George Bernard Shaw
gigatos | November 5, 2021
George Bernard Shaw (November 2, 1950), known at the author”s own request as Bernard Shaw, was an Irish playwright, critic and polemicist whose influence on Western theater, culture and politics extends from 1880 to the present day. He wrote more than sixty plays, some as important as Man and Superman (Man and Superman, 1902), Pygmalion (Pygmalion, 1912) or Saint Joan (Saint Joan, 1923). With a body of work that includes contemporary satire and historical allegory, Shaw became the leading playwright of his generation. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925 and in 1938 shared the Oscar for best adapted screenplay for the film version of Pygmalion, becoming the first person to receive both the Nobel Prize and an Oscar.
Born in Dublin, he moved to London in 1876, where he established himself as a writer and novelist. By the mid-1880s he was a respected theater and music critic. After a political awakening, he joined the gradualist Fabian Society, becoming its most prominent propagandist. Shaw had been writing plays for years before his first success, Arms and the Man (1898). Influenced by Henrik Ibsen, he sought to introduce a new realism into English-language drama, using his plays as vehicles for spreading his political, social and religious ideas. At the beginning of the 20th century his reputation as a playwright was secured with a series of popular and critical successes such as Major Barbara (1905), The Doctor”s Dilemma (1906) and Caesar and Cleopatra (1901).
His views were often controversial: he promoted eugenics and the Shavian alphabet while opposing vaccination and organized religion. He made himself unpopular by denouncing both sides in World War I as equally culpable. He censured British policy in Ireland during the postwar period, eventually becoming a citizen of the Irish Free State in 1934, maintaining dual citizenship. During the interwar years he wrote a series of often ambitious plays that achieved varying degrees of popular success. His interest in politics and controversy had not waned; by the late 1920s he had largely renounced Fabian gradualism and often wrote and spoke favorably of dictatorships of both right and left, expressing admiration for both Mussolini and Stalin. In the last decade of his life he made fewer public statements, but continued to write prolifically until shortly before his death at the age of 94, having rejected all state honors bestowed upon him, including the Order of Merit in 1946.
Since his death the opinion of critics and scholars on his works has varied, but he has often been rated as the second most important English-language playwright after William Shakespeare; numerous scholars of his work consider him to be a major influence on several generations of playwrights.
Born at No. 3 Upper Synge Street in Portobello, a lower-middle class neighborhood of Dublin, he was the youngest and only male child of George Carr Shaw (1830-1913). His older sisters were Lucinda (Lucy) Frances (1853-1920) and Elinor Agnes (1855-1876). The Shaw family was of English descent and belonged to the Protestant dominion in Ireland.
His father, a useless alcoholic, was among the less fortunate members of the family; his relatives secured him a sinecure in the civil service, in which he ceased to be pensioned off in the early 1850s; he then worked irregularly as a corn merchant. In 1852 he married Bessie Gurly; in the opinion of Michael Holroyd, Shaw”s biographer, she married to escape a tyrannical great-aunt. If, as Holroyd and others contend, George”s motives were financial, then he must have been disappointed, for Bessie brought him little of her family”s money. He came to despise her worthless and often drunken husband, with whom she shared what her son later described as a life of “dignified poverty.”
When Shaw was born, his mother had been having an affair with George John Lee, a flamboyant figure well known in Dublin musical circles, and Shaw maintained a lifelong obsession that Lee may have been his biological father, a possibility on which there is no consensus among scholars. Shaw maintained a lifelong obsession that Lee may have been his biological father, a possibility on which there is no consensus among scholars of the playwright. The young Shaw did not suffer cruelty from his mother, but he later recalled that her indifference and lack of affection hurt him deeply. He found solace in music, which abounded in the house. Lee was a conductor and singing teacher; Bessie had a good mezzo-soprano voice and was greatly influenced by Lee”s unorthodox method of vocal production. The Shaw home was often filled with music, with frequent gatherings of singers and musicians.
In 1862, Lee and the Shaws agreed to share a house, No. 1 Hatch Street, in an opulent suburb of Dublin, and a cottage in the country on Dalkey Hill, overlooking Killiney Bay. Shaw, a sensitive boy, found the less salubrious parts of Dublin scandalous and distressing, and was happiest in the cottage. Lee”s students often gave him their books, which the young man read avidly; thus he gradually acquired a deep musical knowledge of choral and operatic works and became acquainted with a wide variety of literature.
Between 1865 and 1871 he attended four schools, all of which he hated. His schoolboy experiences left him disillusioned with formal education: “Schools and schoolmasters,” he later wrote, were “prisons and jailers in which children are kept to keep them from molesting and being with their parents.” In October 1871 he left school to become a subaltern in a Dublin firm of estate managers, where he worked hard and quickly rose to the position of chief cashier. During this period he was known as “George Shaw”; after 1876, he stopped using “George” and came to call himself “Bernard Shaw.”
In June 1873 Lee left Dublin for London and never returned. Two weeks later Bessie followed him, and the two girls joined her. Shaw”s explanation for why his mother followed Lee was that without the latter”s financial contribution, the shared household had to fall apart. Alone in Dublin with his father, Shaw made up for the absence of music at home by learning to play the piano on his own.
In early 1876 Shaw learned from his mother that Agnes was dying of tuberculosis. He resigned from his job with the estate managers and in March traveled to England to join his mother and Lucy at Agnes”s funeral. He never lived in Ireland again and did not visit her until 29 years later.
He initially refused to seek an administrative job in London. His mother allowed him to live for free in her South Kensington home, but he needed a salary. He had abandoned his teenage ambition to become a painter and was not yet thinking of turning to writing as a livelihood, but Lee got him a small job writing a music column, under Lee”s name, in a satirical weekly, The Hornet. Lee”s relations with Bessie had deteriorated after his move to London, but Shaw kept in touch with Lee, who found him work as a pianist in rehearsals and occasional singer.
Eventually he was forced into clerical work. In the meantime, he obtained a reading permit for the British Museum Reading Room (forerunner of the British Library) and spent most weekdays there, reading and writing. His first attempt to write a drama, begun in 1878, was a satirical blank verse piece on a religious theme, which he abandoned without finishing it, as was his first attempt to write a novel. His first finished novel, Immaturity (1879), was too gray to interest publishers and did not appear until the 1930s. He was briefly employed by the newly formed Edison Telephone Company in 1879-80, where, as in Dublin, he rose rapidly. However, when the Edison merged with its rival Bell Telephone Company, he decided not to seek a position in the new organization, and set his sights on a full-time career as an author.
For the next four years he earned a negligible income from writing and received financial help from his mother. In 1881, for the sake of economy, and increasingly as a matter of principle, he became a vegetarian. He grew a beard to hide a scar on his face caused by smallpox. In quick succession he wrote two more novels: The Irrational Knot (1880) and Love Among the Artists (both were serialized a few years later in the socialist magazine Our Corner.
In 1880 he began attending meetings of the Zetetical Society, whose aim was “to seek the truth in all matters affecting the interests of the human race.” There he met Sidney Webb, a minor civil servant who, like Shaw, was self-educated. Despite the difference in style and temperament, they quickly recognized each other”s qualities and developed a lifelong friendship. Shaw later reflected, “You knew everything I didn”t know and I knew everything you didn”t know … We had everything to learn from each other and brains enough to do it.”
His next dramatic attempt was a one-act play in French, Un Petit Drame, written in 1884 but not published during his lifetime. In the same year the critic William Archer proposed a collaboration, with plot by Archer and dialogue by Shaw; the project failed, but Shaw took up the sketch as the basis for Widowers” Houses in 1892, and the relationship with Archer proved of immense value to Shaw”s career.
On September 5, 1882 Shaw attended a meeting at the Memorial Hall in Farringdon, addressed by the political economist Henry George. Shaw then read George”s book Progress and Poverty (1879), which awakened his interest in economics. He began attending meetings of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), where he discovered the works of Karl Marx, and subsequently spent much of 1883 reading Capital. He was not impressed by the founder of the SDF, H. M. Hyndman, whom he found autocratic, morose, and lacking in leadership qualities. Shaw doubted the SDF”s ability to embark the working classes on an effective radical movement and did not join it, saying he preferred to work with his intellectual peers.
After reading a tract, Why Are The Many Poor? published by the newly formed Fabian Society, Shaw attended the next meeting announced by the society, on May 16, 1884. and before the year was out he had provided the society with its first manifesto, published as Fabian Tract No. 2 A Manifesto. He joined the executive committee in January 1885 and later that year recruited Webb and also Annie Besant, an excellent speaker.
From 1885 to 1889 he attended the fortnightly meetings of the British Economic Association; this was, according to Holroyd, “as near to a university education as Shaw had ever come.” This experience changed his political ideas; he turned away from Marxism and became a champion of gradualism. When in 1886-87 the Fabians debated whether to adhere to anarchism, as advocated by Charlotte Wilson, Besant, and others, Shaw joined the majority in rejecting this approach. After a demonstration in Trafalgar Square led by Besant was violently broken up by the authorities on November 13, 1887 (events later known as “Bloody Sunday”), Shaw became convinced of the folly of attempting to defy police power. Thereafter, he essentially accepted the principle of “impregnation” espoused by Webb: the idea that the best socialism could be achieved through the infiltration of people and ideas into existing political parties.
Throughout the 1880s the Fabian Society was diminished, and its message of moderation often went unheard among other, more strident voices. Its notoriety resurfaced in 1889 with the publication of Fabian Essays in Socialism, edited by Shaw, who also wrote two of the essays. The second of these, “Transition,” details the question of gradualism and penetration, stating that “the necessity for cautious and gradual change must be obvious to all.” In 1890 Shaw produced Tract No. 13, What Socialism Is, a revision of an earlier treatise in which Charlotte Wilson had defined socialism in anarchist terms. In Shaw”s new version, readers were assured that “socialism can be carried out in a perfectly constitutional manner by democratic institutions.”
Novelist and critic
The mid-1880s marked a turning point in Shaw”s life, both personally and professionally: he lost his virginity, published two novels, and began his career as a critic. He had been celibate until his twenty-ninth birthday, when his shyness was overcome by Jane (Jenny) Patterson, a widow a few years older. Their affair continued, not always smoothly, for eight years. Shaw”s sex life has provoked much speculation and debate among his biographers, but there is consensus that the relationship with Patterson was one of his few non-platonic romantic relationships.
The published novels, neither of them commercially successful, were his last two efforts in this genre: Cashel Byron”s Profession, written in 1882-83, and An Unsocial Socialist, begun and completed in 1883. The latter was serialized in ToDay magazine in 1884, although it did not appear in book form until 1887. Cashel Byron appeared in the magazine and in book form in 1886.
In 1884 and 1885, thanks to Archer”s influence, Shaw was hired to write book and music reviews for London newspapers. When Archer resigned as art critic of The World in 1886 he secured Shaw as his successor. William Morris and John Ruskin were the two figures of his time whose views he most admired in the art world, and he tried to follow their precepts in his reviews. Their emphasis on morality appealed to Shaw, who rejected the idea of art for art”s sake, and insisted that all good art should be didactic.
Of his various critical activities that he undertook during the 1880s and 1890s, the one for which he was best known was that of music critic. After serving as an MP in 1888, he became music critic for The Star newspaper in London in February 1889, writing under the pseudonym “Corno di Bassetto.” In May 1890 he returned to The World, where he wrote a weekly column as “G.B.S.” for over four years. In the 2016 version of the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Robert Anderson wrote: “Shaw”s collection of writings on music are unique in their command of English and compulsive fluency.” Shaw ceased to be a salaried music critic in August 1894, but published occasional articles on the subject throughout his career, the last of which written in 1950.
From 1895 to 1898 he was the theatrical critic of The Saturday Review, edited by his friend Frank Harris. As in The World, he used “G.B.S.” as his byline. He campaigned against the artificial conventions and hypocrisies of Victorian theater and demanded plays with realistic ideas and truthful characters. By this time he had embarked with fervor on a career as a playwright: “I had rashly begun the process, and instead of letting it collapse, I built up the evidence.”
Playwright and politician: 1890s
After using the plot of the failed 1884 collaboration with Archer to complete Widow”s House – it was performed twice in London in December 1892 – he continued to write plays. Progress was slow at first; The Philanderer, written in 1893 but not published until 1898, had to wait until 1905 for its staging. Similarly, Mrs. Warren”s Profession (1893) was written five years before publication and nine years before it reached the stage.
His first box-office hit was Arms and the Man (1894), a chimerical parody satirizing love conventions, military honor, and class. The press found the play too long and accused Shaw of mediocrity, of mocking heroism and patriotism, and of imitating the style of W. S. Gilbert. The public was not of the same opinion, and the theater management staged additional matinee performances to meet the demand. The play ran from April to July, toured the provinces, and was performed in New York. It earned £341 in royalties during its first year, an amount sufficient to enable him to give up his paid job as a music critic. Among the cast of the London production was Florence Farr, with whom Shaw had a romantic relationship between 1890 and 1894, much to Jenny Patterson”s resentment.
The success of Man and Guns was not immediately replicated. Candida, which depicted a young woman who chose a conventional romantic option for unconventional reasons, was performed only once at South Shields in 1895; in 1897 a one-act play about Napoleon entitled The Man of Destiny had a single staging at Croydon. By the 1890s, his plays were better known in print than on the stages of West End theaters; his biggest success of the decade was in 1897 in New York, when Richard Mansfield”s production of his historical melodrama The Devil”s Disciple brought him over £2000 in royalties.
In January 1893 he attended as a Fabian delegate to the Bradford conference that led to the founding of the Independent Labour Party. He was skeptical of the new party, and scorned the possibility that it could shift working-class allegiance from sport to politics. He persuaded the conference to adopt resolutions abolishing indirect taxes and taxing unearned income “to extinction.” Back in London, Shaw made what socialist and writer Margaret Cole, in her Fabian history, calls a “great philippic” against the minority Liberal administration that had come to power in 1892. In the treatise To Your Tents, O Israel, he censured the government for ignoring social issues and concentrating solely on Irish Home Rule, an issue Shaw considered irrelevant to socialism. In 1894 the Fabian Society received a substantial bequest from a sympathizer, Henry Hunt Hutchinson; Webb, who chaired the board of trustees appointed to oversee the bequest, proposed using most of this money to found a school of economics and politics. Shaw objected, thinking that such an operation was contrary to the specific purpose of the bequest. He was finally persuaded to support the proposal, and the London School of Economics and Political Science opened its doors in the summer of 1895.
In the late 1890s, his political activities waned as he concentrated on making a name for himself as a playwright. In 1897 he was persuaded to fill a vacancy as vestryman in the London borough of St. Pancras. At least initially, Shaw took his municipal responsibilities seriously; when the London government was reformed in 1899 and the parish of St. Pancras became the Metropolitan Borough of St. Pancras, he was elected to the newly formed borough council.
In 1898, as a result of overwork, Shaw”s health suffered. He was cared for by Charlotte Payne-Townshend, a wealthy Anglo-Irish woman whom he had met through the Webbs; the previous year she had proposed that they should marry. He had not accepted, but when she insisted on caring for him at her country house, Shaw, worried that this might cause a scandal, agreed to the marriage. The ceremony took place on June 1, 1898, at the registry office They were both forty-one years old. According to biographer and critic St. John Ervine, “their life together was entirely happy.” There were no children from the marriage, which is generally believed never to have been consummated; whether this was solely at Charlotte”s wish, as Shaw liked to imply, is less well credited. In the early weeks of the marriage, Shaw was busy writing his Marxist analysis of Wagner”s opera cycle The Ring of the Nibelung, published as The Perfect Wagnerite in late 1898. In 1906 the Shaws bought a cottage in Ayot St. Lawrence, which they named Shaw”s Corner and in which they lived for the rest of their lives, although they retained a London apartment in the Adelphi and later in Whitehall Court.
Stage of success: 1900-1914
During the first decade of the twentieth century, Shaw earned a solid reputation as a playwright. In 1904 J. E. Vedrenne and Harley Granville-Barker set up a company at the Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square, Chelsea, to perform modern drama. Over the next five years they staged fourteen plays by Shaw, the first, John Bull”s Other Island (1904), a comedy about an Englishman in Ireland, attracted leading politicians, including King Edward VII, whose anecdote is that he laughed so hard that he broke his armchair. Its performance at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin was avoided, for fear of the affront it might provoke, although it was performed at the city”s Royal Theatre in November 1907. Later, Shaw wrote that William Butler Yeats, who had requested the play, “got something more than he had expected … It did not chime with the spirit of the neo-Gaelic movement, which was bent on creating a new Ireland in pursuit of its own ideal, whereas my play is a very uncompromising representation of the real old Ireland.” Shaw and Yeats were good friends, however; Yeats and Lady Gregory tried unsuccessfully to persuade Shaw to take over the co-directorship of the Abbey Theatre vacant after the death of J. Shaw admired other figures of the Irish literary renaissance, such as George Russell, and was good friends with Sean O”Casey, who was inspired to become a playwright after reading John Bull”s Other Island.
Man and Superman (Man and Superman), completed in 1902, was a hit both at the Royal Court in 1905 and in Robert Loraine”s New York production in the same year. Shaw”s plays produced by Vedrenne and Granville-Barker included Major Barbara (1905), which contrasted the morality of arms manufacturers and the Salvation Army; The Doctor”s Dilemma (1906), a serious play about professional ethics; and Caesar and Cleopatra, performed in New York in 1906 and in London the following year, Shaw”s riposte to Shakespeare”s Antony and Cleopatra.
Now a prosperous and established playwright, Shaw experimented with unorthodox theatrical forms, described by his biographer Stanley Weintraub as “debate drama” and “serious farce. Among these plays are Getting Married (Getting Married, first performed in 1908), The Shewing-Up of Blanco Posnet (1909), Misalliance (Misalliance, 1910), and Fanny”s First Play (1911). Blanco Posnet was banned on religious grounds by the Lord Chamberlain (then the official censor of theater in England), so it was performed instead in Dublin, where it completely filled the Abbey Theatre. Fanny”s First Play, a comedy about suffragettes, was the longest running initial staging of all Shaw”s plays (622 performances).
Androcles and the Lion (1912), a less heretical study of true and false religious positions than White Posnet, ran for eight weeks between September and October 1913, followed by one of his most successful plays, Pygmalion, written in 1912 and staged in Vienna the following year, and in Berlin shortly thereafter. It was followed by one of his most successful plays, Pygmalion, written in 1912 and staged in Vienna the following year, and in Berlin soon after. Shaw commented, “It is the custom of the English press when one of my plays is first performed to inform the world that it is not a play: that it is dull, blasphemous, unpopular and a financial failure … Hence arose an urgent request from the theatrical producers in Vienna and Berlin that I should have it performed by them first.” The British production opened in April 1914, starring Sir Herbert Tree and Mrs. Patrick Campbell in the roles of a professor of phonetics, and Eliza, a young Cockney flower girl. There had previously been an affair between Shaw and Campbell that caused his wife considerable concern, but by the time of the London premiere it was over. The play filled the theater”s capacity until July, when Tree insisted on going on vacation, ending the production. The co-star then traveled to the United States to perform the play there.
Fabian years: 1900-1913
In 1899, when the Second Boer War broke out, Shaw wanted the Fabian Society to take a neutral stance on what he considered, like Home Rule, a “non-socialist” issue. Others, including future British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, favored unequivocal opposition to the war, which they saw as a consequence of imperialism, and left the Society when it endorsed Shaw”s position. In the Fabian manifesto on the war, Fabianism and the Empire (1900), Shaw declared that “until the World Federation becomes a fait accompli we must accept the more responsible available imperial federations as substitutes.”
With the turn of the new century, Shaw was increasingly disillusioned by the limited influence of the Fabians in national politics. Thus, although he was appointed a delegate, he did not attend the London Fabian conference at the Memorial Hall in February 1900 that created the Labor Representation Committee, the forerunner of today”s British Labour Party. By 1903, when his term as a borough councillor ended, he had lost his initial enthusiasm: “After six years as a borough councillor I am convinced that borough councils should be abolished.” However, in 1904 he stood for election to the London County Council, in which, after an eccentric campaign that Holroyd characterizes as ” entirely certain not to be elected,” he was duly defeated. It was Shaw”s last foray into electoral politics. Nationally, the 1906 general election brought a large Liberal majority and the entry of 29 Labour MPs. Shaw viewed this result with skepticism; he had a poor opinion of the new prime minister, Henry Campbell-Bannerman, and considered the Labour MPs inconsequential: “I apologize to the universe for my connection with that party.”
In the years following the 1906 election, he felt that the Fabians needed new leadership, which they saw in fellow writer H. G. Wells, who had joined the society in February 1903. Wells”s ideas for reform, particularly his proposals for closer cooperation with the Independent Labor Party, placed him at odds with the society”s “Old Gang” led by Shaw. According to Cole, Wells “had a poor ability to expound his ideas at public meetings against Shaw”s skilled and practiced virtuosity.” In Shaw”s view, “the Old Gang did not finish Wells, it annihilated itself.” Wells left the society in September 1908; Shaw remained a member, but left the executive committee in April 1911. He later wondered whether the Old Gang should have given way to Wells a few years earlier: “God only knows whether the Society would not have done better.” Although less active (he blamed his advanced age) Shaw remained a Fabian.
In 1912 he invested £1000 for a fifth stake in the Webb”s new publishing venture, the socialist weekly The New Statesman, which appeared in April 1913. He became a founding editor, publicist and later contributor, mostly anonymously. He was soon at odds with the magazine”s editor, Clifford Sharp, who by 1916 was refusing his contributions (“the only newspaper in the world that refuses to publish anything of mine,” according to Shaw).
World War I
After the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, Shaw wrote his treatise Common Sense About the War, which argued that warring nations were equally to blame. This approach was repulsive in an atmosphere of fervent patriotism, and offended many of Shaw”s friends; Ervine documents that “its appearance at any public function caused the immediate departure of many of those present.”
Despite his wandering reputation, his propaganda skills were recognized by the British authorities, and in early 1917 he was invited by Field Marshal Douglas Haig to visit the battlefields of the Western Front. Shaw”s 10,000-word report, which emphasized the human aspects of the soldier”s life, was well received and he became less of a lonely voice. In April 1917 he joined the national consensus in welcoming America”s entry into the war: “a first-class moral asset to the common cause against Junkerism.”
During the war he premiered three short plays. The Inca of Perusalem, written in 1915, ran into trouble with the censor for parodying not only the enemy but the British military command; it was performed in 1916 at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. O”Flaherty V.C., which satirized the government”s attitude to Irish conscripts, was banned in the U.K. and was performed at a Royal Air Corps base in Belgium in 1917. Augustus Does His Bit, a genial farce, was granted a license and premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in January 1917.
Shaw had long supported the principle of Irish Home Rule within the British Empire (which he believed should become the British Commonwealth). In April 1916 he wrote scathingly in The New York Times of militant Irish nationalism: “On the point of learning nothing and forgetting nothing, these countrymen of mine leave the Bourbons nowhere.” Total independence, he asserted, was unfeasible; alliance with a larger power (preferably England) was essential. Total independence, he asserted, was unfeasible; alliance with a larger power (preferably England) was essential. The Dublin Easter Rising that same month caught him by surprise. After its suppression by British forces, he expressed horror at the summary execution of the rebel leaders, but continued to believe in some form of Anglo-Irish union. In How to Settle the Irish Question (1917), he envisaged a federal solution, with national and imperial parliaments. Holroyd points out that by then the separatist Sinn Féin party was on the rise, and the moderate approaches of Shaw and others were forgotten.
In the postwar period, Shaw despaired at the coercive policies of the British government toward Ireland, and he joined fellow writers Hilaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton in publicly condemning these actions. The Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921 led to the partition of Ireland between the north and south, a provision that dismayed Shaw. In 1922 civil war broke out in the south between pro- and anti-treaty factions, with the former eventually establishing what was to become the Irish Free State. Shaw visited Dublin in August and met Michael Collins, then head of the Provisional Government of the Irish Free State. Shaw was impressed with Collins and was saddened when, three days later, the Irish leader was ambushed and killed by anti-treaty forces. In a letter to Collins” sister, Shaw wrote: “I met Michael for the first and last time last Saturday, and am very glad I did. I rejoice in his memory, and will not be so disloyal to it as to weep over his brave death.” Shaw remained a British subject all his life, but acquired dual British-Irish citizenship in 1934.
His first major play after the war was Heartbreak House, written in 1916-17 and first performed in 1920. It was performed on Broadway in November and received a cool reception; according to The Times, “Mr. Shaw on this occasion has more than usual to say and takes twice as long as usual to say it.” After the London premiere in October 1921, The Times agreed with the American critics, “As usual with Mr. Shaw, the play lasts about an hour,” although it contains “much entertainment and some thoughtfulness, and the play contains “a good deal of entertainment and a good deal of reflection. Shaw, the play lasts about an hour,” although it contains “much entertainment and some profitable reflection.” Ervine in The Observer found the play brilliant but ponderously acted, except for Edith Evans as Lady Utterword.
His most extensive play was Back to Methuselah, written in 1918-20 and staged in 1922. Weintraub describes it as “Shaw”s attempt to defend himself ”from the bottomless pit of discouraging pessimism.”” This series of five interrelated plays depicts the evolution and effects of longevity, from the Garden of Eden to A.D. 31920. Critics found the five plays surprisingly uneven in quality and wit. The initial staging was brief, and the play has subsequently been performed on few occasions. Shaw felt that he had exhausted what was left of his creative gifts in the immense scope of this “Metabiological Pentateuch.” He was sixty-seven years old, and thought he would write no more plays.
This mood was short-lived. In 1920 Joan of Arc was declared a saint by Pope Benedict XV; Shaw had long considered Joan an interesting historical character, and his view of her varied between “unintelligent genius” and someone of “exceptional good sense.” He had considered writing a play about her in 1913, and the canonization prompted him to take up the subject again. He wrote Saint Joan in mid-1923 and the play opened on Broadway in December, where it was enthusiastically received, as it was at its London performance the following March. In Weintraub”s words, “even the Nobel Prize committee could no longer ignore Shaw after Saint Joan.” The motivation for the award of the 1925 Nobel Prize for Literature praised him for “his work marked by idealism and humanity, his stimulating satire often infused with a singular poetic beauty.” Shaw accepted the award, but declined the accompanying monetary amount, arguing that “My readers and my audience provide me with more than enough money for my needs.”
It took five years after St. Joan for her to write a new play. Beginning in 1924, she spent four years writing what she described as her “magnum opus,” a political treatise entitled The Intelligent Woman”s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism. The book was published in 1928 and sold well. At the end of the decade she wrote her last Fabian treatise, a commentary on the League of Nations, where she described the League as “a school for the new international political capacity against the old Foreign Office diplomacy,” but felt that it had not yet become the “World Federation.”
He returned to the theater with what he called “a political extravaganza,” The Apple Cart, written in late 1928. It was, according to Ervine, unexpectedly popular, taking a conservative, monarchist, anti-democratic line that appealed to contemporary audiences. The premiere was in June 1928 in Warsaw, and the first British production two months later at the first Malvern Festival, founded by Shaw together with the theatrical director Sir Barry Jackson. Another eminent artist closely associated with the festival was the composer Edward Elgar, with whom Shaw maintained a deep friendship and mutual respect. He described The Apple Cart to Elgar as “an outrageous aristocratic parody of democratic politics, with a brief but shocking sexual interlude”.
During the 1920s he began to lose faith in the idea that society could be changed through Fabian gradualism, and became increasingly fascinated with dictatorial methods. In 1922 he had welcomed Mussolini”s rise to power in Italy, commenting that in the midst of “indiscipline and confusion and parliamentary paralysis,” Mussolini was “the right sort of tyrant.” Shaw was willing to tolerate certain dictatorial excesses; in his Dictionary of National Biography Weintraub comments that Shaw”s “flirtation with interwar authoritarian regimes” took a long time to wear off, and Beatrice Webb thought he was “obsessed” with Mussolini.
Shaw”s enthusiasm for the Soviet Union dates back to the early 1920s when he had praised Lenin as “the most interesting statesman in Europe”.Having turned down several opportunities to visit, in 1931 he joined a group led by Nancy Astor.The carefully conducted trip culminated in a lengthy meeting with Stalin, whom Shaw later described as “a Georgian gentleman” who lacked malice.At a dinner held in his honor, Shaw told attendees: “I have seen all your ”terrors” and was enormously pleased by them.” In March 1933 Shaw was co-signatory of a letter to The Manchester Guardian protesting against the continued misrepresentation of Soviet achievements: “No lie is too fantastic, no slander is too stale … for employment by the most reckless elements in the British press.”
Shaw”s admiration for Mussolini and Stalin demonstrated his growing belief that dictatorship was the only viable political order. When the Nazi Party came to power in Germany in January 1933, Shaw described Hitler as “a very remarkable man, a very able man,” and declared himself proud to be the only writer in England who was “scrupulously polite and fair to Hitler.” His main admiration was for Stalin, whose regime he defended uncritically throughout the decade. Shaw saw the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact of 1939 as a triumph for Stalin, who, he said, now had Hitler under his thumb.
His first play of the decade was Too True to be Good, written in 1931 and premiered in Boston in February 1932. The reception was lukewarm. Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times commented that Shaw had “given in to the impulse to write without having a theme,” judged the play to be a “disjointed and indifferently tedious conversation.” The New York Herald Tribune correspondent said that most of the play was “speeches, unbelievably long lectures” and that although the audience enjoyed the play they were puzzled by it.
During the decade Shaw traveled frequently. Most of his travels were with Charlotte, who enjoyed voyages on ocean liners and where he found peace to write during the long sea voyages. Shaw found an enthusiastic welcome in the Union of South Africa in 1932, despite his harsh comments on the racial division of the country. In December 1932 the couple embarked on a cruise around the world. In March 1933 they arrived in San Francisco, to begin Shaw”s first visit to the United States. He had previously refused to go to “that horrible country, that uncivilized place,” “unfit to govern itself … intolerant, superstitious, vulgar, violent, lawless and arbitrary.” He visited Hollywood, which did not impress him, and New York, where he lectured at the Metropolitan Opera House. Overwhelmed by the annoying attentions of the press, Shaw was glad when his ship sailed from New York harbor. The following year they traveled to New Zealand, which he considered “the best country I have ever been in”; he urged its people to be more confident and reduce their commercial dependence on Britain. He used the weeks at sea to finish two plays, The Simpleton of the Unexpected Isles and The Six of Calais, and to begin work on a third, The Millionairess.
Despite his disdain for Hollywood and its aesthetic values, he was enthusiastic about film and, in the middle of the decade, wrote screenplays for future film versions of Pygmalion and Saint Joan. The latter was never made, but Shaw entrusted the rights to the former to the then-unknown Gabriel Pascal, who produced it at Pinewood Studios in 1938. Shaw was determined that Hollywood would have nothing to do with the film, but he was unable to stop it, and it ended up winning an Oscar; he considered his award for best adapted screenplay an insult, coming from whom it came. He thus became the first person to receive both the Nobel Prize and an Oscar. In a 1993 study of the Oscars, Anthony Holden notes that Pygmalion was soon recognized as having “elevated filmmaking from illiteracy to literacy.”
Shaw”s last plays of the 1930s were Cymbeline Refinished (1936), Geneva (Geneva, 1936), and In Good King Charles”s Golden Days (1939), the first, a fantastic revision of Shakespeare, made little impression, but the second, a satire on European dictators, attracted more attention, though generally unfavorable. The first, a fantastic revision of Shakespeare, made little impression, but the second, a satire on European dictators, attracted more attention, though generally unfavorable. in particular, his parody of Hitler as “Herr Battler” was considered mild, almost sympathetic. the third, a historical dialogue play first seen at the Malvern Festival, was briefly performed in London in May 1940. critic James Agate said that the play contained nothing to which even the most conservative audiences would object, and although it was lengthy and lacking in dramatic action, only “foolish and idle” spectators would object. After their first performances, none of the three plays was seen again in West End theaters during Shaw”s lifetime.
Toward the end of the decade, the Shaws began to suffer ill health. Charlotte was increasingly incapacitated by her disfiguring osteitis, and he developed pernicious anemia, whose treatment, which included injections of concentrated animal liver, was successful, but this break with his vegetarian creed distressed him and brought condemnation from militant vegetarians.
World War II and later years
Although since The Apple Cart his plays had been received without great enthusiasm, during World War II his early plays were revived in the West End, starring actors such as Edith Evans, John Gielgud, Deborah Kerr and Robert Donat. In 1944 nine of his plays were performed in London, including The Man and the Guns with Ralph Richardson, Laurence Olivier, Sybil Thorndike and Margaret Leighton in the leading roles. Two companies toured Britain performing his plays. Two companies toured Britain performing his plays. The resurgence of his popularity did not tempt him to write a new play, and he concentrated on journalism. Pascal produced a new Shaw film, Major Barbara (1941), which was less successful artistically and commercially than Pygmalion, partly due to Pascal”s insistence on directing it, something for which he was not suited.
After the outbreak of war on September 3, 1939, and the rapid conquest of Poland, Shaw was accused of defeatism when, in an article in the New Statesman, he declared the war senseless and demanded a peace conference. However, when he became convinced that a negotiated peace was impossible, he publicly urged the then-neutral United States to join the fight. The bombing of London in 1940-41 drove the Shaws, both in their 80s, to live in Ayot St. Lawrence. Even there they were not safe from enemy air raids, and at times stayed with Nancy Astor at their country home, Cliveden. In 1943, the worst year of the London Blitz, the Shaws returned to Whitehall Court, where medical care was more readily available for Charlotte, although her condition deteriorated and she died in September of that year.
His last political treatise, Everybody”s Political What”s What, was published in 1944. Holroyd describes it as “a rambling narrative … repeating ideas he had given better elsewhere and then repeating himself.” The book sold well-85,000 copies by the end of the year. After Hitler”s suicide in May 1945, Shaw agreed with the formal condolences offered by the Irish taoiseach, Éamon de Valera, at the German embassy in Dublin. Shaw disapproved of the postwar judgments of the defeated German leaders as an act of moral superiority: “We are all potential criminals.”
Pascal was given a third chance to bring Shaw”s work to the screen with Caesar and Cleopatra (1945), which was poorly received by British critics, although American reviews were not as hostile. The film was poorly received by British critics, although American reviews were not as hostile; it cost three times its original budget and was called “the greatest financial failure in the history of British cinema.” Shaw thought its sumptuousness overrode the drama, and considered the film to be “a bad imitation of Cecil B. DeMille.”
In 1946, the year of his ninetieth birthday, he accepted release from Dublin and became the first honorary freeman of the London borough of St. Pancras. That same year, the government asked him informally if he would accept the Order of Merit, which he declined, believing that an author”s merit could only be determined by the posthumous verdict of history. The same year saw the publication of The Crime of Imprisonment, a revision of Imprisonment, a treatise Shaw had written 20 years earlier on prison conditions. It was highly praised; a review in The American Journal of Public Health considered it essential reading for any student of the American criminal justice system.
In his 90s, Shaw continued to write. His last works were Buoyant Billions (Farfetched Fables (a comic play for a puppet show; Shakes versus Shav (1949), a ten-minute piece in which Shakespeare and Shaw argue over who is the better writer; and Why She Would Not (1950), which Shaw described as “a little comedy,” written in one week shortly before his 94th birthday.
During his later years he enjoyed tending the gardens at Shaw”s Corner. He died at the age of 94 of kidney failure caused by injuries sustained when he fell while trimming a tree. He was cremated at Golders Green crematorium on November 6, 1950. His ashes, mixed with Charlotte”s, were scattered around the statue of St. Joan and along paths in the gardens of his residence.
Shaw published a compilation of his plays in 1934, which included forty-two plays. He wrote another twelve in the remaining sixteen years of his life, mostly one-act plays. Including eight earlier plays that he chose to omit from his compilation, the total is sixty-two.
His first three full-length plays dealt with social issues. He later grouped them together as Plays Unpleasant. Widower”s Houses (1892) deals with slum property owners, and introduces the first of Shaw”s New Women, a recurring feature of later plays. The Philanderer (1893) develops the New Woman theme, drawing on Ibsen, and contains elements of Shaw”s personal relationships, such as the character of Julia, who is based on Jenny Patterson. In a 2003 study, Judith Evans describes Mrs Warren”s Profession (Mrs Warren”s Profession, 1893) as “undoubtedly the most challenging” of the three Plays Unpleasant, using Mrs Warren”s profession (prostitute and later brothel owner) as a metaphor for a prostituted society.
This first trilogy was followed by a second, published as Plays Pleasant. Arms and the Man (1894) hides behind a burlesque chimerical romance a Fabian parable contrasting impractical idealism with pragmatic socialism. The central theme of Candida (the play contrasts the perspectives and aspirations of a Christian socialist and a poetic idealist. The third of the enjoyable plays, Fight of the Sexes (You Never Can Tell, 1896), portrays social mobility and the gap between generations, particularly in how they approach social relations in general and mating in particular.
Three Plays for Puritans, including The Devil”s Disciple (1896), Caesar and Cleopatra (1898), and Captain Brassbound”s Conversion (1899) focus on issues of empire and imperialism, a major theme of political discourse in the 1890s. The Gadfly, an adaptation of Ethel Voynich”s popular novel of the same name, was unfinished and was never performed. The Man of Destiny (1895) is a short play about Napoleon, prior to the performance of a major work.
His major works of the first decade of the twentieth century address individual social, political, or ethical issues. Man and Superman (Man and Superman, 1902) differs from the others in both subject matter and treatment, with Shaw”s interpretation of Bergson”s The Creative Evolution in a play the author writes in response to a colleague”s challenge to rework the Don Juan myth. The Admirable Bashville (The Admirable Bashville, 1901), a dramatization in blank verse of his novel Cashel Byron”s Profession (Cashel Byron”s Profession, 1882), focuses on the imperialist relationship between Britain and Africa. John Bull”s Other Island (John Bull”s Other Island, 1904), comically depicts the prevailing relationship between Britain and Ireland, which was popular at the time but disappeared from his general repertoire in later years. Major Barbara (The principles and practices of a munitions manufacturer are recounted and revealed to be highly religious in comparison with those of the Salvation Army and its benefactors. The Doctor”s Dilemma (The Doctor”s Dilemma, 1906), a play about medical ethics and moral choices in the allocation of scarce treatment, was described by Shaw as a tragedy. Because of his reputation for depicting characters that did not resemble flesh-and-blood people, his friend William Archer challenged him to depict a death on stage, and here he did, with a deathbed scene of the antihero.
Getting Married (Getting Married, 1908) and Unequal Marriage (Misalliance, 1909), the latter considered by Judith Evans to be a companion play to the former, are both in what Shaw called his “disquisitional” vein, with emphasis on discussion of ideas rather than dramatic events or realistic characterizations. He wrote seven short plays during the decade; they are all comedies, ranging from the deliberately absurd Passion, Poison, and Petrifaction (1905) to the satirical Press Cuttings (1909).
From the early 1910s until the end of World War I he wrote four full-length plays, the third and fourth of which are among the playwright”s most frequently staged. Fanny”s First Play (1911) continues his earlier analyses of middle-class British society from a Fabian point of view, with additional touches of melodrama and an epilogue in which theater critics discuss the play. Androcles and the Lion (1912), which Shaw began writing as a children”s play, became a study of the nature of religion and how to put Christian precepts into practice. Pygmalion (1912) is a study of language and pronunciation and their importance in society and personal relationships. To correct the impression left by the original actors that the play depicted a romantic relationship between the two main characters, Shaw rewrote the ending to make it clear that the heroine will marry another minor character. His only play during the war years is The House of Sorrows (Heartbreak House, 1917), which in his own words he describes as “cultivated and idle Europe before the war” drifting toward disaster. Shaw cited Shakespeare (King Lear) and Chekhov (The Cherry Orchard) as important influences on the play, and critics have found elements based on Congreve (The Way of the World) and Ibsen (The Master Builder).
The short works of this period range from the brilliant historical drama in The Dark Lady of the Sonnets and Great Catherine (three satirical plays about war, The Inca of Perusalem (a piece Shaw called “total absurdity,” The Music Cure (1914) and a brief sketch about a “Bolshevik empress,” Anna Janska (Annajanska, 1917).
Saint Joan (Saint Joan, 1923) won widespread praise for both Shaw and Sybil Thorndike, for whom he wrote the title role and who performed it in Britain. In the opinion of commentator Nicholas Grene, Shaw”s Joan, a “no-nonsense, Protestant, nationalistic mystic before her time,” is among the classic female lead roles of the 20th century. The Apple Cart (1929), was Shaw”s last popular success. He gave that play and its successor, Too True to Be Good (the former is a satirical comedy about some political philosophies (with a brief real love scene as an interlude) and the latter, in the words of Judith Evans, “deals with the social mores of the individual, and is vague.” His plays of the 1930s were written in the shadow of worsening national and international political events. Again, with On the Rocks (1933) and The Simpleton of the Unexpected Isles (1934), a political comedy with a clear plot was followed by an introspective drama. The first play shows a British prime minister considering, but ultimately rejecting, the establishment of a dictatorship; the second deals with polygamy and eugenics and ends with Judgment Day.
The Millionairess (The Millionairess, 1934) is an absurd depiction of the business and social affairs of a successful businesswoman. Geneva (Geneva, 1936) shows the weakness of the League of Nations in comparison with the dictators of Europe. In Good King Charles”s Golden Days (1939), described by Weintraub as a trivial and disjointed high comedy, also depicts authoritarianism, but less satirically than Geneva.
As in previous decades, the short plays were generally comedies, some historical and others addressing various political and social concerns of the author. Ervine writes of Shaw”s later work saying that, while still “astonishingly vigorous and lively,” it showed unmistakable signs of his age. “The best of his work at this period, however, was full of the wisdom and beauty of mind often shown by the aged who keep their wits within them.”
Music and Drama Criticism
A collection of his music criticism, published in three volumes, runs to over 2700 pages, covering the British music scene from 1876 to 1950, but the core of the collection is his six years as music critic for The Star and The World in the late 1880s and early 1890s. In his view, music criticism should be of interest to everyone, not just the musical elite, and he wrote for the lay reader, avoiding technical jargon: “Mesopotamian phrases like ”mastery of D major”.” He was vehemently biased in his columns, promoting the music of Wagner and disparaging that of Brahms and the British composers like Stanford and Parry whom he saw as Brahmsian. He campaigned against the prevailing fashion for performing Handel”s oratorios with huge amateur choruses and excessive orchestration, calling for “a chorus of twenty able artists.” He derided opera productions performed unrealistically, or sung in languages the audience did not speak.
In his view, London theaters in the 1890s staged too many revivals of old plays and not enough new works. He campaigned against “melodrama, sentimentality, stereotyping, and outworn conventions.” As a music critic, he had often been able to concentrate on analyzing new works, but with the theater he was often forced to resort to discussing how various performers interpreted well-known plays. In a study of Shaw”s work as a theater critic, E. J. West writes that Shaw “incessantly compared and contrasted artists in their interpretation and technique.” Shaw wrote more than 150 articles as a theater critic for The Saturday Review, in which he reviewed more than 212 productions. He defended Ibsen”s plays when many audiences considered them scandalous, and his 1891 book Quintessence of Ibsenism was a classic throughout the 20th century. Of the contemporary playwrights who wrote for the West End stage, he placed Oscar Wilde above the rest: “… our only rigorous dramatist: he plays with everything: with wit, with philosophy, with drama, with actors and audience, with the whole theater. A collection of his reviews were published as Our Theatres in the Nineties in 1932.
Shaw maintained a provocative and frequently contradictory attitude toward Shakespeare (whose name he insisted on spelling “Shakespear.”) Many felt that he found it difficult to take the subject seriously; author, politician, and doplomat Duff Cooper observed that in attacking Shakespeare, “it is Shaw who looks like a ridiculous pygmy shaking his fist at a mountain.” Shaw was, however, a connoisseur of Shakespeare, and in an article in which he wrote, “With the single exception of Homer, there is no eminent writer, not even Sir Walter Scott, whom I can so completely despise as I despise Shakespear when I compare my mind with his,” he also said, “But I am bound to add that I pity the man who cannot enjoy Shakespear. He has outlived a thousand more able thinkers and will outlive a thousand more.” Shaw had two usual targets for his more extreme comments on Shakespeare: indiscriminate “Shakespeidolaters,” and actors and directors who presented insensitively cut texts in over-elaborate productions. He was continually drawn to Shakespeare and wrote three plays with Shakespearean themes: The Dark Lady of the Sonnets, Cymbeline Refinished, and Shakes versus Shav. In a 2001 analysis of Shaw”s Shakespearean criticism, Robert Pierce concludes that Shaw, who was not an academic, viewed Shakespeare”s plays-like all theater-from the practical point of view of an author: “Shaw helps us to move away from the image of Shakespeare as a titanic genius, whose art cannot be analyzed or connected to the mundane considerations of theatrical conditions and profit and loss, or to a specific staging and cast of actors.”
Political and social writings
His political and social commentaries were published several times in Fabian treatises, in essays, in two full-length books, in countless newspaper and magazine articles, and in prefaces to his works. Most of Shaw”s Fabian tracts were published anonymously, representing the voice of the society rather than Shaw, although the society”s secretary, Edward Pease, later confirmed Shaw”s authorship. According to Holroyd, the aim of the early Fabians, mainly under Shaw”s influence, was to “alter history by rewriting it.” Shaw”s talent as a pamphleteer was immediately brought to bear in the making of society manifestos-after which, says Holroyd, he was never again so succinct.
After the turn of the twentieth century, Shaw made his ideas increasingly known through his plays. One critic of the time, writing in 1904, observed that Shaw”s dramas provided “a pleasing means” of attracting proselytes to his socialism, adding that “Mr. Shaw”s views are to be looked for especially in the prefaces to his plays.” After loosening his ties with the Fabian movement in 1911, Shaw”s writings were more personal and often provocative; his response to the furor following the public response to his Common Sense About the War in 1914 was to prepare a sequel, More Common Sense About the War, in which he denounced the pacifist position advocated by Ramsay MacDonald and other socialist leaders, and proclaimed his willingness to shoot all pacifists rather than give them power and influence. On the advice of Beatrice Webb, this pamphlet remained unpublished.
The Intelligent Woman”s Guide, Shaw”s leading political treatise of the 1920s, attracted both admiration and criticism. MacDonald considered it the most important book in the world since the Bible; Harold Laski thought its arguments were outdated and lacked concern for individual liberties. Her growing interest in dictatorial methods is evident in many of her later pronouncements. A New York Times report of December 10, 1933, quoted a recent Fabian Society lecture in which Shaw had praised Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin: “they are adopting methods by which it is possible to do something.” In World War II, Shaw blamed the “abuse” of the Allies after their 1918 victory for Hitler”s rise, and hoped that, after defeat, the Führer would escape punishment “to enjoy a comfortable retirement in Ireland or some other neutral country.”
“Creative evolution,” Shaw”s version of the new science of eugenics, became an increasing theme in his political writings after 1900. He incorporated its theories in The Revolutionist”s Handbook (1903), an appendix to Man and Superman, and developed them further during the 1920s in Back to Methuselah. A 1946 Life magazine article observed that Shaw “had always tended to regard people more as a biologist than as an artist.” In 1933, in the preface to On the Rocks, he wrote that “if we want a certain kind of civilization and culture we must exterminate the kind of people who do not fit into it”; critical opinion is divided on whether he meant this as irony. In an article in the U.S. magazine Liberty in September 1938, Shaw included the statement, “There are many people in the world who should be liquidated.” Many commentators assumed that such remarks were intended as a joke, albeit in the worst possible bad taste. On the contrary, Life magazine concluded, “this nonsense may be included among his more innocent evil thoughts.”
Shaw”s fiction writing was limited to the five unsuccessful novels written in the period 1879-1885. Immaturity (1879) is a semi-autobiographical portrait of mid-Victorian England, Shaw”s David Copperfield, according to Weintraub. The Irrational Knot (1880) is a critique of conventional marriage, in which Weintraub finds the characters lifeless, “hardly more than animated theories.” Shaw was pleased with his third novel, Love Among the Artists (Love Among the Artists, 1881), and considered it a turning point in his development as a thinker, although he was no more successful with it than with its predecessors. Cashel Byron”s Profession (1882) is, says Weintraub, an indictment of society that anticipates Shaw”s first play, Mrs. Warren”s Profession. Shaw later explained that he had devised An Unsocial Socialist as the first part of a monumental depiction of the fall of capitalism. Gareth Griffith, in a study of Shaw”s political thought, sees the novel as an interesting record of problems, both in society at large and in the nascent socialist movement of the 1880s.
His only later foray into fiction was the 1932 short story collection The Adventures of the Black Girl In Her Search for God, written during a visit to South Africa in 1932. The girl protagonist of the story that gives its name to the collection, intelligent, curious and converted to Christianity by missionary teaching, sets out to find God, on a journey that after many adventures and encounters, leads her to a secular conclusion. The publication of the story offended some Christians and was banned in Ireland by the Board of Censors.
Correspondence and journals
He wrote a great deal of correspondence throughout his life. His letters, edited by Dan H. Laurence, were published between 1965 and 1988. Shaw had once remarked that his letters would fill twenty volumes; Laurence makes it clear that, unedited, they would fill many more. It is estimated that he wrote over a quarter of a million letters, of which about ten percent have survived; 2653 were published in Laurence”s four volumes. Among his many regular correspondents were his childhood friend Edward McNulty, Irish playwright and novelist; his colleagues in the theater (writers such as Alfred Douglas, H. G. Wells and G. K. Chesterton; boxer Gene Tunney; nun Laurentia McLachlan; or art expert Sydney Cockerell. A 316-page volume consisting entirely of his letters to The Times was published in 2007.
Shaw”s diaries for 1885-1897, edited by Weintraub, were published in 1986 in two volumes, totaling 1241 pages. Reviewing them, Shaw scholar Fred Crawford wrote: “Although of primary interest to his scholars is material that supplements what we already know of Shaw”s life and work, the diaries are also valuable as a historical and sociological document of English life in the late Victorian era.” After 1897, time devoted to other writing led him to stop keeping a diary.
Autobiographies and others
Despite the many books written about him (Holroyd counts 80 in the year 1939) Shaw”s autobiographical output, apart from his diaries, was relatively sparse. He offered interviews to newspapers (“GBS Confesses,” to the Daily Mail in 1904 is one example) and provided sketches to prospective biographers whose work was rejected by Shaw and never published. In 1939 he drew on this material to write Shaw Gives Himself Away: An Autobiographical Miscellany which, a year before his death, he revised and republished as Sixteen Self Sketches (there were seventeen). He made it clear to his publishers that this short book was by no means a complete autobiography.
Through his journalistic works, pamphlets and occasional longer works, Shaw wrote on many subjects. His range of interest and research included vivisection, vegetarianism, religion, language, film, and photography, all subjects on which he wrote and spoke prolifically. Collections of his writings on these and other subjects were published, mainly after his death, along with volumes of “wit and wisdom” and general journalism.
He was a personal friend of the writer and activist Henry S. Salt, with whom he shared much of his thinking. So close was their relationship that Shaw himself wrote the preface to the book Salt and his circle, noting in it that Salt never consummated his marriage because his wife was homosexual.
According to him, three aberrations distorted reality in the eyes of others: snobbery, cant (an aggressive version of virtuous formalism) and sham, the old sexualist or modesty taboo. Throughout his life he professed many beliefs, often contradictory. This inconsistency was in part an intentional provocation (the Spanish scholar and statesman Salvador de Madariaga describes Shaw as “a pole of negative electricity placed in a person of positive electricity”). In one matter, at least, he remained constant: in his lifelong refusal to follow the normal forms of spelling and punctuation of the English language. He preferred archaic forms of spelling such as “shew” for “show”; he eliminated the “u” in words such as “honor” and “favour”; and as far as possible he rejected the apostrophe in contractions such as “won”t” or “that”s.” In his will, Shaw directed that, after some specific bequests, the remainder of his possessions were to go to constitute a fund to pay for a fundamental reform of the English alphabet into a forty-letter phonetic version. Although Shaw”s intentions were clear, his wording was flawed, so the courts initially filled in the gaps left in his intention for the creation of the fund. A subsequent out-of-court settlement provided a sum of £8300 for spelling reform; the bulk of his fortune went to the universal legatees (the British Museum, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and the National Gallery of Ireland). Most of the £8300 went to a special phonetic edition of Androcles and the Lion in the Shawian alphabet, published in 1962 to a largely indifferent reception.
His views on religion and Christianity were less consistent. In his youth he proclaimed himself an atheist; in maturity he explained that this was a reaction against the Old Testament image of a vengeful Jehovah. In the early 20th century, he called himself a “mystic,” although Gary Sloan, in an essay on Shaw”s beliefs, disputes his credentials as such. In 1913 he declared that he was not religious “in the sectarian sense,” aligning himself with Jesus as “a person of no religion.” In the preface (1915) to Androcles and the Lion, Shaw asks, “Why not give Christianity a chance?” arguing that Britain”s social order was the result of its continued choice of Barabbas over Christ. In a program just before World War II, Shaw invoked the Sermon on the Mount, “a very moving exhortation, and it gives you excellent advice, which is to do good to those who maliciously use you and persecute you.” In his will he stated that his “religious convictions and scientific opinions cannot at present be defined more specifically than as those of a believer in creative revolution.” He requested that no one imply that he accepted the beliefs of a specific religious organization and that no monument dedicated to him should “be in the form of a cross or any other instrument of torture or symbol of bloody sacrifice.”
Despite his expressed desire to be fair to Hitler, he described anti-Semitism as “the hatred of the imbecile, lazy, ignorant Gentile against the stubborn Jew who, educated by adversity to use his brains to the utmost, outdoes him in business”. In 1932 he wrote in the weekly The Jewish Chronicle: “In every country you can find fanatical people who have a phobia against the Jews, the Jesuits, the Armenians, the Negroes, the Freemasons, the Irish, or simply foreigners as such. Political parties are not above exploiting these fears and envy.”
In 1903 he took part in a controversy over smallpox vaccination. He called vaccination “a particularly filthy part of witchcraft”; in his view, immunization campaigns were a cheap and inadequate substitute for a program of decent housing for the poor, which, he declared, would be the means of eradicating smallpox and other infectious diseases. Less controversially, he was very interested in transport; Laurence noted in 1992 the need to publish a study of Shaw”s interest in “cycling, motorcycles, automobiles and airplanes, culminating in his joining the British Interplanetary Society in his nineties. Shaw also published articles on travel, took photographs of his journeys, and sent notes to the Royal Automobile Club.
Throughout his adult life he strove to be referred to as “Bernard Shaw” rather than “George Bernard Shaw”, but the issue was confusing as he himself continued to use his full initials (GBS) as the byline in newspaper articles, and often signed his name as “G. Bernard Shaw”. Bernard Shaw.” He left instructions in his will that his executor, the Public Trustee, was to license publication of his works under the name Bernard Shaw only. Shaw scholars such as Ervine, Judith Evans, Holroyd, Laurence and Weintraub, and many publishers have respected Shaw”s preference, although Cambridge University Press was among the exceptions with its 1988 Cambridge Companion to George Bernard Shaw.
Shaw did not create a school of playwrights as such, but Crawford states that today ” we recognize him as second only to Shakespeare in the British theatrical tradition … the proponent of the theater of ideas” that dealt a death blow to 19th century melodrama. According to Laurence, Shaw pioneered “intelligent” theater, in which the audience was to think, thus paving the way for new generations of 20th century playwrights, from Galsworthy to Pinter.
Crawford lists numerous playwrights who drew inspiration from his work. Among those active during Shaw”s lifetime he mentions Noël Coward, who based one of his early comedies, The Young Idea (1922), on Wrestling of the Sexes and continued to do so in later plays. T. S. Eliot, by no means an admirer of Shaw, admitted that the epilogue of Murder in the Cathedral, in which Becket”s murderers explain their actions to the audience, may have been influenced by St. Joan. Critic Eric Bentley comments that a later Eliot play The Confidential Clerk “had all the signs of Shawianism … without the merits of the real Bernard Shaw.” Among more recent British playwrights, Crawford notes Tom Stoppard as “the most Shawian of contemporary playwrights”; Shaw”s “serious farce” continues in the works of Stoppard”s contemporaries Alan Ayckbourn, Henry Livings, and Peter Nichols.
His influence soon crossed the Atlantic. Bernard Dukore notes that he succeeded as a playwright in the United States ten years before achieving comparable success in Britain. Among the many American writers who owe a direct debt to Shaw is Eugene O”Neill, who became an admirer at age 17 after reading The Quintessence of Ibsenism. Other American playwrights influenced by Shaw mentioned by Dukore include Elmer Rice, for whom Shaw “opened doors, turned on lights, and broadened horizons”; William Saroyan, who identified with Shaw as “the beleaguered individualist against the Philistines”; and S. N. Behrman, who was inspired to write for the theater after attending a performance of Caesar and Cleopatra: “I thought it would be good to write plays like that.”
Appraising Shaw”s reputation in a 1976 critical review, T. F. Evans described him as uncontroversial in his lifetime and since as the leading English-language playwright of the twentieth century and as a master of prose style. By contrast, the following year playwright John Osborne chastised Guardian theater critic Michael Billington for referring to Shaw as “the greatest British playwright since Shakespeare,” saying that Shaw “is the most fraudulent and inept writer of Victorian melodramas ever to swindle a timid critic or fool a bored audience.” Despite this hostility, Crawford sees Shaw”s influence in some of Osborne”s plays and concludes that although the latter”s work is neither imitative nor derivative, these affinities are sufficient to classify Osborne as an heir to Shaw.
In a 1983 study, R. J. Kaufmann suggests that Shaw was a key precursor (“godfather, if not to be exact demanding paterfamilias”) of the Theatre of the Absurd. Crawford notes two other aspects of Shaw”s theatrical legacy: his opposition to theatrical censorship, which finally ended in 1968, and his efforts over many years to create a National Theatre. His 1910 short play, The Dark Lady of the Sonnets, in which Shakespeare pleads with Queen Elizabeth I for the creation of a state theater, was part of this campaign.
In 2012 Daniel Janes opined in The New Statesman that Shaw”s reputation had declined by the time of his 150th birthday in 2006, but had recovered considerably. In Janes” view, the many current revivals of his major plays showed the “almost limitless relevance in our time” of his dramatic work. The same year, Mark Lawson wrote in The Guardian that Shaw”s moral concerns engaged today”s audiences and made him, like his model, Ibsen, one of the most popular playwrights in contemporary British theater.
In the 1940s the diplomat and author Harold Nicolson advised the National Trust not to accept Shaw”s Corner legacy, believing that Shaw would be totally forgotten after fifty years. This has not been the case, and Shaw”s extensive cultural legacy has endured and is promoted by Shaw Societies in various parts of the world. The original society was founded in London in 1941 and still exists; it organizes meetings and events, and publishes a regular newsletter, The Shavian. The Shaw Society of America began in June 1950; it disappeared in the 1970s, but its journal, adopted by Penn State University Press, continued to be published as Shaw: The Annual of Bernard Shaw Studies until 2004. A second U.S. organization, founded in 1951 as The Bernard Shaw Society still exists. The International Shaw Society was founded in 2002 and regularly sponsors symposia and conferences on Shaw in Canada, the United States, and other countries. Another Shaw Society was also established in Japan.
In addition to his collection of musical criticism, Shaw has also left a varied musical legacy, not all of his own choosing. Despite his aversion to adapting his work to the musical genre (“my plays became verbal music in their own right”), two of his plays were made into musical comedies: Man and Guns was the basis for The Chocolate Soldier in 1908, with music by Oscar Straus, and Pygmalion was adapted in 1956 as My Fair Lady with libretto and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and music by Frederick Loewe. Although he had a high regard for Elgar, Shaw turned down the composer”s request for an opera libretto, but he played an important role in persuading the BBC to commission Elgar for his Third Symphony, and the composer dedicated his work The Severn Suite (1930) to Shaw.
The entity of his political legacy is uncertain. In 1921, Shaw”s longtime collaborator, William Archer, in a letter to the playwright wrote: “I doubt if there has ever been a case of a man so read, heard, seen and known as you, who has produced so little effect on his generation.” Margaret Cole, who considered Shaw the greatest writer of his generation, claimed never to have understood him. She thought he worked “enormously hard” at politics, but she conjectures that, essentially, it was like fun (“the fun of a brilliant artist.”) After Shaw”s death, Pearson wrote: “No one since the time of Tom Paine has had so definite an influence on the social and political life of his country and his age as Bernard Shaw.”