Who is Bernard Shaw?

By Professor Stanley Weintraub and Mrs. Rodelle Weintraub

Professor Stanley Weintraub and Mrs. Rodelle Weintraub

George Bernard Shaw (he never used George as an adult) was born in Dublin on July 26, 1856. His formal schooling ended at fourteen, when he became a clerk and bookkeeper at an estate agency. He abhorred the stultifying work, and when his mother and father separated in 1876, and “Bessie” Shaw emigrated to London, young Shaw followed. Unable at first to find employment, he went to work for the Bell Telephone Company of London, explaining frankly that it was a temporary resort, as he wanted to make his living at literature. He left after six months, having begun a novel, Immaturity, in his informal university, the domed Reading Room of the British Museum. He had begun spending hours at a desk there while living frugally off his mother’s earnings as a music teacher. (Chronically impecunious, he became a vegetarian, only in part because of ethical sensitivities.) A few pounds writing, and ghost-writing, music, book and drama criticism kept his writing ambitions alive while he completed four additional novels rejected in turn by trade publishers as too unconventional for Victorian audiences.

The Irrational Knot, Love Among the Artists, Cashel Byron’s Profession and An Unsocial Socialist found serial publication in unremunerative Socialist magazines in the later 1880s. Meanwhile, Shaw began regular art, music, then drama criticism in London dailies and weeklies. At the same time he was acquiring a reputation as a public speaker through his political activism on behalf of the fledgling, and Socialist, Fabian Society (1884), one of the precursors of the Labour Party. Lectures on Ibsen to the Fabians would lead to his influential The Quintessence of Ibsenism (1891). After abandoning a novel he left unfinished in 1888 (the fragment was published posthumously), he returned to a play manuscript which he and theatre critic William Archer had put aside, and finished it himself as Widowers’ Houses (1892). It had only two controversial performances. His next plays, The Philanderer (written 1893) and Mrs Warren’s Profession (also 1893) were banned by the censor as indecent for their coldly ironic sexual content. Convinced that he had a future as a playwright, he wrote on, and his satiric comedies Arms and the Man (1894) and Candida (1894) launched him in London.

To afford more time for the theatre and for political lecturing and journalism, Shaw gave up drama criticism in 1898, but his musical criticism in the Star and the World, and his theatre journalism in the Saturday Review remain classics in the genre. His plays thereafter were either immediate successes or, like You Never Can Tell (1896), successes in revival once audiences recognized their break-through qualities, for Shaw cultivated paradox and reversal of audience expectations. The Man of Destiny (1895), his antidote to heroic portrayals of Napoleon, was his first study in greatness, followed by his ambitious Caesar and Cleopatra (1898), an attempt to write a play of Shakespearian scope, yet a hero, he wrote, “in whom we can recognize our own humanity.” It was completed after Shaw’s wedding that June to Charlotte Payne-Townshend, an Irish millionairess only a year his junior. At her insistence their marriage remained unconsummated, and that it remained so is suggested by internal evidences in Shaw’s plays beginning with the one then in progress. The union with Charlotte, nevertheless, lasted until her death decades later. Shaw’s friendships and flirtations with women, before and after, were largely but not entirely epistolary. As he claimed in a preface (1931) to his correspondence with Ellen Terry, “Only on paper has mankind ever yet achieved glory, beauty, truth, knowledge, virtue and abiding love.”

Shaw’s ascendancy as leading British playwright came in the landmark years of the Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square, 1904-1907, with Man and Superman (written 1901-1902), John Bull’s Other Island (1904), Major Barbara (1905), and The Doctor’s Dilemma (1906). During the Edwardian decade he also wrote a series of lively one-act plays, some of them, in their non-realistic and presentational aspects, foreshadowing much later drama. One playlet, Passion, Poison and Petrifaction (1905) anticipated by forty-five years Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist The Bald Soprano.

Man and Superman, he explained, “took the legend of Don Juan in its Mozartean form” and created a modern comedy of ideas wrapped around its detachable dream scene, Don Juan in Hell. John Bull’s Other Island followed–a comedy about Anglo-Irish misunderstanding and colonial exploitation, with an unforgettable and mystic defrocked Irish priest, Father Keegan. The play had been commissioned by W. B. Yeats for Dublin’s Abbey Theatre but the directorate was uneasy about its likely reception, and instead it opened triumphantly in London. In Major Barbara, via an idealistic Salvation Army lass and her father, an outspoken munitions millionaire estranged from his conventional family, Shaw continued through high comedy to explore religious consciousness as well as to probe society’s complicity in its own evils. The Doctor’s Dilemma satirized the medical profession as representative of the self-protectiveness of professions in general, and included a serio-comic onstage death.
Full length bronze statuette of Shaw by Kathleen Scott, Lady Kennet, (1878-1947) widow of Scott of Antarctic fame. Photo provided by Evelyn Ellis, Membership Secretary for the Shaw Society of England

Full length bronze statuette of Shaw by Kathleen Scott, Lady Kennet, (1878-1947) widow of Scott of Antarctic fame. Photo provided by Evelyn Ellis, Membership Secretary for the Shaw Society of England

Other prewar plays offered Shaw opportunities to experiment with discussion drama conveyed through what may be described as serious farce. Getting Married (1907-1908) and Misalliance (1909) explained themselves, while Fanny’s First Play (1910-1911), a suffragist satire wrapped around an artificial opening and closing, became, with 622 performances, his greatest first-run success. Each comedy exploited artificiality and absurdity in setting, plot and dialogue, and included modernist aspects, Misalliance even employing the theatre’s first airplane crash. The Shewing-Up of Blanco Posnet (1909), set in an improbable American Wild West as imagined by Bret Harte, and Androcles and the Lion (1912), a fable adapted as serious farce, treated true and false religious exaltation. Blanco, banned in England for Posnet’s blasphemous pub-counter sermon on God, was performed in Dublin, out of legal reach of the Lord Chamberlain’s stage censorship (which survived awkwardly into the later 1960s).

Abbreviated in its popular run by the beginning of World War I in mid-1914 was the mythically titled Pygmalion (written 1912). Although Shaw proposed, tongue-in-cheek, that he had only written a didactic play about the power of phonetics, and its anti-hero, Henry Higgins, is indeed a speech professional, what playgoers reveled in was a high comedy about love and class. A pert cockney flower-girl from Covent Garden, Eliza Doolittle, is educated by Higgins to pass as a lady, and the repercussions of the experiment reverberate in its many successful revivals. Perhaps the classic high comedy of its century, it was transformed by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederic Loewe into the century’s greatest musical comedy. My Fair Lady (1956). Shaw’screenplay for the filmed Pygmalion (1938), some of its additional scenes adapted for the later musical, won for him an Academy Award.

The 1914-1918 war began as Pygmalion was nearing its 100th performance, and the run was soon abbreviated. Feeling that writing plays in wartime was futile, Shaw turned to polemics, publishing a lengthy Swiftian pamphlet, Common Sense about the War (November, 1914), which appeared as a supplement to the weekly New Statesman. It sold widely and made him internationally notorious, as his readers, predictably jingoistic at the start of the war, proved largely hostile to negotiation as solution, especially as Shaw held Britain and its allies equally culpable with the Germans and Austrians. Unreason reigned. Some of his anti-war speeches were banned from newspapers, and he was ejected from the Dramatist’s Club although he was its most distinguished member. Unrepentant, he wrote several scathingly sly playlets about the war, such as O’Flaherty, V.C. (1915). Later, the unforgetful Shaw adapted his experience as embattled public intellectual into a dozen postwar plays, sometimes defiantly, often unobtrusively.

Heartbreak House (written 1916-1917, performed 1920) became the classic Shavian presentation of the spiritual bankruptcy of the generation responsible for the war. He combined conversational comedy with striking symbolism, creating a somber vision owing its mood to Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, while its elderly leading figure, and much else, recalled Shakespeare’s King Lear. There are even echoes of Homer’s Iliad in the play, leading Jean Giraudoux in writing a 1930s pacifist play indebted partly to Shaw to call his own dark comedy The Trojan War Shall Not Take Place.

Back to Methuselah (1918-1920, performed 1922) was Shaw’s attempt to fend off “the bottomless pit of an utterly discouraging pessimism.” A cycle of five linked plays (In the Beginning, The Gospel of the Brothers Barnabas, The Thing Happens, The Tragedy of an Elderly Gentleman, As Far as Thought Can Reach), it created a parable of humanity’s progress and future from the Garden of Eden to 31,920. He drew imaginatively upon Genesis, Plato, Swift, science and even the war in progress when he began, with the aim of creating a work on the scale of Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle. In satire that ranges from bright to bleak, Shaw speculates through his contemporary and his futuristic characters about escaping from “this machinery of flesh and blood.” Dated by the topical allusions in the less successful middle plays, and overly long, it remains awkward onstage, however ennobling as a total theatre experience.

Anticipating, in his middle sixties, that he was creatively finished as a playwright, Shaw renewed his interest in the theatre after the canonization of Joan of Arc in 1920, in the aftermath of the war. The event reawakened in him ideas for a chronicle play about her which had never been quite dormant. Going to the English translation of the trial records, Shaw realized that the Maid’s sharp-tongued responses were in places almost Shavian. (He would use some dialogue from the testimony almost verbatim.) For him, it was insufficient to depict Joan as a sentimental French icon arrayed against melodramatic villains. Further, neither the militant nor the martyr appealed to Shaw as much as did her symbolizing the possibilities of humankind. The Maid from Lorraine became a wry Shavian heroine as well as Catholic martyr, an amalgam of practical mystic, heretical saint, and inspired genius. To make her greatness of soul credible onstage, he made her adversaries believable, rehabilitating in their twisted humanity the rigid clerics who convicted her of heresy five centuries earlier. Since classic tragedy seemed to him inadequate, Shaw added a dream-epilogue in which a newly canonized Joan is again rejected.

Primarily predicated on his most Shakespearean drama, as Saint Joan was characterized, the Nobel Prize for Literature 1925 was belatedly awarded to Shaw. Yet to the consternation of the prize committee G.B.S. turned it down, finally accepting the honor without the money, and funding an Anglo-Scandinavian Literary Foundation with the wherewithal, for translation into English of worthy works.

During a six-year theatrical hiatus after Saint Joan, Shaw, as public intellectual, spoke out, in person, in print, and through the new medium of BBC radio. He also worked on a collected thirty-volume edition of his works, and on his political summa, The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism (1928), so titled because Charlotte’s sister, Mary Cholmondeley, had asked him to further her political education. He would supplement it years later with his querulous Everybody’s Political What’s What? (1944).

Shaw’s Platonic “political extravaganza” The Apple Cart (written 1928) was first performed in Polish, in Warsaw, in June, 1929. A futuristic high comedy about a witty philosopher-king, it revealed growing internal conflicts between Shaw’s lifetime of professedly radical politics and his essentially conservative mistrust of the ordinary man’s ability to govern himself. It included a threatened royal abdication that prefigured that of Edward VIII in 1936. Most of his succeeding plays continued his explorations into non-realism and symbolism, shattering Ibsenite actuality by reminding audiences that they were experiencing performances on a stage rather than observing facsimiles of real life. Shaw also employed apocalyptic imagery, warning that the 1914-1918 war had settled nothing and was about to be repeated.

The deliberately absurd Too True to be Good (1931), premiered in 1932, was a dream-fantasy, including a Bunyanesque prophet, an affectionate Lawrence of Arabia burlesque (T. E. Lawrence had become a surrogate son to the Shaws), and a burglar-turned-preacher–a disillusioned former officer in the late war–who suggests, at the curtain, Shaw himself confronting his own obsolescence. On the Rocks (written and performed 1933) predicted, despite its comedic texture, the collapse of parliamentary government in a depression-blighted England. English audiences and critics hated it. Undeterred, G.B.S. produced The Simpleton of the Unexpected Isles (1934, staged 1935), its settings drawn imaginatively from a round-the-world cruise the Shaws had taken, and utilizing futuristic settings to satirize eugenic solutions to human problems–which Shaw himself had once preached. (He had tired of utopianism in an increasingly anxious time.) Simpleton ends with a farcical yet mordant Day of Judgment.

The comedy, which elicited the most derogatory reviews that Shaw had received in decades, was the most travel-oriented work of many he had written in a variety of forms. A Wagner pilgrimage to Bayreuth in 1889 had reinforced his zeal for the composer and led to The Perfect Wagnerite. His Italian tours with the Art Workers Guild in 1891 and 1894 are recalled in his “Virgin Mother” play, Candida. Visiting North Africa had inspired Captain Brassbound’s Conversion (1899, staged 1900), and also the unseen but plot-crucial automobile race to Biskra in Algeria in Man and Superman. His visits to fascist Italy and a mid-1931 junket to Soviet Russia, each contrived by his hosts to impress him, reinforced his convictions about the efficiency of dictatorial regimes, the subject of several late plays.

A voyage to South Africa in 1932 led to Shaw’s writing the Candide-like novella The Black Girl in Her Search for God. Attacked from the pulpits, it nevertheless became a best-seller. The Six of Calais, a short play written at sea in 1935, recalled Rodin’s sculpture group Les bourgeois de Calais, and G.B.S.’s wartime reporting visit to France in 1917, while the brief Village Wooing (1933) was a response to his attempting to ply his craft on board ship. A stop in Hong Kong on his world cruise led to a Buddhist shrine scene in Buoyant Billions, and another scene set at the Panama Canal, but the play, begun early in 1936, was put aside until 1945. A new world war ended the Shaws’ journeyings.

Subtitled “A Jonsonian comedy,” perhaps for its broad caricatures, The Millionairess (1934, performed 1936) is a knockabout farce about a “born boss,” a farcical exaggeration of his energetic old friend Beatrice Webb. Less successful was Geneva. Written in 1936 as a cynical comedy about the faltering League of Nations amid a decade of dictators, it had to be revised constantly from its first stagings in 1938 to reflect changing events. That despots were treated lightly as braggarts reflected Shaw’s flirtation with autocracies and disillusion with weak parliamentary democracies. His history fantasy, “In Good King Charles’s Golden Days,” its title quoting a song (1938-1939, staged 1939), looked at authoritarianism more genially. It became his last popular success. A warm, discursive high comedy subtitled “A true history that never happened,” it deals autumnally with the major preoccupations of Shaw’s long life. “The riddle of how to choose a ruler is still unanswered,” says the stage Charles II, “and it is the riddle of civilization.”

Charles’s quietly managerial queen is a late tribute to Charlotte Shaw, who would die in 1943 at eighty-six. Shaw’s old acquaintances were also fading away as he lived out his last decade, mostly at his Hertfordshire home, Ayot St. Lawrence. After residing in Charlotte’s posh flat in Adelphi Terrace after their marriage, they had relocated to Whitehall Court, also overlooking the Thames, in the mid-1920s, but wartime bombings had kept them largely in the countryside. His screenplay of Major Barbara, filmed in London, had been interrupted by air raids, and much of the filming of Caesar and Cleopatra, during the last years of the war, had to be improvised accordingly.

Shaw’s postwar plays after Buoyant Billions were the dystopian and absurdist six-scene farce Farfetched Fables (1948, staged 1950); a brief puppet play, Shakes vs. Shav (1949), his overt homage to Shakespeare; and a last playlet, Why She Would Not (1950). Perhaps the puppet Shaw, in his appeal to the Bard, was G.B.S.’s implicit epitaph:

For a moment suffer

My glimmering light to shine.

Shaw died at 94 on November 2, 1950 after a fall at Ayot which fractured his hip. He left, in addition to his plays, fiction, criticism and polemical writings, thousands of the most vivid letters among literary correspondences. He left no school of playwrights although much of the drama of his own time and after was indirectly in his debt. His creation of a drama of moral passion and of intellectual conflict and debate, his modernizing the comedy of manners, his ventures into symbolic farce and a drama of disbelief, helped shape the theatre of his time and after. Further, his bringing of a bold new critical intelligence to his many other areas of endeavor helped to forge the political, economic, and social thought of three generations.

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