When I was a boy he still cast a huge shadow. As a teenager, I bought and read all the plays that Penguin published - even the Shaw alphabet edition of Androcles and the Lion - and ploughed my way dutifully through the interminable prefaces. If I did not read Everybody's Political What's What and The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism, I certainly felt I ought to. I grew up believing Shaw the most brilliant figure of the century. I remember thinking that Michael Holroyd had landed the greatest biographical subject of them all.
It took him - not surprisingly - nearly 20 years to produce his first volume. But in that time, Shaw's stock has gone into steep decline. It is normal for literary reputations to dip after a writer dies; then they rise again as a new generation rediscovers him. In Shaw's case, it did not happen. Holroyd's three volumes, published between 1988 and 1991, were justly hailed as a work of extraordinary condensation and powerful interpretation. The only trouble was they did not sell. The whole enterprise had come to seem overblown. I confess I was one of those who stuck at Volume One.
This single volume is therefore a welcome act of repacking. Holroyd's name is now printed in larger type than Shaw's. Chapter headings have been added, which make it more accessible. It deserves a new audience. But to label it "definitive" is misleading. Eight hundred pages may be enough for most readers, but how can 800 be more definitive than the original 1,300?
The problem with Shaw is that he wrote too much, but no acknowledged masterpiece. Most of what he wrote was essentially journalism: even his plays are journalism by other means. Tolstoy wrote as much nonsense, but he also wrote Anna Karenina and War and Peace. George Orwell's early novels are as didactic as Shaw's worst plays. But he, too, left two masterpieces, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, which is one reason we still read his journalism. (The other is the plain directness of his style, the antithesis of Shaw's exhausting bombast.)
Shaw's survival depends on a handful of his plays. Many more, like Fanny's First Play or The Simpleton of the Unexpected Isles, have sunk without trace. But Pygmalion is doing the rounds again; there is a starry Heartbreak House on the way. Mrs Warren's Profession crops up quite regularly; Saint Joan is an enduring warhorse.
Yet these are period pieces, museum exhibits only, as the National Theatre's recent production of The Devil's Disciple cruelly proved. The fact is that you cannot do anything with a Shaw play except stage it. There is nothing between the lines, as there is in Ibsen or Chekhov. Heartbreak House, supposedly "in the Russian manner", could not be further from Chekhov's aching comedies of unspoken longing. You could not translate Shaw to modern South Africa, as Janet Suzman has just triumphantly done with The Cherry Orchard. Checkhov's and Ibsen's characters can be acted in a hundred different ways; Shaw's are merely puppets.
Even Oscar Wilde's superficially trivial plays offer greater depths. Wilde and Shaw were contemporaries; both put much of their art into their lives. But, dying young and persecuted, Wilde wrote himself the better script to ensure his posthumous rehabilitation. He also took the precaution of leaving at least one perfect masterpiece plus a variety of other works (The Picture of Dorian Grey, his children's stories and his prison writings) which seem certain to outlast anything of Shaw's. Both as a man and as a writer Oscar lives; GBS does not.
But GBS never really lived. He was a pantomime character whom Shaw fantasticated over 70 years to hide ... what? This is the heart of Holroyd's problem.
During his lifetime, Shaw repelled biographers by writing their books for them. He gave interviews to himself in the newspapers. He referred to himself habitually in the third person. Holroyd knows that he must penetrate this alibi.
His solution is to split Shaw into three people. "Sonny" is the insecure small boy in Dublin, uncertain of his parentage. He lacks his mother's love and grows up to seek a substitute in the world's applause and the chaste worship of a succession of strong women, mainly the actresses for whom he wrote his female roles. "Shaw" is the shadowy adult man behind the mask, and "GBS" the celebrated pantaloon.
This is clever but contrived. It leads Holroyd into complex constructions involving all three personae in a single sentence. He suggests that "the fastidious Shaw" was sometimes disgusted by "the gyrations GBS went through to gain public attention". He quotes Shaw lamenting that "people think I am always joking". But the mask was too firmly fixed; the clown's plea to be taken seriously was just part of the performance.
Holroyd tracks Shaw's - or is it Sonny's? - relations with women indefatigably. But GBS conducted his affairs behind such a smokescreen of ingenious verbosity, in desperation to keep sexuality at bay, that the reader loses patience. Better the healthy fornication of H G Wells.
As for Shaw's 45-year marriage to Charlotte Payne Townshend, he can shed little light on the inwardness of the partnership. It was a mariage blanc, though that did not stop Charlotte being jealous of his actresses; she was his nursemaid and mother-substitute, who seems to have spent most of her time trying to stop him working. In her sixties, she found an unlikely confident in T E Lawrence, to whom she bared her soul, we are told, more than ever to her husband. But the daily routine of their domestic life still comes across - as GBS stage-managed it - as a Shavian farce.
The portrait only becomes human at the end, when the two old Shaws and the two old Webbs are increasingly drawn together as a quartet of dried up ancients, each longing to die before their partner. Shaw died last. On the page, as in life, death is a long time coming, and genuinely pathetic when it does. Yet Holroyd still gives GBS the last word: "Well, did I give a good performance?" He did; but it was only a performance.