(1856–1950). “I have been dinning into the public head
that I am an extraordinarily witty, brilliant and clever man. That
is now part of the public opinion of England; and no power in heaven
or on Earth will ever change it.” George
Bernard Shaw wrote this
about himself in 1898. He was then 42 years old. A tall, thin, red-bearded
man, he was already well known in London as a critic of music, art,
and drama. He was an influential socialist speaker, and he had written
plays that attacked the accepted ideas of his time.
referred to by his initials—was born in Dublin, Ireland, on
July 26, 1856, to an Irish Protestant family. His father had a small
wholesale business but drank heavily and neglected his affairs.
Shaw's mother was a cold, humorless woman whose main interest was
music. Eventually she and her husband were separated.
His mother's interest in music offered
her and her son a means of escape from this situation. She became
acquainted with a musician named George
John Vandaleur Lee, and in association with him she filled her house
with other musicians. Shaw heard so much music during this period
of his life that he developed a deep appreciation for classical
Shaw's formal education did not last long.
He was tutored by his uncle, then attended day schools, in which
he was “near or at the bottom” of his class. By the
age of 15 he had become a clerk in a land agent's office. He was
a good worker, but he saw no future for himself in office work.
His mother and sister had left his father in Dublin and moved to
London, and in 1876 he joined them there.
He spent his days at the British Museum
reading room, writing several novels—all failures—and
studying. During the evenings he began to attend lectures and debates,
and he developed into an effective orator. He joined the Fabian
Society in 1884 and became one of its most active members. In 1885
Shaw was given a job as a book reviewer for the Pall Mall Gazette.
This was followed by several other jobs as a critic of books, art,
or theater for various periodicals.
Shaw's first play, ‘Widowers' Houses',
was performed in 1892. This was the first of many plays, nearly
all successful. His main purpose as a dramatist was to shock people
out of conventional, hidebound ways of thinking. His view of his
work was reflected in the title of his collection ‘Plays:
Pleasant and Unpleasant', published in 1898. ‘Mrs. Warren's
Profession', which was not produced until 1902 because of censorship,
was included in this collection. Shaw labeled such plays as unpleasant
because “their dramatic power is used to force the spectator
to face unpleasant facts.”
The play concerns the inability of one of
the characters to accept the fact that her mother, Mrs. Warren,
gained her fortune through prostitution. Mrs. Warren is the most
conventional character in the play, and she defends her life with
an attack on the society that rewards vice and oppresses virtue.
Among Shaw's many plays are ‘Arms
and the Man' (1894), ‘Candida' (1897), ‘Caesar and Cleopatra'
(1901), ‘Man and Superman' (1905), ‘Major Barbara' (1905),
‘Pygmalion' (1913), and ‘Saint Joan' (1923). Shaw also
published many essays, including “The Intelligent Woman's
Guide to Socialism and Capitalism” (1928).
In 1898 Shaw married Charlotte Payne-Townshend.
They had no children, and Mrs. Shaw died in 1943. His correspondence
over the years with the actresses Ellen Terry and Mrs. Patrick Campbell
was widely publicized. In 1925 he won the Nobel prize for literature.
Shaw died in Ayot St. Lawrence, Hertfordshire, on Nov. 2, 1950.
(See also Drama,