Authors: George Bernard Shaw

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

Playwright

July 26, 1856

Dublin, Ireland

November 2, 1950

Ayot St. Lawrence, Hertfordshire, England

Biography

One of the greatest British dramatists, perhaps the greatest dramatist of his generation, George Bernard Shaw revitalized the moribund English stage with a body of work that continues to entertain and challenge audiences around the world. Born in Dublin, Ireland, on July 26, 1856, to a family in financial decline, he was raised in a household that might have come from one of his plays. His father, George Carr Shaw, was a good-natured drunkard somewhat in the manner of Alfred Doolittle in Pygmalion, while his mother, the former Lucinda Elizabeth Gurly, was a strong-willed woman who, in 1874, abandoned her family to go to London with her voice teacher, George John Vandeleur Lee, to pursue a musical career. Largely self-taught, Shaw left school early. From 1874 to 1876, he worked as an office boy, cashier, and rent collector for Charles Townsend, a Dublin real estate agent. There, as well as at home, he saw the evil effects of poverty and social injustice that he would repeatedly attack in his plays.

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In 1876, Shaw joined his mother in London. After a brief stint with the Edison Telegraph Company (1879–80), he devoted himself entirely to literature, writing five mediocre novels (he once observed that anyone who would read An Unsocial Socialist would read anything). A lecture by Henry George in 1882 converted Shaw to socialism; two years later, he helped Beatrice and Sidney Webb found the Fabian Society, an organization of bourgeois socialists who favored gradual reform. Shaw’s “desperate days,” as he called this period, ended when William Archer asked him to become a music critic for the Star. Under the pseudonym Corno di Bassetto, he wrote readable, astute analyses of performances, always advocating innovation and excellence. These qualities also characterize his art and music criticism for the World and his theater criticism for the Saturday Review.

George Bernard Shaw

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(Library of Congress)

His 1890 lecture to the Fabian Society on Henrik Ibsen led to his book The Quintessence of Ibsenism. The Independent Theatre Company then asked Shaw for a play of his own. He revised Widowers’ Houses, an attack on slumlords, which he had begun in 1885 with Archer. By 1901, he had written nine more plays, the best of them mingling wit with social criticism. His first major success, The Devil’s Disciple, came not in London but in New York. Not until Harley Granville-Barker produced eleven of his plays at the Royal Court Theatre, largely funded by Shaw himself (he had married the Irish heiress Charlotte Payne Townsend in 1898), did his reputation become secure. Awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1925, largely for his brilliant Saint Joan, he continued to write until his death at age ninety-four.

Like Ibsen, and like many English playwrights of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Shaw wanted to use the stage as a pulpit to reform society by forcing audiences to see the disparity between reality and conventional wisdom. In Major Barbara, it is the munitions factory owner, Andrew Undershaft, not the Salvation Army, who helps the poor. Pygmalion points to the folly of class distinctions, as accent—not character or merit—determines one’s station. Joan of Arc is canonized, but if she returned to earth she would once again be executed for her refusal to accept any authority beyond personal revelation.

Shaw was less concerned with specific political or social reforms, though he did want these, than with the evolution of humankind from its present state of weak imperfection to a condition approaching the divine. Like the serpent in Back to Methuselah, Shaw did not examine present conditions and ask why things were that way; rather, he imagined a different future and asked why things could not be so ordered. He believed in an irresistible “life force” that would lead to a better world if only people linked their wills to its power. Significantly, Shaw’s women characters are more aware of this evolutionary force, more in harmony with it, than his men characters; Major Barbara, Candida, and, most clearly, Saint Joan come immediately to mind.

Rejecting the notion of his contemporary Oscar Wilde that art should exist solely for its own sake, Shaw sometimes went to the opposite extreme of writing tracts rather than plays. The early dramas are especially didactic. Act 3 of Man and Superman is little more than a Platonic discourse on the life force. However, Shaw realized that to educate he first had to entertain, and his best comedies both delight and instruct. Major Barbara’s wit rivals that of Wilde in The Importance of Being Earnest (pr. 1895); the exposure of the hypocrisy of organizations dedicated to doing good is at once pointed and funny. John Bull’s Other Island, Shaw’s exploration of the Irish question (the issue of Irish self-determination), made King Edward VII laugh so hard that he broke his chair. Pygmalion is highly enjoyable, but audiences cannot miss the implied criticism of England’s class system. Always a gadfly, often a butterfly, Shaw created among his fifty plays at least a dozen that will remain staples of the dramatic repertoire, inviting spectators to laugh at the same time that they compel them to think.

Author Works Drama: Widowers’ Houses, wr. 1885–92, pr. 1892 Mrs. Warren’s Profession, wr. 1893, pb. 1898 The Philanderer, wr. 1893, pb. 1898 Arms and the Man, pr. 1894 Candida: A Mystery, pr. 1897 The Devil’s Disciple, pr. 1897 The Man of Destiny, pr. 1897 You Never Can Tell, pb. 1898 Captain Brassbound’s Conversion, pr. 1900 Caesar and Cleopatra, pb. 1901 The Admirable Bashville, pr. 1903 (based on his novel Cashel Byron’s Profession) Man and Superman, pb. 1903 How He Lied to Her Husband, pr. 1904 John Bull’s Other Island, pr. 1904 Major Barbara, pr. 1905 Passion, Poison, and Petrifaction, pr., pb. 1905 The Doctor’s Dilemma, pr. 1906 The Interlude at the Playhouse, pr., pb. 1907 (playlet) Getting Married, pr. 1908 Press Cuttings, pr., pb. 1909 The Shewing up of Blanco Posnet, pr. 1909 The Fascinating Foundling, wr. 1909, pb. 1926 The Glimpse of Reality, wr. 1909, pb. 1926 The Dark Lady of the Sonnets, pr. 1910 Misalliance, pr. 1910 Fanny’s First Play, pr. 1911 Androcles and the Lion, pr. 1912 (in German), pr. 1913 (in English) Overruled, pr. 1912 Pygmalion, pb. 1912 Beauty’s Duty, wr. 1913, pb. 1932 (playlet) Great Catherine, pr. 1913 Heartbreak House, wr. 1913–19, pb. 1919 The Music Cure, pr. 1914 The Inca of Perusalem, pr. 1916 O’Flaherty, V.C., pr. 1917 Augustus Does His Bit, pr. 1917 Annajanska, the Bolshevik Empress, pr. 1918 Back to Methuselah, pb. 1921 Jitta’s Atonement, pr. 1923 Saint Joan, pr. 1923 The Apple Cart, pr. 1929 Too True to Be Good, pr. 1932 How These Doctors Love One Another!, pb. 1932 (playlet) On the Rocks, pr. 1933 Village Wooing, pr., pb. 1934 The Six Men of Calais, pr. 1934 The Simpleton of the Unexpected Isles, pr., pb. 1935 Arthur and Acetone, pb. 1936 The Millionairess, pr., pb. 1936 Cymbeline Refinished, pr. 1937 (adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, act 5) Geneva, pr. 1938 In Good King Charles’s Golden Days, pr., pb. 1939 “The British Party System,”wr. 1944 (playlet) Buoyant Billions, pb. 1947 Shakes Versus Shaw, pr. 1949 Far-Fetched Fables, pr., pb. 1950 The Bodley Head Bernard Shaw: Collected Plays with Their Prefaces, pb. 1970–74 (7 volumes) Long Fiction: Cashel Byron’s Profession, 1886 An Unsocial Socialist, 1887 Love Among the Artists, 1900 The Irrational Knot, 1905 Immaturity, 1930 Short Fiction: The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God, 1932 Nonfiction: The Quintessence of Ibsenism, 1891 The Perfect Wagnerite, 1898 The Common Sense of Municipal Trading, 1904 Dramatic Opinions and Essays, 1907 The Sanity of Art, 1908 (revised from 1895 serial publication) Letters to Miss Alma Murray, 1927 The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism, 1928 Ellen Terry and Shaw, 1931 Everybody’s Political What’s What, 1944 Sixteen Self Sketches, 1949 Correspondence Between George Bernard Shaw and Mrs. Patrick Campbell, 1952 The Matter with Ireland, 1961 Platform and Pulpit, 1961 (Dan H. Laurence, editor) Collected Letters, 1965–88 (4 volumes; Laurence, editor) An Autobiography, 1856–1898, 1969 An Autobiography, 1898–1950, 1970 The Nondramatic Literary Criticism of Bernard Shaw, 1972 (StanleyWeintraub, editor) Shaw: Interviews and Recollections, 1990 (A. M. Gibbs, editor) Bernard Shaw’s Book Reviews, 1991 (Brian Tyson, editor) Edited Text: Fabian Essays in Socialism, 1889 Miscellaneous: Works, 1930–38 (33 volumes) Short Stories, Scraps, and Shavings, 1932 Works, 1947–52 (36 volumes) Bibliography Davis, Tracy C. George Bernard Shaw and the Socialist Theatre. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994. Davis examines Shaw’s belief in socialism and how it affected and was demonstrated in his dramatic works. Includes bibliography and index. Dukore, Bernard Frank. Shaw’s Theater. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2000. Explores the production of Shaw’s dramatic works. Includes bibliography and index. Gibbs, A. M. Bernard Shaw: A Life. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2005. A chronicle of Shaw’s adult life as a novelist and playwright, illustrated. Gibbs, A. M. Shaw: Interviews and Recollections. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1990. This biography explores the impact that Shaw had on his contemporaries, and looks at the way in which he presented himself and his opinions to the public. Holroyd, Michael. The Search for Love: 1856–1898. Vol. 1 inBernard Shaw. New York: Random House, 1988. In this superb beginning to his authoritative biography, Holroyd describes Shaw’s Irish origins and trials of following his mother to London. His journalistic and musical career is interwoven with various love affairs, culminating in marriage in 1898. Sensitive analyses of political and aesthetic ideas are balanced with insights into early drama. Includes illustrations, a bibliographic note, and an index. Holroyd, Michael. The Pursuit of Power: 1898–1918. Vol. 2 in Bernard Shaw. New York: Random House, 1989. Describes the complicated interrelationships of Shaw’s middle plays (from Caesar and Cleopatra to Heartbreak House) with ethics, politics, economics, medicine, religion, and war. The popularity of his drama is explained and analyzed, while the sophistication of his personality is narrated through his friendships with such persons as G. K. Chesterton, H. G. Wells, and Mrs. Patrick Campbell. Includes illustrations and index. Holroyd, Michael. The Lure of Fantasy: 1918–1950. Vol. 3 in Bernard Shaw. New York: Random House, 1991. The third volume covers Shaw’s drama from Saint Joan, with late plays such as Geneva and In Good King Charles’s Golden Days receiving balanced attention. Also surveys Shaw’s films from his plays, including Pygmalion and Major Barbara. Shaw’s interest in Communism and the Soviet Union receives attention, as does his criticism of American culture. Includes illustrations, bibliographic note, and index. Holroyd, Michael. The Last Laugh: 1950–1991. Vol. 4 in Bernard Shaw. New York: Random House, 1992. This is a coda to a triple-decker biography that ranks among the twentieth century’s most distinguished studies of literary lives. Innes, Christopher, ed. The Cambridge Companion to George Bernard Shaw. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Provides an in-depth look at Shaw’s life, works, and philosophy. Includes bibliography and index. Larson, Gale K., ed. Shaw: The Annual Bernard Shaw Studies. Vol. 21. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001. This collection of essays is part of an annual series that examines various aspects of Shaw. This volume contains essays on Shaw’s stagecraft, Shaw’s and Mark Twain’s revisions of Genesis, and Shaw in Sinclair Lewis’s writings. Includes bibliography. Lenker, Lagretta Tallent. Fathers and Daughters in Shakespeare and Shaw. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2001. Lenker examines the fathers and daughters portrayed in the plays of William Shakespeare and of Shaw. Includes bibliography and index. Shaw, George Bernard. What Shaw Really Wrote About the War. Edited by J. L. Wisenthal and Daniel O’Leary. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2006. This compilation, which includes many pieces published for the first time, covers Bernard Shaw’s writing on the subject of war, particularly World War I. The works in this volume emphasize Shaw’s attitude that peaceful agreements should be favored over war and that warring countries should treat each other humanely. The introduction, written by Wisenthal and O’Leary, does an outstanding job of contextualizing Shaw’s writing.

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