In his will, George Bernard Shaw imposed on the Public Trustee the duty of finding and publishing a new, more rational alphabet. He had been railing for years against the idiocy of using an ancient Latin alphabet for a modern, largely Germanic language; and argued that the stupidity was compounded by spellings that reflected a word's history rather than its sound and meaning. It had taken the First World War to bring us British Summer Time; perhaps it would take another war to force us to rationalize our spelling: "...I shall not grudge it. The waste of war is negligible in comparison to the daily waste of trying to communicate with one another in English through an alphabet with sixteen letters missing." Sense of proportion, much?
Shaw wanted an alphabet of at least 40 letters, the extra ones replacing compounds such as SH or OW, and to eliminate diacritical marks (this is, I guess, a development of his disdain for apostrophes — youll see that he didnt use them in his plays). Once the alphabet had been established, a phonetic expert would be employed to transliterate Shaw's 1913 play Androcles and the Lion into it, working on the assumption that the pronunciation would be approximately "that recorded of His Majesty our late King George V".
There was some legal trouble about the will: in the end, the British Museum, RADA and the National Gallery of Ireland — who between them stood to get whatever wasn't spent on the new alphabet — stumped up for a competition to find the best design. 450 entries were received; the judges decided that, rather than pick an outright winner, they would split the £500 prize four ways. One of the four winning entries, by Kingsley Read, was used for Androcles; Penguin published the result in 1962, 12 years after Shaw died. It includes a parallel English text, which is a relief.
Copies are surprisingly common, and shouldn't cost much: mine was a measly quid, though years ago. Cover by Germano Facetti, by the way. If you are buying, do make sure the copy comes with the detachable reading key:
Read's squiggling alphabet looks something like Pitman shorthand. The sounds and signs follow patterns: for example, "tall" letters are mostly unvoiced consonants (T, P, F); "deep" letters, got by turning tall letters upside down, are the voiced versions (D, B,V).
On the obverse of the reading key is a guide to help anybody who wants to write the damn thing:
Androcles is a silly little slip of a play, which is likely why Shaw thought it was worth transliterating: imagine trying to transcribe the squeals of Eliza Doolittle into the tones of George V, or to hack your way through the thickets of Man and Superman.
Speaking of which: underneath a comic surface the play has a Nietzschean subtext. Androcles (the one who pulls a thorn out of a lion's paw) is a Christian slave — Christianity being to Nietzsche the religion of slave-morality. The characters include Ferrovius, a superman who continually suppresses his terrific strength and will to power to serve Christ. Ferrovius believes he has converted many pagans, when really all he has done is terrify them into paying lip-service to Christianity — his version of Christ's message being oddly hard to distinguish from a threat of violence. Androcles, on the other hand, is genuinely peaceable and submissive but such an animal lover that he is almost goaded to violence by the sight of a gladiator armed with a whip:
ANDROCLES ...I cant bear the sight of a whip. The only time I ever hit a man was when he lashed an old horse with a whip. It was terrible: I danced on his face when he was on the ground.
Alphabets, whips, wild animals, madness: I can't help muddling it up with Saki's "Tobermory", in which a man called Cornelius Appin teaches a cat to speak:
Tobermory had been Appin's one successful pupil, and he was destined to have no successor. A few weeks later an elephant in the Dresden Zoological Garden, which had shown no previous signs of irritability, broke loose and killed an Englishman who had apparently been teasing it. The victim's name was variously reported in the papers as Oppin and Eppelin, but his front name was faithfully rendered Cornelius.
"If he was trying German irregular verbs on the poor beast," said Clovis, "he deserved all he got."