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BACKGROUND INFORMATION - BIOGRAPHY
George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) was born on the 26th of July, 1856 in Dublin. His father, George Carr Shaw, son of a failed Dublin stockbroker, had been a civil servant and retired on a pension of £60 before Bernard was born. He became a corn merchant but was unsuccessful in this venture. Shaw's mother, Lucinda Elizabeth Shaw, the daughter of an Irish landowner, was considerably younger than her husband. The Shaws were Protestants and Bernard was baptized in the Church of England in Ireland. Bernard went to a series of schools starting with the Wesleyan Connexional School and ending his fifteenth year at the Dublin English Scientific and Commercial Day School. He claimed to hate all the schools he attended.
G. B. Shaw had an unhappy childhood. By the time Shaw was fifteen his parents' marriage had broken up. His mother deserted her husband and went off to England along with her two daughters. Shaw's father appears to have been a weak and ineffectual man, prone to drowning his sorrow in alcohol. Shaw left school and worked as a clerk and cashier for a firm of land agents for nearly four and a half years. During this period Shaw read voraciously and frequented the theatre. He saw every new play and was especially interested in Shakespeare. His deep and profound knowledge of Shakespeare may be traced to these early theatre visits. Shaw also loved music. His father played the trombone and his mother was an excellent singer. His elder sister, Lucy, was an opera singer.
In 1876 following the tragic death of his sister Agnes from consumption (at the age of nineteen), Shaw left Ireland and joined his mother and Lucy in London with the intention of becoming a musician or a painter. Shaw was an acutely shy young man and took considerable time to adjust to the liberal London atmosphere. He undertook a variety of odd jobs in his early years in London. He wrote a series of articles as a music critic under the name of Lee in a weekly paper The Hornet, from November 1876 to July 1878. He also worked for a couple of years in the Edison and Bell Telephone Company and left in 1880 when the company was absorbed by another. He then gave up as he puts it, "working for his living" and decided to establish himself as a writer. During these years Shaw was financially dependent on his mother. Shaw was candid enough about this decision and remarked, "I did not throw myself into the struggle for life: I threw my mother into it." (Preface to The Irrational Knot, 1931). Shaw started writing articles on various subjects but they were rejected by the magazines and newspapers he sent them to. He then decided to become a novelist and wrote a novel but could not find a publisher for it. During 1880 to 1883 he wrote four more novels which were also rejected.
During these early years of his stay in London, Shaw became interested in socialism. He was immensely influenced by the alarming rise in unemployment and general social distress. Shaw became a socialist in 1882 and joined the Fabian Society in 1884. The Fabians aimed to bring about a gradual change from capitalism to socialism and were a powerful influence on British political thought. Shaw served on The Executive Committee of the Fabian Society for many years. In 1884 Shaw attended a lecture delivered by Henry George. Here it was proposed that national revenue should be collected by a single tax on land rather than by numerous taxes on several things. This lecture proved to be a turning point in Shaw's life and shaped his political thought.
Shaw obtained work as a journalist with the help of the drama critic and Ibsen translator, William Archer, with whom he shared an interest in Ibsen. Shaw wrote as a music critic under the name of "Corno di Bassetto" in The Star (1888-90), an evening paper of London. Shaw also wrote as a drama critic for The Saturday Review (1895-98), a weekly periodical. His insightful articles on the contemporary theatre scene are collected in Our Theatre in the Nineties. It is in three volumes and was published in 1932.
Shaw's first published works were novels, Cashel Byron's Profession (1886) and An Unsocial Socialist (1887). Cashel Byron's Profession was extremely popular but Shaw came to dislike it. His career as a novelist came to an end even though he returned to the form many times, for example, in the socio-political parable, The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God (1932).
At one point during their association, William Archer suggested to Shaw that they collaborate in writing a play. Although this never occurred, their discussions on Ibsen resulted in Shaw's The Quintessence of Ibsenism (1891). This was the first English book on Ibsen whose work had only recently been translated. While this book was undoubtedly a proclamation of Ibsen's genius it was also a manifesto for Shaw's own later dramatic work. Both Ibsen and Shaw shared a concern for the welfare of common people and critiqued social mores of the day in their plays. Shaw thus initiated his own unique brand of the play of "ideas." He had made an attempt to write a play with William Archer in 1885 but had abandoned the project midway. He now completed it and the play The Widowers' Houses was performed in London on December 9th, 1892 at the Royalty Theatre. It was produced by J. T. Grein for the Independent Theatre Club.
The play is both "didactic" and "realistic" and constitutes a savage attack on slum landlords who made money by exploiting the poor. Shaw declared its theme to be "middle class respectability fattening on the poverty of slums as flies fatten on filth." This play spurred Shaw's interest in drama. But the play's subject was considered too radical for its time and the play had no success. Shaw went on to write serious plays of "ideas" like Mrs. Warren's Profession (written in 1893) which explores the subject of prostitution due to the "underpayment and ill treatment of women who try to earn an honest living." Another such play was The Philanderer (written in 1893 and produced in 1905) which dealt with the subject of women and marriage. Mrs. Warren's Profession was denied performance by the Examiner of Plays who considered it immoral. It was given a private performance by the Independent Theatre Club in 1902 and its first public performance was later in 1925.
Shaw's next play Arms and the Man (1894) a bitter attack on the romanticism of war enjoyed great popularity. Shaw presents an anti-hero as the protagonist in the play. This was followed by Candida (1897), The Devil's Disciple (1897) The Man of Destiny (1897), You Never Can Tell (1899) and Captain Brassbound's Conversion (1900).
Shaw's plays acquired popularity during the seasons organized by Harley Granville-Barker and J.E. Vedrenne at the Royal Court Theatre in 1904-1907. John Bulls' Other Island (1904) which tackled the Irish question was the first play to become popular. In it Shaw depicts the old Ireland. The age-old conflict between the English and the Irish is the source of the play's humor. In the Preface Shaw passionately pleads for Home Rule. The play was written when Ireland was still under British rule.
This was followed by How He Lied to Her Husband (1904) an anti-romantic treatment of the familiar triangular situation of husband, wife and lover. Shaw's first great play was Man and Superman (1905). He called the play "a comedy and a philosophy." Shaw's ideas about the "life force" are embodied in the characters of the battling lovers Ann Whitefield and John Tanner. As dictated by her father's will, Ann has two guardians, the dignified Roebuck Ramsden and the radical John Tanner. She decides to marry Tanner. This decision, how much ever Tanner struggles to evade it, proves irresistible. Shaw's next play Major Barbara was also produced in 1905 and dealt as Shaw states in the preface with "the tragi-comic irony of the conflict between real life and the romantic imagination." The Doctor's Dilemma (1906) contained an expose of the medical profession. Although it is subtitled a "tragedy", it deals with its subject in a light-hearted manner.
The first decade of this century was Shaw's golden period as a dramatist. Caesar and Cleopatra, written in 1898, was performed in 1907. It was Shaw's interpretation of history in contemporary terms. This was followed by Getting Married (1908) which is a single conversation from the beginning to the end. The subject, as is apparent from the title, is marriage and Shaw discusses several points of view about it. The Shewing - up of Blanco Posnet (1909), a one-act "religious tract in dramatic form" was censored for blasphemy. Misalliance (1910) is a long debate about the relationship between parents and children. Fanny's First Play (1911) is in Shaw's own terms a "potboiler." Androcles and the Lion (1911-12) depicts Shaw's religious views and his belief that a religious aim is essential for human existence. Pygmalion followed in 1913 and is one of Shaw's most popular plays.
It is beyond the scope of this guide to list the entire canon, but it must be mentioned that Shaw contributed four of his most serious and intellectual plays to the new theatre movement of the 1920s: Heartbreak House (1920), Back to Methuselah (1922), Saint Joan (1923) and The Apple Cart (1929). Heartbreak House is subtitled "A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes" and the main theme is Shaw's condemnation of the "cultured, leisured Europe before the War."
Back to Methuselah is preoccupied with the theme of Creative Evolution. It is an extremely long play in five parts. Shaw was anti-Darwinian. In Darwin's scheme of things, the fittest of the species survive while the weak are killed by the strong. Shaw believed instead that the fittest survive by use of their superior intelligence and will power. Shaw held that one could consciously will oneself to become a superman. The play was a failure, possibly due to the lack of a protagonist, which rendered the impersonal for the audience. The action of Saint Joan follows Joan of Arc's career from her first encounter with Robert de Baudricourt, to her meeting with the Dauphin at Chinon, and her fortunes after she lead the assault on the English and raised the siege of Orleans. In his last important play, The Apple Cart, Shaw exposes democracy and royalty as forms of government. He desperately wishes for dictatorship but realizes its limitations. The only solution seems to be the building of "a political system for rapid positive work instead of slow nugatory work, made to fit into the twentieth century instead of the sixteenth."
Shaw's social, political and religious opinions cannot only be gleaned from the Prefaces to his plays which were collected in a single volume in 1934, but also in his provocative works like Common Sense about the War (1914), How to Settle the Irish Question (1917), The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism (1928), and Everybody's Political What's What (1944).
Shaw's later plays include Too True to be Good (1932), TheMillionairess (1936) and In Good King Charles's Golden Days (1939).
Although he was averse to writing for film, he did agree to prepare a script for the filming of Pygmalion which was completed in 1938 and had a successful reception. A musical version of Pygmalion called My Fair Lady was produced in New Haven, Connecticut in 1956, starring Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews. It was later made into the well-known film by the same name that won an Academy Award for Best Picture in 1964.
Shaw died at the age of ninety-five in the year 1950. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925, which he first refused and afterwards accepted.