George Bernard Shaw was an iconoclastic writer and speaker who embraced many subjects that his peers had not yet dared to embrace. He is considered to be the best and most significant playwright since William Shakespeare. His life and career were focused mainly on social reform.
Bernard was born on July 26, 1856 in Dublin, Ireland. His parents were mother Lucinda Elizabeth Garly and father George Carr Shaw. His father and grandfather were both alcoholics. His mother was from Carlow. She was a musically gifted and taught singing and music lessons (Kunitz 1268). Bernard was the third and youngest sibling in his family. He had two older sisters (Weintraub 655). Bernard’s father’s and grandfather’s alcoholism caused Bernard to hate both alcohol and tobacco. His abstaining from drugs also led him to be a vegetarian, an animal rights activist and to be against using medical vaccinations (Kunitz 1268).
During Bernard’s teenage years, his uncle tutored him. He attended many different schools off and on, but his real education is said to have come from his mother’s love of music, art, and drama (Kunitz 1268). When he was in his early teens, Bernard’s mother left his father. She moved to London to further pursue a musical career, though all she ever did was teach music. She took Bernard’s sisters with her, and Bernard followed some years later (Kunitz 1268).
In London, he, his mother, and his sisters were poverty stricken for the next ten years, until he started making money from being a drama critic in a London newspaper (Kunitz 1268). At the age of fifteen, while still living in Ireland, Bernard took an apprenticeship job at a real estate company (Kunitz 1268). He started writing around 1876, when he moved to London to be with his mother. Bernard wrote five fictitious novels in the next decade. Only two were published; none were successful. This was his first attempt at writing fiction (Weintraub 655). In 1879, Shaw took a job at the Edison Telephone Company. He kept it only for a few months. It was his last job that involved no writing (Weintraub 655).
Shaw’s writing career was jump-started not only by his career as a drama critic, but as music and art critic as well (Batson 966). In 1885, Bernard became a critic under the name “Corno di Basseto.” During this time, he also began to write political pamphlets, most of them about socialism (Kunitz 1268). Bernard started writing drama in 1894. His plays were published almost immediately, but were not produced until 1904, when “Shaw Craze” hit London. This craze went international around 1910 (Kunitz 1269). People loved Shaw’s dry form of comedy, which was based on his having a cunning wit and being a wonderful ironist (Kunitz 1269).
In 1909, the Joint Select Committee on Stage Censorship investigated Bernard. It declared all of his plays “conscientiously immoral” (Batson 967). Two of his plays were banned by British censors: O’Flaherty, V.C. for it’s non-patriotic view of Britain and also Saint Joan of Arc because of it’s so-called sacrilegious views (Kunitz 1269). In 1938, after years of refusing, Bernard finally allowed one of his plays, Pygmalion, to be filmed (Kunitz 1269).
Bernard looked up to Mussolini, Hitler and Lenin as role models. He often mentioned the thought of trying to start a monarchy for purely anarchistic purposes. He read many of Karl Marx’s writings and proclaimed himself a socialist. He also helped found the Fabian Society and was the primary writer of the group’s political pamphlets (Kunitz 1268-9).
In the 1880’s and 1890’s Bernard was a dedicated socialist speaker. He would give one or more speeches a day. While a message calling for some kind social or political reform can be found in almost all of his plays, only two, Widower’s House and Mrs. Warren’s Profession, even refer to socialism (Kunitz 1268-9).
Shaw’s desire to start a new religion is shown in his play Man and Superman. According to Bernard’s moral beliefs, also called Shavianism, a person must have “complete individual responsibility, self-discipline, heroic effort without thought of ‘atonement,’ and unsentimental and non-sexual regard for one’s fellow beings” (Batson 967). Another of Bernard’s personal beliefs shows through many on his plays as the theme: “The true joy of man is [his/her] unceasing evolutionary urge for world betterment as well as self improvement” (Batson 967).
Bernard died on November 2, 1950 (Kunitz 1268). Many view his works as a “bridge between the old and the new…” (Batson 968). While his influence as a speaker can no longer be heard, the influence of his writings can be and is heard, and while not all people agree with his opinions and views, that doesn’t necessarily keep them from enjoying his plays.
Widower’s House- 1894, Mrs. Warren’s Profession- 1898, Arms and the Man- 1898, Candida- 1898 You Never Can Tell- 1898, The man of Destiny- 1898, The Philanderer- 1898, The Devil’s Disciple-1901, Caesar and Cleopatra- 1901, Captain Brassbound’s Conversation- 1901, Man and Superman- 1903, John Bull’s Other Island- 1907, Major Barbara- 1907, The Doctor’s Dilemma- 1911, The Shewing-up of Blanco Posnet- 1911, Getting Married- 1911, Misalliance- 1914, Fanny’s First Play- 1914, Overruled- 1916, Androcles and the Lion- 1916, Pygmalion- 1916, Heartbreak House- 1919, Back to Methuselah- 1921, Saint Joan of Arc- 1924, The Apple Cart- 1930, Farfetched Fables- 1951, Shakes versus Shav- 1951, Why She Would Not- 1956
Kunitz, Stanley J and Howard Haycraft. “Shaw, George Bernard.” Twentieth Century Authors. 6th ed. 1966. 1268-1270.
Weintraub, Stanley. “Shaw, George Bernard.” Encyclaepedia Britannica. 1977 ed. Vol. 16: 655-659.