G B Shaw
The critic Kenneth Tynan said of Irish playwright, critic and polemicist, George Bernard Shaw – or Bernard Shaw, which he preferred to be called – that ‘he cleared the English stage of humbug and the English stage of cant’.
Shaw was born in Dublin in 1856 and moved to London as a young man, where he established himself as a writer and novelist. By the mid-1880s he had become a respected theatre critic, while writing his own plays. This period also marked his political awakening. He read Marx and became a member of the Fabian Society. His views were often contentious and controversial. He was a committed vegetarian and used his plays as tools to discuss his ideas about politics and society.
Shaw married Charlotte Payne-Townshend in 1898, when they were both 41. They renamed their house in Hertfordshire Shaw's Corner and remained together until Charlotte’s death.
First plays and successes
Early plays include Widowers’ Houses and Mrs Warren’s Profession, which was written some years before it was staged (it was initially banned by the Lord Chamberlain for its open discussion of prostitution). Shaw's first commercial success was 1894’s Arms and the Man, a play influenced by the work of Ibsen, though it would be some time before he would replicate its success. He continued to write and to be politically active.
It was during the first decade of the 20th century that Shaw firmly established his reputation as a playwright. Harley Granville-Barker’s company at the Royal Court Theatre presented 14 of Shaw's plays over five years. These included Man and Superman (written in 1902, staged at the Court in 1905), Major Barbara (1905) and The Doctor’s Dilemma (1906). Shaw’s work also became more formally experimental.
He wrote Pygmalion, one of his most successful plays, in 1912. It was originally staged in Vienna and it opened in London in 1914, with Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree as professor of phonetics, Henry Higgins, and Mrs Patrick Campbell as cockney flower girl, Eliza Doolittle.
Later life and work
Shaw remained a Fabian though he was less active as he got older. He did, however, invest in a new socialist publication, The New Statesman, founded by Beatrice and Stanley Webb.
After the First World War, during which he published tracts that jarred with the patriotic mood, he wrote Saint Joan in 1923, now regarded as a late masterpiece. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925.
Shaw wrote prolifically until his death in 1950 at the age of 94. The word ‘Shavian’ has since entered the language as a way of encapsulating Shaw's ideas and the ways in which he expressed them.
Further information about the life of G B Shaw can be found via the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
- Article by:
- Greg Buzwell
- Gender and sexuality, 20th-century theatre, Exploring identity
Greg Buzwell explores the inspirations for George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, and assesses the play's reception from its first English performance in 1914 to its adaptation for screen fifty years later.