George Bernard Shaw (26 July 1856 – 2 November 1950), known at his insistence simply as Bernard Shaw, was an Irish playwright, critic, polemicist and political activist. His influence on Western theatre, culture and politics extended from the 1880s to his death and beyond. He wrote more than sixty plays, including major works such as Man and Superman (1902), Pygmalion (1912) and Saint Joan (1923). With a range incorporating both contemporary satire and historical allegory, Shaw became the leading dramatist of his generation, and in 1925 was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Born in Dublin, Shaw moved to London in 1876, where he struggled to establish himself as a writer and novelist, and embarked on a rigorous process of self-education. By the mid-1880s he had become a respected theatre and music critic. Following a political awakening, he joined the gradualist Fabian Society and became its most prominent pamphleteer. Shaw had been writing plays for years before his first public success, Arms and the Man in 1894. Influenced by Henrik Ibsen, he sought to introduce a new realism into English-language drama, using his plays as vehicles to disseminate his political, social and religious ideas. By the early twentieth century his reputation as a dramatist was secured with a series of critical and popular successes that included Major Barbara, The Doctor's Dilemma and Caesar and Cleopatra.
Shaw's expressed views were often contentious; he promoted eugenics and alphabet reform, and opposed vaccination and organised religion. He courted unpopularity by denouncing both sides in the First World War as equally culpable, and although not a republican, castigated British policy on Ireland in the postwar period. These stances had no lasting effect on his standing or productivity as a dramatist; the inter-war years saw a series of often ambitious plays, which achieved varying degrees of popular success. In 1938 he provided the screenplay for a filmed version of Pygmalion for which he received an Academy Award. His appetite for politics and controversy remained undiminished; by the late 1920s he had largely renounced Fabian Society gradualism and often wrote and spoke favourably of dictatorships of the right and left—he expressed admiration for both Mussolini and Stalin. In the final decade of his life he made fewer public statements, but continued to write prolifically until shortly before his death, aged ninety-four, having refused all state honours, including the Order of Merit in 1946.
Since Shaw's death scholarly and critical opinion about his works has varied, but he has regularly been rated among British dramatists as second only to Shakespeare; analysts recognise his extensive influence on generations of English-language playwrights. The word Shavian has entered the language as encapsulating Shaw's ideas and his means of expressing them.
George Bernard Shaw was born in Portobello, a lower-middle-class part of Dublin. He was the youngest child and only son of George Carr Shaw (1814–1885) and Lucinda Elizabeth (Bessie) Shaw (1830–1913). George Carr Shaw, an ineffectual alcoholic, was among the family's less successful members. His relatives secured him a sinecure in the civil service, from which he was pensioned off in the early 1850s; thereafter he worked irregularly as a corn merchant. His wife Bessie came to despise her ineffectual and often drunken husband.
By the time of Shaw's birth, his mother had become close to George John Lee, a flamboyant figure well known in Dublin's musical circles. Shaw retained a lifelong obsession that Lee might have been his biological father. The young Shaw later recalled that his mother's indifference and lack of affection hurt him deeply. He found solace in the music that abounded in the house. Lee was a conductor and teacher of singing; Bessie had a fine mezzo-soprano voice and was much influenced by Lee's unorthodox method of vocal production. The Shaws' house was often filled with music, with frequent gatherings of singers and players.
In 1862, Lee and the Shaws agreed to share a house, and a country cottage on Dalkey Hill, overlooking Killiney Bay. Lee's students often gave young Shaw books, which he read avidly; thus, as well as gaining a thorough musical knowledge of choral and operatic works, he became familiar with a wide spectrum of literature.
Between 1865 and 1871, Shaw attended four schools, all of which he hated. His experiences as a schoolboy left him disillusioned with formal education. In October 1871 he left school to become a junior clerk in a Dublin firm of land agents, where he worked hard, and quickly rose to become head cashier. During this period, Shaw was known as "George Shaw"; after 1876, he dropped the "George" and styled himself "Bernard Shaw".
In June 1873, Lee left Dublin for London and never returned. A fortnight later, Bessie followed him, and Shaw's two sisters joined her. Left in Dublin with his father, Shaw compensated for the absence of music in the house by teaching himself to play the piano.
In March 1876 Shaw travelled to England to join his mother and his sister Lucy at his another sister Agnes's funeral. He never again lived in Ireland, and did not visit it for twenty-nine years.
Lee found a little work for Shaw, ghost-writing a musical column printed under Lee's name in a satirical weekly, The Hornet. Although Lee's relations with Bessie deteriorated after their move to London, shaw maintained contact with Lee, who later also found him work as a rehearsal pianist and occasional singer.
Eventually Shaw was driven to applying for office jobs. In the interim he secured a reader's pass for the British Museum Reading Room (the forerunner of the British Library) and spent most weekdays there, reading and writing. His first attempt at drama, begun in 1878, was a blank-verse satirical piece on a religious theme. It was abandoned unfinished, as was his first try at a novel. His first completed novel, Immaturity (1879), was too grim to appeal to publishers and did not appear until the 1930s. He was employed briefly by the newly formed Edison Telephone Company in 1879–80, but when the Edison firm merged with the rival Bell Telephone Company, Shaw left to pursue a full-time career as an author.
For the next four years Shaw made a negligible income from writing, and was subsidised by his mother. In 1881, for the sake of economy, and increasingly as a matter of principle, he became a vegetarian. He grew a beard to hide a facial scar left by smallpox. In rapid succession he wrote two more novels but neither found a publisher.
In 1880 Shaw began attending meetings of the Zetetical Society, whose objective was to "search for truth in all matters affecting the interests of the human race". Here he met Sidney Webb, a junior civil servant who, like Shaw, was busy educating himself. Despite difference of style and temperament, the two quickly recognised qualities in each other and developed a lifelong friendship.
In 1882 Shaw's interest in economics was awakened, he discovered the writings of Karl Marx, and thereafter spent much of 1883 reading Das Kapital. In 1884, he joined the recently formed Fabian Society, and provided the society with its first manifesto.
"The most striking result of our present system of farming out the national Land and capital to private individuals has been the division of society into hostile classes, with large appetites and no dinners at one extreme, and large dinners and no appetites at the other"
Shaw, Fabian Tract No. 2: A Manifesto (1884).
From 1885 to 1889 Shaw attended the fortnightly meetings of the British Economic Association which changed his political ideas; he moved away from Marxism and became an apostle of gradualism.
The mid-1880s marked a turning point in Shaw's life, both personally and professionally: he lost his virginity, had two novels published, and began a career as a critic. He had been celibate until his twenty-ninth birthday, when his shyness was overcome by Jane (Jenny) Patterson, a widow some years his senior. Their affair continued, not always smoothly, for eight years.
The published novels, neither commercially successful, were his two final efforts in this genre.
In 1884 and 1885, through the influence of Archer, Shaw was engaged to write book and music criticism for London papers. When Archer resigned as art critic of The World in 1886 he secured the succession for Shaw. The two figures in the contemporary art world whose views Shaw most admired were William Morris and John Ruskin, and he sought to follow their precepts in his criticisms. Their emphasis on morality appealed to Shaw, who rejected the idea of art for art's sake, and insisted that all great art must be didactic.
Shaw ceased to be a salaried music critic in August 1894, but published occasional articles on the subject throughout his career, his last in 1950.
From 1895 to 1898, Shaw was the theatre critic for The Saturday Review, edited by his friend Frank Harris. As at The World, he used the by-line "G.B.S." He campaigned against the artificial conventions and hypocrisies of the Victorian theatre and called for plays of real ideas and true characters. By this time he had embarked in earnest on a career as a playwright: "I had rashly taken up the case; and rather than let it collapse I manufactured the evidence".
At first he made slow progress; The Philanderer, written in 1893 but not published until 1898, had to wait until 1905 for a stage production. Similarly, Mrs Warren's Profession (1893) was written five years before publication and nine years before reaching the stage.
Shaw's first play to bring him financial success was Arms and the Man (1894), a mock-Ruritanian comedy satirising conventions of love, military honour and class. The play ran from April to July, toured the provinces and was staged in New York. It earned him £341 in royalties in its first year, a sufficient sum to enable him to give up his salaried post as a music critic. Among the cast of the London production was Florence Farr, with whom Shaw had a romantic relationship between 1890 and 1894, much resented by Jenny Patterson.
The success of Arms and the Man was not immediately replicated. In the 1890s Shaw's plays were better known in print than on the West End stage; his biggest success of the decade was in New York in 1897, when Richard Mansfield's production of the historical melodrama The Devil's Disciple earned the author more than £2,000 in royalties.
By the later 1890s Shaw's political activities lessened as he concentrated on making his name as a dramatist. When London government was reformed in 1899 and the St Pancras vestry became the Metropolitan Borough of St Pancras, he was elected to the newly formed borough council.
In 1898, as a result of overwork, Shaw's health broke down. He was nursed by Charlotte Payne-Townshend, a rich Anglo-Irish woman who had proposed that she and Shaw should marry. He had declined, but when she insisted on nursing him in a house in the country, Shaw, concerned that this might cause scandal, agreed to their marriage.
The ceremony took place on 1 June 1898, in the register office in Covent Garden. The bride and bridegroom were both aged forty-one. There were no children of the marriage, which it is generally believed was never consummated.
By 1903, when his term as borough councillor expired, he had lost his earlier enthusiasm.
In 1906 the Shaws found a country home in Ayot St Lawrence, Hertfordshire; they renamed the house "Shaw's Corner", and lived there for the rest of their lives. They retained a London flat in the Adelphi and later at Whitehall Court.
In 1906 National general election produced a huge Liberal majority. In the years after the 1906 election, Shaw felt that the Fabians needed fresh leadership, and saw this in the form of his fellow-writer H. G. Wells, who had joined the society in February 1903.
During the first decade of the twentieth century, Shaw secured a firm reputation as a playwright. In 1904 J. E. Vedrenne and Harley Granville-Barker established a company at the Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square, Chelsea to present modern drama. Over the next five years they staged fourteen of Shaw's plays.
The first, John Bull's Other Island, a comedy about an Englishman in Ireland, attracted leading politicians and was seen by Edward VII, who laughed so much that he broke his chair. The play was requested by William Butler Yeats was a close friend of Shaw. Shaw admired other figures in the Irish Literary Revival, including George Russell and James Joyce, and was a close friend of Seán O'Casey, who was inspired to become a playwright after reading John Bull's Other Island.
Man and Superman, completed in 1902, was a success both at the Royal Court in 1905 and in Robert Loraine's New York production in the same year. Among the other Shaw works presented by Vedrenne and Granville-Barker were Major Barbara (1905), depicting the contrasting morality of arms manufacturers and the Salvation Army; The Doctor's Dilemma (1906), a mostly serious piece about professional ethics; and Caesar and Cleopatra, Shaw's counterblast to Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, seen in New York in 1906 and in London the following year.
Now prosperous and established, Shaw experimented with unorthodox theatrical forms described by his biographer Stanley Weintraub as "discussion drama" and "serious farce". These plays included Getting Married (premiered 1908), The Shewing-Up of Blanco Posnet (1909), Misalliance (1910), and Fanny's First Play (1911). Fanny's First Play, a comedy about suffragettes, had the longest initial run of any Shaw play—622 performances.
One of Shaw's most successful plays was Pygmalion written in 1912 and staged in Vienna the following year, and in Berlin shortly afterwards. The British production opened in April 1914, starring Sir Herbert Tree and Mrs Patrick Campbell as, respectively, a professor of phonetics and a cockney flower-girl. There had earlier been a romantic liaison between Shaw and Campbell that caused Charlotte Shaw considerable concern, but by the time of the London premiere it had ended.
After the First World War began in August 1914, Shaw produced his tract Common Sense About the War, which argued that the warring nations were equally culpable. Such a view was anathema in an atmosphere of fervent patriotism, and offended many of Shaw's friends.
In the postwar period, Shaw despaired of the British government's coercive policies towards Ireland. Shaw remained a British subject all his life, but took dual British-Irish nationality in 1934.
Shaw's first major work to appear after the war was Heartbreak House, written in 1916–17 and performed in 1920. It was produced on Broadway in November, and was coolly received.
Shaw's largest-scale theatrical work was Back to Methuselah, written in 1918–20 and staged in 1922. This cycle of five interrelated plays depicts evolution, and the effects of longevity, from the Garden of Eden to the year 31,920 AD. Shaw felt he had exhausted his remaining creative powers in the huge span of this "Metabiological Pentateuch". He was now sixty-seven, and expected to write no more plays.
This mood was short-lived. In 1920 Joan of Arc was proclaimed a saint by Pope Benedict XV; Shaw had long found Joan an interesting historical character, and his view of her veered between "half-witted genius" and someone of "exceptional sanity". He had considered writing a play about her in 1913, and the canonisation prompted him to return to the subject. He wrote Saint Joan in the middle months of 1923, and the play was premiered on Broadway in December. It was enthusiastically received there, and at its London premiere the following March.
In 1925 he was awarded Nobel Prize. He accepted the award, but rejected the monetary prize that went with it, on the grounds that "My readers and my audiences provide me with more than sufficient money for my needs".
After Saint Joan, it was five years before Shaw wrote a play. From 1924, he spent four years writing what he described as his "magnum opus", a political treatise entitled The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism. The book was published in 1928 and sold well.
Shaw returned to the theatre with what he called "a political extravaganza", The Apple Cart, written in late 1928. He described The Apple Cart to Sir Edward Elgar as "a scandalous Aristophanic burlesque of democratic politics, with a brief but shocking sex interlude".
During the 1920s Shaw began to lose faith in the idea that society could be changed through Fabian gradualism, and became increasingly fascinated with dictatorial methods. He admired Mussolini and Stalin, in particular Stalin, whose regime he championed uncritically throughout the 1930s.
Shaw's first play of the 30s was Too True to be Good, written in 1931 and premiered in Boston in February 1932. The reception was unenthusiastic.
During the decade Shaw travelled widely and frequently. Most of his journeys were with Charlotte; she enjoyed voyages on ocean liners, and he found peace to write during the long spells at sea.
In December 1932 the couple embarked on a round-the-world cruise. In March 1933 they arrived at San Francisco, to begin Shaw's first visit to the US. He visited Hollywood, with which he was unimpressed, and New York, where he lectured to a capacity audience in the Metropolitan Opera House. New Zealand, which he and Charlotte visited the following year, struck him as "the best country I've been in". He used the weeks at sea to complete two plays and begin work on a third, The Millionairess.
Despite his contempt for Hollywood and its aesthetic values, Shaw was enthusiastic about cinema, and in the middle of the decade wrote screenplays for prospective film versions of Pygmalion and Saint Joan. The latter was never made, but Shaw entrusted the rights to the former to the unknown Gabriel Pascal, who produced it at Pinewood Studios in 1938. Shaw was determined that Hollywood should have nothing to do with the film, but was powerless to prevent it from winning one Academy Award; he described his award for "best-written screenplay" as an insult, coming from such a source. He became the first person to have been awarded both a Nobel Prize and an Oscar.
Towards the end of the decade, both Shaws began to suffer ill health. Charlotte was increasingly incapacitated by Paget's disease of bone, and he developed pernicious anaemia. His treatment, involving injections of concentrated animal liver, was successful, but this breach of his vegetarian creed distressed him and brought down condemnation from militant vegetarians.
Although Shaw's works since The Apple Cart had been received without great enthusiasm, his earlier plays were revived in the West End throughout the Second World War, starring such actors as Edith Evans, John Gielgud, Deborah Kerr and Robert Donat. In 1944 nine Shaw plays were staged in London and two touring companies took his plays all round Britain. The revival in his popularity did not tempt Shaw to write a new play, and he concentrated on prolific journalism. A second Shaw film produced by Pascal, Major Barbara (1941), was less successful both artistically and commercially than Pygmalion.
Following the outbreak of war on 3 September 1939 and the rapid conquest of Poland, Shaw was accused of defeatism. The London blitz of 1940–41 led the Shaws, both in their mid-eighties, to live full-time at Ayot St Lawrence. Even there they were not immune from enemy air raids, and stayed on occasion with Nancy Astor at her country house, Cliveden.
In 1943, the worst of the London bombing over, the Shaws moved back to Whitehall Court, where medical help for Charlotte was more easily arranged. Her condition deteriorated, and she died in September.
Pascal was given a third opportunity to film Shaw's work with Caesar and Cleopatra (1945). It cost three times its original budget and was rated "the biggest financial failure in the history of British cinema". The film was poorly received by British critics, although American reviews were friendlier.
In 1946, the year of Shaw's ninetieth birthday, he accepted the freedom of Dublin and became the first honorary freeman of the borough of St Pancras, London. In the same year the government asked Shaw informally whether he would accept the Order of Merit. He declined, believing that an author's merit could only be determined by the posthumous verdict of history.
Shaw continued to write into his nineties, and his last full-length work was Buoyant Billions (1947).
During his later years, Shaw enjoyed tending the gardens at Shaw's Corner. He died at the age of ninety-four of renal failure precipitated by injuries incurred when falling while pruning a tree. He was cremated at Golders Green Crematorium on 6 November 1950. His ashes, mixed with those of Charlotte, were scattered along footpaths and around the statue of Saint Joan in their garden.
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