George Bernard Shaw – 18562 – 1950
Known at his insistence simply as Bernard Shaw, he was an Irish playwright,critic and polemicist whose influence on Western theatre, culture and politics extended from the 1880s through until after his death and even to today. He wrote more than sixty plays, seeking to introduce a new realism into English-language drama including major works such as ‘Man and Superman (1902), Pygmalion (1912) and Saint Joan (1923). With a writing range incorporating both contemporary satire and historical allegory,Shaw became the leading dramatist of his generation and in 1925 was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature
Bernard Shaw was born on 26 July 1856 in Portobello, a lower-middle-class part of Dublin. He was the youngest child and only son of George and Bessie Shaw. His elder siblings were Lucinda and Elinor. The Shaw family was of English descent and belonged to the dominant Protestant society in Ireland. His father, George Shaw, was an ineffectual alcoholic and incapable of financially supporting his family and Bessie Shaw came to despise her husband, with whom she shared a life of ‘shabby-genteel poverty’. By the time of Shaw’s birth, his mother had become close to George Lee who was a conductor and teacher of singing and a flamboyant figure, well known in Dublin’s musical circles. Bessie had a fine mezzo-soprano voice and the Shaws’ house was often filled with music, with frequent gatherings of singers and players. Lee’s students often gave the young Bernard books, which he read avidly and thus gained a thorough musical knowledge of choral and operatic works, as well as becoming familiar with a wide spectrum of literature.
Between 1865 and 1871, Shaw attended four schools, all of which he hated, so in October 1871, he left school to become a junior clerk in a Dublin firm of land agents, where he worked hard, and quickly rose to become head cashier.
In June 1873, George Lee left Dublin for London and a fortnight later, Bessie followed him with the two girls. Eventually, Shaw travelled to England to join his mother and Lucy at Agnes’s funeral. He lived with his mother in South Kensington rent free and though out of work, he secured a reader’s pass for the British Museum Reading Room and spent most weekdays there, reading and writing.
Eventually, he was employed briefly by the Edison and then Bell Telephone Company and achieved rapid promotion, though after the merger of the two companies, he pursued a full-time career as an author.
With his wide reading background Shaw was attracted to advancing socialist theories and he joined ‘The Fabian Society’ in 1884. Its profile was raised in 1889 with the publication of ‘Fabian Essays in Socialism’, edited by Shaw who also provided two of the essays.
The mid-1880s marked a turning point in Shaw’s life, both personally and professionally; he lost his virginity, had two novels published, and began a career as a music and drama critic. His love affair, begun at the age of 29, was with Jenny Patterson, a widow some years his senior, which continued, not always smoothly, for eight years. Despite speculation and debate about Shaw’s sex life, there is a consensus that the relationship with Patterson was one of his few non-platonic romantic liaisons. From 1895 to 1898, Shaw was the theatre critic for The ‘Saturday Review’. He campaigned against the artificial conventions and hypocrisies of the Victorian theatre and called for plays of real ideas and true characters. By this time he had embarked in earnest on a career as a playwright.
Shaw’s first box-office success was ‘Arms and the Man’ (1894), a mock-Ruritanian comedy satirising conventions of love, military honour and class. The play ran in London from April to July, toured the provinces and was also staged in New York.
Shaw was a very active supporter of the working class emancipation movement and in January 1893, as a Fabian delegate, Shaw attended the Bradford conference which led to the foundation of the Independent Labour Party . In 1894 the ‘Fabian Society’ received a substantial bequest from a sympathiser, and it was proposed to use most of it to found a school of economics and politics. Shaw demurred, but was eventually persuaded to support the proposal, and the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) opened in the summer of 1895.
By the late 1890s Shaw’s political activities lessened as he concentrated on making his name as a dramatist. As the new century began, Shaw became increasingly disillusioned by the limited impact of the Fabians’ gradual change policies on national politics.
In 1898, as a result of overwork, Shaw’s health broke down. He was nursed by Charlotte Payne-Townshend, a rich Anglo-Irish woman whom he had met through some Fabian friends. When she insisted on nursing him in a house in the country, Shaw, concerned that this might cause scandal, agreed to their marriage on 1st June 1889. The bride and bridegroom were both aged forty-one. There were no children of the marriage, which it is generally believed, was never consummated.
In 1906 the Shaws found a country home in Ayot St Lawrence, Hertfordshire; they renamed the house “Shaw’s Corner”, and lived there for the rest of their lives though they retained a London flat.
During the first decade of the twentieth century, Shaw secured his reputation as a leading international playwright and in London, over five years, the Royal Court Theatre, seeking a reputation for modern drama, staged fourteen of Shaw’s plays among them ‘Man and Superman’, completed in 1902, ‘Major Barbara’,1905, depicting the contrasting morality of arms manufacturers and the Salvation Army ; ‘The Doctor’s Dilemma’ ,1906, a mostly serious play about professional ethics; ‘ Caesar and Cleopatra’, Shaw’s more cynical response to Shakespeare’s ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ . Various of his plays were also staged with great success in New York.
In 1912 Shaw invested £1,000 for a one-fifth share in the his friend Sidney Webbs’ new publishing venture, a socialist weekly magazine called the ‘New Statesman’, which appeared in April 1913. He became a founding director, publicist, and in due course a contributor, mostly anonymously.
Shaw’s expressed views were often highly contentious as he promoted eugenics and alphabet reform and opposed vaccination and organised religion. He was also at odds with British society over the country’s relationship with rising political dictatorships.
After the First World War began in August 1914, Shaw produced his tract ‘Common Sense about the War’, which argued that the warring nations were equally culpable. Such a view was anathema in an atmosphere of fervent patriotism and offended many of Shaw’s friends.
In the post-war period, Shaw despaired of the British Government’s coercive policies towards Ireland and joined his fellow-writers, Hilaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton, in publicly condemning these actions. The Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921 led to the partition of Ireland between north and south, a provision that dismayed Shaw as he had long supported the principle of Irish Home Rule within the British Empire.
Shaw remained a British subject all his life, but took dual British-Irish nationality in 1934.
He wrote ‘Saint Joan’ in the middle months of 1923 and the play was premiered on Broadway in new York in December and successfully shown in London in March 1924.
The citation for the Nobel Literature prize for 1925 praised his work as ‘… marked by both idealism and humanity, its stimulating satire often being infused with a singular poetic beauty’. He accepted the award, but rejected the monetary prize that went with it.
During the 1920s Shaw began to lose faith in the idea that society could be changed through Fabian gradualism and became increasingly fascinated with dictatorial methods.
Shaw’s admiration for Mussolini and Stalin demonstrated his growing belief that dictatorship was the only viable political arrangement. When the Nazi Party came to power in Germany in January 1933, Shaw described Hitler as “a very remarkable man, a very able man” and professed himself proud to be the only writer in England who was “scrupulously polite and just to Hitler”. His principal admiration was for Stalin, whose regime he championed uncritically throughout the decade.
During the decade Shaw travelled widely and frequently. Most of his journeys were with Charlotte as she enjoyed voyages on ocean liners, and he found peace to write during the long spells at sea. In December 1932 the couple embarked on a round-the-world cruise.
Shaw was enthusiastic about cinema, and in the middle of the decade wrote screenplays for a prospective film version of ‘Pygmalion’, produced at Pinewood Studios in 1938 with Wendy Hiller. Shaw was determined that Hollywood should have nothing to do with the film, but was powerless to prevent it from winning an Academy Award Oscar for ‘best-written screenplay’, which he described as an insult, coming from such a source. But he became the first person to have been awarded both a Nobel Prize and an Oscar.
In 1944, though nine Shaw plays were staged in London and two touring companies took his plays all round Britain, the revival in his popularity did not tempt Shaw to write a new play and he concentrated on prolific journalism.
Following the outbreak of war on 3 September 1939 and the rapid conquest of Poland, Shaw was accused of defeatism when,in a New Statesman article, he declared the war over and demanded a peace conference.
The London blitz of 1940–41 led the Shaws, both in their mid-eighties now , to live full-time at Ayot St Lawrence, but when Charlotte became increasingly frail, they moved back to London , where medical help was more easily arranged. Her condition deteriorated, and she died in September 1943.
In 1946, the year of Shaw’s ninetieth birthday, he accepted the freedom of Dublin and became the first Honorary Freeman of the Borough of St Pancras, London.
Shaw continued to write into his nineties. During his later years, Shaw was physically active too and enjoyed tending the gardens at Shaw’s Corner. He died at the age of ninety-four of renal failure precipitated by injuries incurred when falling while pruning a tree. He was cremated at Golders Green Crematorium on 6 November 1950. His ashes, mixed with those of Charlotte, were scattered along footpaths and around the statue of Saint Joan in their garden.
In the event, Shaw’s broad cultural legacy, embodied in the widely used term “Shavian”, has endured and is nurtured by Shaw Societies in various parts of the world.