Beckett as what used to be called a chopping block.”  This does not prevent him, however, from once again displaying his expertise in pugilistic matters by providing readers with a blow-by-blow account of the little action that did take place:

Carpentier simply did the classic thing: the long shot with the left: the lead-off and get-away.  The measurement of distance—and such distance!—was exact to an inch, the speed dazzling, the impact like the kick of a thoroughbred horse.  Beckett, except for one amazed lionlike shake of the head, took it like a stone wall; but he was helpless: he had no time to move a finger before Carpentier was back out of his reach.  He was utterly outspeeded.  Three times Carpentier did this, each time more brilliant, if possible, than the last.  (8)

Indeed, the blow that finished Beckett off was nothing less than perfect:

Beckett was for a moment dazed by the astonishing success of the attack; and in that moment Carpentier sent in a splendidly clean […] right to the jaw.  It is not often that perfect luck attends perfect style in this world; but Carpentier seemed able to command even luck.  The blow found that mysterious spot that is in all out jaws, and that is so seldom found by the fist. (8-9)

Not only did Carpentier triumph, Shaw says, he also made the fight “so intensely interesting that the seventy-four seconds it had occupied seemed like ten.” (9)

Carpentier cuts as appealing a figure in post-fight celebratory mode as he did before and during the bout.  Shaw describes “the jubilant spring into the air with which Carpentier announced that the decision had been given in his favor.”  He opines that the Frenchman was “as unaffected in his delight as he had been in his nervousness before ‘Time’ was called […]”

More striking than this is Carpentier’s chivalrous gesture toward his fallen opponent.  Far from losing himself in the frenzy of victory in the ring, Carpentier alone thinks to attend to the fallen Beckett and carry him to his corner.  Carpentier seems to have been the only person who kept his wits about him in the aftermath of the stunning win:

Pugilists are a sentimental, feminine species, much given to kissing and crying.  Carpentier was hoisted up to be chaired, dragged down to be kissed, hung out by the heels from the scaffold to be fondled by a lady, and in every possible way given reason to envy Beckett.  Beckett’s seconds, by the way, so far forgot themselves as to leave their man lying uncared for on the floor after he was counted out until Carpentier, indignant at their neglect, rushed across the ring and carried Beckett to his corner.  (9)

Clearly, Carpentier’s gallantry and sang froid put everyone else to shame, especially Beckett’s corner men:

[…] if Carpentier, who had the best reason the be carried away by his feelings, could remember, those whose duty it was could very well have done so if they had been properly instructed in their duties. (9)

To those familiar with the Carpentier myth as created and propagated by the hyperbole-happy sportswriters of the day, this is a recurring set-piece, the moment at which  Carpentier proves that he is not only the better man in the ring but the best man in the house, not only a pugilistic virtuoso but a knight in shining armor.  Carpentier’s chivalrous gestures may have been motivated by a true sense of sportsmanship, a genuine concern for his opponent, or a keen sense of the theatrical.  In all likelihood, all three were at play.  What is interesting to note is that Shaw, typically so cynical, never even mentions the possibility that Carpentier’s chivalry might be another manifestation of the genius for playing to the crowd to which he alludes in his account of Carpentier’s walk to the ring.

Shaw saves his highest compliment to Carpentier for the end of his essay, when he reveals as a sort of punch line (so to speak) the fact that the Carpentier-Beckett fight was the first he had even “dreamt” of attending in thirty-five years and that it was only Carpentier’s brilliance that had managed to get him to break his remarkable streak of non-attendance.  Boxing “geniuses” like Carpentier, he says, are very, very rare creatures indeed -- too rare to have any meaning to a general understanding of the sport, except perhaps as the exceptions which prove the rule.  This is the note on which Shaw chooses to end his text:

[…] prize-fighters are either geniuses like Carpentier, too few and far between to keep up one’s interest in exhibitions, or else poor fellows whose boxing is simply not worth looking at except by gulls who know no better.  And so I doubt whether I shall go again for another thirty-five years except when Carpentier is one of the performers. (13)

In the end, the thesis (and the raison d’être) of The Great Fight is the idea that Carpentier is nothing less than a pugilistic genius, a rare athlete whose skill attains a level of perfection that transcends the sport he practices, a rare performer genuinely worthy of  the attention he attracts.

Benny Green, author of a book-length study on Shaw and his relation to prizefighting, calls The Great Fight  “one of the most perceptive [essays] ever written about a boxing match. [2] Green’s thesis about the motivation for Shaw’s revivified interest in boxing is quite specific: he argues that Shaw saw in Georges Carpentier the living incarnation of his fictional hero, the gentleman prizefighter Cashel Byron of his novel Cashel Byron’s Profession, written some thirty-six years before :

[…] when Shaw turned up at Holborn to report on a contest for the European Heavyweight Championship, it was in the conviction that Cashel Byron has indeed been rendered flesh and blood. (100)

The central premise of Shaw’s novel is that Cashel Byron is both a highly skilled fighter in the ring and a true gentleman outside it. Such a character raises intriguing questions about the nature of the sport of boxing and about masculinity itself, questions that were clearly compelling to Shaw:  can a “civilized” man perfect the art of using his fists to beat an opponent into submission? can he unleash at will the latent ferocity so deeply submerged under layers of good grooming and good manners and remain “civilized?” in short, can a man truly be both a gentleman and a good fighter?  These were precisely the questions that would intrigue and inspire the so-called “descriptive writers” when the provocative figure of Carpentier appeared on the scene some thirty years later. As Benny Green puts it:

Carpentier was one of those extremely rare athletes whose physique and carriage imply a nobility which their style confirms; even in the existing primitive moving pictures of some of Carpentier’s contests, there can be perceived, behind the arthritic convulsions of the early cinematograph, the debonair good looks and the insolent, coordinated grace of the true artist, evocative of Shaw’s dream-fighter. (100)  

Green goes on to describe Carpentier’s “deadly choreography” in the ring as having a quality that was “positively cerebral” and suggests that Shaw’s fictional “perfect pugilist” had “anticipated nature” by forty years. Shaw’s interest in the Carpentier-Beckett bout was predicated on his preoccupation with “a philosophic concept contained in a novel he had written as a young man.”  He was “utterly intrigued by the possibility that the character he had once [created] […] was now a real person whose only deviation from the Shavian scenario was to have learned his boxing in Paris instead of in Australia.”[3] 

Green is right: there are in fact some remarkable similarities between Shaw’s idealized fictional character and Georges Carpentier (or at least the idealized version of Carpentier created by the “descriptive writers” and, in turn, by Shaw himself).

The first analogy between Cashel Byron and Georges Carpentier is their physical beauty; both are remarkable specimens of male pulchritude.  (The novel’s heroine, Lydia Carew, thinks she is seeing an “apparition” of a Greek statue come to life when she first spies Byron, sentiments and indeed words Shaw will recycle to describe his own initial reaction to the sight of Carpentier.)   Both also project a distinctly gentlemanly air, seemingly so out of place in the prize ring.  Descriptions of both also make clear that there are, for those who look closely enough, subtle but undeniable signs that a ferocious animal lies just beneath the polished surface. As far as boxing itself is concerned, both Byron and Carpentier have a style characterized by extraordinary speed, grace and power.  In numerous and significant ways, then, the real-life Carpentier recalls the fictional Byron, who in turn gets his name from the real-life boxing Romantic George Gordon.

Cashel Byron’s Profession is not simply a character study of its eponymous hero, however.  It is above all the story of the slow and painful process of acceptance of the very notion of prizefighting on the part of gentlewoman and intellectual Lydia Carew, who ultimately falls in love with and marries him. Lydia represents the diametrical opposite of a traditional boxing fan.  Her social identity is three-part and each of the three parts represents a traditional resistance to the sport: she is a woman, she is an intellectual and she is a member of a moneyed, socially prominent middle class. This element of the story is yet another way in which Shaw’s novel almost eerily prefigures Carpentier’s career.  As was widely noted and commented at the time, Carpentier was extraordinarily successful, much more so than any other boxer up to that time (and perhaps since) in popularizing the sport in both France and England among the three groups to which the fictional Lydia Carew belongs: women, intellectuals and the “better classes”.[4] 

Both Byron and Carpentier, according to Shaw, are exceptional figures, not only in their  pugilistic  “genius”  but also their all-around virtue.  Both manage thereby to justify the entire sport, to make it worthy of attention and respect.  For Shaw, boxing can only justify its existence when the highest possible skill level is on display in the ring—a level that only a few rare practitioners are able to attain —and when its participants conduct themselves “honestly” outside it. The idea that boxing can only be redeemed by rare genius  and thus only once in a great while is expressed at the end of Cashel Byron’s Profession as well as in The Great Fight.  Following Byron’s retirement from the ring, the sport clearly declines. For Shaw, both Byron and Carpentier are saviors of the sport, but only for the duration of their careers in the ring.  (It is interesting to note that Shaw’s thirty-five year-long absence from ringside dates back to approximately 1884, just one year after he published Cashel Byron’s Profession.)  

In writing both the novel Cashel Byron’s Profession and the essay The Great Fight, Shaw had the same intention, that of debunking romantic and ill-informed representations of boxers.  As he explains in a preface to the novel:

People are seduced by romance because they are ignorant of reality; and this is as true of the prize ring as of the battlefield... […] the prizefighter is no more what the spectators imagine him to be than the lady with the wand and star in the pantomime is really a fairy queen. (15-16)[5]

The preface explicitly sets out Shaw’s agenda for the novel.  It is “an attempt to take the reader behind the scenes,” in which he will seek to engage in the “Herculean task of eliminating romantic fisticuffs from English novels,”  thereby saving them from “the reproach of childishness and crudity which they certainly deserve in this respect.” “Even in the best nineteenth-century novels,” he writes, “the heroes knock the villains down” and “virtue still insists on victory.” (16-17)

In short, his will be a novel in which “the prizefighter is not idolized.”  Cashel Byron is a “born prizefighter” and even a boxing genius but not, Shaw claims, a romantic hero. (He does not discuss his choice of the name Byron for a character  created precisely in order to debunk romanticism; we are left to guess as to whether the irony was intended.)  The innate ability to box extremely well is, Shaw tells us,  highly unusual,  prodigious even, but it is nonetheless  a purely physical phenomenon, an extraordinary marriage of a particular anatomical conformation and a particular set of natural aptitudes with which only a very few  men are born.  Shaw explicitly rejects the linking of such physical  and anatomical phenomena with moral virtue. 

His own writing, however, clearly suggests that he is not nearly as immune to the desire to see an idealized hero prevail spectacularly in the ring as he would have us believe.  Despite his own rhetoric, his character Cashel Byron is not only a boxing prodigy but also a larger-than-life hero, an upstanding, sympathetic and wildly handsome young man who wins fights with an almost eerie facility, just as Carpentier, the graceful, beautiful, powerful “apparition” will win his.  Cashel Byron’s Profession does not in the end live up to Shaw’s stated goal of deconstructing romantic notions about boxers, just as The Great Fight fails to constitute the stinging counter-example to the “descriptive” writing about boxers Shaw intends it to be. Shaw may well have been as hard-headed and clear-sighted as he claimed about the sordid world of prizefighting as a whole.  But boxing geniuses like the fictional Byron and the real-life Carpentier inspired him to flights of fancy that are every bit as romantic and “descriptive” as those of the novelist and journalists he so strenuously disdains.  In some cases, it would seem, romanticism is inevitable—even for Shaw.

[1] All quotations from Shaw’s essay reproduced here come from the US reprint (published June 1921 by Mitchell Kennerley, in Philadelphia). Return to text

[2] Benny Green, Shaw’s Champions: G. B. S. and Prizefighting from Cashel Byron to Gene Tunney (London: Elm Tree Books, 1978): 99. Return to text

[3] Green opines that Shaw was wrong in thinking that Carpentier was the living embodiment of Cashel Byron, that he would find the “real” Cashel Byron within a few years, in the person of Gene Tunney.  Tunney and Shaw indeed developed a personal friendship, exchanged a number of letters (which have been published), and even visited each other’s homes.  There is a clear genealogy in the history of boxing of the “gentleman boxer,” running from Corbett to Carpentier to Tunney; comparisons between Cashel Byron and any one of these three are easily made. Return to text

[4] The history of the reception of boxing among the upper classes opposed to the upper-middle and middle classes, in England is significant.  From the earliest days of the modern incarnation of the sport in England, it counted among its most enthusiastic and least apologetic fans members of the aristocracy.  Slightly later, boxing lessons, which included sparring sessions with an instructor, with both men wearing protective “mufflers” (the very first boxing gloves), was a fashionable pastime for young men from the very top (not the upper-middle) stratum of society.  Despite the rhetoric of some contemporary commentators,  it was more of a surprise and a departure from tradition to see affluent businessmen at ringside for Carpentier’s fights than to see the Prince of Wales.  Shaw appears to know all of this—hence his choice to have the character of Lord Worthington at ringside brimming with admiration and enthusiasm about Byron and explaining the proceedings to Lydia, while Lucian Webber, her snobbish, bourgeois cousin expresses the deepest disdain for both Byron and the sport he practices. Return to text

[5] George Bernard Shaw, “Preface: Novels of My Nonage,” Cashel Byron’s Profession (Leipzig: Bernhard Tauschnitz, 1914): 5-24. Return to text