George Bernard Shaw

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Although George Bernard Shaw is generally thought of as a dramatist, he wrote a considerable amount of nondramatic prose. He completed, for example, several novels before turning to the stage, and even though none of them is likely to be remembered for its own sake, all show Shaw’s gift for witty dialogue. His The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism (1928), written for his sister-in-law, is one of the clearest expositions of socialism or communism ever written. The Quintessence of Ibsenism (1891), The Perfect Wagnerite (1898), and The Sanity of Art (1908) are representative of his criticism in drama, music, and art, respectively. The prefaces to his plays—some of which are longer than the plays they preface and which often explain little about the plays themselves—are brilliantly written criticisms of everything from the four Gospels to the contemporary prison system.

Other notable Shaw works include Fabian Essays in Socialism (1889), The Common Sense of Municipal Trading (1904), Dramatic Opinions and Essays (1907), The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God (1932), and several collections of letters: Letters to Miss Alma Murray (1927), Ellen Terry and Shaw (1931), Correspondence Between George Bernard Shaw and Mrs. Patrick Campbell (1952), Collected Letters (1965-1988, 4 volumes; Dan H. Laurence, editor), and The Nondramatic Literary Criticism of Bernard Shaw (1972; Stanley Weintraub, editor).


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George Bernard Shaw came to an English theater settled into the well-made play, a theater that had not known a first-rate dramatist for more than a century. The pap on which its audiences had been fed, not very different from television fare today, provided a soothing escape from the realities of the working world. Instead of fitting himself to this unreal mold, Shaw offered reality in all its forms: social, political, economic, and religious. He was a didact, a preacher who readily acknowledged that the stage was his pulpit. In startling contrast to his contemporary Oscar Wilde and Wilde’s fellow aesthetes, Shaw asserted that he would not commit a single sentence to paper for art’s sake alone; yet he beat the aesthetes at their own artistic game. Though he preached socialism, creative evolution, the abolition of prisons, and real equality for women, and railed against the insincerity of motives for war, he did so as a jester in some of the finest comedy ever written. He had no desire to be a martyr and insisted that, though his contemporaries might merely laugh at his plays, “a joke is an earnest in the womb of time.” The next generation would get his point, even if the current generation was only entertained.

Many of the next generations have gotten his point, and Shaw’s argument—that he who writes for all time will discover that he writes for no time—seems to have been borne out. Only by saying something to the age can one say something to posterity. Today, evolution and creationism and Shaw’s ideas on creative evolution and the Life Force remain timely issues. In Shaw’s own day, as Dan Laurence points out, Henri Bergson changed the dramatist’s Life Force into the élan vital four years after Shaw wrote of it in Man and Superman , and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s evolutionary ideas, so appealing to moderns, about the movement of the “noosphere” toward an omega man, show the timeliness of Shaw’s evolutionary theory that humankind is in the process of creating a God. Shaw’s condemnation of the prison system as a vindictive, not a rehabilitative force, matches the widespread concern with the ineffectiveness of that system today. His struggle for the genuine equality of women with men before the law also gives his work a surprisingly contemporary thrust. Shaw...

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brought serious themes back to the trivialized English stage, creating a body of drama that left him second to none among twentieth century dramatists.

Discussion Topics

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What did George Bernard Shaw’s early music and drama criticism contribute to his own dramatic development?

What did Shaw learn from Henrik Ibsen?

Did Shaw have an excessive optimism about human nature?

Explain how Shaw’s Life Force animates his play Major Barbara.

What view of religious duty does Shaw communicate in Saint Joan?

Does the musical My Fair Lady do justice to Pygmalion, the play on which it was based?


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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.

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. (See Magill’s Literary Annual review) 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. (See Magill’s Literary Annual review) 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. (See Magill’s Literary Annual review) 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.


Critical Essays