George Bernard Shaw Biography
George 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.
Facts and Trivia
- 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.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3321
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 mother’s profession and the identity of her would-be fiancé as her half brother. She disowns both, to embark on her own career as a legal actuary. While somewhat squeamish about prostitution, Shaw takes pains to show it as a preferable alternative to poverty and sweatshop degradation. Both mother and daughter prove to be hardheaded career women, dominating an unsentimental work.
Shaw’s next substantial drama was his fifth, Candida: A Mystery (1897). Like A Doll’s House, it seems to lead up to the emancipation of an intelligent, dignified wife, Candida, from her matrimonial bond to her shallow husband, the Christian Socialist clergyman Morrell. In a climactic auction scene, Morrell demands that his wife choose between him and the dreamy, brilliant eighteen-year-old poet Marchbanks. She replies that she will select the weaker of the two—and picks her husband. Allegorically, she is the Holy Mother preferring the Father to the Son. In Shaw’s evolutionary philosophy, Candida’s destiny is to fulfill herself as a woman, not by leaving her family, as Ibsen’s Nora does, but by rearing her children with a reliable consort, as Candida decides to do.
Caesar and Cleopatra (1901) is designed as a contrast to William Shakespeare’s tragedy. Whereas Shakespeare’s Caesar was an ambitious, cruel would-be dictator, Shaw’s is a sage, humane elder statesman, a Victorian empire builder of extraordinary wisdom and efficiency. Shaw omits any mention of Caesar’s liaison with Cleopatra. While Shakespeare’s Cleopatra is an intensely voluptuous woman with unrestrained passions, Shaw’s is a spoiled, kittenish child queen whose petty tantrums require Caesar to father and educate her.
In May, 1898, Shaw suffered from necrosis of the bones in his left foot, was seriously ill for months, and obtained the nursing services of Charlotte Payne-Townshend, a wealthy yet Socialist Irish heiress, shy, philanthropic, a good friend of the distinguished Fabian couple Beatrice Webb and Sidney Webb. She and Shaw were married June 1, 1898, with the stipulation that their union would never be consummated, since sex filled her with horror and him with uneasiness. For the first time in his life, Shaw was financially secure; he immediately abandoned journalism to devote himself to serious writing.
Shaw’s relations with women usually bear upon them the stamp of comedy. He was a virgin until his twenty-ninth birthday, when a widow fifteen years his senior, Jane Patterson, got him to spend the night in her house. As an eloquent, dashing Fabian publicist he often attracted susceptible young women; his biographers are divided, however, as to whether the Mephistic-looking Shaw was indeed a devil with the ladies. The preponderant evidence indicates that he was not. In 1895, he began what was to become a famous epistolary courtship of the great actress Ellen Terry. They made soaring love to each other in the four-year correspondence but never forgot that they were hardheaded professionals primarily dedicated to their careers. In his introduction to their published letters, Shaw summarized their relationship candidly: “It must be borne in mind . . . that we were both comedians, each acting as audience to the other . . . without ulterior motives or what matchmaking mothers call intentions.”
The only serious amatory event in Shaw’s life was his infatuation with another fine actress, Mrs. Patrick Campbell, whom Shaw persuaded in 1912 to play the part of Liza Doolittle in Pygmalion. He wrote her poignant love letters for more than a year but had no intention of leaving his wife for her. The day before Pygmalion’s premiere, Campbell married an impecunious boulevardier. Two days later, Shaw gallantly took the newlyweds to lunch.
Shaw’s first indubitably great play was Man and Superman (1903), an ambitious attempt to dramatize his views of what he called the Life Force. The work is really two plays: a romantic comedy reminiscent of William Congreve’s The Way of the World (1700) and a long, dazzling, dialectical interlude, “Don Juan in Hell,” which dominates the third act. The pattern of the comedy is that of a Scribean farce in four neatly arranged acts, with the plot centering on those old reliables, love and money. In the main plot, the emancipated Ann Whitfield inherits her father’s money in act 1 and gets the radical John Tanner to propose marriage to her in act 4. In the minor plot, the even more emancipated Violet Robinson has made a secret marriage even before act 1 and gets her husband’s rich Irish-American father to bless the union financially in act 4.
The dream sequence in act 3, which takes place in Shaw’s version of Hell, is far more interesting. It may well be the most stimulating dialogue of ideas in English drama. In it, John Tanner has become the legendary Don Juan Tenorio; Ann Whitfield, Doña Ana; Ann’s reactionary coguardian, Roebuck Ramsden, the Commendatore whom Don Juan slew; a romantic brigand, Mendoza, is now the suave Devil. Shaw’s Hell is the ordinary person’s idea of Heaven: a haven for escapists and hedonists. Shaw’s Heaven is more complex: It is a home for those who will work and strive and contemplate, who will let the evolutionary Life Force guide them into creating nature’s supreme achievement, the philosophic man. Don Juan chooses to ascend to Heaven so that he can toil in its workshop. Ana joins him, to help create “a father for the Superman!” Shaw has succeeded—through dramatic fireworks, if not intellectually—in transforming Don Juan from a mythical exploiter of women into a Puritan ascetic, in desexualizing a profligate debaucher into an appealing victim of female wiles.
With Man and Superman, Shaw began twenty vintage years during which he wrote his finest works, including Major Barbara (1905), The Doctor’s Dilemma (1906), Androcles and the Lion (1912 in German, 1913 in English), Pygmalion, Heartbreak House (1919), Back to Methuselah (1921) and Saint Joan (1923).
On November 14, 1914, Shaw published a thirty-five-thousand-word pamphlet, Common Sense About the War. In it, he said that the war had been fomented by fanatic militarists in England as well as Germany and Austria-Hungary. He also discharged barbed arrows against what he saw as the devious diplomacy of British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey. Virtually all Britons were outraged by Shaw’s document. His cold rationalism was wholly out of step with a public mood of frenzied jingoism. Friends avoided him; booksellers and librarians removed his texts from their shelves; editorials vilified him as a traitor. Shaw felt deeply misunderstood and frustrated.
In this saddened, disillusioned, bitter mood he wrote, from 1913 to 1916, Heartbreak House, subtitling it “A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes.” The action transpires on a single September day in an unreal atmosphere of boredom and upper-class leisure. A group of English gentry have assembled in old Captain Shotover’s country house in Sussex, engaging in useless though sophisticated private amusements. The characters possess a dreamlike quality; the plot is rife with implausible reversals and recognition scenes. Resentments, indifference, and irresponsibility fill the haunted, tortured, ominous air of the play. The dialogue, instead of being exuberantly witty, is ambiguous, portentous, and heavily charged with overtones. All the plot’s love actions turn out badly. The drama is Shaw’s parallel to Anton Chekhov’s Vishnyovy Sad (1904; The Cherry Orchard, 1908), a Götterdämmerung for England’s governing class, a warning that its ship of state is about to wreck on the rocks of mental stagnation, moral flabbiness, and loss of political will. Shaw’s implied solution is stated by Captain Shotover: “learn your business as an Englishman . . . Navigation. Learn it and live; or leave it and be damned.” As in Chekhovian drama, Shaw forsakes rhetoric for genuine dramatic poetry, suggesting the dispersion and destruction of a class for having lived badly. For once, Shaw has dropped his mask of amiable, confident reformer. He soon resumed it, wearing it tightly except for one tragic scene in Saint Joan.
In a one-hundred-page preface to Back to Methuselah, Shaw concluded, wistfully yet cheerfully, “My powers are waning; but so much the better for those who found me unbearably brilliant when I was in my prime.” He still had thirty years left to live. During them, he published seventeen more books, which neither diminished nor magnified his stature. He also wrote thousands of letters and postcards, received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925, traveled extensively, and garnered enormous publicity as a world figure on an Olympian plateau with Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Einstein, and Sigmund Freud. Occasionally, he used his high platform for foolish pronouncements, as when he praised Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Joseph Stalin, shrugging off the horrors that their regimes perpetrated. Shaw’s wife died in September, 1943, after a four-year period as an invalid. Shaw reduced the protein content of his vegetarian diet and went on writing and talking. In September, 1950, he fractured his thigh falling in his garden, failed to rally from resulting complications, and died on November 2, at age ninety-four. His body—like his wife’s—was cremated.
Indubitably, George Bernard Shaw is England’s greatest modern dramatist. As a writer of high comedy, he has no twentieth century peer. As a wit and pamphleteer, a virtuoso of the language of assertion and dialectic, he also has no equal. Essentially, Shaw was a Platonist, convinced that the appetites of the mind are stronger, and its passions deeper, than those of other human faculties. He was a remarkably pure intellectual, certain that the drama of ideas is the only one worth writing, and that his gospel of Creative Evolution, part progressive socialism and part neo-Lamarckian biological theory, is the only one worth propagating. He was a marvelously entertaining showman of ideas.
Shaw was far less successful, however, when dealing with feelings: With the exception of Heartbreak House and parts of Saint Joan, he is too remote from his characters’ emotions. Humanity and its future are everything to him; the individual, nothing. Moreover, his rational relativism caused him to ignore or dismiss the dark side of human nature. He has no evil people among his characters—only unenlightened ones. He makes little effort to sound the depths of the soul below the rational threshold that he intends to educate with his instructive discussions. For these reasons Shaw, while a dazzling wizard of language, ranks below the very greatest of modern playwrights: Ibsen, Strindberg, and Chekhov.
Bentley, Eric. Bernard Shaw, 1856-1950. Rev. ed. New York: New Directions, 1957. An incisively probing and concisely written critical study, hailed by Shaw when its first edition was published in 1947.
Ervine, St. John. Bernard Shaw: His Life, Work, and Friends. New York: William Morrow, 1956. Ervine was an Irish-born dramatist and critic who became one of Shaw’s few close friends. His 600-page work contains many anecdotes, told in a spirit of admiring affection.
Irvine, William. The Universe of G. B. S. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1949. A first-rate interpretation of Shaw’s writings from the perspective of a distinguished historian of ideas.
Shaw, George Bernard. Bernard Shaw’s Plays: Major Barbara, Heartbreak House, Saint Joan, Too True to Be Good. Edited by Warren S. Smith. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1970. This is a Norton Critical Edition and therefore includes helpful criticism of these texts, as well as five comprehensive essays on Shaw’s works.
Shaw, George Bernard. Collected Letters. Edited by Dan H. Laurence. 3 vols. New York: Dodd, Mead and Co., 1965-1985. Laurence has devoted forty years to chronicling and editing Shaw’s plays, prefaces, essays on music, and letters. To date, three volumes of a quartet selecting twenty-five hundred of Shaw’s letters and postcards have been published. They are admirably chosen and edited.
Shaw, George Bernard. The Portable Bernard Shaw. Edited by Stanley Weintraub. New York: Penguin Books, 1977. Weintraub, an authoritative Shavian, has included all of Pygmalion, Heartbreak House, The Devil’s Disciple (1897), In the Beginning (1921), and Shakes Versus Shav (1949), as well as the “Don Juan in Hell” interlude and a choice assortment of Shaw’s reviews, articles, and letters.
Valency, Maurice. The Cart and the Trumpet: The Plays of George Bernard Shaw. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973. Valency’s study is erudite and eloquently written. In a long concluding chapter he illuminatingly establishes Shaw’s place in modern drama.
Wilson, Edmund. “Bernard Shaw at Eighty.” In The Triple Thinkers. New York: Oxford University Press, 1948. The great critic attacks Shaw for what he claims to be the confusion and contradiction of his ideas. He does respect Shaw, however, as “a considerable artist.”
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