Biography (Dictionary of World Biography: Twentieth Century)
Article abstract: Shaw was not only England’s greatest modern playwright but also a dazzlingly versatile and witty showman of ideas.
George Bernard Shaw was born in Dublin of English Protestant stock, one of a brilliant group of literary Anglo-Irishmen (others include Jonathan Swift, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and William Butler Yeats). His father, George Carr Shaw, was a chronic alcoholic—pleasant, cheerful, but a failure at gainful employment. His mother, Lucinda Elizabeth Gurley, was a shabbily genteel, cold person who neglected her family in favor of cultivating her voice, hoping to shine on the concert stage. The Shaw household was largely sustained by a singular music master, Vandeleur Lee, who made Mrs. Shaw his protégée and even got the Shaws to move into his commodious house. When Lee moved to London to promote his career, Mrs. Shaw followed him with her daughter Lucy, forsaking her husband and her then sixteen-year-old son.
The young Shaw left school at fifteen and worked as a real estate clerk. He hated his job, and in 1876, he went off to London to join his mother, even though he had not heard from her for four years. She received him with little affection. Nevertheless, he lived with her for twenty-two years, until his marriage in 1898.
At twenty, Shaw was tall, gangly, thin, pale, and red-haired, with sharp gray eyes, projecting ears, prominent brows, and an even more prominent nose. Five years later, he was to grow the forked beard that was to become one of his marks. After months of inactivity except for heavy reading, he agreed to ghostwrite for Lee the weekly articles of music criticism for which Vandeleur had contracted with The Hornet. England’s economic depression in the mid-1880’s made jobs extremely difficult to obtain for a young man without regular education or connections. Shaw, therefore, spent most of his days in the reading room of the British Museum, studying many texts on philosophy and economics, particularly the works of Karl Marx and Henry George. Evenings he often devoted to attending the discussion groups which flourished all over London; there he began to hone his skills as a debater and publicist, heroically overcoming his natural shyness and instead cultivating what he himself called “an air of impudence.”
At twenty-three, Shaw believed that he was ready to write full-time. He began broadcasting articles to newspapers and periodicals, and composed his first novel, Immaturity (1930), in 1879; nine publishers rejected it. Undismayed, he wrote four more novels in as many years; all failed initially to find a publisher. The most successful (and perhaps worst) of his novels proved to be Cashel Byron’s Profession, finally issued by a leftist publisher in 1886. At thirty, Shaw had at last become an established author.
In 1884, Shaw joined the newly formed Fabian Society, widening his views considerably. This group included a galaxy of brilliant Socialists who dedicated themselves to reforming English society thoroughly, but gradually, in the spirit of their Roman namesake, Fabius Maximus; many of their policies were eventually enacted by the Labour Party. In 1885, Shaw had met William Archer, then a book reviewer, who was to remain his steadfast friend. When Archer soon moved to The World as drama critic, he arranged for Shaw to be the paper’s art critic, a post Shaw filled with little distinction for three years. In 1888, a radical journal began publication as The Star. In February, 1889, Shaw became the paper’s music critic, filling that post with great distinction until October, 1890, when he switched to the better-paying The World, writing a weekly musical critique for it until 1895.
As a music critic, Shaw admired Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, George Frideric Handel, Ludwig van Beethoven, Giuseppe Verdi, and Edward Elgar, while deprecating Johannes Brahms, Franz Schubert, and such avant-garde composers as Gustav Mahler, Jean Sibelius, and Richard Strauss. Shaw was one of Richard Wagner’s earliest champions, eventually coming to regard him as the greatest modern composer. In 1898, he published an essay, The Perfect Wagnerite (1898), which hailed Wagner’s Ring cycle for its romantic, Schopenhauerian metaphysics and Socialist politics—values which Shaw strongly shared. Even readers who disagreed with Shaw’s musical opinions were often delighted by his graceful prose style, Augustan in its ease, clarity, and polish, operatic in its climactic constructions, and always witty and epigrammatic.
In January, 1895, Shaw was engaged by Frank Harris to write drama criticism for a newly organized weekly, the Saturday Review; he held this position until May, 1898, for the first time signing his articles G. B. S. By that time, Shaw had also begun writing plays, so that his standing as a critic-dramatist was a complex one in the London theater. He proved to be an admirably discriminating and incorruptible drama reviewer. By the time he resigned his job, he had also written seven plays, few of which had been staged, none of which had been a commercial success. Yet when he wrote his valedictory to his readers in the Saturday Review’s May 21, 1898, issue, Shaw proclaimed, with typical audacity:
For ten years past, with an unprecedented pertinacity and obstination, I have been dinning into the public head that I am an extraordinarily witty, brilliant and clever man. That is now part of the public opinion of England; and no power in heaven and earth will ever change it.
The theater which Shaw inherited in the 1890’s was mediocre at best, controlled by a small group of unimaginative professionals. They catered to the sentimental, melodramatic, middle-class tastes of their uncultivated public, which cherished moralistic conventions and the uncontested superiority of British ways under God’s Providence. London’s theatrical managers preferred to import the well-made French farces of Eugène Scribe and Victorien Sardou, virtually ignoring the late nineteenth century plays of the great Continental masters of modern drama—Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg , Gerhart Hauptmann, and Anton Chekhov.
Not so Shaw. Archer had induced Shaw to read Ibsen’s works from the mid-1880’s onward, and Shaw soon interpreted the Norwegian author as a Fabian Socialist resembling himself in his radical politics, passionate realism, and championship of women’s rights in such works as Et dukkehjem (1879; A Doll’s House, 1880). Shaw amplified these views in an 1891 essay, The Quintessence of Ibsenism, which selectively tailored Ibsen’s drama to Shaw’s didactic measures. Throughout his career, Shaw preferred the drainpipes of a social reformer to the panpipes of a poet. He regarded the pursuit of art for its own sake as escapist self-indulgence and considered his art as didactic, aimed at reforming the moral and intellectual sentiments of his audience. It is fair to call him the most intellectual of major playwrights, dedicated to persuading his public of the reasonableness of a regiment of ideas ranging from Marxism to Lamarckism to eugenic breeding to innumerable other areas of politics, medicine, science, law, religion, and above all, ethics.
Shaw began in 1885 to collaborate with Archer on “an original didactic realistic play,” Widowers’ Houses (1892). Composition was frequently interrupted and not concluded until 1892, with Archer by then a reluctant partner, unconvinced of Shaw’s dramatic talent. The play ran for two performances. Shaw’s first important drama was Mrs. Warren’s Profession (1898), which was banned by the Lord Chamberlain because it dealt with prostitution; although it was presented at the New Lyric Club in London in 1902, it was not publicly performed until 1905 at New Haven, Connecticut. Mrs. Warren, in her mid-forties, has become the head of a syndicate of flourishing brothels in Europe. Her highly cultivated daughter, Vivie, discovers both her...
(The entire section is 3324 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of this article. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
Shaw’s first major attack on censorship was The Quintessence of Ibsenism (1891), a tract defending Henrik Ibsen, the Norwegian playwright, some of whose work dealt with venereal disease and immoral marriages, against public reaction that demanded censorship or expurgated versions. Inspired by Ibsen’s work, Shaw wrote Mrs. Warren’s Profession; however, the Lord Chamberlain denied it a license in 1898. Shaw could not find a theater for private performances, or an actress willing to play the lead role of a successful but coarsened brothel madam. The play was finally produced privately in London in 1902, but was not licensed for public performance in England until 1925. At its New York City opening in 1905, New...
(The entire section is 596 words.)
Biography (Critical Survey of Drama, Second Revised Edition)
George Bernard Shaw was born in Dublin, Ireland, at No. 3 Upper Synge Street on July 26, 1856. The house still stands, though the address became 33 Synge Street, and the residence is marked by the surprisingly understated plaque, “Bernard Shaw, author of many plays, was born in this house.” Shaw’s father was a cheerful drunk, and the son’s loss of faith in the father might have affected his faith in general. In any event, though he was baptized into the Church of Ireland, he became a lifelong scoffer at organized religion while always remaining a profoundly religious thinker.
Shaw’s mother and sister were fine singers and eventually left Shaw’s father to move in with the eccentric music teacher, George...
(The entire section is 755 words.)
Biography (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
George Bernard Shaw was born in Dublin, Ireland, on July 26, 1856, the son of English Protestants. He left school at the age of fourteen and worked for five years in a land agent’s office. At the age of twenty, Shaw left Ireland for London. Two years earlier, Shaw’s mother had moved to London together with his two sisters, leaving her alcoholic husband and following her voice teacher. Her instructor arranged for the young Shaw to write several articles on music for a satirical weekly review, The Hornet. Shaw remained without any fulfilling employment or literary success during his first decade in London. After initially working as a clerk, he soon turned to literature, writing several novels between 1886 and 1905. None...
(The entire section is 1075 words.)
Biography (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
In his nearly forty plays and numerous other writings, George Bernard Shaw’s primary goal was not the entertainment but the education of his audience. His socialist vision created fictional worlds designed either to present a more ideal form of human existence or to criticize what he considered to be the flaws of his society. While his plays typically present a character who embodies the vitality that he considered essential for reform and the creation of a better world, he saw his contemporaries still far from achieving the kind of enlightened and egalitarian society he envisioned.
(The entire section is 96 words.)
Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
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,...
(The entire section is 856 words.)
Biography (Drama for Students)
IntroductionGeorge Bernard Shaw was a man of many, many words. His voluminous output over a lifespan of nearly one hundred years has few parallels. While most of his plays dealt with social and political issues, they are best remembered for their intellectual repartee or “Shavian Wit.” Early social dramas like Widower’s Houses and Mrs. Warren’s Profession drew parallels to Ibsen’s early realist works. But by the turn of the century, Shaw’s smart, funny voice had emerged—a unique intersection of styles typified by writers like Oscar Wilde and Anton Chekhov. As a testament to Shaw’s legacy, works like Major Barbara, Saint Joan, and Man and Superman have become canonical, and the Shaw Festival in Canada is one of the largest theater festivals in North America.
- George Bernard Shaw was an avid socialist throughout his life and even supported for a time the Stalinist regime in Russia.
- Shaw became legendary for the lengthy prefaces to his plays, which enumerated various social and political concerns. Some of the prefaces were longer than the plays themselves.
- Shaw’s dark, Chekhovian play Heartbreak House evoked his strong opposition to World War I.
- Given Shaw’s distaste for musical adaptations of his plays, My Fair Lady (which is taken from Shaw’s Pygmalion) was completed after his death.
- Referenced in his massive Back to Methuselah and other writings, the “Life Force” was a spiritual idea Shaw created about life and the universe. Its true meaning is still contended.