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
Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen clearly influenced Shaws 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 womens 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. Warrens Profession (1893) is about prostitution and was banned by the censor as obscene. Major Barbara (1905) dealt with womens 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 Shaws plays (and from the musical My Fair Lady, based on Shaws 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
Shaws influence from the Encarta online encyclopedia
Audio and video of Shaws speeches from Educeth