George Bernard Shaw (2388 words)

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George Bernard Shaw was born in Dublin on 26th July, 1856 into the disreputable branch of an otherwise respectable Irish Protestant family. His father, George Carr Shaw, was an unsuccessful mill-owner and an alcoholic. Emotionally deprived as a child, Shaw experienced a haphazard education which included a brief spell at the Wesleyan School in Dublin, but also an inspiring introduction to music from the maverick musician, Vandaleur Lee, who lived with the family for some time. In 1873, Shaw's mother, Lucinda Elizabeth Gurly, an amateur singer, broke up the family when she left for London with her daughter Lucy to follow Lee (who was the model for Svengali in George du Maurier's Trilby). At fifteen, Shaw became a minor clerk in a land-agent's office and having endured this until the age of twenty, joined his mother and sister in London. For the next decade, although with occasional income as a piano accompanist, they supported him while he struggled as a free-lance writer. Initially unsuccessful, he did contribute a number of unsigned articles to the Pall Mall Gazette and four of his five novels written before 1883, including Cashel Byron's Profession (1882), were serialised in socialist magazines. At the same time, always a voracious reader, he was educating himself through daily study in the British Museum Library, where his striking appearance (tall, thin, red beard) and the range and quantity of the books he was reading drew the attention of the critic, William Archer, who found him reviewing work and then, in 1888, the post of music critic of The Star. The witty and informed articles he wrote here, and subsequently between 1890 and 1894 for The World, under the pseudonym Corno di Bassetto, gave him his breakthrough. Between 1895 and 98, as drama critic of The Saturday Review, the originality of his insights and his combative approach to established writers and actors made his columns compulsive reading, and led to his occasional banning by furious theatre managers.

A great admirer of William Morris, Shaw had become a socialist. He joined the Fabian Society in 1884 and, with Sidney Webb, was for a long time its moving spirit. As an executive member he wrote a series of Fabian tracts and policy documents. He edited Fabian Essays on Socialism (1889) and among many other influential pieces, wrote Fabianism and the Fiscal Question (1904). He became a vegetarian and a proponent of rational dress, espousing both with such commitment, that, once he was famous and invited to banquets and formal occasions, his knitted Jaeger suits were accepted dress and vegetarian dishes were always included on the menu. After seeing Janet Achurch's production of A Doll's House (1889), he championed Ibsen and, in 1891, published a developed version of his Fabian Society lecture on the dramatist as The Quintessence of Ibsenism, emphasising what he described as Ibsen's “terrible art of sharp-shooting at the audience, trapping them, fencing with them”, which could well serve as a credo for his own plays.

An invitation from J. T. Grein in 1892 led Shaw to revisit a fragmentary play he had begun in 1885 with William Archer, and this emerged (Archer's contribution swallowed up), as Shaw's first play, Widowers' Houses, which takes slum land-lordism for its theme. The disappointing response to the Independent Theatre's production stimulated a defiant speech to the audience from Shaw. The following year The Philanderer, a comedy set among Ibsenists, was rejected by Grein and then Mrs Warren's Profession, a mocking response to the success of Pinero's The Second Mrs Tanqueray, was banned (the profession being prostitution), but Shaw had the bit between his teeth and continued to write plays throughout the 1890s. He used and subverted the conventions of the currently dominant “well-made play”; he offered disconcertingly unresolved endings, and avoided strong curtain-lines, or used them to establish expectations that were not fulfilled. Arms and the Man, set in the Balkans and satirical of romanticising youth and military heroics, ran for fifty performances in Florence Farr's Avenue season in 1894, but otherwise attention from managers was scant and such subsequently renowned works as Candida, and You Never Can Tell found only out-of-town performance. A production of The Devil's Disciple in New York in 1897, however, gained him £200, and publication in 1898 of his plays to date as Plays Pleasant and Unpleasant revealed that there was a growing and enthusiastic readership for his work, if as yet no sponsoring theatre and, on the strength of this, he gave up his reviewing work to concentrate on his own writing.

Shaw's first evident stage success was John Bull's Other Ireland, written for the Abbey Theatre at the invitation of W. B. Yeats, but staged by Granville Barker in his avant-garde season at the Royal Court Theatre in London, in 1904. Other Court Theatre successes followed, Major Barbara and Man and Superman in 1905; The Doctor's Dilemma in 1906, all plays in which there is a continual modulation of jokes into something much darker. Although Shaw shared intellectual ground with the younger Court dramatists and challenged the contemporary organisation of society at least as fiercely (and, indeed, subsidised heavily Barker's productions of their work), his dramatic method tended to subvert their earnest social realism. His actors are involved in role-playing not representation and his settings are likely to be used parodically or suffused with fantasy. His villains prove philanthropic, his brothel-owner endows scholarships, his arms dealer provides model living conditions for his workers, his reformers find themselves wrong-footed and 'the undeserving poor' figure among his liveliest characterisations. A new audience, ready to relish radical ideas, returned repeatedly to face the challenge of his dialectic and his teasing, even when directed against themselves - or himself, as the discussion between two critics in his, originally anonymous, Fanny's First Play (1911) demonstrates:

VAUGHAN: I've repeatedly proved that Shaw is physiologically incapable of the note of passion.
BANNAL: Yes, I know. Intellect without emotion. That's right. I always say that myself. A giant brain, if you ask me; but no heart.

Essential to the tone is what Brecht called spas (fun). During the next ten years, with a succession of revivals and of new plays, including Getting Married (1908), Misalliance (1910) and Androcles and the Lion (1913), Shaw became the most performed living dramatist in Britain and gained a huge international reputation. Fanny's First Play ran for 623 performances becoming, Shaw claimed, “the Charley's Aunt of the new drama”. The mainstream and the avant-garde theatre came together when the leading actor-manager of the day, Beerbohm Tree, staged the première of Pygmalion in 1914, a play that takes the investigation and deconstruction of language usage as its subject matter, as Professor Higgins says of the scurrilous Doolittle, “this chap has a certain natural gift of rhetoric. Observe the rhythm of his native woodnotes wild. 'I'm willing to tell you: I'm wanting to tell you: I'm waiting to tell you.' Sentimental rhetoric.” The audience is invited to admire and enjoy, but to keep its critical faculties alert.

Shaw's public and theatrical life were constantly informed by his intellectual energy and sense of the absurd. His political activity was practical as well as theoretical. He served as a Progressive on St Pancras Borough Council between 1897 and 1903, and championed the causes of women and his poorer constituents, whilst infuriating his political opponents by the accuracy of his analyses. His support for the Fabian movement continued, and from 1907 he was a regular attender, with the Webbs, of the Fabian Summer Schools, although he resigned from the executive in 1911. As well as sponsoring new drama through the Stage Society and the Court Theatre, he was a strong supporter of William Poel's experiments in simpler and more Elizabethan Shakespeare production. One of the leaders of the movement against theatrical censorship, when his deposition was refused by the Commons Select Committee on Censorship on the grounds of excessive length, he published all 11,000 words as the preface to The Shewing Up of Blanco Posnet (1909), which had itself been refused a licence because of blasphemy and was then defiantly produced at the Abbey Theatre to the fury of the authorities in Dublin Castle. He constantly fired off letters to the press and persisted in opposition to the war in 1914, despite being widely reviled for his stance.

Shaw lived frugally, even when he became very rich, except that, initially an enthusiastic cyclist, after the turn of the century, he took instead to motoring, and, indeed, introduced a car onto the stage in Act I of Man and Superman. His relationships with women were odd and probably defensive, which may underlie the blankness or banality in his own writing in sequences of close personal encounter. He admired May Morris and lived briefly in her household, but retreated when she was ready to leave her husband for him. He had a number of sexual relationships with women, including the actress Florence Farr, but seems to have left these with feelings of self-disgust. He conducted a passionate correspondence with Ellen Terry, but only a correspondence, and claimed to have avoided the advances of numerous young Fabians and, eventually in 1898, somewhat to the surprise of his friends, married Charlotte Payne-Townsend. There were no children – by mutual agreement the marriage was unconsummated – a mariage blanc – but the relationship was close and, despite Shaw conceiving a great passion for Mrs Patrick Campbell, lasted until Charlotte's death. He was also a notably loyal friend, particularly with those who shared his social and intellectual passions. He sparred with William Archer across many years, and gave immense support to Granville Barker's engagement with theatre. He became firm friends with Edward Elgar when the quality of his music criticism overcame the composer's hostility to his politics, and used his influence at the BBC in the 1930s to ensure performance of the increasingly neglected Elgar. From 1922, T. E. Lawrence was a frequent visitor to the Shaws' home and, took their name, Shaw, for his incognito.

Heartbreak House, Shaw's condition-of-England play in which he evokes and explores the forces and drift which led the nation into war, is usually now regarded as his greatest play. A strange, wild piece with a wonderful collection of character parts, and no real ending because there is no real plot, it was in course of writing during the 1914-18 war but not offered for performance until 1921. Shaw's other drama in the post-war years is markedly various. The New York Theatre Guild bravely took on the staging of his mammoth five play cycle, Back to Methuselah, in 1922, and this overblown and very wordy work did find some success subsequently in England, where it was licensed on the wonderfully absurd condition that Adam and Eve be dressed decently, the paraphrase of the Athanasian Creed be omitted and two of the characters not be made up to look like Asquith and Lloyd George. But his most popular post-war play was undoubtedly Saint Joan (1924), his play about dissent and personal responsibility. The trial scene, based on contemporary transcripts, set a new pattern for history plays. The audience is trapped into an emotional response with what seems to be the final exchange:

EXECUTIONER: Her heart would not burn my lord; but everything that is left is at the bottom of the river. You have heard the last of her.
WARWICK: The last of her? Hm, I wonder?

But this is subverted when the curtain is raised again for the farcical and deeply disconcerting Epilogue in which Joan and the other characters reappear to hash over the martyrdom and its implications: a precursor of Brecht's alienation effects, if ever there was one. Shaw's last significant play, The Apple Cart was premièred by Barry Jackson in 1929 at the Malvern Theatre Festival where Shaw's plays were as central as they had been earlier to Barker's Court seasons. In his short last stage works, that he called “Extravaganzas”, the absurdity always hovering at the edge of his plays, and evident in his short “Tomfooleries” at the beginning of the century, breaks out fully. The play at an essential level is recognised as playing.

In 1926, when Ramsay MacDonald hosted his 70th birthday celebrations, Shaw was already the Grand Old Man of English letters, although he was to live for a quarter of a century longer. Whilst, with scorn for Honours and Establishment, he had refused a knighthood, he did accept the Nobel Prize in 1926, putting all the prize money into a Trust Fund for the translation of Swedish writing. For the rest of his life, he was in demand as a broadcaster and the print run of 90,000 copies of his Intelligent Women's Guide to Socialism sold out immediately on publication in 1928 and was into its fifth reprinting by May of the same year. He continued to voice his opinions in the press on a great range of causes, but his growing dislike of democracy, that was already becoming apparent early in the century in Man and Superman, led him late in life to sympathy with totalitarianism. Although he had been and seen, he was scarcely critical of Stalin, or of Mussolini, or Oswald Moseley. By the time of his death in 1950 he had out-lived all his closest relationships. Long a proponent of cremation, he willed that his ashes be scattered with Charlotte's over his garden at Ayot Saint Lawrence, which conveniently resolved the rival demands of Westminster Abbey and Dublin's St Patrick's Cathedral. His sizeable fortune was shared between the British Library, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and the movement for rational spelling.

Shaw's Saturday Review writings, collected as Dramatic Opinions and Essays (1907) and reprinted as Our Theatres in the Nineties (1932), have helped shape subsequent perception of the period. For all their (freely admitted) parti pris, their good humour, wit and cogency make them required reading. Whereas Shaw's social and political writings are no longer much read, the prefaces to his plays can still command attention. The lively intelligence reverberating through his plays and the capacity to write social indignation into compelling theatrical form assure the continuance of his claim as a major dramatist. But, while revivals retain the capacity to surprise and stimulate their audiences, the plays have indubitably fallen from the prominent position they held in the English repertoire in the first half of the twentieth century. Those plays which seem most likely to survive as dramatic masterpieces include Arms and the Man, Major Barbara, Misalliance, Pygmalion, Heartbreak House and Saint Joan, with its Epilogue, and numbers of the others will continue to receive and repay revival.

Chothia, Jean. "George Bernard Shaw". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 20 November 2001
[, accessed 23 March 2018.]

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