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George Bernard Shaw


George Bernard Shaw

From the Oxford Companion to English Literature, ed. Margaret Drabble: 

(George) Bernard SHAW (1856-1950), born in Dublin, the youngest child of unhappily married and inattentive parents. In 1876 he moved to London, joining his mother and sister, and began his literary career by ghosting music criticism and writing five unsuccessful novels (including Cashel Byron's Profession, 1886, and An Unsocial Socialist, 1887, both first published in Today, in 1885-6- and 1884 respectively). During his first nine years in London he calculated that he earned less than £10 by his pen. He wrote music, art, and book criticism for the Dramatic Review (1885-6), 
Our Corner (1885-6), the Pall Mall Gazette (1885-8), the World (1886-94) and the Star (1888-90, as 'Corno di Bassetto'). His music criticism has been collected in three volumes as Shaw's Music (1981, ed. Dan H. Laurence) (see also under MUSIC, LITERATURE OF) and his theatre criticism in four volumes as The Drama Observed (1993, ed. B. Dukore). He was a drama critic for the Saturday Review (1895-8) and produced a series of remarkable and controversial weekly articles (published in book form as Our Theatres in the Nineties, 3 vols, 1932), voicing his impatience with the artificiality of the London theatre and pleading for the performance of plays dealing with contemporary social and moral problems. He campaigned for a theatre of ideas in Britain comparable to that of Ibsen and Strindberg in Scandinavia, and came nearest to achieving this with Granville-Barker at the Court Theatre in London between 1904 and 1907. During this period he took up various causes and joined several literary and political societites, notably the Fabian Society, serving on the executive committee from 1885 to 1911. Not naturally a good public speaker, he schooled himself to become a brilliant one and gave over 1,000 lectures. he edited and contributed to Fabian Essays in Socialism (1889) and wrote many tracts setting down his socialist and collectivist principles. He was a freethinker, a supporter of women's rights, and an advocate of equality of income, the abolition of private property, and a radical change in the voting system. He also campaigned for the simplification of spelling and punctuation and the reform of the English alphabet. He was well known as a journalist and public speaker when his first play, Widowers' Houses (pub. 1893), was produced in 1982, but it met with little success. There followed Arms and the Man (1894, pub. 1898: partly used for Oscar Straus's musical The Chocolate Soldier), The Devil's Disciple (perf. NY 1897, pub. 1901), You Never Can Tell (1899, pub. 1898), Caesar and Cleopatra (pub. 1901, perf. Berlin 1906), Mrs Warren's Profession (pub. 1898, perf. 1902), and John Bull's Other Island (1904, pub. NY 1907), a play which, thanks to its characteristic 'Shavian' wit, brought his first popular success in London. The critics also were gradually persuaded that the plays were not simply dry vehicles for his reformist zeal.

Shaw was an indefatigable worker, writing over 50 plays, including Man and Superman (pub. 1903, perf. 1905), Major Barbara (1905, pub. NY 1907), The Doctor's Dilemma(1906, pub. Berlin 1908). Getting Married (1908, pub. Berlin 1910), Misalliance (191, pub. Berlin 1911), Androcles and the Lion (pub. Berlin 1913, perf. Hamburg 1913),Pygmalion (perf. Vienna 1913, pub. Berlin 1913, later turned into the popular musical My Fair Lady), Heartbreak House (pub. 1919, perf. 1920, both NY), Back to Methuselah (pub. and perf. NY 1921, 1922), Saint Joan (perf. NY 1923, pub. 1924), The Apple Cart (perf. Warsaw 1929, pub. Berlin 1929), Too True to Be Good (perf. Boston 1932, pub. Berlin 1932), Village Wooing (pub. Berlin 1933, perf. Dallas 1934), The Simpleton of the Unexpected Isles (perf. NY 1935, pub. Berlin 1935), In Good King Charles's Golden Days (perf. and publ 1939), and Buoyant Billions (perf. and pub. Zurich 1948).

These plays were published (some in collections: Plays Pleasant and Unpleasant, 1898; Three Plays for Puritans, 1901) with lengthy prefaces in which Shaw clearly expresses his views as a non-romantic and a champion of the thinking man. The dramatic conflict in his plays is the conflict of thought and belief, not that of neurosis or physical passion. Discussion is the basis of the plays, and his great wit and intelligence won audiences over to the idea that mental and moral passion could produce absorbing dramatic material. He believed that war, disease, and the present brevity of our lifespan frustrate the 'Life Force' (see under MAN AND SUPERMAN) and that functional adaptation, a current of creative evolution activated by the power of human will, was essential to any real progress, and indeed to the survival of the species. The plays continued to be performed regularly both during and after his lifetime (several were made into films) and his unorthodox views, his humour, and his love of paradox have become an institution. Amongst his other works should be mentionedThe Quintessence of Ibsenism (1891, revised and expanded 1913), which reveals his debt to Ibsen as a playwright and presents an argument for Fabian socialism; The Perfect Wagnerite (1898); Common sense about the War (1914); 
The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism (1928); and Everybody's Political What's What (1944) Shaw was a prolific letter writer. his correspondence with the actressses Ellen Terry and Mrs Patrick Campbell, with friends and colleagues such as H.G. Wells and Gabriel pascal, as well as several volumes of collected letters, are available in book form.

In 1898 Shaw married Charlotte Payne Townshend. It seems to have been a marriage of companionship, and they lived together until her death in 1943. He was a strict vegetarian and never drank spirits, coffee, or tea. He died at the age of 94, as independent as ever an still writing for the theatre. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1925. See The Bodley Head Collected Plays with Their Prefaces (7 vols, 1970-74).

The Fabian Society, a society founded in 1884 consisting of socialists who advocate a 'Fabian' policy, as opposed to immediate revolutionary action, and named after Quintus Fabius Maximus, nicknamed Cunctator or 'the Delayer' [d. 203 BC - was appointed dictator after Hannibal's crushing victory at Trasimene (217 BC). He carried on a defensive campaign, avoiding direct engagements and harassing the enemy. Hence the expression 'Fabian tactics' and the name of the Fabian Society (1884) dedicated to the gradual introduction of socialism]. One of its instigators was Thomas Davidson (1840-1900), the illegitimate son of a Scottish shepherd, a charismatic figure with many disciples who was also responsible for founding in 1883 the Fellowship of the New Life, a body which at first attracted some of the same membership, although its aims were mystical and philsophical rather than political. The Fabians aimed to influence government and affect policy by permeation rather than by direct power, and to provide the reseach and analysis to support their own views and introduce them to others. One of their methods was the publishing of tracts, or pamphleteering: the first two Fabian tracvts weere Why Are the many Poor? (1884) by W. L. Phillips, a house painter and one of the few working-class members, and A Manifesto (1884) by G. B. Shaw. Shaw wrote  many other important tractsas did S. Webb. Fabian Essays in Socialism (1889), edited by Shaw and with contributions by Webb, Sydney Olivier, and A. Besant sold well and attracted much attention. The Society itself continued to attract a distinguished membership of politicians, intellectuals, artists, and writers, ranging from Keir Hardie, Ramsay Macdonald, and G. D. H. Cole to E. Carpenter, E. Nesbit, R. Brooke, and W. Crane. See Margaert Cole, The Story of Fabian Socialism (1961) and N. and J. Mackenzie, The First Fabians (1977).
Widowers' Houses, 
a play by Bernard Shaw, first performed 1892, published 1893, and published (with The Philanderer and Mrs Warren's Profession ) in Plays Unpleasant (898). It is designed to show the manner in which the capitalist system perverts and corrupts human behaviour and relationships, through a demonstration, in Shaw's words, of 'middle-class respectability and younger son gentility fattening on the poverty of the slum as flies fatten on filth'.

Dr. Harry Trench, on a Rhine holiday, meets Blanche Sartorius, travelling with her wealthy father, and proposes marriage to her: Sartorius is willing to permit the match if Trench's family (including his aunt Lady Roxdale) agrees to accept her as an equal. All seems well, until it is revealed in Act II that Sartorius is a slum landlord. Trench is horrified, refuses to accept Sartorius' money, suggests that he and Blanche should live on his  £700 a year, and is even more horrified when Sartorius points out that this income is derived from a mortgage of Sartorius' property, and that he himself and his miserable rent collector Lickcheese are merely intermediaries. 'You are the principal.' Blanche, revealing a passionate and violent nature, rejects Trench for his hesitations. In the third act Lickcheese, himself now rich through dubious dealings to the property market, approaches Sartorius with an apparent philanthropic but in fact remunerative proposition, which involves Lady Roxdale as a ground landlord and Trench as mortgagee. Trench, now considerably more cynical, accepts the deal, and he and Blanche are reunited.

John Bull's Other Island, an ironic description of Ireland deriving from Leon Paul Blouet's John Bull and His Island  (1884) and used by G. B. Shaw as the title of a play (1904) written at the request of Yeats 'as a patriotic contribution to the repertory of the Irish Literary Theatre'.

Man and Superman: A Comedy and a Philosophy, a play by Bernard Shaw, first published 1903, first performed (without Act III) in 1905 by the Stage Society at the Court Theatre.

The play is Shaw's paradoxical version of the Don Juan story, in which his hero John Tanner (Don Juan Tenorio), provocative, eloquent, and witty ideologue and author of theRevolutionist's Handbook (a work which appears in full as an appendix to the play), is relentlessly if obliquely pursued by Ann Whitefield, who is more interested in him as a potential husband than she is in his political theories. Ann has been entrusted as ward by her dead father jointly to Tanner and to the elderly respectable Ramsden, who expects her to marry the devoted and poetic Octavius. Tanner is made aware of Ann's intentions by his chauffeur Straker (the new man of the polytechnic revolution), and flees to Spain whither he is pursued by Ann and her entourage, which includes her mother and Octavius's sister Violet, who demonstrates, through a matrimonial sub-plot, the superior force of women. Act III consists of a dream sequence set in hell in which Tanner, captured by the brigand Mendoza, becomes his ancestor Don Juan, Mendoza the Devil, Ramsden 'the Statue', and Ann becomes Ana: in one of Shaw's most characteristic 'Shavio-Socratic' debates, the four characters discuss the nature of progress, evolution, and the Life Force, the Devil arguing powerfully that man is essentially destructive, and Don Juan arguing for the saving power of ideas and rational effort, for the philosopher as 'nature's pilot'. In the last act Ann achieves her object, despite Tanner's struggles; the play ends with the announcement of their impending marriage and Tanner's submission to the Life Force.

The concept of the Life Force bears some similarity to Bergson's 'élan vital', although Shaw was not at the time familiar with Bergson's work: the echo in his 'Superman' of Nietzsche's 'Übermensch' (Also sprach Zarathustra) is, however, deliberate.

Major Barbara,
 a play by Bernard Shaw performed 1905, published 1907.

It portrays the conflict between spiritual and worldly power embodied in Barbara, a major in the Salvation Army, and her machiavellian father, millionaire armaments manufacturer Andrew Undershaft. While visiting her East End shelter for the poor, as part of a bargain struck between them, he reveals that the shelter's benefactor, Lord Saxmundham, made his money through 'Bodgers' whisky', and she suffers a crisis of faith as she glimpses the possibility that all salvation and philanthropy are tainted at the source: the next day, visiting his factory with her mother Lady Britomart and her fiancé, classical scholar Adolphus Cusins, she is further shaken to discover her father is a model employer. Cusins enters the debate, reveals that he is technically a foundling nd therefore eligible to inherit the Undershaft empire (as Undershaft's own children are not), strikes a hard bargain with his prospective father-in-law, and agrees to enter the business, partly persuaded by Undershaft's quoting of Plato to the effect that 'society cannot be saved until either the Professors of Greek take to making gundpowder, or else the makers of gunpowder become Professors of Greek'. Barbara, recovering her spirits, embraces this synthesis as a possibility of hope for the future. The portrait of Cusins is based on G. Murray.  

Pygmalion, one of the most popular plays of Bernard Shaw, first performed 1913 in Vienna, published in London, 1916.

It describes the transformation of a Cockney flower-seller, Eliza Doolittle, into a passable imitation of a duchess by the phonetician Professor Henry Higgins (modelled in part on H. Sweet, and played by Beerbohm Tree), who undertakes this task in order to win a bet and to prove his own points about English speech and the class system: he teaches her to speak standard English and introduces her successfully to social life, thus wining his bet, but hse rebels against his dictatorial and thoughtless behaviour, and 'bolts' from his tyranny. The play ends with a truce between the two of them, as Higgins acknowledges that she has achieved freedom and independence, and emerged from his treatment as a 'tower of strength: a consort battleship':  in his postscript Shaw tells us that she marries the docile and devoted Freddy Eynsford Hill. My Fair Lady, the 1957 musical version, makes the relationship between Eliza and Higgins significantly more romantic.

Pygmalion, in classical legend, was the king of Cyprus, who fell in love with his own sculpture; Aphrodite endowed the statue with life and transformeed it into the flesh and blood of Galathea.

Heartbreak House:A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes,  a play by Bernard Shaw, first performed in New York 1920, published there 1919; probably written 1916-17, despite Shaw's claims that he began it before the war.

It deescribes the impact of Ellie Dunn, daughter of the idealistic and undworldly Mazzini Dunn, upon the eccentric, complacent, and 'horribly Bohemian' household of 88-year-old Captain Shotover, with whom she strikes up an alliance: the inmaes include energetic, beautiful, dominating Hesione Hushabye (determined Ellie shall not marry the ageing business magnate Boss Mangan); her husband, the romantic liar and fantasist Hector Hushabye; her sister, the apparently conventional, newly returned Lady Utterword; and Lady Utterword's devoted brother-in-law Randall, prototype of the useless artist. Shaw appears to be portraying in 'this silly house, this strangely happy house, this agonizing house, this house without foundations', an aspect of British (or European) civilization (suggested in part by the Bloomsbury Group, in part by the society portrayed by Chekhov), about to run on the rocks or blow itself up through lack of direction and lack of grasp of economic reality, but, after various Shavian debates on money, marriage, and morality, the play ends in deep ambiguity: an air raid destroys Boss Mangan, the practical man (who takes refuge in a gravel pit where the captain stores dynamite), and is greeted with exhilarated rapture by Hesione and Elie ('It's splendid: it's like an orchestra: it's like Beethoven'), who with the rest of the household refuse to take shelter, and survive.

Back to Methuselah:  A Metabiological pentateuch (1918-20) is an infrequently performed cycle of five plays by Bernard Shaw, beginning in the Garden of Eden and reaching the year AD 31,920, which examines the metaphysical implications of longevity. Shaw revised the text and its preface, and added a postscript, in the mid-1940s when choosing Back to Methuselah to represent his work in the Oxford University Press World's Classics seires.

Too True to Be Good,  (1931), a three-act political extravaganza by Bernard Shaw which opens in one of the richest cities in England, in a patient's bedroom inhabited by a 'poor innocent microbe' made of luminous jelly, and then moves to a sea beach in a mountainous country patrolled by the omnipresent Private Meek, Shaw's imaginative portrait of T. E. Lawrence. The surreal plot, which progresses by means of a series of fantastical illusions and proliferating identities, contains echoes from The Pilgrim's Progress and The Tempest, and reaches its climax in a long peroration on the place of human beings in the evolution of the world.

The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism (1928), G. B. Shaw's answer, 200,000 words long, to a request for 'a few ideas on socialism' from his sister-in-law, to whom the book is dedicated. This closely argued and passionately felt political testament treats women as the have-nots of a male culture and traces specific social evils to inequality of income. A new edition, with two additional chapter and retitled The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism, Capitalism, Sovietism and Fascism, was published in 1937 as the first two Pelican Books.

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