George Bernard Shaw (26 July 1856 – 2 November 1950) was an Irish playwright. Although his
first profitable writing was music and literary criticism, in which capacity he wrote many highly articulate pieces of journalism, his main talent was for drama, and he wrote more than 60 plays. Nearly all his writings deal sternly with prevailing social problems, but have a vein of comedy to make their stark themes more palatable. Shaw examined education, marriage, religion, government, health care and class privilege.
He was most angered by what he perceived as the exploitation of the working class, and most of his writings censure that abuse. An ardent socialist, Shaw wrote many brochures and speeches for the Fabian Society. He became an accomplished orator in the furtherance of its causes, which included gaining equal rights for men and women, alleviating abuses of the working class, rescinding private ownership of productive land, and promoting healthy lifestyles. Shaw married Charlotte Payne-Townshend, a fellow Fabian, whom he survived. They settled in Ayot St. Lawrence in a house now called Shaw's Corner. Shaw died there, aged 94, from chronic problems exacerbated by injuries he incurred by falling.
He is the only person to have been awarded both a Nobel Prize for Literature (1925) and an Oscar (1938), for his contributions to literature and for his work on the film Pygmalion (adaption of his play of the same name), respectively. Shaw wanted to refuse his Nobel Prize outright because he had no desire for public honors, but accepted it at his wife's behest: she considered it a tribute to Ireland. He did reject the monetary award, requesting it be used to finance translation of Swedish books to English.
George Bernard Shaw
George Bernard Shaw's Birthplace, Dublin.
Early years and family
George Bernard Shaw was born in Synge Street, Dublin in 1856 to George Carr Shaw (1814–85), an unsuccessful grain merchant and sometime civil servant, and Lucinda Elizabeth Shaw, née Gurly (1830–1913), a professional singer. He had two sisters, Lucinda Frances (1853–1920), a singer of musical comedy and light opera, and Elinor Agnes (1855–76).
Shaw briefly attended the Wesleyan Connexional School, a grammar school operated by the Methodist New Connexion, before moving to a private school near Dalkey and then
transferring to Dublin's Central Model School. He ended his formal education at the Dublin English Scientific and Commercial Day School. He harbored a lifelong animosity toward schools and teachers, saying: "Schools and schoolmasters, as we have them today, are not popular as places of education and teachers, but rather prisons and turnkeys in which children
are kept to prevent them disturbing and chaperoning their parents". In the astringent
prologue to Cashel Byron's Profession young Byron's educational experience is a fictionalized description of Shaw's own schooldays. Later, he painstakingly detailed the reasons for his
aversion to formal education in his Treatise on Parents and Children. In brief, he considered
the standardized curricula useless, deadening to the spirit and stifling to the intellect. He particularly deplored the use of corporal punishment, which was prevalent in his time.
When his mother left home and followed her voice teacher, George Vandeleur Lee, to London,
Shaw was almost sixteen years old. His sisters accompanied their mother but Shaw
remained in Dublin with his father, first as a reluctant pupil, then as a clerk in an estate office.
He worked efficiently, albeit discontentedly, for several years. In 1876, Shaw joined his
mother's London household. She, Vandeleur Lee, and his sister Lucy, provided him with a pound a week while he frequented public libraries and the British Museum reading room where
he studied earnestly and began writing novels. He earned his allowance by ghostwriting
Vandeleur Lee's music column,which appeared in the London Hornet. His novels were
rejected, however, so his literary earnings remained negligible until 1885, when he became self-supporting as a critic of the arts.
Personal life and political activism
The front of Shaw's Corner as it stands today
Influenced by his reading, he became a dedicated Socialist and a charter member of
the Fabian Society, a middle class organization established in 1884 to promote the gradual
spread of socialism by peaceful means. In the course of his political activities he
met Charlotte Payne-Townshend, an Irish heiress and fellow Fabian; they married in 1898. In 1906 the Shaws moved into a house, now called Shaw's Corner, in Ayot St. Lawrence, a small
village in Hertfordshire; it was to be their home for the remainder of their lives, although they also maintained a residence at 29 Fitzroy Square in London.
Shaw's plays were first performed in the 1890s. By the end of the decade he was an established playwright. He wrote sixty-three plays and his output as novelist, critic, pamphleteer, essayist and private correspondent was prodigious. He is known to have written
more than 250,000 letters. Along with Fabian Society members Sidney andBeatrice
Webb and Graham Wallas, Shaw founded the London School of Economics and Political
Science in 1895 with funding provided by private philanthropy, including a bequest of ?20,000 from Henry Hunt Hutchinson to the Fabian Society. One of the libraries at the LSE is named in
Shaw's honor; it contains collections of his papers and photographs.
During his latter years, Shaw enjoyed attending to the grounds at Shaw's Corner. He died at the age of 94, of renal failure precipitated by injuries incurred by falling while pruning a
tree. His ashes, mixed with those of his wife, Charlotte Payne-Townshend, were scattered
along footpaths and around the statue of Saint Joan in their garden.
The International Shaw Society provides a detailed chronological listing of Shaw's
writings. See also George Bernard Shaw, Unity Theatre. ViewShaw's Works for listings of
his novels and plays, with links to their electronic texts, if those exist. Criticism
Shaw became a critic of the arts when, sponsored by William Archer, he joined the reviewing
staff of the Pall Mall Gazette in 1885. There he wrote under the pseudonym "Corno di
Bassetto" ("basset horn")—chosen because it sounded European and nobody knew what
a corno di bassetto was. In a miscellany of other periodicals, including Dramatic
Review (1885–86), Our Corner (1885–86), and the Pall Mall Gazette (1885–88) his byline was
"GBS". From 1895 to 1898, Shaw was the drama critic for Frank Harris' Saturday Review, in
which position he campaigned brilliantly to displace the artificialities and hypocrisies of the Victorian stage with a theater of actuality and thought. His earnings as a critic made him self-supporting as an author and his articles for the Saturday Review made his name
He had a very high regard for both Irish stage actor Barry Sullivan's and Johnston
Forbes-Robertson's Hamlets, but despised John Barrymore's. Barrymore invited him to see a
performance of his celebrated Hamlet, and Shaw graciously accepted, but wrote Barrymore a withering letter in which he all but tore the performance to shreds. Even worse, Shaw had seen the play in the company of Barrymore's then wife, but did not dare voice his true feelings about
the performance aloud to her.
Much of Shaw's music criticism, ranging from short comments to the book-length essay The
Perfect Wagnerite, extols the work of the German composerRichard Wagner. Wagner
worked 25 years composing Der Ring des Nibelungen, a massive four-part musical
dramatization drawn from the Teutonic mythology of gods, giants, dwarves and Rhine maidens;
Shaw considered it a work of genius and reviewed it in detail. Beyond the music, he saw it as an allegory of social evolution where workers, driven by "the invisible whip of hunger", seek freedom from their wealthy masters. Wagner did have socialistic sympathies, as Shaw carefully points out, but made no such claim about his opus. Conversely, Shaw disparaged Brahms, deriding A German Requiem by saying "it could only have come from the
establishment of a first-class undertaker". Although he found Brahms lacking in intellect, he
praised his musicality, saying "...nobody can listen to Brahms' natural utterance of the richest absolute music, especially in his chamber compositions, without rejoicing in his natural gift". In the 1920s, he recanted, calling his earlier animosity towards Brahms "my only
mistake". Shaw's writings about music gained great popularity because they were understandable to the average well-read audience member of the day, thus contrasting starkly
with the dourly pretentious pedantry of most critiques in that era. All of his music critiques
have been collected in Shaw's Music. As a drama critic for the Saturday Review, a post he
held from 1895 to 1898, Shaw championed Henrik Ibsen whose realistic plays scandalized the
Victorian public. His influential Quintessence of Ibsenism was written in 1891.
Shaw wrote five unsuccessful novels at the start of his career between 1879 and 1883. Eventually all were published.
Shaw in 1925, when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature
The first to be printed was Cashel Byron's Profession (1886), which was written in 1882. Its
eponymous character, Cashel, a rebellious schoolboy with an unsympathetic mother, runs away to Australia where he becomes a famed prizefighter. He returns to England for a boxing match, and falls in love with erudite and wealthy Lydia Carew. Lydia, drawn by sheer animal magnetism, eventually consents to marry despite the disparity of their social positions. This breach of propriety is nullified by the unpresaged discovery that Cashel is of noble lineage and heir to a fortune comparable to Lydia's. With those barriers to happiness removed, the couple settles down to prosaic family life with Lydia dominant; Cashel attains a seat in Parliament. In
this novel Shaw first expresses his conviction that productive land and all other natural resources should belong to everyone in common, rather than being owned and exploited privately. The book was written in the year when Shaw first heard the lectures of Henry
George who advocated such reforms.
Written in 1883, An Unsocial Socialist was published in 1887. The tale begins with a
hilarious description of student antics at a girl's school then changes focus to a seemingly uncouth laborer who, it soon develops, is really a wealthy gentleman in hiding from his overly affectionate wife. He needs the freedom gained by matrimonial truancy to promote the socialistic cause, to which he is an active convert. Once the subject of socialism emerges, it dominates the story, allowing only space enough in the final chapters to excoriate the idle upper class and allow the erstwhile schoolgirls, in their earliest maturity, to marry suitably. Love Among the Artists was published in the United States in 1900 and in England in
1914, but it was written in 1881. In the ambiance of chit-chat and frivolity among members of Victorian polite society a youthful Shaw describes his views on the arts, romantic love and the practicalities of matrimony. Dilettantes, he thinks, can love and settle down to marriage, but artists with real genius are too consumed by their work to fit that pattern. The dominant figure in the novel is Owen Jack, a musical genius, somewhat mad and quite bereft of social graces. From an abysmal beginning he rises to great fame and is lionized by socialites despite his unremitting crudity.
The Irrational Knot was written in 1880 and published in 1905. Within a framework of leisure
class preoccupations and frivolities Shaw disdains hereditary status and proclaims the nobility of workers. Marriage, as the knot in question, is exemplified by the union of Marian Lind, a lady of the upper class, to Edward Conolly, always a workman but now a magnate, thanks to his invention of an electric motor that makes steam engines obsolete. The marriage soon deteriorates, primarily because Marian fails to rise above the preconceptions and limitations of her social class and is, therefore, unable to share her husband's interests. Eventually she runs away with a man who is her social peer, but he proves himself a scoundrel and abandons her in desperate circumstances. Her husband rescues her and offers to take her back, but she pridefully refuses, convinced she is unworthy and certain that she faces life as a pariah to her family and friends. The preface, written when Shaw was 49, expresses gratitude to his parents for their support during the lean years while he learned to write and includes details of his early life in London.
Shaw's first novel, Immaturity, was written in 1879 but was the last one to be printed in
1931. It relates tepid romances, minor misfortunes and subdued successes in the developing career of Robert Smith, an energetic young Londoner and outspoken agnostic. Condemnation of alcoholic behavior is the prime message in the book, and derives from Shaw's familial memories. This is made clear in the books's preface, which was written by the
mature Shaw at the time of its belated publication. The preface is a valuable resource because it provides autobiographical details not otherwise available.
Shaw writing in a notebook at the time of first production of his playPygmalion.
A collection of Shaw's short stories, The Black Girl in Search of God and Some Lesser Tales,
was published in 1934. The Black Girl, an enthusiastic but misguided convert to Christianity,
goes searching for God, whom she believes to be an actual person. Written as an allegory, somewhat reminiscent of Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, Shaw uses her adventures to
expose flaws and fallacies in the religions of the world. At the story's happy ending, the Black Girl quits her searchings in favor of rearing a family with the aid of a red-haired Irishman who has no metaphysical inclination.
One of the Lesser Tales is The Miraculous Revenge (1885), which relates the misadventures
of an alcoholic investigator while he probes the mystery of a graveyard—full of saintly
corpses—that migrates across a stream to escape association with the body of a newly buried sinner. The story is wildly different from Shaw's usual style.
The texts of plays by Shaw mentioned in this section, with the dates when they were written
and first performed can be found in Complete Plays and Prefaces. Shaw began working on
his first play destined for production,Widowers' Houses, in 1885 in collaboration with
critic William Archer, who supplied the structure. Archer decided that Shaw could not write a play, so the project was abandoned. Years later, Shaw tried again and, in 1892, completed the play without collaboration. Widowers' Houses, a scathing attack on slumlords, was first
performed at London's Royalty Theatre on 9 December 1892. Shaw would later call it one of his worst works, but he had found his medium. His first significant financial success as a playwright came from Richard Mansfield's American production of The Devil's Disciple (1897).
He went on to write 63 plays, most of them full-length.
Often his plays succeeded in the United States and Germany before they did in London. Although major London productions of many of his earlier pieces were delayed for years, they are still being performed there. Examples include Mrs. Warren's Profession (1893),Arms and
the Man (1894), Candida (1894) and You Never Can Tell (1897).
Shaw's plays, like those of Oscar Wilde, were fraught with incisive humor, which was
exceptional among playwrights of the Victorian era; both authors are remembered for their
comedy. However, Shaw's wittiness should not obscure his important role in revolutionizing British drama. In the Victorian Era, the London stage had been regarded as a place for frothy, sentimental entertainment. Shaw made it a forum for considering moral, political and economic issues, possibly his most lasting and important contribution to dramatic art. In this, he considered himself indebted to Henrik Ibsen, who pioneered modern realistic drama, meaning
drama designed to heighten awareness of some important social issue.
Significantly, Widowers' Houses — an example of the realistic genre — was completed after
William Archer, Shaw's friend, had translated some of Ibsen's plays to English and Shaw had
written The Quintessence of Ibsensism.
As Shaw's experience and popularity increased, his plays and prefaces became more voluble about reforms he advocated, without diminishing their success as entertainments. Such works, including Caesar and Cleopatra (1898), Man and Superman (1903), Major Barbara (1905)
and The Doctor's Dilemma (1906), display Shaw's matured views, for he was approaching 50 when he wrote them. From 1904 to 1907, several of his plays had their London premieres in notable productions at the Court Theatre, managed by Harley Granville-Barker and J. E.
Vedrenne. The first of his new plays to be performed at the Court Theatre,John Bull's Other
Island (1904), while not especially popular today, made his reputation in London when King
Edward VII laughed so hard during a command performance that he broke his chair.
By the 1910s, Shaw was a well-established playwright. New works such as Fanny's First
Play (1911) and Pygmalion (1912)—on which the famous, award-winning musical My Fair
Lady (1956) is based—had long runs in front of large London audiences. A musical adaptation of Arms and the Man (1894)—The Chocolate Soldier by Oscar Straus (1908)—was also very
popular, but Shaw detested it and, for the rest of his life, forbade musicalization of his work, including a proposed Franz Lehár operetta based on Pygmalion; the Broadway musical My
Fair Lady could be produced only after Shaw's death. There is, however, a sharp difference between The Chocolate Soldier and My Fair Lady which Shaw never anticipated, and perhaps
never could have; The Chocolate Soldier uses none of Shaw's own dialogue, while My Fair
Lady, despite having a few speeches entirely written by librettist Alan Jay Lerner, uses
generous chunks of Shaw's dialogue unchanged.
Shaw's outlook was changed by World War I, which he uncompromisingly opposed despite incurring outrage from the public as well as from many friends. His first full-length piece, presented after the War, written mostly during it, was Heartbreak House (1919). A new Shaw
had emerged—the wit remained, but his faith in humanity had dwindled. In the preface to Heartbreak House he said:
"It is said that every people has the Government it deserves. It is more to the point that every Government has the electorate it deserves; for the orators of the front bench can edify or debauch an ignorant electorate at will. Thus our democracy moves in a vicious circle of
reciprocal worthiness and unworthiness."
The movable hut in the garden of Shaw's Corner, where Shaw wrote most of his works after 1906, includingPygmalion.
Shaw had previously supported gradual democratic change toward socialism, but now he saw more hope in government by benign strong men. This sometimes made him oblivious to the dangers of dictatorships. Near his life's end that hope failed him too. In the first act of Buoyant
Billions (1946–48), his last full-length play, his protagonist asks:
"Why appeal to the mob when ninetyfive per cent of them do not understand politics, and can do nothing but mischief without leaders? And what sort of leaders do they vote for? For Titus Oates and Lord George Gordon with their Popish plots, for Hitlers who call on them to exterminate Jews, for Mussolinis who rally them to nationalist dreams of glory and empire in
which all foreigners are enemies to be subjugated."
In 1921, Shaw completed Back to Methuselah, his "Metabiological Pentateuch". The massive,
five-play work starts in the Garden of Eden and ends thousands of years in the future; it
showcases Shaw's postulate that a "Life Force" directs evolution toward ultimate perfection by trial and error. Shaw proclaimed the play a masterpiece, but many critics disagreed. The theme of a benign force directing evolution reappears in Geneva (1938), wherein Shaw
maintains humans must develop longer lifespans in order to acquire the wisdom needed for self-government.
Methuselah was followed by Saint Joan (1923), which is generally considered to be one of his better works. Shaw had long considered writing about Joan of Arc, and her canonization in
1920 supplied a strong incentive. The play was an international success, and is believed to
have led to his Nobel Prize in Literature. The citation praised his work as "...marked by both
idealism and humanity, its stimulating satire often being infused with a singular poetic beauty". At this time Prime Minister David Lloyd George was considering recommending to the King
Shaw's admission to the Order of Merit, but the place was instead given to J. M.
Barrie. Shaw rejected a knighthood. It was not until 1946 that the government of the day
arranged for an informal offer of the Order of Merit to be made: Shaw declined, replying that
"merit" in authorship could only be determined by the posthumous verdict of history.
He wrote plays for the rest of his life, but very few of them are as notable—or as often
revived—as his earlier work. The Apple Cart (1929) was probably his most popular work of this
era. Later full-length plays like Too True to Be Good (1931), On the Rocks (1933), The
Millionairess (1935), andGeneva (1938) have been seen as marking a decline. His last
significant play, In Good King Charles Golden Days has, according to St. John
Ervine,passages that are equal to Shaw's major works.
Shaw's published plays come with lengthy prefaces. These tend to be more about Shaw's opinions on the issues addressed by the plays than about the plays themselves. Often his prefaces are longer than the plays they introduce. For example, the Penguin Books edition of
his one-act The Shewing-up Of Blanco Posnet (1909) has a 67-page preface for the 29-page
In a letter to Henry James dated 17 January 1909, Shaw said:
"I, as a Socialist, have had to preach, as much as anyone, the enormous power of the environment. We can change it; we must change it; there is absolutely no other sense in life than the task of changing it. What is the use of writing plays, what is the use of writing anything,
if there is not a will which finally moulds chaos itself into a race of gods."
Thus he viewed writing as a way to further his humanitarian and political agenda. His works
were very popular because of their comedic content, but the public tended to disregard his