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Pygmalion | Study Guide

George Bernard Shaw

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George Bernard Shaw | Biography


George Bernard Shaw, born 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 born in Dublin as 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 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.

In 1876, Shaw joined his mother and Vandeleur Lee in London. He expanded his knowledge of music to include literature. 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 and regularly wrote and lectured 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, 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. Pygmalion clearly demonstrates this departure from the norms of the day.

Shaw's career as a playwright began in 1891 when he met J.T. Grein, the director of The Independent Theatre—a new, progressive venue for "the theatre of ideas" inspired by the realistic "problem plays" of Henrik Ibsen. Grein offered to read Shaw's play, Widowers' House. 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. Each attacked with varied ferocity the social evils of the day. His writing successes continued to the eve of World War I, when Pygmalion opened in Vienna in 1913 and in London in 1914. It was a hit. However, with the outbreak of war, Shaw's plain-spoken antiwar 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.

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.

Shaw continued writing until his death on November 2, 1950, at age 94. At the time, he was working on yet another play.

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