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The Play: Candida  |  The Playwright: G.B. Shaw  |  The Times: Shaw’s World

George Bernard Shaw

As a child, dramatist George Bernard Shaw was an unlikely candidate for fame. He grew up in a lower-middle-class family, detested his first name, was plagued by stage fright and stammering, and passionately hated school. Yet he wrote well, completing five novels before any of them were published. Shaw also composed book reviews and insightful music columns (he championed Wagner) and then turned drama critic.

The Ever-Quotable GBS

“The worst sin towards our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them; that’s the essence of inhumanity.”

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

“I often quote myself; it adds spice to my conversation.”

“Lack of money is the root of all evil.”

“If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance.”

“If all economists were laid end to end, they would not reach a conclusion.”

“My way of joking is to tell the truth. It is the funniest joke in the world.”

“A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing.”

Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen clearly influenced Shaw’s style, and reading Ibsen encouraged him to reject the romantic conventions of the time. In an essay on Ibsen, Shaw wrote, “The English cry of ‘amuse us: take thing easily: dress up the world prettily for us’ seems mere cowardice to the strong soul that dare look facts in the face.”

He was also committed to political issues. Shaw was a supporter of women’s rights, worked for the abolition of private property, championed a reform of the voting system, and eventually turned to socialism.

To give voice to these ideas, he overcame his fears and became a spellbinding speaker at socialist rallies in Hyde Park. His “energetic and aggressive” speaking style is clearly evident in all his writing, particularly in his dramatic works.

It is in his plays that Shaw does clearly “look facts in the face.” Mrs. Warren’s Profession (1893) is about prostitution and was banned by the censor as obscene. Major Barbara (1905) dealt with women’s rights and implied that capitalism was a problem that might be cured by socialism. Pygmalion (aka My Fair Lady) is called an “anti-romantic comedy” and asks us, finally, to consider the issue of class mobility: Could Henry Higgins really help Eliza by teaching her language and manners?

Shaw continued to write into his 90s. He died in his country home at Ayot St. Lawrence on November 2, 1950. Even in death, he knew the value of symbolic gestures. The playwright who, in 1925, had won the Nobel Prize for literature and accepted the honor, but refused the money, left a large part of his own estate to a project to revamp the English alphabet, one of his lifelong endeavors. After that project failed, the estate was divided among other beneficiaries in his will: the National Gallery of Ireland, the British Museum, and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Royalties from Shaw’s plays (and from the musical My Fair Lady, based on Shaw’s Pygmalion) have helped to balance the budgets of these institutions ever since his death.

George Bernard Shaw was part of a relatively new generation of thinkers who realized that social change could be accomplished through the arts. In plays like Candida, he gave us a glimpse backward into the older comedies of manners, stretched us with dialogue full of “moral passion and intellectual conflict,” and asked us to see the symbolism in farcical situations. In short, Shaw helped usher the theater into the 20th century.

Web Picks: George Bernard Shaw

Biography of Shaw by Cary M. Mazer, University of Pennsylvannia

Shaw’s influence from the Encarta online encyclopedia

Audio and video of Shaw’s speeches from Educeth

The Play: Candida  |  The Playwright: G.B. Shaw  |  The Times: Shaw’s World

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