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The Smiling Shaw Machine

Dreamed 1894/4/19 by William Butler Yeats


...I listened to [the opening performance of George Bernard Shaw's] Arms and the Man with admiration and hatred. It seemed to me inorganic, logical straightness and not the crooked road of life, yet I stood aghast before its energy...

Shaw was right to claim Samuel Butler for his master, for Butler was the first Englishman to make the discovery that it is possible to write with great effect without music, without style, either good or bad, to eliminate from the mind all emotional implication and to prefer plain water to every vintage, so much metropolitan lead and solder to any tendril of the vine.


I had a nightmare that I was haunted by a sewing-machine, that clicked and shone, but the incredible thing was that the machine smiled, smiled perpetually.

--W.B. Yeats


Yeats's dream about the smiling Shaw machine wasn't just literary criticism. That night, Arms and the Man was half of a double bill--the theater also debuted Yeats's own play The Land of Heart's Desire. Shaw eclipsed Yeats, and with a piece Yeats saw as raw and crude.

And their rivalry went beyond theatre. Florence Farr acted in both plays; both men had been courting her. But Shaw had recently demoted Farr from playing the lead to a lesser part. Yeats may have seen Shaw as "sewing up" a successful career, sacrificing even love and loyalty if they got in his way. His nightmare-image of a smiling relentless commercial machine may have pushed Yeats further toward the mystical avant-garde noncommercial theatre he focused on for years to come.

This account is excerpted from Yeats's Autobiography (p. 282-7) and R.F. Foster's W.B. Yeats: a Life (v.1, p 141).

--Chris Wayan

LISTS AND LINKS: envy & jealousy - drama - nightmares - dream machine - robots - monsters - dream humor - dream career advice & romantic advice - creative process - G.B. Shaw - more Yeats - Elias Howe's 19th-century nightmare about sewing machines: Sewing Advice from Cannibals

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