To an audience sickened for years by the sordid grime and hopeless slaughter of trench warfare on the western front, Lowell Thomas brought a hero in gleaming white robes who rode to victory. Thomas’s story of a young Oxonian in native garb becoming a warrior-prince of the desert, to some extent prefigured in Greenmantle and A. E.
W. Mason’s Four Feathers, struck a deeply responsive chord, much like that struck by Edgar Rice Burroughs in Tarzan. It was as though the story had been there all along, waiting to be told; and the role of Oxford’s desert prince was there, too, waiting for Lawrence to play it. But the story was false fundamentally. Neither T. E. nor any of his colleagues could have passed for Arab in the Middle East.
As Lawrence admitted in 1927 to his biographer, the poet Robert Graves, “I’ve never heard an Englishman speak Arabic well enough to be taken for a native of any part of the Arabic-speaking world, for five minutes.” Mrs. George Bernard Shaw, a confidante of Lawrence’s, to whom he confessed much that was false, once exclaimed in exasperation that “he is such an infernal liar!”; but her husband disagreed. T. E. “was a born and incorrigible actor,” wrote Shaw.
“He was not a liar. He was an actor.” The celebrity brought about by Lowell Thomas’s “Lawrence of Arabia” show propelled T.
E. into the political limelight. Long before George Murphy became a U.S. Senator or Ronald Reagan became America’s President, Lawrence was a sort of actor in politics.
He threw himself into his roles wholeheartedly. Dressed in the uniform of a British officer, he spoke cynically of how he would manipulate the peoples of the Middle East, but wearing his native robes, he was the only prominent Englishman in favor of genuine independence for the Arabs.