(George) Bernard Shaw (26 July 1856 – 2 November 1950) was an Anglo-Irish playwright based in the United Kingdom. He was uniquely the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature (in 1925) and an Academy Award for Writing Adapted Screenplay (in 1938 for Pygmalion). After those of William Shakespeare, Shaw's plays are among the most widely produced in English-language theatre.
His career started with frustration and near poverty. Neither music criticism (written under the name of a family friend) nor a telephone company job lasted very long, and only two of the five novels Shaw wrote between 1879 and 1883 found publishers: Cashel Byron’s Profession (1882), a novel about prizefighting as an occupation that anticipates the theme of prostitution as an antisocial profession in the play Mrs. Warren’s Profession (1893), and An Unsocial Socialist (1883). By the mid-1880s Shaw discovered the writings of Karl Marx and turned to socialist polemics and critical journalism. He also became a firm (and lifelong) believer in vegetarianism, a spellbinding orator, and tentatively, a playwright. He was the force behind the newly founded (1884) Fabian Society, a middle-class socialist group that aimed at the transformation of English government and society. Through the Fabian Society’s founders, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Shaw met the Irish heiress Charlotte Payne-Townshend, whom he married in 1898.
Shaw’s early journalism ranged from book reviews and art criticism to brilliant music columns (many of them championing the controversial work of the German composer Richard Wagner) from 1888 to 1890 under the signature “Corno di Bassetto” (basset horn), later under his own initials. Shifting to the Saturday Review as drama critic, a post he held from 1895 to 1898, Shaw became the champion of the Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen, about whom he had already written his influential The Quintessence of Ibsenism (1891).
Shaw was a novelist, critic, pamphleteer, essayist, inveterate letter writer, politician and public speaker, but he is by far best known today as a playwright. He did not finish his first play, however, until he was in his mid-30s.
Shaw was born at 33 Synge Street in Dublin, Ireland to rather poor Church of Ireland parents, George Carr Shaw (1814-1885) and Lucinda Elizabeth (Gurly) (1830-1913). Shaw had two sisters, Lucinda Frances (1853-1920), a musical comedy and light opera singer, and Elinor Agnes (1854-1876); both died of tuberculosis.
Shaw was educated at Wesley College, Dublin and moved to London during the 1870s to embark on his literary career. He wrote five novels, none of which was published, before finding his first success in the late 1880s as a music critic on the Star newspaper, under the pseudonym "Corno di Bassetto". From 1895 to 1898, Shaw was the drama critic on Frank Harris's Saturday Review.
During this time, Shaw became a socialist and joined the Fabian Society. He was heavily involved in politics and even held office as a borough councillor in the St. Pancras district of London from 1897 to 1903. While Shaw's political beliefs inform his plays, they do not generally overwhelm them.
Shaw started working on his first play, Widower's Houses, in 1885, in collaboration with critic William Archer. Archer, who came up with the structure, felt Shaw was no playwright (an opinion he apparently never changed), and the project was abandoned. Years later, Shaw gave it another shot and, in 1892, completed his first play—alone.
Widower's Houses debuted at London's Royalty Theatre on December 9, 1892. Shaw would later call it one of his worst works, but he had found his medium. He would go on to write over 50 plays, most of them full-length.
Many of his earliest pieces had to wait years to receive major productions in London, but they are still being performed today. Among them are Mrs. Warren's Profession (1893), Arms and the Man (1894), Candida (1894) and You Never Can Tell (1895).
His first financial success as a playwright came from Richard Mansfield's American production of The Devil's Disciple (1897). Shaw, in fact, would often see his plays succeed in America (and Germany) before they did in London. In 1898, soon after becoming self-sufficient from his theatre earnings, he married Irish heiress Charlotte Payne-Townshend.
The ideas in his earliest theatrical work were unconventional, and his wit unmatched by contemporaries (save Oscar Wilde), but his plays were still designed for the theatre of his time. Once he became more experienced, and more popular, his plays tended to be less compact and talkier, though no less successful. These works from what might be called the beginning of his "middle" period include Caesar and Cleopatra (1898), Man and Superman (1903), Major Barbara (1905) and The Doctor's Dilemma (1906).
From 1904 to 1907, several of his plays had their London premieres in notable productions at the Court Theatre, managed by Harley Granville-Barker and J.E. Vedrenne.
His first original play performed at the Court, John Bull's Other Island (1904), though not one of his more popular plays today, made his reputation in London when, during a command perfomance for King Edward VII, the King laughed so hard he broke his chair.
By the 1910s, Shaw was a well-established playwright. New works such as Fanny's First Play (1911) and Pygmalion (1912)—on which My Fair Lady was based—had long runs in front of large London audiences. (Even though Oscar Straus's The Chocolate Soldier (1908)--an adaptation of Arms And The Man--was very popular, Shaw detested it and for the rest of his life forbade any musicalization of his work, including a potential Franz Lehar operetta based on Pygmalion. Only after Shaw's death did My Fair Lady become possible.)
Many feel Shaw's outlook was changed by World War I, a war he—quite unpopularly—opposed. His first full-length piece presented after the War, written mostly during it, was Heartbreak House (1919). This seemed to be a new Shaw; the wit was still there, but the action and theme were darker, almost despairing at times.
In 1921, Shaw completed Back to Methuselah, his "Metabiological Pentateuch." The massive, five-play work starts in the Garden of Eden and ends thousands of years in the future. Shaw claimed it was a masterpiece, but many critics did not share that opinion.
His next original play, however, is generally conceded to be one of his best, Saint Joan (1923). Shaw had long thought of writing about Joan of Arc, and her recent canonization spurred him on. It was an international success, and is believed to have led to his Nobel Prize in Literature.
He continued writing plays for the rest of his life, but very few of them are as notable—or as often revived—as his earlier work. The Apple Cart (1929) was probably his most popular work of this era. Later full-length plays like Too True to Be Good (1931), On the Rocks (1933), The Millionairess (1935), and Geneva (1938) have been seen as marking a decline. His last significant play, In Good King Charles Golden Days has, according to St. John Ervine, passages that are equal to Shaw's major works. His last full-length work was Buoyant Billions (1946–48), written when he was in his nineties.
Many of Shaw's published plays come with lengthy prefaces. These tend to be essays more about Shaw's opinions on the issues dealt with in the plays than about the plays themselves. Some prefaces are much longer than the actual play. For example, the Penguin Books edition of his one-act The Shewing-up Of Blanco Posnet (1909) has a 67-page preface for the 29-page piece.
One of the world's most notable theatrical voices was silenced when Shaw died in 1950 at the age of 94 due to a fall from a ladder.
After his death
By the time of his death, Shaw was not only a household name in Britain, but a world figure. His ironic wit endowed the language with the adjective "Shavian" to refer to such clever observations as "England and America are two countries divided by a common language."
From 1906 until his death, Shaw lived at Shaw's Corner in the small village of Ayot St Lawrence, Hertfordshire. The house is now a National Trust property, open to the public.
Concerned about the inconsistency of English spelling, he willed a portion of his wealth to fund the creation of a new phonemic alphabet for the English language. On his death bed, he did not have much money to leave, so no effort was made to start such a project. However, his estate began to earn significant royalties from the rights to Pygmalion when My Fair Lady, a musical adapted from the play by his comrade film producer Gabriel Pascal, became a hit. It then became clear that the will was so badly worded that the relatives had grounds to challenge it, and in the end an out-of-court settlement granted only a small portion of the money to promoting a new alphabet. This became known as the Shavian alphabet. The National Gallery of Ireland, RADA and the British Museum all received substantial bequests.
The Shaw Theatre, Euston Road, London was opened in 1971 and named in his honour.
The Shaw Festival, an annual theater festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, began as an eight week run of Don Juan in Hell and Candida in 1962 and has grown into an annual festival with over 800 performances a year, dedicated to producing the works of Shaw and his contemporaries.
Friends and correspondents
Shaw, in his lifetime, maintained correspondence with hundreds of personages, many notable and many not.Dear Liar: A Comedy of Letters; as was his correspondence with the poet Lord Alfred 'Bosie' Douglas (the intimate friend of Oscar Wilde), into the drama Bernard and Bosie: A Most Unlikely Friendship by Anthony Wynn. His letters to the prominent actress, Ellen Terry, the boxer Gene Tunney, and H.G. Wells have also been published.
His letters to and from Mrs. Patrick Campbell were adapted for the stage by Jerome Kilty as
Shaw campaigned against the executions of the rebel leaders of the Easter Rising, and he became a personal friend of the Cork-born IRA leader Michael Collins, whom he invited to his home for dinner while Collins was negotiating the Anglo-Irish Treaty with Lloyd-George in London. After Collins's assassination in 1922, Shaw sent a personal message of condolence to one of Collins's sisters.
Shaw had a long time friendship with G. K. Chesterton, the Catholic-convert British writer, and there are many humorous stories about their complicated relationship.
Another great friend was the composer Edward Elgar. The latter dedicated one of his late works, Severn Suite, to Shaw; and Shaw exerted himself (eventually with success) to persuade the BBC to commission from Elgar a third symphony, though this piece remained incomplete at Elgar's death.
Shaw's correspondence with the motion picture producer Gabriel Pascal, who was the first to successfully bring Shaw's plays to the screen and who later adapted Pygmalion into "My Fair Lady," is published in a book titled Bernard Shaw and Gabriel Pascal (ISBN 0-8020-3002-5).
A stage play based on a book by Hugh Whitemore, The Best of Friends, provides a window on the friendships of Dame Laurentia McLachlan, OSB (late Abbess of Stanbrook) with Sir Sydney Cockerell and Shaw through adaptations from their letters and writings.
Socialism and political beliefs
Shaw had a vision (letter to Henry James of 17 January 1909):
- “I, as a Socialist, have had to preach, as much as anyone, the enormous power of the environment. We can change it; we must change it; there is absolutely no other sense in life than the task of changing it. What is the use of writing plays, what is the use of writing anything, if there is not a will which finally moulds chaos itself into a race of gods.”
Shaw held that each class worked towards its own ends, and that those from the upper echelons had won the struggle; for him, the working class had failed in promoting their interests effectively, making Shaw highly critical of the democratic system of his day. The writing of Shaw, such as his plays Major Barbara and Pygmalion, has a background theme of class struggle. That said, Shaw was not a Marxist in the traditional sense, and for a long while abhorred the aggression of Trade Unionism.
Shaw's second career — after the theatre — was in support of socialism. In 1882 Henry George’s lecture on land nationalization gave depth and direction to Shaw’s political ideology. Shortly thereafter he applied to join the Social Democratic Federation. Its leader H. M. Hyndman introduced him to the works of Karl Marx. Instead, in May of 1884 he joined the newly-formed Fabian Society. He played a pivotal role with the Fabian Society and wrote a number of their pamphlets. He argued that property was theft and for an equitable distribution of land and capital. He was involved with the formation of the Labour Party. For a clear statement of his position read The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism, Capitalism, Sovietism, and Fascism.
Having visited the USSR in 1930s and met Stalin, Shaw became an ardent supporter of Stalinist USSR. He declared all the stories of a famine were slander. Having been asked why he didn't want to stay permanently in the Soviet 'earthly paradise', Shaw ironically marked that England was a 'hell' but of course he was a small devil himself. He also "simply did not believe" that the Holocaust had happened.
Bernard Shaw was a noted vegetarian. The following was taken from the archives of The Vegetarian Society UK:
- The Summer of 1946 seems to have been a season of anniversaries and memorials. The Vegetarian Society itself was looking forward to its 100th anniversary and giving its members advance warnings of celebratory plans.
- But the big story of the July issue of The Vegetarian Messenger was the tribute to George Bernard Shaw, celebrating his 90th birthday on the 26th of that month. He had, at that time, been a vegetarian for 66 years and was commended as one of the great thinkers and dramatists of his era. "No writer since Shakespearean times has produced such a wealth of dramatic literature, so superb in expression, so deep in thought and with such dramatic possibilities as Shaw." The writer was a staunch vegetarian, anti-vivisectionist and opponent of cruel sports.
Sesquicentennial anniversary of birth
A programme of readings, guided tours and performances took place at 33 Synge Street, Dublin, the place of Shaw's birth, between 22 July and 29 July to celebrate the 150th anniversary of his birth which was on 26 July 2006. The National Gallery of Ireland, which regards Shaw as a generous benefactor, will have a series of celebratory festivities for the remainder of 2006. Several conferences are to be held across the globe and there will be theatre readings of all 52 Shaw plays.
Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to:
George Bernard Shaw
On The Future
| ||Time enough to think of your future when you haven’t any future to think of. || |
On Personal Responsibility
| ||People are always blaming their circumstances for what they are. I don't believe in circumstances. The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and, if they can't find them, make them. || |
| ||The Indian way of life provides the vision of the natural, real way of life. We veil ourselves with unnatural masks. On the face of India are the tender expressions which carry the mark of the Creator's hand. || |
| ||War does not decide who is right, but who is left. || |
| ||If you have an apple and I have an apple, and we exchange apples, we both still only have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea, and we exchange ideas, we each now have two ideas. || |
| ||The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. All progress, therefore, depends upon the unreasonable man. || |
| ||[the serpent saying to Eve] You see things as they are and ask, 'Why?' I dream things as they never were and ask, 'Why not?' || |
Back to Methuselah
| ||All great truths begin as blasphemies. || |
| ||A part of eugenic politics would finally land us in an extensive use of the lethal chamber. A great many people would have to be put out of existence, simply because it wastes other people’s time to look after them. || |
| ||Under Socialism you would not be allowed to be poor. You would be forcibly fed, clothed, lodged, taught, and employed whether you liked it or not. If it were discovered that you had not the character and industry enough to be worth all this trouble, you might possibly be executed in a kindly manner. || |
Was Shaw instrumental in Lawrence's death? Would he (Shaw) have liked that? Had it been a Harley Davidson would the path of history been changed?
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George Bernard Shaw
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