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 3321 words.)