Wednesday, 13 March 2013

George Bernard Shaw
George Bernard Shaw 1936
An impressing and important figure of Irish as well as European literature is George Bernard Shaw. The prolific playwright and Nobel Prize laureate in literature of 1925 was born in Dublin, Ireland, in July 1856. His father being a grain merchant and occasional civil servant who had taken to drinking, the boy didn’t get a chance to receive a good education. Moreover he changed schools several times, before starting to work as an office clerk at the age of 15, shortly after his mother, a singer, had run away with her lover taking with her his two elder sisters. 

In 1876 George Bernard Shaw gave up the job in Dublin that he despised to join his mother, her voice teacher and companion George Vandeleur Lee, and his sisters in London. By this time the young man was determined to become a writer, but first he got about completing his education spending much time in public libraries and the reading room of the British Museum. While supported by his mother and sisters (in exchange for ghost-writing a music column for George Vandeleur Lee), he started writing music, literary and theatre criticism for different newspapers. During those seven years he also wrote five novels that failed at first, but were published later. 

As from 1882 George Bernard Shaw got involved with the Socialist cause joining the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), the Fabian Society and the Socialist League. Eventually, George Bernard Shaw focused on his work for the Fabian Society that disapproved of revolutionary ideals and advocated a peaceful as well as gradual change to a socialist society. Throughout the years he wrote many pointed and articulate pamphlets and speeches for the Fabian Society in which he branded the exploitation of the working class, advocated equal rights for men and women (e.g. 'The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism' in 1912) and stood up for a healthy lifestyle (George Bernard Shaw was a vegetarian and teetotaller). 

George Bernard Shaw’s breakthrough as a writer didn’t come before 1892, when his first play ‘Widower’s Houses’ was brought to the stage and received some acclaim from the audience, but not from drama critics because it wasn’t the sentimental entertainment that they had become used to during the Victorian era. However, George Bernard Shaw continued to write socially critical, but also very witty and humorous plays for the rest of his life. In the end they were more than sixty, among them the “unpleasant” early plays, as he liked to call them, ‘Arms and the Man’ and ‘Candida’ (both produced in 1894). His following works were more entertaining, but not less principled, and his popularity kept rising. Plays like ‘Caesar and Cleopatra’ (1898), ‘Man and Superman’ (1903), ‘Major Barbara’ (1905) and ‘Pygmalion’ (1912) made his fame. 

Along with his writing George Bernard Shaw kept up his political commitment. He was involved in the formation of the Labour Party and for a short while he was a local councillor to the London County Council. Together with other members of the Fabian Society George Bernard Shaw founded the London School of Economics and Political Science in 1895. The following year he got to know Charlotte Payne-Townshend, a wealthy Irish member of the Fabian Society, and was attracted by her at once. Despite all he refused to marry her when she first proposed to him in 1897. In the next spring, after an accident, he accepted and got married to her after all. The couple stayed together until her death in 1943. 

George Bernard Shaw strongly opposed the British Empire’s involvement in World War I (and later World War II as well) which earned him hostility in the patriotic public and among friends. His play written during the war, ‘Heartbreak House’, was put on stage only in 1920 and became a big success like the following plays ‘Back to Methuselah’ (1921), ‘Androcles and the Lion’, and ‘Saint Joan’ (1923) that are considered his best works up to the present day. In 1925 George Bernard Shaw was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature that he accepted only as a tribute to Ireland. He requested, however, that the Prize money was being used to finance the translation of August Strindberg’s plays into English. 

George Bernard Shaw continued writing many plays until a few months before his death early in November 1950.

For more information about George Bernard Shaw and his work see the website if the International Shaw Society at:

or read a biography:


  1. Shaw does not seem to be often read these days, his work does not seem as popular as say Wilde, another Irishman and playwright. I keep meaning to re-visit some of his work but time does not really permit at the moment. Shaw briefly appears in Fiona MacCarthy's wonderful biography of William Morris, both men shared socialist ideals.

    1. Yes, Arabella Shaw doesn't seem to be very popular these days. I'm not an avid reader of plays, but Shaw seems to have quite disappeared from the stage, too. I can't remember when I last read about a Shaw première somewhere.
      As for his socialist ideals - they may have been a bit in fashion at the time. However, Shaw was convinced of those ideals.


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