It is with good reason that Archibald Henderson, official biographer of his subject, entitled his work George Bernard Shaw: Man of the Century. Well before his death at the age of ninety-four, this famous dramatist and critic had become an institution. Among the literate, no set of initials were more widely known than G.B.S. Born on July 26, 1856, in Dublin, Ireland, Shaw survived until November 2, 1950. His ninetieth birthday in 1946 was the occasion for an international celebration, the grand old man being presented with a festschrift entitled GBS 90 to which many distinguished writers contributed. A London publishing firm bought space in the Times to voice its greetings:
Hail to thee, blithe spirit!
Shaw was the third child and only son in a family which he once described as “shabby but genteel.” His father, George Carr Shaw, was employed as a civil servant and later became a not too successful merchant. Shaw remembered especially his father’s “alcoholic antics”; the old man was a remorseful yet unregenerate drinker. It was from his father that Shaw inherited his superb comic gift. Lucinda Gurley Shaw, the mother, was a gifted singer and music teacher; she led her son to develop a passion for music, particularly operatic music. At an early age he had memorized, among others, the works of Mozart, whose fine workmanship he never ceased to admire. Somewhat later, he taught himself to play the piano — in the Shavian manner.
One of the maxims in The Revolutionist’s Handbook, appended to Man and Superman, reads: “He who can does. He who can’t teaches.” Shaw, who was to insist that all art should be didactic, viewed himself as a kind of teacher, yet he himself had little respect for schoolmasters and formal education. First, his uncle, the Reverend George Carroll, tutored him. Then, at the age of ten, he became a pupil at Wesleyan Connexional School in Dublin and later attended two other schools for short periods of time. He hated them all and declared that he had learned absolutely nothing. But Shaw possessed certain qualities which are not always developed in the classroom — for example, an inquisitive mind and a boundless capacity for independent study.
Once asked about his early education, he replied: “I can remember no time at which a page of print was not intelligible to me and can only suppose I was born literate.” He went on to add that by the age of ten he had saturated himself in the works of Shakespeare and also in the Bible.
A depleted family exchequer led Shaw to accept employment as a clerk in a Land Agency when he was sixteen. He was unhappy and, determined to become a professional writer, he resigned after five years of service and joined his mother, who was then teaching music in London. The year was 1876. During the next three years he allowed his mother to support him, and he concentrated largely on trying to support himself as an author. No less than five novels came from his pen between the years 1879 and 1883, but it was soon evident that Shaw’s genius would never be revealed as a novelist.
In 1879, Shaw was induced to accept employment in a firm promoting the new Edison telephone, his duties being those of a right-of-way agent. He detested the task of interviewing residents in the East End of London and endeavoring to get their permission for the installation of telephone poles and equipment. A few months of such work was enough for him. In his own words, this was the last time he “sinned against his nature” by seeking to earn an honest living.
The year 1879 had greater significance for Shaw. He joined the Zetetical Society, a debating club, the members of which held lengthy discussions on such subjects as economics, science, and religion. Soon he found himself in demand as a speaker and a regular participant at public meetings. At one such meeting held in September, 1882, he listened spellbound to Henry George, an apostle of Land Nationalization and the Single Tax. Shaw credits the American lecturer and author with having roused his interest in economics and social theory; previously, he had concerned himself chiefly with the conflict between science and religion. When Shaw was told that no one could do justice to George’s theories without being familiar with the theories of Karl Marx, Shaw promptly read a French translation of Das Kapital, no English translation being then available. He was immediately converted to socialism.
The year 1884 is also a notable one in the life of Bernard Shaw (as he preferred to be called). After reading a tract entitled Why Are the Many Poor? and learning that it was published by the Fabian Society, he appeared at the society’s next meeting. The intellectual temper of this group, which included such distinguished men as Havelock Ellis, immediately attracted him. He was accepted as a member on September 5 and was elected to the Executive Committee in January. Among the debaters at the Zetetical Society was Sidney Webb, a man whom Shaw recognized as his “natural complement.” He easily persuaded Webb to become a Fabian. The two, along with the gifted Mrs. Webb, became the pillars of the society which preached the gospel of constitutional and evolutionary socialism. Shaw’s views, voiced in public parks and meeting halls, are expounded at length in The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism (1928); many of his ideas also find a place in his dramas.
In the next stage of his career, Shaw emerged as a literary, music, and art critic. Largely because of the influence of William Archer, the distinguished dramatic critic now best remembered as the editor and translator of Ibsen, Shaw became a member of the reviewing staff of the Pall Mall Gazette in 1885. Earlier, he had ghostwritten some music reviews for G. L. Lee, with whom his mother had long been associated as a singer and as a music teacher. But this new assignment provided him with his first real experience as a critic. Not long thereafter, and again through the assistance of William Archer, Shaw added to these duties those of an art critic on the widely influential World. Archer insisted that Shaw knew very little about art but realized that Shaw thought that he did, which was what mattered. As for Shaw, he blandly explained that the way to learn about art was to look at pictures; he had begun doing so years earlier in the Dublin National Gallery.
Shaw’s close association with William Archer was paramount in his championing the dramas of Henrik Ibsen as a new, highly original dramatist whose works represented a complete break with the popular theater of the day. “When Ibsen came from Norway,” Shaw was to write, “with his characters who thought and discussed as well as acted, the theatrical heaven rolled up like a scroll.” Whereas the general public, nurtured on “well-made” romantic and melodramatic plays, denounced Ibsen as a “muck-ferreting dog,” Shaw recognized that Ibsen was a great ethical philosopher and a social critic, a role which recommended itself to Shaw himself. On July 18, 1890, Shaw read a paper on Ibsen at a meeting of the Fabian Society. Amplified, this became The Quintessence of Ibsen (1891). Sometimes called The Quintessence of Shaw, it sets forth the author’s profoundest views on the function of the dramatist, who, Shaw believed, should concern himself foremost with how his characters react to various social forces and who should concern himself further with a new morality based upon an examination and challenge of conventional mores.
In view of what Shaw had written about Ibsen (and about himself) and because of Shaw’s dedicated activities as a socialist exhorter, The Widowers’ Rouses, his first play, may be called characteristic. Structurally, it represents no departure from the tradition of the well-made play; that is, the action is plotted so that the key situation is exposed in the second act, and the third act is devoted to its resolution. But thematically, the play was revolutionary in England. It dealt with the evils of slum-landlordism, a subject hardly calculated to regale the typical Victorian audience. Produced at J. T. Grein’s Independent Theatre in London, it became a sensation because of its “daring” theme, but it was never a theatrical success. Shaw, however, was not at all discouraged. The furor delighted him. No one knew better than he the value of attracting attention. He was already at work on The Philanderer, an amusing but rather slight comedy of manners.
In 1894, Shaw’s Arms and the Man enjoyed a good run at the Avenue Theatre from April 21 to July 7, and it has been revived from time to time to this very day. At last, the real Shaw had emerged — the dramatist who united irrepressible gaiety and complete seriousness of purpose. The play has been described as “a satire on the prevailing bravura style,” and it sets forth the “view of romance as the great heresy to be swept from art and life.”
In the same year, Shaw wrote Mrs. Warren’s Profession, which became a cause celebre. Shaw himself grouped it with his so-called “Unpleasant Plays.” Dealing with the economic causes of prostitution and the conflict between the prostitute mother and her daughter, it created a tumult which was kept alive for several years on both sides of the Atlantic. It may well be argued that in this play Shaw was far more the polemist than the artist, but the play still has its place among the provocative dramas of ideas.
The indefatigable Shaw was already at work on his first unquestionably superior play, Candida. First produced in 1895, it has been popular ever since and has found its place in anthologies.
Notable for effective character portrayal and the adroit use of inversions, it tells how Candida and the Reverend Morrell, widely in public demand as an advanced thinker, reached an honest and sound basis for a lasting marriage.
While working with the Fabians, Shaw met the personable Charlotte Payne-Townshend, an Irish heiress deeply concerned with the many problems of social justice. He was immediately attracted to her. After she had helped him through a long illness, the two were married in 1898, and she became his modest but capable critic and assistant throughout the years of their marriage.
During this period there was no surcease of playwriting on Shaw’s part. He completed You Never Can Tell, The Man of Destiny, and The Devil’s Disciple. This last play, an inverted Victorian-type melodrama first acted in the United States, was an immediate success, financially and otherwise. By the turn of the century, Shaw had written Caesar and Cleopatra and The Admirable Bashville. He was now the acknowledged major force in the new drama of the twentieth century.
The year 1903 is especially memorable for the completion and publication of Man and Superman. It was first acted (without the Don Juan in Hell intermezzo which constitutes Act III) in 1905. Then, some twenty-three other plays were added to the Shavian canon as the century advanced toward the halfway mark. Best known among these are Major Barbara (1905), Androcles and the Lion (1912), Pygmalion (1912), Heartbreak House (1916), Back to Methuselah (1921), and Saint Joan (1923). During the years 1930-32, the Ayot St. Lawrence Edition of his collected plays was published. Shaw’s literary pre-eminence had found worldwide recognition. He refused, however, to accept either a knighthood or the Order of Merit offered by the Crown, but in 1926 he did accept the Nobel Prize for Literature. It was quite typical of him to state that the award was given to him by a grateful public because he had not published anything during that year.
Shaw persistently rejected offers from filmmakers. According to one story, when importuned by Samuel Goldwyn, the well-known Hollywood producer, he replied: ‘The difficulty, Mr. Goldwyn, is that you are an artist and I am a business man.” Later, however, the ardor and ability of Gabriel Pascal impressed him, and he agreed to prepare the scenario of Pygmalion for production. The film, released in 1938, was a notable success. Major Barbara and Androcles and the Lion followed, and the Irish-born dramatist had now won a much larger audience. My Fair Lady, a musical adapted from Pygmalion, opened in New Haven, Connecticut, on February 4, 1956, starring Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews, and it was and remains a spectacular success. A film version won an Academy Award in 1964 as Best Picture.
Discussing Macbeth, Shaw once wrote: “I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no ‘brief candle’ for me. It is a sort of splendid torch, which I have got hold of for the moment; and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.” Life indeed was a bright torch which burned long for Bernard Shaw. Almost to the very end, when he was bedridden with a broken hip, he lived up to his credo. He was ninety-two years old in 1949, when Buoyant Billions was produced at the Malvern Festival. In the same year his highly readable Sixteen Self Sketches was published. He was planning the writing of still another play when he died on November 2, 1950.