The British playwright, critic, and pamphleteer George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) produced more than 52 plays and playlets, three volumes of music and drama criticism, and one major volume of socialist commentary.
George Bernard Shaw's theater extended to his personal life. He considered himself a cultural miracle, and a partisan conflict among his readers and playgoers provoked a massive body of literature for and against him and his work. Much recent criticism concludes that he ranks as the greatest English dramatist since William Shakespeare.
Shaw was born in Dublin, Ireland, on July 16, 1856. At an early age he was tutored in classics by an uncle, and when he was 10 years old, he entered the Wesleyan Connexional School in Dublin. There his academic performance was largely a failure. Shaw later described his own education: "I cannot learn anything that does not interest me. My memory is not indiscriminate, it rejects and selects; and its selections are not academic." Part of his nonacademic training was handled by his mother, a music teacher and a mezzo-soprano; Shaw studied music and art at the same time. He became a Dublin office boy in 1871 at a monthly salary equivalent to $4.50. Success in business threatened him: "I made good," he wrote, "in spite of myself and found, to my dismay, that Business, instead of expelling me as the worthless imposter I was, was fastening upon me with no intention of letting me go….In March, 1876, I broke loose." Resigning a cashier's position, Shaw joined his mother and two sisters in London, where they conducted a music school. Shaw had started writing, at the age of 16, criticism and reviews for Irish newspapers and magazines; in 4 years only one piece was accepted. Shaw lived in London for the 9 years after 1876 supported by his parents and continued to write criticism. He also entertained in London society as a singer.
Shaw as a Novelist
Between 1876 and 1885 Shaw wrote five novels. Immaturity, the first, remained unpublished, and the other four, after a series of rejections from London publishers, appeared in radical periodicals. To-Day published An Unsocial Socialist in 1884; it was designed as part of a massive projected work that would cover the entire social reform movement in England. Cashel Byron's Profession (1882) also appeared in To-Day; juvenile, nonsensical, at times hilarious, it was produced in 1901 as the drama The Admirable Bashville; or, Constancy Unrewarded. The Irrational Knot, a portrayal of modern marriage that Shaw asserted anticipated Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House, appeared in another radical periodical, Our Corner, as did Love among the Artists (1887-1888).
Political Activities and Writings
At the age of 23 Shaw had joined a socialist discussion group, of which Sydney Webb was a member, and he joined the Fabian Society in 1884. Fabian Essays (1887), edited by Shaw, emphasized the importance of economics and class structure; for him, economics was "the basis of society." In 1882 Shaw's conversion to socialism began when he heard Henry George, the American author of Progress and Poverty, address a London meeting. George's message "changed the whole current of my life." His reading of Karl Marx's Das Kapital in the same year "made a man of me." For 27 years Shaw served on the Fabian Society's executive committee. In his role as an active polemicist he later published Common Sense about the War on Nov. 14, 1914, a criticism of the British government and its policies. The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism (1928) supplied a complete summary of his political position. It remains a major volume of socialist commentary. For 6 years Shaw held office on a municipal level in a London suburb.
Shaw's other careers continued. Between 1888 and 1894 he wrote for newspapers and periodicals as a highly successful music critic. At the end of this period, he began writing on a regular basis for Frank Harris's Saturday Review; as a critic, he introduced Ibsen and the "new" drama to the British public. Shaw's Quintessence of Ibsenism appeared in 1890, The Sanity of Art in 1895, and The Perfect Wagnerite in 1898. All of them indicate the formation of his esthetics. He married Charlotte Payne-Townshend, an Irish heiress and fellow socialist, in 1898. She died in 1943.
Shaw wrote drama between 1892 and 1947, when he completed Buoyant Billions at the age of 91. Widowers' Houses, his first play, was produced in 1892 at London's Royalty Theater. He identified this and the other early plays as "unpleasant." Widowers' Houses was about slum land-lordship. Preoccupied by the "new" woman, Shaw wrote The Philanderers in 1893. Also written in the same year but not produced until 1902 because of British censorship, Mrs. Warren's Profession revealed, he wrote, "the economic basis of modern commercial prostitution." Shaw's first stage successes, Arms and the Man and Candida, both of them "pleasant" plays, were produced in 1894. You Never Can Tell, first produced in 1896 and not often revived, is Shaw's most underrated comedy. The Vedrenne-Barker productions at the Royal Court Theater in London of Shaw, Shakespeare, and Euripides between 1904 and 1907 established Shaw's permanent reputation; 11 of his plays received 701 performances.
Shaw began as a dramatist writing against the mechanical habits of domestic comedy and against the Victorian romanticizing of Shakespeare and drama in general. He wrote that "melodramatic stage illusion is not an illusion of real life, but an illusion of the embodiment of our romantic imaginings."
Shaw's miraculous period began with Man and Superman (1901-1903). It was miraculous even for him; in a late play, Too True to Be Good (1932), one of the characters speaks for him: "My gift is divine: it is not limited by my petty personal convictions. Lucidity is one of the most precious of gifts: the gift of the teacher: the gift of explanation. I can explain anything to anybody; and I love doing it."
Major Barbara (1905) is a drama of ideas, largely about poverty and capitalism; like most of Shaw's drama, Major Barbara poses questions and finally contains messages or arguments. Androcles and the Lion (1911) discusses religion. John Bull's Other Island (1904), which is the least known of his major plays, concerns political relations between England and Ireland. Heartbreak House analyzes the domestic effects of World War I; written between 1913 and 1916, it was first produced in 1920. Most of the plays after Arms and the Man carry long prefaces that are often not directly related to the drama itself. Shaw systematically explored such topics as marriage, parenthood, education, and poverty in the prefaces.
Shaw's popular success was coupled with a growing critical success. Heartbreak House, Back to Methuselah (1921; he called it his "metabiological pentateuch"), Androcles and the Lion, and Saint Joan (1923) are considered his best plays. They were all written between the ages of 57 and 67.
Shaw Explaining Shaw
The plays of Shaw express, as did his life, a complex range of impulses, ambitions, and beliefs. Reflecting on his life and his work, he explained at 70: "If I am to be entirely communicative on this subject, I must add that the mere rawness which soon rubs off was complicated by a deeper strangeness which has made me all my life a sojourner on this planet rather than a native of it. Whether it be that I was born mad or a little too sane, my kingdom was not of this world: I was at home only in the realm of my imagination, and at ease only with the mighty dead. Therefore I had to become an actor, and create for myself a fantastic personality fit and apt for dealing with men, and adaptable to the various parts I had to play as an author, journalist, orator, politician, committee man, man of the world, and so forth. In all this I succeeded later on only too well."
Shaw was awarded the 1925 Nobel Prize for literature. At the patriarchal age of 94, he died in his home at Ayot St. Lawrence, England, on Nov. 2, 1950.
Further Reading on George Bernard Shaw
The literature on Shaw is extensive. Shaw wrote numerous letters, some of which are in Bernard Shaw: Collected Letters, 1874-1897, edited and with an introduction by Dan H. Laurence (1965), the first of a projected multivolume collection of his correspondence. Not particularly revealing of Shaw's private life is the Autobiography, edited by Stanley Weintraub (2 vols., 1969-1970), an assemblage of Shaw's personal writings on a host of topics over a half century.
The standard biography of Shaw is Archibald Henderson, Bernard Shaw: Playboy and Prophet (1932). William Irvine, The Universe of G.B.S. (1949), is one of many attempts at a definitive critical biography. Stanley Weintraub, Journey to Heartbreak: The Crucible Years of Bernard Shaw, 1914-1918 (1971), is a fascinating biographical study of Shaw during World War I. Two good introductions to Shaw and his work are G. K. Chesterton, George Bernard Shaw (1909), and Eric Bentley, Bernard Shaw (1947; 2d ed., 1967). Recently there has been a critical reassessment of Shaw. The most important works are Richard M. Ohmann, Shaw: The Style and the Man (1962), and Martin Meisel, Shaw and the Nineteenth-century Theater (1963).