By John Powell FRGS
Considered by many to be the greatest playwright since William Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw was born in Dublin in 1856, the son of a corn merchant. The house where he was born, 3 Upper Synge Street, has a plaque in his memory, thanks to a Dublin dustman who raised funds for it in the 20th century.
Shaw was educated at the Wesleyan Connexional School in Dublin and at other establishments, but did not attend any university. In 1876 he left for London as he found life in an estate agent’s office boring. His mother had been a music teacher, and with this background, Shaw was able to make a name for himself as a music critic for The Star and The World.
He also became a book critic for the Pall Mall Gazette. During this period, he also wrote five novels, of which only one, Cashel Byron’s Profession, had any success. He also developed an interest in the Norwegian dramatist, Henrik Ibsen, and in 1981 published The Quintessence of Ibsenism.
Shaw was also an admirer of the French dramatist, Moliere, and stated: “My business as a classic writer of comedies is to chasten morals with ridicule.” He also described himself as a Puritan and said, “My conscience is the genuine pulpit article. It annoys me to see people comfortable when they ought to be uncomfortable, and I insist on making them think in order to bring them to the conviction of sin.”
Arms and the Man opened on a public stage in 1894. This dealt with a war in the Balkans. Major Barbara started its London run in 1905 and contains the immortal line, “He knows nothing and thinks he knows everything. That points clearly to a political career.”
1913 saw the first performance of Androcles and the Lion and Pygmalion (the source of the musical My Fair Lady). Then came Heartbreak House, and in 1924, the year before he was awarded the Nobel Prize, St. Joan (later filmed by Otto Preminger with Jean Seberg as St. Joan). This was written while Shaw was staying in Parknasilla and Glengarrif.
The Millionairess appeared shortly after Shaw’s 70th birthday and was followed by In Good King Charles’ Glorious Days. Buoyant Billions was published in 1948, when he was 92.
Shaw’s output of plays exceeded those of William Shakespeare, but unlike the Bard of Avon, the Irishman did not write poetry.
The playwright’s work was seldom free from controversy. Mrs. Warren’s Profession, dealing with prostitution, was banned by the censor and did not reappear until 1924. Shaw rose to the occasion by naming his controversial works Plays Unpleasant.
Pleasant plays included Candida, You Never Can Tell and The Devil’s Disciple. This latter work dealt with the American War of Independence, and a successful run in New York made Shaw financially independent. Dealing with Anglo American relations, Shaw famously stated, “England and America are two countries divided by a common language.”
Shaw married Charlotte Payne-Townshend, a wealthy Anglo-Irish woman of 34, in 1898, whom he met at the London School of Economics in 1896. Charlotte catered for his teetotal vegetarian tastes and limited the number of visitors to their home so that Shaw could work on his vast output of plays, political tracts and essays.
One writer who was always welcome was T.E. Lawrence (the famed Lawrence of Arabia). After his exploits during the First World War, Lawrence was at a loose end, working on the Seven Pillars of Wisdom and Revolt in the Desert. Shaw assisted him in his literary activities.
Bernard Shaw was heavily involved in left wing politics throughout his life. In 1884, he joined the Fabian Society, a socialist body, and was elected borough councilor for the London borough of St. Pancras. His first play, Widowers’ Houses, performed in 1892, dealt with the problem of slum landlords.
He courted unpopularity during the First World War by blaming all the participants for its outbreak. Though critical of many aspects of Irish life, he supported Irish Home Rule and ridiculed the idea that Irish Protestants would be persecuted if a Parliament were established in Dublin. In 1921 he sent a letter of condolence to the sister of Michael Collins. John Bull’s Other Island was the only play to deal specifically with Ireland.
An Unsocial Socialist appeared in 1887, and Socialism and Superior Brains in 1908. The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism, published in 1928, plus Everybody’s Political What’s What in 1944, together with many of the prefaces to his plays, influenced left wing opinion in Britain.
True to his socialist views, Shaw turned down the offer of a peerage and of becoming a member of the Order of Merit.
The last years of Shaw’s life were spent at a house known as Shaw’s Corner at Ayott St. Lawrence, a village north of St. Albans in Hertfordshire. In the garden, he would write in a hut that revolved to catch the sun. This home is now a museum. His death in 1951 brought worldwide tributes, including one from President Truman of the United States.
Often ridiculed for some of his ‘Shavian’ statements, the larger than life Shaw, in fact, had a practical side to him.
He was involved in the project for the building of a National Theatre in London, and when his Will was published, he made provision for British and Irish institutions. The National Gallery of Ireland and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London both benefited from Shaw’s royalties. A curious feature of his Will was the establishment of a fund to create a new 40 letter phonetic alphabet for the English language.