One of the most prolific and significant writers in history, George Bernard Shaw is the author of five dozen plays, five novels, many short stories and lengthy treatises on politics and economics, four volumes of theatre criticism, three volumes of music criticism and a volume of art criticism. He also wrote over one hundred book reviews and over a quarter of a million letters and postcards.
Shaw was born in Dublin on July 26, 1856. The son of a civil servant and a singer/vocal music teacher, he grew up in a world of genteel poverty. His education was inconsistent: he attended four schools and was tutored by a clerical uncle but left formal school altogether at the age of fifteen. He greatly disliked any sort of organized training. However, his mother’s profession in music helped him develop a wide knowledge of music, art and literature. Shaw regularly attended the theatre and participated in amateur theatricals at school. At the Dublin English Scientific and Commercial Day School, Shaw and a friend organized a drama club that aimed to produce the major works of Shakespeare. However, the results were disastrous and they only made it through two plays.
At the age of twenty, Shaw moved to London, where he began to establish himself as a music and drama critic. He spent many hours at the British Museum educating himself on history and he attended lectures in the evenings. By 1882, he had declared himself a socialist and two years later joined The Fabian Society, writing many pamphlets to further the cause.
Shaw’s literary career began with novels but as an ardent supporter of the new theatre of Ibsen, he decided to write plays in order to better demonstrate his criticism of the English stage. His first play, Widowers’ House, was produced privately in 1892 for the members of a progressive theatre club called the Independent Theatre Society. It was followed by The Philanderer and Mrs. Warren’s Profession, and in 1898 they were published as Plays Unpleasant. Shaw used these works to attack what he viewed as social hypocrisy, turning the stage into a “forum of ideas.” Shaw’s first commercial success came from the American premiere of The Devil’s Disciple. It allowed him to quit his job as a drama critic and to make his living solely as a playwright.
In 1898, he published Plays Pleasant which included Arms and the Man, Candida, The Man of Destiny and You Never Can Tell. That same year he married Charlotte Payne-Townshend, an Irish heiress whom he had met through fellow members of the Fabian Society, Beatrice and Sidney Webb.
Shaw did not enjoy popularity in London until 1904 during a famous repertory experiment at the Royal Court Theatre that ran through 1907. This run included the premieres of John Bull’s Other Island (1904), Man and Superman (1905), Major Barbara (1905) and The Doctor’s Dilemma (1906). Shaw’s most famous work, Pygmalion, was first performed in 1914.
Pygmalion was written as a gift to Shaw’s muse and unconsummated love Stella Patrick Campbell, a star actress of the time who would play Eliza in that first 1914 production. Already in her fifties and thirty years older than Eliza, Campbell wrote to Shaw upon reading the play and thanked him “for thinking I can play your pretty little slut.” The rehearsal process was a famously tumultuous one, as Shaw continually clashed with the director, Herbert Beerbohm Tree, who also originated the role of Henry Higgins. During rehearsals, Tree wrote of Shaw, “I will not go so far as to say that all people who write letters of more than eight pages are mad, but it is a curious fact that all madmen write letters of more than eight pages.” They disagreed most heatedly over the ending of the play; when Shaw returned to watch the play’s 100th West End performance, he was shocked and appalled to see that Tree had completely changed the ending of the play.
Pygmalion’s original production was perhaps most famous on the streets of London for its use of a tricky little adverb. When Eliza declared “Not bloody likely!” at the play’s end, the opening night audience laughed for a full 75 seconds, infuriating Shaw, who thought it was a grossly immature response to a pointed moment of social commentary.
As World War I approached, Shaw continued to express his politics through his writing. He wrote many anti-war pamphlets and speeches that made him very unpopular, and in his 1920 play Heartbreak House he “exposed the spiritual bankruptcy of the generation responsible for the carnage,” (ShawFest). He followed Heartbreak House with Back to Methuselah (1922) and Saint Joan (1923), leading to the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925.
Shaw continued to write plays and essays until his death in 1950. The beginning of the end of his life came in September 1950 when he fell while pruning a tree, fracturing his thigh. He underwent surgery and appeared to recover well, but later that month he was operated on again for kidney and bladder conditions. On November 1, he lapsed into a coma after saying “I am going to die.” He died in the early morning of November 2, 1950 at age 94. Shaw never lived to see My Fair Lady, the 1956 smash hit Loerner & Lowe musical that has delighted fans across the world and launched the career of Julie Andrews…one wonders what Shaw might have thought of it.
George Bernard Shaw
George Bernard Shaw (Playwright)
Shaw's Birthplace in Dublin
Remy Bumppo Field Guide @ 2018