At a Glance
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.
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...
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