Major Barbara | Study Guide

George Bernard Shaw

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George Bernard Shaw | Biography


Early Life

George Bernard Shaw, born in Dublin on July 26, 1856, was a leading dramatist of his time. In addition to his contributions as a playwright, he was a music and theater critic, a novelist, and an outspoken social reformer.

Shaw was the third and last child of George Carr and Lucinda Elizabeth Gurly Shaw. He suffered what he described as "a devil of a childhood." His father was a civil servant turned unsuccessful corn merchant, as well as an alcoholic—all of which reduced the family to living in genteel poverty. His mother—the daughter of a well-to-do family—found escape from the family's difficulties in music. A professional singer and student of the conductor George Vandeleur Lee, she eventually followed him to London to pursue her own career and improve her situation. These life events encouraged Shaw to be a life-long teetotaler (person who does not drink alcohol), imbued him with a strong interest in music, and kindled his sensitivity to the plight of women in Victorian society.

Early Years in London

In 1876 Shaw joined his mother and Vandeleur Lee in London. He added an interest in literature to his knowledge of music. He read voraciously, attended socialist lectures and debates, and pursued a career in journalism and writing. His first attempts to write prose—a string of five novels—were rejected by publishers. However, he did land a job as a freelance critic for an influential daily paper, the Pall Mall Gazette. The liberal political leanings of the paper were in line with Shaw's growing interest in socialism. His articles and critiques of art, music, and theater written for this and other publications brought him at last to the attention of London literary society.

Shaw's interest in socialism had a profound effect on his writing. In 1884 he joined the recently established Fabian Society, a British socialist organization intent on advancing the principles of non-Marxist evolutionary socialism. He became one of its leading members, writing and lecturing regularly on socialist topics. Often he focused on themes of marriage, education, politics, class struggle, and religion. As a self-professed socialist, Shaw was a vigorous proponent of gender equality. He believed that all people have a purpose in life and that women were being denied the chances to play their critical roles in society. He actively supported efforts to alter the marriage laws, eliminate patriarchy, establish female suffrage, or right to vote, and recast gender roles. Shaw felt that "unless woman repudiates her womanliness, her duty to her husband, to her children, to society, to the law, and to everyone but herself, she cannot emancipate herself." As a playwright, his portrayal of remarkable, clever, and powerful women departed from the 19th-century stereotype of the male-dominated, sweetly fragile, self-sacrificing female. His literary works clearly demonstrate this departure from the norms of the day.

The Playwright

Shaw's career as a playwright began in 1891 when he met J.T. Grein, director of the Independent Theatre—a new, progressive venue for "the theatre of ideas," inspired by the realistic "problem plays" of Henrik Ibsen (1828–1906). Grein offered to read Shaw's play Widowers' Houses. He accepted it almost immediately, and it was first publicly performed in 1892. Over the next six years, Shaw completed a collection of dramas called Plays Pleasant and Unpleasant (published 1898). Each attacked with varied ferocity the social evils of the day. In Major Barbara, which was first performed in 1905, his target was religious hypocrisy and individual responsibility for society's own problems, poverty being one of the most serious. His writing successes continued to the eve of World War I, when Pygmalion, arguably his best known play, opened in Vienna in 1913 and in London in 1914. It was a hit. However, with the outbreak of war, Shaw's plain-spoken anti-war views and pamphlets created uproar. He was shunned by friends and ostracized by the public. Nevertheless, he continued writing plays, and by 1923, with the production of Saint Joan, he succeeded in reviving his career. In 1925 Shaw was the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature although he did not accept it.

Pygmalion remains one of Shaw's most famous plays. It was adapted to film in 1938, earning Shaw an Academy Award for screenwriting. Continuing its rise to fame, a musical adaptation—My Fair Lady—opened on Broadway in 1956 and ran for more than nine years. A film version of the musical hit the movie screen in 1964 and earned eight Academy Awards.

Later Life

Shaw continued to write political tracts, essays, reviews, and plays well into his old age. He was incredibly prolific in his personal correspondence as well. He outlived two of his biographers, finishing one of the books himself. Shaw died on November 2, 1950, at age 94. He is remembered as one of the greatest playwrights in the English language and a particularly gifted comedic dramatist with a strong social conscience and definitive political views.

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