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The British playwright, critic, and pamphleteer George Bernard Shaw produced more than fifty-two plays, three volumes of music and drama criticism, and one major volume of socialist commentary. Shaw is generally considered the greatest dramatist to write in the English language since William Shakespeare. Following the example of Henrik Ibsen, he succeeded in revolutionizing the English stage, disposing of the romantic conventions and devices of the “well-made” play, and instituting a theater of ideas grounded in realism. During his lifetime, he was equally famous as an iconoclastic and outspoken public figure. Essentially a shy man, Shaw created the public persona of G. B. S.: showman, satirist, pundit, and intellectual jester, who challenged established political and social beliefs.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Young Socialist
Born in Dublin, Ireland, on July 16, 1856, George Bernard Shaw was largely an academic failure in school. Part of his nonacademic training was handled by his mother, a music teacher, and Shaw grew up with an excellent ear and good musical taste. After school, he sought to make something of himself in business, but, in March 1876, gave up on this career and joined his mother and two sisters in London, where they conducted a music school. Shaw spent the next nine years supported by his parents, reading constantly and widely, writing music and drama reviews for newspapers, and occasionally singing for hire at London society parties.
During this time Shaw also wrote five novels, some of them reflecting the socialist politics that he had become committed to in London. Immaturity, the first, remained unpublished, and the other four, after a series of rejections from London publishers, appeared in radical periodicals. At the age of twenty-eight, Shaw joined the socialist Fabian Society, and he served on the executive committee for the next twenty-seven years. The Fabian Society was a socialist movement comprised largely of British intellectuals and had the aim of bringing about a socialist state by degrees rather than by revolution, as was advocated by contemporaries such as Russians Leon Trotsky and Vladimir Lenin (the architects of the Russian Revolution of 1917). Fabian Essays (1887), edited by Shaw, emphasized the importance of economics and class structure; for him, economics was ”the basis of society.” Shaw’s politics also inform Common Sense About the War (1914), a criticism of the British government and its policies during the early part of World War I. The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism (1928), which came much later, supplied a complete summary of his political position and remains a major volume of socialist commentary to this day.
True-to-Life Drama and Prodigious Productivity
Shaw wrote drama between 1892 and 1947, when he completed Buoyant Billions at the age of ninety-one. In 1893, preoccupied by the current issues of women’s rights centered on the suffrage movement (granting women the right to vote), Shaw wrote The Philanderers.
He also wrote in 1893 his most famous play, Mrs Warren’s Profession, which was not produced until 1902 because of British censorship. It remains a powerful play in the history of literature about the rights of women. Shaw’s dramas are opposed to the mechanical comic plots of conventional dramas and also against the nineteenth-century tendency to idealize Shakespeare and drama in general. Like the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, whom he helped to promote in England, Shaw preferred a more true-to-life drama that substituted realism and political engagement for sentimentality and nostalgia.
Starting in 1901, Shaw’s political and literary theories propelled him into a remarkable period of productivity. Man and Superman (1901-1903) and Major Barbara (1905) are both ”dramas of ideas,” posing challenging questions about poverty and capitalism. Androcles and the Lion (1911) takes on religion, John Bull’s Other Island (1904) deals with the political relations between England and Ireland, and Heartbreak House (19131916) analyzes the domestic effects of World War I. Sometimes Shaw’s plays carry long prefaces that are not directly related to the drama itself, exploring such topics as marriage, parenthood, education, and poverty; these essays form an important part of his oeuvre. It was for his drama in particular, though, that Shaw was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1925.
Written during a time span that included both World Wars (1914-1918 and 1939-1945) and began the separation of the world into a communist East and a capitalist West, Shaw’s plays express a complex range of impulses, ambitions, and beliefs. Reflecting on his life and his work, he explained at seventy:
——-Whether it be that I was born mad or a little too sane, my kingdom was not of this world: I was at home only in the realm of my imagination, and at ease only with the mighty dead. Therefore I had to become an actor, and create for myself a fantastic personality fit and apt for dealing with men, and adaptable to the various parts I had to play as an author, journalist, orator, politician, committee man, man of the world, and so forth. In all this I succeeded later on only too well.
Shaw’s death in 1950 in England was a loss not only for literature, but also for the working class for which he had done battle over so many years.
Works in Literary Context
Shaw was in many ways the product of Victorian England, although in other ways he helped to make the transition away from its literature into that of Modernism. The Victorian period, named for the long-reigning Queen Victoria (1837-1901), was a time of great literary creativity that resists easy categorization. Nevertheless, the parts of it that influenced Shaw were its tendencies toward realism, its confident championing of self-reliance and inner strength, its moral earnestness, its advocacy of charity and social reform, and its patriotic British nationalism. The authors who perhaps best embody all of these things would be the novelist Charles Dickens, the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and the critic Matthew Arnold.
Shaw took from Victorianism its moral earnestness and commitment to social reform, but he left behind its nationalism and its confidence that core British values would steer a sure path to a brighter future at home and around the world. Shaw felt that the Victorian version of “realism” was too idealized—it turned a blind eye to controversial issues, it glorified heroes for the wrong things, and it packaged life too neatly into “well-made” stories with predictable structures and sentimental conclusions. Shaw is more in line with the “naturalism” movement which began in late nineteenth-century France, culminating in the novels of Guy de Maupassant (1850-1893) and Emile Zola (1840-1902) and aiming to represent a ”slice of life” marked by a detached, objective description of society with careful accuracy of detail and historical background. People who had been neglected in earlier literature, such as housewives, the poor, or criminals, were given priority. Whereas naturalist writers often showed individual freewill to be ineffective against the powerful forces of history, society, or biology, however, Shaw strongly believed that creative adaptability, powered by the strength of human willpower, is the ”life force” that ensures our evolution as a species.
The idea of ”evolution” was highly charged in Shaw’s day. Charles Darwin had published The Origin of Species in 1859, detailing the evidence for his conclusion that species (including man) evolved from lower-order animals through a process of natural selection and random mutations. The idea that God might not be the sole guiding hand in creation, especially the creation of mankind, scandalized the nineteenth century and still reverberates today. Shaw was an early supporter of Darwinian evolution, applying the ideas to socialism, women’s rights, and other reformist political ideas. Literature and other arts, he strongly felt, could play a part in mankind’s evolution to a higher state.
The other figure that scandalized the late nineteenth century, and whose influence also reverberates today, was Karl Marx (1818-1883). Marx was German, but he developed his socialist theory after observing the lives of factory workers in the north of England. Marx wrote that economics is the engine of history, and the unfairness of a capitalist society—where business owners are motivated to pay workers as little as possible, and workers do not own the products of their own labor—can only be changed by revolution. Marx’s ideas were quickly assimilated into literature and literary criticism, and Shaw consistently applied socialist ideas in his plays, prefaces, and essays. Shaw’s socialism shared with Marxism its commitment to social change via economics but remained committed to political reforms within the system and not by revolution from outside it.
That said, Shaw did not shy away from celebrating the effects of revolution. After a visit to the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) in the 1930s, when he met long-time Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, he returned to England convinced that the Soviet Union was leading the world to a brighter future. This conviction, held by many leftist artists and intellectuals of the time—most of whom saw the Soviet experiment as a truly socialist project, rather than the façade for authoritarianism that it ultimately became—was unshaken by evidence of Stalin’s “pogroms,” or slaughter of countless of his own citizens in order to achieve ”state security.”
From Ibsen to the Postmodern Stage
The playwright who had the most influence on Shaw was the Norwegian writer Henrik Ibsen, who wrote realistic and intellectual dramas about pressing social issues that had never before been discussed on the stage. Shaw details his debt to Ibsen, in the context of Shaw’s own socialism, in The Quintessence of Ibsenism (1891, rev. 1913).
Immediately after Shaw’s time, his influence on drama was eclipsed by the more symbolic, avant-garde, and impressionistic (although no less politically challenging) work of Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) and Samuel Beckett (1906-1989). In recent years, however, “postmodern” British and American stages have seen a great deal of “Shavian” drama, which are plays that contain intellectual discussion, are based more upon character than plot, and engage the audience with important social issues. It is easy to imagine Shaw applauding heartily for two of the most ambitious and important plays in the last several decades, Tony Kushner’s two-part ”Angels in America” (dealing with AIDS) and Tom Stoppard’s trilogy ”The Coast of Utopia” (dealing with the Russian Revolution).
Works in Critical Context
It has been easy for critics to point out that despite his allegiance to realism, Shaw’s characters sometimes seem more like intellectual concepts rather than real people, especially when compared to the characters in Ibsen or August Strindberg (1849-1912). Other critics locate this as one of Shaw’s strengths: that ideas come alive at the center of his dramas.
Saint Joan Shaw’s early plays were very popular, but when he began questioning England’s participation in World War I, he was suspected of being a German sympathizer and his support quickly evaporated. Shaw kept writing about the war, however, and as World War II was starting he only increased his attacks on capitalist democracy and was again suspected of aiding the enemy. His reputation benefited from Saint Joan in 1923, a play about the martyr Joan of Arc that suggested criticism of England’s cruel treatment of Ireland, propelling him toward the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1925.
Pygmalion After the wars, Shaw’s criticisms began to seem more like prophesies, and his critical standing and popularity improved. The huge success of My Fair Lady, a musical adaptation of Shaw’s play Pygmalion, also helped to renew affection for Shaw’s work. Some critics denounced Shaw’s plays for their preachiness and unsympathetic characters, while others applauded his efforts to raise the tone of British drama, while his depiction of independent women characters found an attentive audience with feminist critics starting in the 1960s. Contemporary observer Sunder Katwala describes Shaw as ”a persistent pioneer of both feminism and racial equality,” and notes, ”Shaw’s genius cannot be doubted. Nor his astonishing range, from his major contribution to music criticism to his being the only Nobel laureate to also bag an Oscar.”
Shaw is now seen as one of the most significant British dramatists of the modern era, and at least until the 1970s with the rise of Tom Stoppard, he is often recognized as the greatest British dramatist since Shakespeare. Perhaps, though, he is most important for the example he sets of what it can mean to ”speak truth to power.” Biographer and commentator Michael Holroyd remarks on the particular need we have for Shaw in a world obsessed with fear, writing, ”In such a climate of terrified legislation, we have need of Bernard Shaw— need of his stimulating incorrectitudes, need of his ability to show where dishonour truly lies and of his power to ridicule such absurdities out of court.”
- Bentley, Eric. Shaw on Music. New York: Applause Books, 1995.
- Evans, T. F. Shaw: The Critical Heritage. Boston, Mass.: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1976.
- Henderson, Archibald. Bernard Shaw: Playboy and Prophet. New York: Appleton, 1932.
- Holroyd, Michael. Bernard Shaw: The One-Volume Definitive Edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 2005.
- Innes, Christopher, ed. The Cambridge Companion to George Bernard Shaw. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
- Meisel, Martin. Shaw and the Nineteenth-Century Theater. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press
- Ohmann, Richard M. Shaw: The Style and the Man. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press
- Strauss, Erich. Bernard Shaw: Art and Socialism. London: Victor Gollancz, 1942.
- Weintraub, Stanley. Journey to Heartbreak: The Crucible Years of Bernard Shaw, 1914-1918. New York: Weybright & Talley, 1971.
- Albert, Sidney P. ”Bernard Shaw: The Artist as Philosopher.” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 14 (1956): 419-38.
- Holroyd, Michael. ”Send for Shaw, not Shakespeare.” Times Literary Supplement July 19, 2006.
- Katwala, Sunder. ”Artist of the Impossible.” (UK) Guardian July 26, 2006.
- The Shaw Society. Retrieved March 16, 2008, from http://www.shawsociety.org.uk
- Holroyd, Michael. ”Send for Shaw, Not Shakespeare.” Times Literary Supplement: July 19, 2006. Retrieved March 16, 2008, from http://tls.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,25338-2277082,00.html
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