It is with good reason that Archibald Henderson, official biographer of his subject, entitled his work George Bernard Shaw: Man of the Century. Well before his death at the age of ninety-four, this famous dramatist and critic had become an institution. Among the literate, no set of initials was more widely known than G.B.S. Born on July 26, 1856, in Dublin, Ireland, Shaw lived until November 2, 1950. His ninetieth birthday in 1946 was the occasion for an international celebration, the grand old man being presented with a festschrift entitled GBS 90, to which many distinguished writers contributed. A London publishing firm bought space in the Times to voice its greetings:
Hail to thee, blithe spirit!
Shaw was the third child and only son in a family which he once described as "shabby but genteel." His father, George Carr Shaw, was a second cousin to a baronet. For a time, he was employed as a civil servant and later became a not-too-successful merchant. Shaw remembered especially his "alcoholic antics," for the father was a remorseful, yet unregenerated drinker. But from him the son inherited his superb comic gift. Lucinda Gurley Shaw, the mother, was the daughter of a country gentleman of Carlow. A gifted singer and music teacher, she led her son to develop a passion for music, particularly operatic. At an early age, he had memorized, among others, the works of Mozart, whose fine workmanship he never ceased to admire. Somewhat later he taught himself to play the piano — in the Shavian manner.
One of the maxims in The Revolutionist's Handbook, appended to Man and Superman, reads: "He who can does. He who can't teaches." Shaw, who was to insist that all art is didactic and viewed himself as a kind of teacher, had little respect for schoolmasters and formal education. First his uncle, the Reverend George Carroll, tutored him. At the age of ten, he became a pupil at Wesleyan Connexional School in Dublin and later attended two other schools for short periods of time. He hated them all and declared that he learned absolutely nothing. But Shaw possessed certain qualities which are not always developed in the classroom: an acquisitive mind and the capacity for independent study. Once asked about his early education, he replied: "I can remember no time at which a page of print was not intelligible to me, and can only suppose I was born literate." He went on to add that by the age of ten, he had saturated himself in Shakespeare and the Bible.
A depleted family exchequer led Shaw to accept employment as a clerk in a Land Agency when he was sixteen. He proved to be an efficient, dependable employee and was properly rewarded at intervals. But he was never satisfied with such an occupation. Determined to become a professional writer, he resigned after five years of service and joined his mother, who was then teaching music in London. The year was 1876.
During the next three years, he cheerfully permitted his mother to support him and concentrated largely on trying to support himself as an author. No less than five novels came from his pen between the years 1879 and 1883. The first, Immaturity, remained unpublished for some fifty years; four later ones finally did make their way into print. Best known is Cashel Byron's Profession, the story of a prize fighter. It was quite apparent that Shaw's genius was not that of the novelist.
In 1879, Shaw was induced to accept employment in a firm promoting the new Edison telephone, his duties being those of a right-of-way agent. He detested the task of interviewing residents in the East End of London and endeavoring to get their permission for the installation of poles and equipment. A few months of such work were enough for him. In his own words, this was the last time he sinned against his nature by seeking to earn an honest living.
The year 1879 had greater significance for Shaw. He joined the Zetetical Society, a debating club, the members of which held lengthy discussions on such subjects as economics, science, and religion. Soon he found himself in demand as a speaker and a regular participant at public meetings. At one such meeting, held in September 1882, he listened spellbound to Henry George, apostle of Land Nationalization and the Single Tax. Shaw credits the American with having roused his interest in economics and social theory; theretofore he had concerned himself chiefly with the conflict between science and religion. Told that no one could do justice to George's theories without being familiar with those of Karl Marx, Shaw promptly read a French translation of Das Kapital, no English translation being then available. He was now converted to socialism.
The year 1884 is also a notable one in the life of Bernard Shaw (as he preferred to be called). After reading a tract entitled Why are the Many Poor? and learning that it was published by the Fabian Society, he appeared at the society's next meeting. The intellectual temper of the group, which included such distinguished men as Havelock Ellis, immediately attracted him. He was accepted as a member on September 5 and was elected to the Executive Committee in January. Among the debaters at the Zetetical Society was one Sidney Webb, whom he recognized as his "natural complement." He easily persuaded Webb to become a Fabian. The two, with the gifted Mrs. Webb, became the pillars of the society which preached the gospel of constitutional and evolutionary socialism. Shaw's views, voiced in public park and meeting hall, are expounded at length in The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism (1928); many of his ideas find a place in his dramas, including Man and Superman.
In the next stage of his career, Shaw emerged as a critic. Largely through the good offices of William Archer, distinguished dramatic critic now best remembered as the editor and translator of Ibsen, Shaw became a member of the reviewing staff of the Pall Mall Gazette in 1885. Earlier he had ghost-written some music reviews for G. L. Lee, with whom his mother long had been associated as singer and music teacher. But this new assignment provided him with his first real experience as a critic, initially as a book reviewer at two guineas per thousand words. Not long thereafter, and again through the assistance of William Archer, he added to these duties those of art critic on the widely influential World. Archer insisted that Shaw knew very little about art but thought that he did, which was what mattered. As for Shaw, he blandly explained that the way to learn about art was to look at pictures: He had begun doing so years earlier in the Dublin National Gallery.
This was just the beginning. When T. P. O'Connor, a leading advocate of Irish Home Rule, founded The Star in order to publicize his political views, Shaw was hired as a political writer in 1888. His socialistic philosophy was too extreme for O'Connor, who shifted Shaw to writing regular columns on music under the pseudonym "Corno di Bassetto." Two years later, he succeeded Louis Meyer as music critic of The World; his lively style and often daring pronouncements won him a wide and appreciative audience. Shaw once remarked: "If you do not say a thing in an irritating way, you may just as well not say it at all." And it must be conceded that he had affiliations, at least, with what may be called the Hatchet School of Criticism. Typical is the following: "During the past month Art has suffered an unusually severe blow at the hands of the Royal Academy by the opening of the annual exhibition at Burlington House." As music critic, he once described the program given before the visiting Shah of Persia at Covent Garden as "the most extravagantly Bedlamite hotch-potch on record, even in the annals of State concerts." To paraphrase Shaw's own words, he never aimed at impartiality. He aimed at readability and individuality, and he rarely missed. Moreover, as the courageous champion of Wagner, whose music was not accepted in England, and of the neglected Mozart, Shaw distinguished himself.
Shaw's close association with William Archer was paramount in his championing of Henrik Ibsen as a new, highly original dramatist whose works represented a complete break with the popular theater of the day. "When Ibsen came from Norway," Shaw was to write, "with his characters who thought and discussed as well as acted, the theatrical heaven rolled up like a scroll." Whereas the general public, nurtured on the "well-made" romantic and melodramatic play, denounced Ibsen as a "muck-ferreting dog," Shaw saw him as a great ethical philosopher and social critic — a role which recommended itself to Shaw himself. On July 18, 1890, he read a paper on Ibsen at a meeting of the Fabian Society. Amplified, this became The Quintessence of Ibsen (1891). Sometimes called The Quintessence of Shaw, it sets forth the author's profoundest views on the function of the dramatist, who should especially concern himself with how his characters react to various social forces and who should concern himself further with a new morality based upon an examination and challenge of the conventional.
In view of what Shaw had written about Ibsen (and himself) and of his activities as a socialist exhorter, The Widowers' Houses, his first play, may be called characteristic. Structurally, it represents no departure from the tradition of the well-made play; that is, the action is plotted so that the key situation is exposed in the second act, and the third act is devoted to its resolution. But thematically, the play was revolutionary in England. It dealt with the evils of slum-landlordism, a subject hardly calculated to regale the typical Victorian audience. Produced at J. T. Grein's Independent Theatre in London, it made a sensation because of its "daring" theme but never was a theatrical success. Shaw was not at all discouraged. The furor delighted him. No one knew better than he the value of attracting attention. He was already at work on The Philanderer, an amusing but rather slight comedy of manners.
In 1894, Shaw's Arms and the Man enjoyed a good run at the Avenue Theatre from April 21 to July 7, and has been revived from time to time to this very day. Now the real Shaw had emerged: the dramatist who united irrepressible gaiety and complete seriousness of purpose. It has been described as "a satire on the prevailing bravura style" and sets forth the "view of romance as the great heresy to be swept from art and life," a theme which was to find its place in Man and Superman.
In the same year, Shaw wrote Mrs. Warren's Profession, which became a cause célèbre. Shaw himself grouped it with his "Unpleasant Plays." Dealing with the economic causes of prostitution and the conflict between the prostitute mother and her daughter, it created a tumult which was kept alive for years on both sides of the Atlantic. It may well be argued that in this play he was far more the polemist than the artist, but it has its place among the provocative dramas of ideas.
The indefatigable Shaw was already at work on his first unquestionably superior play, Candida. First produced in 1895, it has held the boards ever since and has found its place in anthologies. Notable for effective character portrayal and the adroit use of inversions, it tells how Candida and the Reverend Morrell, widely in public demand as an advanced thinker, reached an honest and sound basis for a lasting marriage.
Early in January 1895, Shaw became the drama critic for The Saturday Review, edited by Frank Harris, who was wise enough to give him free rein. His essays now fill two volumes which were first published in 1931 and are indeed a valuable record of "Our Theatres in the Nineties." Sir Max Beerbohm, who succeeded Shaw in May 1898, testified as follows: "I never tire of his two volumes. He was at the very top of his genius when he wrote them." Although Shaw often had kind words to say about Oscar Wilde, Henry Arthur Jones, and others, he was as outspoken and irreverent in his drama reviews as he had been in those of music, for he was determined to reform Victorian drama, to transform it into a vehicle for the dissemination of significant ideas. Characteristic are his comments on Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, surely as good a farce as there is in the language, one which Wilde himself called "a trivial comedy for serious people." Shaw joined the audience in laughing heartily at the many farcical situations but firmly concluded that it was no more than "a silly play with a flippant wit." To Sir Henry Irving, England's premier Shakespearean actor, Shaw became practically an anathema. Long since the playwright-critic had begun a running battle with Shakespeare — at first to help win recognition for Ibsen; thereafter, in all probability, to attract attention to himself. But what especially offended him was Irving's propensity for drastic cutting of the Shakespearean text.
While working with the Fabians, Shaw met the personable Charlotte Payne-Townshend, an Irish heiress deeply concerned with the problem of social justice. He was immediately attracted to her. After she had helped him through a long illness, the two were married in 1898. She became his modest but capable critic and assistant throughout the years of their marriage.
During this period, there was no surcease of play writing on Shaw's part. He completed You Never Can Tell, The Man of Destiny, and The Devil's Disciple. The last-named play, an inverted Victorian-type melodrama first acted in the United States, was an immediate success, financially and otherwise. By the turn of the century, Shaw had written Caesar and Cleopatra and The Admirable Bashville. He was now the major force in the new drama of the twentieth century. Even William Archer acknowledged his supremacy. At first insisting that Shaw knew no more about plays than he did about art, Archer was completely won over by Mrs. Warren's Profession.
The year 1903 is especially memorable for the completion and publication of Man and Superman. It was first acted (without the Don Juan in Hell intermezzo which constitutes Act III) in 1905. Some twenty-three other plays were added to the Shavian canon as the century advanced toward the halfway mark. Best known among these are Major Barbara (1905), Androcles and the Lion (1912), Pygmalion (1912), Heartbreak House (1916), Back to Methuselah (1921), and Saint Joan (1923). In 1930-32, the Ayot St. Lawrence Edition of his collected plays was published. Shaw's literary preeminence had found worldwide recognition. He refused to accept either a knighthood or the Order of Merit offered by the Crown, but in 1926, he did accept the Nobel Prize for Literature. It was quite typical of him to state that the award was given to him by a grateful public because he had not published anything in that year.
Shaw had persistently rejected offers from filmmakers. According to one story, when importuned by Samuel Goldwyn, the well-known Hollywood producer, he replied: "The difficulty, Mr. Goldwyn, is that you are an artist and I am a business man." But later the ardor and ability of Gabriel Pascal impressed him, and he agreed to prepare the scenario of Pygmalion for production. The film, released in 1938, was a notable success. Major Barbara and Androcles and the Lion followed: The Irish-born dramatist had now won a much larger audience. My Fair Lady, a musical adapted from Pygmalion, opened in New Haven, Connecticut, on February 4, 1956, starring Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews. It was and remains a spectacular success.
Discussing Macbeth, Shaw once wrote: "I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no 'brief candle' for me. It is a sort of splendid torch, which I have got hold of for the moment; and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations." Life indeed was a bright torch which burned long for Bernard Shaw. Almost to the very end, when he was bedridden with a broken hip, he lived up to his credo. He was ninety-two years old in 1949 when Buoyant Billions was produced at the Malvern Festival. In the same year, his highly readable Sixteen Self Sketches was published. He was planning the writing of still another play when he died on November 2, 1950.