George Bernard Shaw (1856 – 1950) was born on 26th July 1856 in Dublin. He was one of the most popular and provocative playwrights and a man of great intellectual ability of the twentieth century. George Bernard Shaw was the only son and the third and youngest child of George Carr and Lucinda Elizabeth Gurly Shaw. Though descended from landed Irish gentry, Shaw’s father was unable to sustain any more than a facade of gentility. Shaw’s official education consisted of being tutored by an uncle and briefly attending Protestant and Catholic day schools. At fifteen Shaw began working as a bookkeeper in a land agent’s office which required him to go out among the poor to collect rent, thus giving him an early familiarity with economic injustice. Outside of work, books, theatre, and art captured his attention, but it was music that pervaded his home. His mother took singing lessons from a well known Dublin music teacher who eventually moved into the Shaw household. When her teacher moved to London Shaw’s
mother and two sisters followed. Shaw joined them the following year at the age of twenty hoping to make a living by writing novels. None of them was published, his explanation being that his style was a hundred and fifty years behind the times and his ideas a hundred and fifty years ahead of them. Later, as a theatre critic for The Saturday Review, he strongly opposed the “art for art’s sake” movement, declaring his purpose to be “art for life’s sake”.
His first years in London, 1876-1884, were filled with frustration and poverty.
Depending on his mother’s income as a music teacher and a pound a week sent by his father from Dublin, Shaw spent his days in the British Museum reading room writing novels and reading, and his evenings attending lectures and debates by the middle-class intelligentsia. He became a vegetarian, a socialist, a skilful orator, and developed his first beginnings as a playwright. A driving force behind the Fabian Society, he threw himself into committee work wrote socialist pamphlets and spoke to crowds several times a week. Shaw began his journalism career as a book reviewer and art, music, and drama critic, always downgrading the artificialities and hypocrisies he found in those arts.
Shaw remained a boarder in his mother’s home until 1889, leaving only when, at the age of 42, he married Irish heiress and fellow Fabian Charlotte Payne-Townshend; the marriage lasting until her death in 1943. Though Shaw experimented with drama from
his early twenties he did not see a play of his produced on stage until 1892 with Widowers’ Houses, a dramatized socialist tract on slumlordism. Shaw’s writings were often controversial as in The Philanderer (1898), a play about the “new woman,” and Mrs Warren’s Profession (1898), depicting organized commercial prostitution. His plays were often comical as well and it was not unusual to have serious themes in the juxtaposition with a comedic plot. In almost everything, he wrote Shaw saw his mission as that of a reformer and felt people should be able to hear important ideas discussed in the theatre.
Shaw prefaced his plays with introductory essays dealing not only with the plays themselves but with the themes suggested by the plays; these essays became well known on their own. A Shaw innovation was to write stage directions and descriptions in narrative style in the texts rather than in the usual directorial form. Before a cast was selected for his plays, he would invite potential actors to come for readings and would read the play in its entirety to them acting out the parts exactly as he meant them to be performed. He also attended rehearsals where he gave helpful advice to actors having difficulty with a role.
In addition to his plays, which he continued to write into his nineties, Shaw wrote numerous essays on literary, economic, political, and social topics as well as essays, introductions, and reviews of novelists and poets, and was a prolific letter writer. He continued to be controversial when he spoke out on various issues as he was inclined to
tell the truth as he saw it and could be ruthlessly honest. Shaw received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925 after the success of his play Saint Joan, and the Academy Award for Best Screenplay for Pygmalion in 1938, later made into the musical My Fair Lady (1956). George Bernard Shaw died on November 2, 1950.
During his career, he also spoke and wrote tracts on behalf of the Socialist movement in Britain. Influenced by the plays of Henrik Ibsen, Shaw turned to playwriting, and between the years 1892 and 1940 wrote fifty plays, establishing himself as the foremost dramatist of his day. The plays took a critical look at such things as war, medical ethics, marriage and the position of women in society. The author was damned for presenting social propaganda in the theatre, but he was also greatly praised for doing it in a brilliant and entertaining manner. In addition to Candida, some of Bernard Shaw’s better-known plays are :
- MRS WARREN’S PROFESSION,
- ARMS AND THE MAN,
- MAJOR BARBARA,
- MAN AND SUPERMAN,
- HEARTBREAK HOUSE,
- SAINT JOAN and
- THE DOCTOR’S DILEMMA.
Many of his plays have been filmed, the most famous being the musical version of his PYGMALION called MY FAIR LADY……….