Life and Works of GB Shaw
💬 To experience the captivating brilliance of George Bernard Shaw, a literary genius whose plays and writings reshaped the theatre and ignited societal transformation, we must first understand the man and his mind. Be inspired by his wit, wisdom, and fearless spirit as we delve into his remarkable life and works, and witness the enduring legacy of this extraordinary man who continues to shape the world of literature and beyond.
George Bernard Shaw was the third child in a family that was not very wealthy but respectable. His father had some struggles with alcohol, but he passed on his talent for comedy to Shaw. His mother was a talented singer and music teacher who encouraged his love for music, especially opera. Shaw didn’t like traditional schools but had a curious mind and loved reading. He learned a lot on his own and was already well-read by the age of ten, with a passion for Shakespeare and the Bible. He later became a famous playwright and had strong beliefs about the importance of teaching through art.
When George Bernard Shaw was sixteen, his family faced financial difficulties, so he took a job as a clerk in a Land Agency. Though he did well and received rewards, he didn’t like the job and wanted to be a writer. After five years, he quit and moved to London to pursue his writing career. For three years, his mother supported him while he focused on writing novels. He wrote five novels, but only four of them were published, and it became clear that his true talent was not in writing novels. In 1879, he briefly worked promoting the new Edison telephone, but he disliked the job and decided to stop seeking traditional employment and focus on his writing.
In 1879, George Bernard Shaw joined a debating club called the Zetetical Society, where he had discussions on economics, science, and religion. He became an influential speaker at public meetings and was inspired by a man named Henry George, who talked about Land Nationalization and the Single Tax. This sparked Shaw’s interest in economics and social theory, and he later became a socialist after reading Karl Marx’s “Das Kapital.”
In 1884, Shaw came across a tract published by the Fabian Society, a group of intellectuals. He attended their meetings and became a member of the society, which preached constitutional and evolutionary socialism. Shaw, along with his friend Sidney Webb and Mrs. Webb, became important members of the society. He expressed his socialist views in writings and speeches, including his book “The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism” and his plays like “Man and Superman.”
In the next stage of his career, Shaw became a critic with the help of William Archer. He started reviewing books for the Pall Mall Gazette and later became an art critic for the World. Shaw’s socialistic philosophy led him to write for The Star, a newspaper that promoted Irish Home Rule. However, his extreme views clashed with the newspaper’s owner, and he shifted to writing columns on music under a pseudonym. Eventually, he became the music critic for The World, where his lively and daring style gained him a wide and appreciative audience. Shaw was known for his bold and sometimes harsh critiques, but his support for Wagner and Mozart set him apart as a courageous champion of music.
George Bernard Shaw’s close association with William Archer played a crucial role in promoting Henrik Ibsen, an innovative playwright from Norway, as a ground-breaking artist who challenged the conventional theatre of their time. Shaw admired Ibsen’s characters, who not only acted but also thought and discussed matters, and saw him as an ethical philosopher and social critic, a role Shaw himself embraced. In a paper on Ibsen called ‘The Quintessence of Ibsen’ (1891, Shaw emphasized the dramatist’s responsibility to explore how characters respond to social forces and to challenge conventional morality.
Shaw’s first play, “The Widowers’ Houses,” addressed the issue of slum-landlordism, making it revolutionary in England. Though it caused a sensation, it didn’t achieve commercial success. Nevertheless, Shaw was undeterred and continued to create thought-provoking works, such as the amusing comedy of manners, “The Philanderer.”
In 1894, George Bernard Shaw’s play “Arms and the Man” was a big success and has been revived numerous times. It showed Shaw’s unique style, blending humour with serious themes. Another play he wrote that year, “Mrs. Warren’s Profession,” caused a lot of controversy because it dealt with the economic reasons behind prostitution. Shaw’s play “Candida,” first produced in 1895, is considered one of his best works and tells the story of a strong and honest marriage between Candida and the Reverend Morrell.
In January 1895, George Bernard Shaw became a drama critic for The Saturday Review, where he wrote essays about plays. He was outspoken and determined to change the Victorian drama and make it more meaningful. He criticized Oscar Wilde’s play “The Importance of Being Earnest” as being funny but not substantial. Shaw also clashed with Shakespearean actor Sir Henry Irving over cutting the text of Shakespeare’s plays. His drama reviews are a valuable record of the theatre scene in the 1890s.
In his work with the Fabians, Shaw met a woman named Charlotte Payne-Townshend, who was deeply concerned about social justice. They got married in 1898 after she helped him during a long illness. She became his critic and helper throughout their marriage. During this time, Shaw continued writing plays like “You Never Can Tell,” “The Man of Destiny,” and “The Devil’s Disciple,” which became a big success in the United States. By the early 1900s, Shaw was a major force in the new drama of the twentieth century, and even William Archer, who initially doubted him, acknowledged his talent after seeing “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. Over the next few years, he wrote many more plays, including “Major Barbara,” “Androcles and the Lion,” “Pygmalion,” “Heartbreak House,” “Back to Methuselah,” and “Saint Joan.” His plays gained worldwide recognition, and he was offered honours by the Crown, but he refused them. However, he did accept the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1926, claiming it was because the public was grateful that he hadn’t published anything that year.
Shaw had persistently rejected offers from filmmakers. According to one story, when bothered 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.” However, he changed his mind when he met Gabriel Pascal, who impressed him. Shaw agreed to make the movie “Pygmalion,” which became a big hit. Later, other plays like “Major Barbara” and “Androcles and the Lion” also became popular. “Pygmalion” was turned into a musical called “My Fair Lady,” which became a huge success when it premiered in 1956.
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. Throughout his long life, even when he was bedridden with a broken hip at the age of ninety-two, Shaw continued to live by his beliefs. In 1949, at the Malvern Festival, his play “Buoyant Billions” was produced, and he also published “Sixteen Self Sketches,” which was well-received. He had plans to write another play, but unfortunately, he passed away on November 2, 1950.
© Md Rustam Ansari
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