George Shaw Bernard Critical Essays

Introduction

George Shaw Bernard 1856-1950

(Also wrote under pseudonym Corno di Bassetto) Irish-born dramatist, essayist, critic, novelist, short story writer, and poet.

Shaw is regarded as the greatest English dramatist of the modern age, and his contribution to British theater is considered second only to that of William Shakespeare. By rejecting outmoded theatrical conventions and championing realism and social commentary in his work, critics contend Shaw succeeded in revolutionizing British drama. He has been credited with creating the “theater of ideas,” in which plays explore such issues as sexism, sexual equality, socioeconomic divisions, the effects of poverty, and philosophical and religious theories. Moreover, his innovative dramas are thought to have paved the way for later Symbolist drama and the Theater of the Absurd.

Biographical Information

Shaw was born on July 26, 1856, in Dublin, Ireland. At his mother's instruction, Shaw was introduced to music and art early in his childhood and became interested in a career as a writer. At the age of fifteen, he began work as a rent collector for a Dublin land agent, which he did for five years. His experiences on the job became the inspiration for the events in his first drama, Widowers' Houses (1892). In 1876 he moved to London and began a rigorous self-education in economics and politics, with a leaning toward socialist ideals. During the 1880s he garnered attention as an orator, a literary and art critic, a socialist commentator, and Saturday Review drama critic. When his career as a novelist stalled, he turned to playwriting, a form that he soon realized allowed him to express many of his political, social, and philosophical concerns. Generally, his works were successful in book form before appearing on stage and the prefaces to his plays received much critical attention; in fact, critics consider these explanatory essays to be integral to a full understanding of his work. In 1894 Shaw aided Sidney Webb in establishing the London School of Economics. He was elected vestryman in Saint Pancras in 1897, with an emphasis on reform in sanitation and public health conditions. His interest in reform, especially on behalf of those living in poverty, found its ways into his dramatic writing. In 1898 six of his plays were published as Plays: Pleasant and Unpleasant, which catapulted Shaw into a critical and popular success. However, his writings questioning the motives behind England's participation in World War I resulted in a backlash—his books were removed from library shelves, his plays were boycotted, he was forced to resign from the Society of Authors and the Dramatists Club, and he was accused of being a German sympathizer. Yet the public outcry did not deter Shaw from writing about the implications of the war and incorporating these concerns into his dramatic work. It was not until the appearance of his celebrated play Saint Joan in 1923 that his reputation was repaired. The play was immediately recognized as a masterpiece and earned the playwright a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925. He continued to be a prolific playwright, essayist, social and political commentator, and socialist activist. He died on November 2, 1950.

Major Works

Commentators note that Shaw's major dramatic works are infused with his social, economic, and political concerns, particularly his criticism of the inequalities and injustices of late-Victorian capitalism. He is also credited with creating the serious farce, a dramatic genre that inverts melodramatic conventions and utilizes comedy to promote serious views on public policy, social institutions, and morality. In his work, Shaw strove to peel away the romantic and false layers in order to reveal the realities of middle- and lower-class life. Completed in 1892, his first play, Widowers' Houses, exposes the hypocrisy of slum landlords who derive their income from the ruthless exploitation of the poor. In his next play, The Philanderer, which was written in 1893 but not produced until 1905, Shaw explores his recurring interest in the concept of sexual equality, contending that social pressures and artificial social structures result in sexual discrimination. Mrs. Warren's Profession (written 1893; produced 1902) is a scathing indictment of a capitalist system that does not allow women equal opportunities for decent wages and fulfilling work. When Mrs. Warren is exposed as a prostitute, she justifies her personal choice as a matter of economics. Viewed as a conventional drama-comedy, Candida (written 1894; produced 1897) chronicles the triangle of a husband, wife, and immature, idealistic young poet. In his John Bull's Other Island (1904) Shaw focuses on the issues of Irish self-rule and Anglo-Irish relations. The play garnered attention for Shaw's reversal of stereotypes: the comic Irishman became wise and the wise Englishman became comic.

Originally written in 1901-1902, Man and Superman (produced 1905) is considered a turning point in Shaw's dramatic career. The play is often described as a comedy of manners in which a confident and resourceful woman seduces a reluctant man—the reverse of the Don Juan myth, which figures prominently in the story. Subtitled A Comedy and a Philosophy, the play also addresses several controversial and pressing social and philosophical issues, including theories of evolution and religion. Much of the critical reaction to Man and Superman surrounds the relationship between the hell scene in Act III—in which the principal characters are depicted as their actual or spiritual ancestors from the Don Juan legend—and the rest of the play. Major Barbara (1905) utilizes comedy to explore the dehumanizing consequences of poverty and unemployment. The protagonist of the play, Barbara, rejects her position in the Salvation Army when she realizes that her father's fortune can better aid the poor and downtrodden than can the Salvation Army's enforced religiosity. Critics commend Major Barbara as Shaw's most intellectually complex play.

Although Shaw described Pygmalion (written 1912; produced 1913) as a didactic play about phonetics, commentators viewed the play as a comedy about love and class. The play chronicles the story of a lower-class cockney flower peddler who is trained by a priggish professor, Henry Higgins, to be a lady. It is regarded as Shaw's most popular play, and has been performed countless times all over the world. Written and performed in 1923, his acclaimed drama Saint Joan chronicles the life of the legendary religious martyr Joan of Arc, whose canonization in 1920 inspired Shaw's play. Joan is portrayed as a nationalist rebel who struggles against the establishment at the risk of her own life. In the preface to the play he finds parallels between medieval France and early twentieth-century Ireland and condemns English tyranny as cruel and unjust.

Critical Reception

Shaw is acclaimed as the most significant British dramatist of the modern era. During his lifetime, critics and theatergoers alike recognized Shaw's innovative, clever, and humorous plays that eschewed romantic conventions and explored relevant and often controversial subjects, such as prostitution, sexual discrimination, class divisions, morality, and the effect of poverty on the lower classes. At the outbreak of World War I, Shaw's antiwar writings proved to be severely damaging to his critical and popular reputation, as commentators accused him of being unpatriotic and a German sympathizer. After the war, however, his commentary on the war was recognized as prescient, and he was once again applauded as an innovative and insightful talent. On the eve of World War II, Shaw once again alienated critics and theatergoers with his anti-democracy tracts and dramas, which were perceived as pro-fascist in nature. Over the years, Shaw's plays have been derided as didactic and unsympathetic and his characters have been censured as unrealistic and lacking sensuality, spirituality, and vitality. His depiction of strong, independent women has been a frequent topic of interest for feminist critics. The philosophical, theological, and psychoanalytical theories that permeate his work are perceived as reflections of Shaw's own concerns. Scholars have traced the influence of Henrik Ibsen on Shaw's plays, focusing on the aim of both playwrights to call attention to social problems and moral issues rather than melodramatic incidents and sentimental resolutions. Despite criticisms of his work, Shaw's contribution to modern theater is considered profound. His propounding of the “theater of ideas,” in which theater is obligated to provide moral instruction, is regarded as one of his key achievements.