George Shaw Bernard Essay - Critical Essays

Bernard, George Shaw


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.

Principal Works

Widowers' Houses 1892*

Arms and the Man 1894

Candida 1897

The Devil's Disciple 1897

Plays: Pleasant and Unpleasant [first publication] 1898

You Never Can Tell 1899

Captain Brassbound's Conversion 1900

Three Plays for Puritans [first publication] 1901

Mrs. Warren's Profession 1902

The Admirable Bashville; or, Constancy Unrewarded 1903

How He Lied to Her Husband 1904

John Bull's Other Island 1904

Major Barbara 1905

Man and Superman: A Comedy and a Philosophy 1905

The Philanderer 1905

Caesar and Cleopatra 1906

The Doctor's Dilemma 1906

Getting Married 1908

The Shewing-Up of Blanco Posnet 1909

Misalliance 1910

Fanny's First Play 1911

Androcles and the Lion 1912

Pygmalion 1913

Heartbreak House 1920

Back to Methuselah 1922

Saint Joan 1923

The Apple Cart 1929

Too True to Be Good 1932

The Simpleton of the Unexpected Isles 1935

Geneva 1938

Cashel Byron's Profession (novel) 1886

An Unsocial Socialist (novel) 1887

The Quintessence of Ibsenism 1891

Love among the Artists 1900

The Irrational Knot (novel) 1905

Dramatic Opinions and Essays (essays) 1906

Immaturity (novel) 1930

Music in London, 1890-94 (criticism) 1932

London Music in 1888-89 (criticism) 1937

Bernard Shaw's Rhyming Picture Guide to Ayot St. Lawrence (poetry) 1950

*Dates given for Shaw's plays are of first performance, unless otherwise noted.

†This drama is an adaptation of Shaw's novel Cashel Byron's Profession.

Criticism: General Commentary

Arthur Ganz (essay date December 1971)

SOURCE: Ganz, Arthur. “The Ascent to Heaven: A Shavian Pattern (Early Plays, 1894-1898).” Modern Drama 14, no. 3 (December 1971): 253-63.

[In the following essay, Ganz discusses the negative vision in Shaw's early plays, contending that there is a recurring pattern of his characters withdrawing from the real world into an intellectual, contemplative existence.]

It is the peculiar character of Shaw's plays that from the first they embody Romantic optimism and Romantic disillusion simultaneously. One is reminded of William Archer's account of seeing Shaw for the first time in the British Museum studying alternately the French translation of Das Kapital and the...

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Barbara J. Small (essay date May 1979)

SOURCE: Small, Barbara J. “Rhetorical Style in Shaw's Plays.” Shaw Review 22, no. 2 (May 1979): 79-88.

[In the following essay, Small contends that Shaw's plays were conceived and written more in the rhetorical tradition than in a realistic style.]

What Raina wants is the extremity of style—style—Comedie Francaise, Queen of Spain style. Do you hear, worthless wretch that you are?


—G. B. S. to Lillah McCarthy, 6 February 1908

Although Shaw, for the most part, used realistic subject matter and language that on the surface...

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Rodelle Weintraub (essay date May 1980)

SOURCE: Weintraub, Rodelle. “The Irish Lady in Shaw's Plays.” Shaw Review 23, no. 2 (May 1980): 77-89.

[In the following essay, Weintraub identifies Shaw's wife, Charlotte Payne Townsend, as a model for the strong, independent female characters in his plays.]

Unlike most playwrights since Shakespeare, “St. Bernard,” patron saint of the women's movement, as Bernard Shaw jestingly referred to himself, wrote plays for strong, vital women. Often the play's central figure, his woman does not easily fall into the bitch goddess, virgin mother, whore, ingenue, nor castrating neurotic formula. His female characters generate energy and motivate action rather than merely...

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Elsie B. Adams (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: Adams, Elsie B. “Heartless, Heartbroken, and Heartfelt: A Recurrent Theme in the Plays of Bernard Shaw.” English Literature in Translation 25, no. 1 (1982): 4-9.

[In the following essay, Adams considers the significance of Shaw's repeated use of “heart” in compound words and phrases throughout his plays, and the association of these terms with particular characters.]

It has been a critical cliché of long standing that Shaw is a writer of intellect, not passion—appealing to the brain and not to the heart. Shaw was of course aware of this critical opinion, and objected to it as an oversimplification of his matter and method. For example, in his satire...

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Karen Howell McFadden (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: McFadden, Karen Howell. “G. Bernard Shaw's Political Plays of the Nineteen Thirties.” Nature, Society, and Thought 1, no. 3 (1988): 418-34.

[In the following essay, McFadden asserts that Shaw's political plays from the 1930s are “worthy of re-examination, not only for their artistic merit, but also because they provide engrossing images of the kinds of philosophical debates Shaw was constantly waging with himself and others throughout his lifetime.”]

The acute social crisis of capitalism in the nineteen thirties produced a literature fraught with ideological implications which retains its relevance for those seeking solutions to the problems of today....

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Criticism: Arms And The Man (1894)

SOURCE: Quinn, Michael. “Form and Intention: A Negative View of Arms and the Man.Critical Quarterly 5, no. 2 (summer 1963): 148-54.

[In the following essay, Quinn explores the disconnection between Shaw's intentions in Arms and the Man and the form of the play, concluding that it is “a very good play of its kind, but it is not the kind of play one might have expected from Shaw's preface.”]

One of the difficulties with Shaw is that too often, like Mistress Quickly, “a man does not know where to have” him. Largely on the basis of his own noisy claims, he still retains much of the prestige of a ‘great thinker’, standing, in somewhat...

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Criticism: Candida (1897)

Charles A. Berst (essay date fall 1974)

SOURCE: Berst, Charles A. “The Craft of Candida.College Literature 1, no. 3 (fall 1974): 157-73.

[In the following essay, Berst addresses several common criticisms of Shaw's work through an analysis of his Candida, contending that the play “refutes many of the facile critical generalizations so often repeated about Shavian drama.”]

A year before Shaw wrote Candida the prominent critic William Archer reviewed his first play, Widowers' Houses, in the London World. Archer was most condescending: “It is a pity that Mr Shaw should labour under a delusion as to the true bent of his talent, and … should perhaps be tempted to...

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Walter Lazenby (essay date March 1977)

SOURCE: Lazenby, Walter. “Love and ‘Vitality’ in Candida.Modern Drama 20, no. 1 (March 1977): 1-19.

[In the following essay, Lazenby examines aspects of the dramatic irony, imagery, and plot of Candida and traces the “vitalization” of the three major characters in the play.]

Most critics of Shaw's Candida have approached the play “as if it were a geometry problem whose basic axioms can be located in The Quintessence and other Shaviana.”1 They have assumed that Shaw was here merely illustrating his three types (Philistine, Idealist, Realist) and that the play demands a simplistic stock response: automatic scorn...

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Criticism: Mrs. Warren's Profession (1902)

SOURCE: Berst, Charles A. “Propaganda and Art in Mrs. Warren's Profession.ELH 33, no. 3 (September 1966): 390-404.

[In the following essay, Berst calls Mrs. Warren's Profession one of Shaw's most didactic plays and maintains that “an examination of its achievement as art should prove helpful in assessing the extent to which Shaw's role as a dramatic propagandist limits his accomplishment as an artist.”]

Since Mrs Warren's Profession is one of the most openly didactic of Shaw's plays, an examination of its achievement as art should prove helpful in assessing the extent to which Shaw's role as a dramatic propagandist limits his...

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Criticism: Major Barbara (1905)

Sidney P. Albert (essay date December 1971)

SOURCE: Albert, Sidney P. “The Price of Salvation: Moral Economics in Major Barbara.Modern Drama 14, no. 3 (December 1971): 307-23.

[In the following essay, Albert investigates the role of economics in Major Barbara.]

“In all my plays,” Bernard Shaw wrote to Archibald Henderson in 1904, “my economic studies have played as important a part as a knowledge of anatomy does in the works of Michael Angelo.”1 But the inclusion of economics in his plays, he always maintained, did not make them mere tracts. “My plays are no more economic treatises than Shakespeare's,” he declared in his Sixteen Self Sketches. “It is true that neither...

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Kurt Tetzeli v. Rosador (essay date June 1974)

SOURCE: Rosador, Kurt Tetzeli v. “The Natural History of Major Barbara.Modern Drama 17, no. 2 (June 1974): 141-53.

[In the following essay, Rosador considers Major Barbara to be a depiction of Shaw's theory of history.]

When in 1949 Francis Fergusson described the content of Shavian drama as “unresolved paradox,”1 using Major Barbara and Heartbreak House as an illustration, he not only echoed countless early critics,2 but also furthered the label-sticking method of interpretation which has vitiated so much of Shaw criticism. “The play,” says Fergusson, “is a parlor-game based upon the freedom of the mind...

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Trevor Whittock (essay date October 1978)

SOURCE: Whittock, Trevor. “Major Barbara: Comic Masterpiece.” Theoria 51 (October 1978): 1-14.

[In the following essay, Whittock discusses Major Barbara as a great English comic drama.]

The English dramatic tradition—if we can divert our eyes for a moment from the figure of Shakespeare who bestrides our petty, narrow world like a colossus—is essentially a tradition of comedy. Not that Englishmen have not written, or attempted to write, tragedies. Edward Marlowe, in the words of one of his characters, did ride in triumph through Persepolis; though Shakespeare indicated how much he thought his contemporary's heroics were mostly rant and rhetoric...

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Criticism: Man And Superman (1905)

Daniel J. Leary (essay date February 1963)

SOURCE: Leary, Daniel J. “Shaw's Use of Stylized Characters and Speech in Man and Superman.Modern Drama 5, no. 4 (February 1963): 477-90.

[In the following essay, Leary explores the vitality of the characters and speeches in Man and Superman.]

In discussing the dramatic effectiveness of puppets, Shaw wrote:

I always hold up the wooden actors as instructive object-lessons to our flesh-and-blood players. … The puppet is the actor in his primitive form. Its symbolic costume, from which all realistic and historically correct impertinences are banished, its unchanging stare, petrified (or rather lignified) in a grimace...

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Michael Solomonson (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Solomonson, Michael. “Man and Superman: The Shavianizing of Friedrich Nietzsche.” Independent Shavian 34, no. 3 (1996): 54-59.

[In the following essay, Solomonson investigates the influence of Friedrich Nietzsche's philosophy on Man and Superman.]

Scholars often suggest a link between the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche and that of Bernard Shaw. In particular, Shaw's Man and Superman is cited as an example of Nietzsche's influence upon the playwright. In his preface to the play, Shaw identified Nietzsche as being “among the writers whose peculiar sense of the world I recognize as more or less akin to my own” (Prefaces 162). Shaw...

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Criticism: Pygmalion (1913)

Emil Roy (essay date spring 1970)

SOURCE: Roy, Emil. “Pygmalion Revisited.” Ball State University Forum 11, no. 2 (spring 1970): 38-46.

[In the following essay, Roy analyzes the relationship between Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion.]

The structure of Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion1 is perfectly conventional, juxtaposing the personal comedy of Eliza Doolittle's evolution into true independence with the social comedy of her father's sudden rise into middle-class affluence. However, Shaw's denial of a match between Eliza and her mentor Henry Higgins created legendary difficulties which have surrounded the ending for over half a century. The author's inability to create an...

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Jean Reynolds (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Reynolds, Jean. “Deconstructing Henry Higgins, or Eliza as Derridean ‘Text.’” In Shaw: The Annual of Bernard Shaw Studies 14 (1994): 209-17.

[In the following essay, Reynolds deems the power of language to be the main theme in Pygmalion and links the ideas of Shaw and the French linguist Jacques Derrida.]

Language is central to Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion: scarcely a minute of the play is without some reference to words. The plot is built around a phonetics experiment, and two of the main characters are language experts. Act II takes place amid speech paraphernalia—a phonograph and wax cylinders, a laryngoscope, and a life-size diagram of...

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Criticism: Saint Joan (1923)

Stanley J. Solomon (essay date February 1964)

SOURCE: Solomon, Stanley J. “Saint Joan as Epic Tragedy.” Modern Drama 6, no. 4 (February 1964): 437-49.

[In the following essay, Solomon explores the consequences of synthesizing epic and tragic elements in Saint Joan.]

Several of the critical problems related to Saint Joan stem from the unusual nature of the play—unusual, that is, for Shaw, for in no other Shaw play do we have a predominantly tragic tone.1 In the numerous commentaries on the play, we find three key questions frequently recurring: 1) Is Joan a tragic heroine with a tragic flaw or an innocent victim of circumstances? 2) Although Joan has our sympathies throughout, why...

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John L. Gribben (essay date winter 1965)

SOURCE: Gribben, John L. “Shaw's Saint Joan: A Tragic Heroine.” Thought: A Review of Culture and Idea 40, no. 159 (winter 1965): 549-66.

[In the following essay, Gribben discusses the character of Joan in Saint Joan as a genuine tragic figure.]

When George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan was presented for the first time, at the Garrick Theatre in New York on December 28, 1923, it was acclaimed by critics of all shades of competence, from Hugh Walpole and Heywood Broun to Lord Beaverbrook, as one of the finest plays the world had seen, the finest play written in the English language of our day.1 The playbill described it as “a chronicle play.”...

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Further Reading


Adams, Elsie B. “Bernard Shaw's Pre-Raphaelite Drama.” PMLA 81, no. 5 (October 1966): 428-38.

Investigates the influence of the Pre-Raphaelite movement on Shaw's dramas.

Albert, Sidney P. “Bernard Shaw: The Artist as Philosopher.” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 14, no. 4 (June 1956): 419-38.

Underscores the importance of philosophical concerns to Shaw's dramas.

———. “The Lord's Prayer and Major Barbara.Shaw: The Annual of Bernard Shaw Studies 1 (1981): 107-28.

Traces Shaw's lifelong fascination with the Lord's Prayer and...

(The entire section is 1465 words.)