George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), Nobel prize-winning Irish playwright wrote dozens of popular plays including Pygmalion (1912);
"The English have no respect for their language, and will not teach their children to speak it. .... It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him. ....The reformer England needs today is an energetic phonetic enthusiast: that is why I have made such a one the hero of a popular play."--from the Preface
The story of Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle, who utters one of Shaw's then-controversial lines ("Walk! Not bloody likely." Act III) remains one of Shaw's most popular plays today. As in the Greek myth where Pygmalion falls in love with a statue that he has carved, so too does phonetics professor Henry Higgins fall in love with his creation, a transformed Lady of Society. "I don't want to talk grammar. I want to talk like a lady." (Act II). Cloaked in witty humour, Shaw examines the superficiality of class behaviour and distinctions. In 1938 he won the Oscar award for Best Screenplay for his film adaptation of Pygmalion starring Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller. In 1956 it was first adapted as a musical titled "My Fair Lady". Like his rival of the time Oscar Wilde, the oft-quoted Shaw inspired countless authors and poets and became one of the most popular playwrights of his time, infusing irony and wit into his over fifty plays, many of which are still in production today. An avid photographer, social reformer, women's rights advocate, satirist, popular public speaker, vegetarian (after reading Percy Bysshe Shelley), accomplished music and theatre critic, the term Shavian is now used in reference to all things Shaw, also known as G.B.S.
Act I: The Early Years
George Bernhard Shaw was born on 26 July 1856 at what is now 33 Synge Street in Dublin, Ireland. His parents were George Carr Shaw (1815-1885), a retired civil servant, and 'Bessie' Lucinda Elizabeth nee Gurly (1830-1913), amateur mezzo soprano singer. He had two older sisters, Lucinda Frances (1853-1920) and Elinor Agnes (1855-1876). The early years for young 'Sonny' (as he was known as a child) were a struggle in the Shaw residence. His father was an unsuccessful corn merchant and alcoholic who squandered his money on drink. Being of landed gentry was no cure against the genteel poverty that pervaded the Shaw household. It was a humiliation that Shaw often wryly referred to in his writings and Shaw: An Autobiography 1856-1898 (edited by Stanley Weintraub, 1970). His mother taught piano to help support the family and was a member of a musical society. Summers spent in the countryside greatly contributed to the development of Shaw's imaginative inner life. He was very happy at these times despite being raised by somewhat detached parents. His mother was especially busy with her music but her love of art, theatre, literature, and music had a positive affect on her only son. He often visited the National Gallery in Dublin. He was tutored by an uncle for a time and attended various schools in Dublin, although he soon developed a distaste for institutionalised learning, likening them to prisons.
"Liberty is the breath of life to nations; and liberty is the one thing that parents, schoolmasters, and rulers spend their lives in extirpating for the sake of an immediately quiet and finally disastrous life."--"Treatise On Parents And Children" (1910)
Shaw's first employment was as cashier with a land agent where he conducted tasks such as book keeping and rent collection. At the age of sixteen he was receiving a fairly decent wage but he found the work tedious. He also realised the odious disparity among the classes, the daily struggles of the have-nots. He longed for more intellectual pursuits. He did manage to go to the theatre, read literature, and immerse himself in the poetry of Lord George Gordon Byron and William Blake. His sister Agnes died of tuberculosis in 1876, the same year that Bernhard (he dropped the use of his first name George at this time) moved out of his father's home and travelled to London, England, where his mother had moved a few years earlier to teach singing. She was living with voice teacher and conductor G. J. Vandeleur Lee. While living with her Shaw was now able to pursue his interest in the arts by visiting galleries and museums. He furthered his studies at the British Museum attending lectures. This led him to write critiques and essays on various subjects, often with irony and humour. Emerging themes in his works were marriage, education, politics, class struggle, and religion. Some of his articles and book reviews began appearing in the Pall Mall Gazette in 1885. He wrote as music critic under the pseudonym Corno di Bassetto. While his first fictional efforts such as Immaturity (1879) had been rejected by publishers, he finally found his voice when he became theatre critic for Saturday Review in 1895. His other novels are Cashel Byron's Profession (1882), An Unsocial Socialist (1887), The Irrational Knot (1880), and Love Among the Artists (1881).
Act II: Politics
Many critics during his lifetime and after his death would come to criticise Shaw's humanitarian politics and sometimes contradictory but often controversial opinions. "Revolutions have never lightened the burden of tyranny: they have only shifted it to another shoulder." (The Revolutionist's Handbook and Pocket Companion, 1903). Of Charles Dickens's Little Dorrit Shaw said it "remains the most accurate and penetrating study of the genteel littleness of our class governments in the English language," (The Shewing-up of Blanco Posnet, 1909). Shaw was a staunch socialist and member of the Fabian Society which he joined in 1884. His political interests led him, in 1893, to helping form the Independent Labour Party. In 1895 he was one of the founders of the London School of Economics and Political Science. He often lauded the writings of Leo Tolstoy and Maxim Gorky. An advocate of Stalinism, he travelled with his wife Charlotte to the USSR in the 1930's. He wrote many political essays and articles during his lifetime including Fabian Essays in Socialism (1889), The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism (1912), and Everybody's Political What's What (1944). "The golden rule is that there are no golden rules." ("Maxims for Revolutionists", 1903).
"Most people either say that they agree with Bernard Shaw or that they do not understand him. I am the only person who understands him, and I do not agree with him."--Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1909)
Act III: Romance
"....the service was really only an honest attempt to make the best of a commercial contract of property and slavery by subjecting it to some religious restraint and elevating it by some touch of poetry. But the actual result is that when two people are under the influence of the most violent, most insane, most delusive, and most transient of passions, they are required to swear that they will remain in that excited, abnormal, and exhausting condition continuously until death do them part."--Preface to Getting Married (1908)
Shaw's thoughts on the institution of marriage were not necessarily positive, but at the age of forty-one he married heiress, actress, feminist, and fellow Fabian society member Charlotte Payne Townshend (1857-1943) on 2 June 1898. In 1906 they moved to the village of Ayot St. Lawrence in Hertfordshire, England, just an hour away from London. Their home, the Edwardian villa "Shaw's Corner" is now maintained by the National Trust as a museum. At the bottom of the garden there is a small house that can be turned, allowing for the best of light in the windows at any time of the day, and was Shaw's favourite writing place. The Shaws also had a residence in London at 29 Fitzroy Square. It is claimed that their marriage was never consummated. Shaw had a number of close friendships with women, including fellow Fabian society member and author of The Railway Children (1906) Edith Nesbit. In 1912 he fell in love with actress Stella Campbell, or Mrs. Patrick Campbell, who became his muse and inspiration for Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion. "....there are two tragedies in life. One is not to get your heart's desire. The other is to get it." (Act IV, Man and Superman. In the 1930's the Shaws travelled extensively throughout Europe, Africa, Asia, New Zealand, and North America. It was at this time that Shaw started with his photography in earnest. The London School of Economics and Political Science, University of London, houses the archive of thousands of negatives and photographs from his every day life and travels around the world.
Act IV: The Plays
A long-time admirer of the works of playwright Henrik Ibsen, Shaw wrote the essay "Quintessence of Ibsenism" in 1891;
"Here I must leave the matter, merely reminding those who may think that I have forgotten to reduce Ibsenism to a formula for them, that its quintessence is that there is no formula."
Ibsen's was a new style of realistic drama that very much appealed to Shaw's sensibilities. His first series of Plays Unpleasant (published in 1898) include Widowers' Houses (1892), The Philanderer (1898), and Mrs Warren's Profession (1893). Plays Pleasant (published in 1898) includes Arms and the Man (1894), Candida (1894), The Man of Destiny (1895), and You Never Can Tell (1897). Plays for Puritans (published in 1901) include The Devil's Disciple (1897), Caesar and Cleopatra (1898), and Captain Brassbound's Conversion (1899). Back to Methuselah: A Metabiological Pentateuch was published in 1921. It is a collection of five plays titled "In the Beginning", "The Gospel of the Brothers Barnabas", "The Thing Happens", "Tragedy of an Elderly Gentleman", and "As Far as Thought Can Reach". "In the Beginning" contains one of Shaw's many quoted lines;
THE SERPENT. If I can do that, what can I not do? I tell you I am very subtle. When you and Adam talk, I hear you say 'Why?' Always 'Why?' You see things; and you say 'Why?' But I dream things that never were; and I say 'Why not?' I made the word dead to describe my old skin that I cast when I am renewed. I call that renewal being born.--Act I
Don Juan themed Man and Superman (1903), William Butler Yeat's commissioned John Bull's Other Island (1904), Major Barbara (1905), and Saint Joan (1923) are other popular works. Shaw was no fan of William Shakespeare and in 1949 penned Shakes versus Shav (1949), a Punch and Judy styled puppet play wherein he himself spars with Shakepeare in a fight against "bardolotry", and who is the greater writer. Another of Shaw's many influences was Samuel Butler, author of The Way of All Flesh (1903). He referred to Shaw as "the greatest English writer of the latter half of the nineteenth century". Shaw was also friends with H. G. Wells, James M. Barrie, and The Portrait of a Lady author Henry James. In 1950 Shaw started his last play Why She Would Not.
Act V: The Final Curtain
An avid gardener especially in his final years, Bernard Shaw died on 2 November 1950 at the age of 94 after complications from injuries after falling in his garden at Ayot. He had kept Charlotte's ashes and on 23 November their ashes were together scattered in their garden. He left a legacy of thousands of letters, published as Bernard Shaw: Collected Letters, 1874-1897 (1965) and Collected Letters, 1898-1910 (1972) edited by Dan H. Laurence. When Shaw was contacted by officials from the Royal Swedish Academy Nobel Prize committee in 1925 he humbly tried to refuse the monetary prize, saying he earned enough from his writings. However, in the end it was used in his name to further cultural relations between Sweden and Great Britain. The World-Renowned Shaw Festival Theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Canada was founded by Brian Doherty in 1962, in honour of the playwright and to promote his works. In 1972 the theatre was officially opened by Queen Elizabeth II.
"His ideas were those of a somewhat abstract logical radicalism; hence they were far from new, but they received from him a new definiteness and brilliance. In him these ideas combined with a ready wit, a complete absence of respect for any kind of convention, and the merriest humour--all gathered together in an extravagance which has scarcely ever before appeared in literature."--Per Hallström, Chairman of the Nobel Committee, Award Speech
Biography written by C.D. Merriman for Jalic Inc. Copyright Jalic Inc 2013. All Rights Reserved.
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A religious thinker, George Bernard Shaw saw the stage as his pulpit. His major interest was to advance the Life Force, a kind of immanent Holy Spirit that would help to improve and eventually perfect the world. Shaw believed that to help in this conscious purpose, human beings must live longer in order to use their intellectual maturity. They must be healthier, without the debilitating force of poverty, and—most important—they must be interested in purpose, not simply pleasure. As the giraffe could develop its long neck over aeons because of a need to eat from the tops of trees, so can human beings, with a sense of purpose, work toward the creation of healthier, longer-lived, more intelligent individuals.
According to Shaw, evolution is not merely haphazard but is tied to will. Human beings can know what they want and will what they know. Certainly, individuals cannot simply will that they live longer and expect to do so. Such desire might help, but it is the race, not the individual, that will eventually profit from such a common purpose. Ultimately, Shaw believed, this drive toward a more intelligent and spiritual species would result after aeons in human beings’ shucking off matter, which had been taken on by spirit in the world’s beginning so that evolution could work toward intelligence. When that intelligence achieves its full potential, matter will no longer be necessary. Humankind is working toward the creation of an infinite God.
Shaw’s plays are not restricted to such metaphysics. They treat political, social, and economic concerns: the false notion that people help criminals by putting them in jail or help themselves by atonement (Major Barbara, Captain Brassbound’s Conversion, The Simpleton of the Unexpected Isles), the need for tolerance (On the Rocks, Androcles and the Lion), the superstitious worship of medicine and science (The Philanderer, The Doctor’s Dilemma), the superiority of socialism to capitalism (Widowers’ Houses, The Apple Cart, The Inca of Perusalem), the evils of patriotism (O’Flaherty, V.C., Arms and the Man), the need for a supranational state (Geneva), the necessity for recognizing women’s equality with men (In Good King Charles’s Golden Days, Press Cuttings), and so on. Nevertheless, all of Shaw’s efforts to question social and political mores were subsumed by his religious purpose. All were meant to help free the human spirit in its striving toward the creation of a better and more intelligent person, the creation of a superman, the creation, finally, of a God.
Arms and the Man
In 1894, two years after completing his first play, Shaw wrote Arms and the Man. Although lighter and less complex than later plays, it is typical of the later plays in that Shaw uses comedy as a corrective—a corrective, as Louis Crompton effectively puts it, that is intended to shame the audience out of conformity, in contrast to Molière’s, which is intended to shame the audience into conformity.
The year is 1885. Bulgaria and Serbia are at war, the Serbs have just been routed, and the play opens with one of the Serbs’ officers, Captain Bluntschli, climbing through the window of a Bulgarian house. The house belongs to Major Petkoff, and Raina Petkoff lies dreaming of her lover, a dashing Byronic hero, Sergius Saranoff, who has led the cavalry charge that routed the Serbs. Bluntschli comes into her room, gun in hand, but convinces her not to give him away, more because a fight will ensue while she is not properly dressed than for any fear she has of being shot.
Bluntschli turns out to be Saranoff’s opposite. He is a practical Swiss who joined the Serbs merely because they were the first to enlist his services, not because he believed either side to be in the right. When the Bulgarian soldiers enter the house and demand to search Raina’s room, she hides Bluntschli on impulse. After the soldiers’ departure, he describes for Raina the recent battle in which some quixotic fool led a cavalry charge of frightened men against a battery of machine guns. All were trying to rein in their horses lest they get there first and be killed. The Serbs, however, happened not to have the right ammunition, and what should have been a slaughter of the Bulgarians turned out to be a rout of the Serbs. Yet for his irresponsible foolishness, this “Don Quixote” is sure to be rewarded by the Bulgarians. When Raina shows Bluntschli the picture of her lover, and Saranoff turns out to be “Quixote,” Bluntschli is duly embarrassed, tries to cover by suggesting that Saranoff might have known in advance of the Serbs’ ammunition problem, but only makes it worse by suggesting to this romantic girl that her lover would have been such a crass pretender and coward as to attack under such conditions.
This is Shaw’s first ridicule of chivalric notions of war. The viewpoint is corroborated in the next act by Saranoff when he returns disillusioned because he has not been promoted. He did not follow the scientific rules of war and was thus undeserving. Saranoff has discovered that soldiering is the cowardly art of attacking mercilessly when one is strong and keeping out of harm’s way when weak.
In this second act, which takes place at the war’s end only four months later, the audience is treated to some satire of Victorian “higher love,” which Saranoff carries on with Raina before more realistically flirting with her maid, Louka. Later, in a momentary slip from his chivalric treatment of Raina, Saranoff jokes about a practical Swiss who helped them with arrangements for prisoner exchange and who bragged about having been saved by infatuating a Bulgarian woman and her mother after visiting the young woman in her bedroom. Recognizing herself, Raina chides Saranoff for telling such a crass story in front of her, and he immediately apologizes and reverts to his gallant pose.
Finally in act 3, after Bluntschli has returned for an overcoat and Saranoff discovers that Raina and her mother were the women who saved the Swiss, Saranoff challenges Bluntschli to a duel. Bluntschli, however, will not return the romantic pose and calls Saranoff a blockhead for not realizing that Raina had no other choice at gunpoint. When Saranoff realizes that there is no romance in fighting this prosaic shopkeeper, he backs off. Bluntschli wins Raina’s hand, Saranoff wins Louka’s, and all ends happily. Yet at the very point at which the audience might expect the play to use its romantic, well-made plot to criticize romanticism, Shaw again changes direction by showing his antihero Bluntschli to be a romantic. To everyone’s consternation, Saranoff’s in particular, Bluntschli points out that most of his problems have been the result of an incurably romantic disposition: He ran away from home twice as a boy, joined the army rather than his father’s business, climbed the balcony of the Petkoff house instead of sensibly diving into the nearest cellar, and came back to this young girl, Raina, to get his coat when any man his age would have sent for it. Thus, Shaw uses Arms and the Man not only to attack romanticism about war or love but also to assert the importance of knowing and being true to oneself, to one’s life force. It matters little whether Bluntschli is a romantic. He knows and is true to himself. He does not pose and does not deceive himself, as do Saranoff and Raina.
Only one who is true to himself and does not deny himself can attune himself to the Life Force and help advance the evolutionary process. Although Saranoff changes his career when he renounces soldiering, he does so because he was not justly rewarded for his dashing cavalry charge. He does not abandon his habitual self-deception. Even his marriage to the servant girl, Louka, has something of the romantic pose about it; it is rebellious. Raina’s marriage to Bluntschli has more potential; at least she has come to see her own posing.
Although the play seems light when set beside the later, more complex triumphs, Shaw’s “religious” purpose can be seen here at the beginning of his career. It will be better argued in Man and Superman and more fully argued in Back to Methuselah, but the failure of the latter, more Utopian work shows that Shaw’s religious ideas most engaged his audience when they were rooted in the social, political, or economic criticism of his times, as they were in Arms and the Man.
A year after Arms and the Man, Shaw wrote Candida, his version of Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 play, Et dukkehjem (A Doll’s House, 1880). Candida showed that, while Shaw was as much a proponent of equality as was his early mentor, he saw women’s usual familial role from an opposite perspective. As Ibsen saw it, women suffer in marriage from being treated like children; a wife is denied the larger responsibilities that are the province of her husband. As a consequence, the wife’s personal maturity is arrested. She becomes, in a word, a doll. Shaw did not think this the usual marital paradigm; his view of marriage included a husband who does tend to see himself as the dominant force in the family, but the wife is seldom the petted child that Ibsen’s Nora is. Much more frequently, she is like Candida, the real strength of the family, who, like her husband’s mother before her, allows her husband to live in a “castle of comfort and indulgence” over which she stands sentinel. She makes him master, though he does not know it. Men, in other words, are more often the petted, indulged children, and women more often the sustaining force in the family.
Candida is set entirely in St. Dominic’s Parsonage, and the action is ostensibly a very unoriginal love triangle involving the parson, James Morell, his wife, Candida, and a young poet, Eugene Marchbanks. The originality comes from the unique twist given this stock situation. Morell is a liberal, aggressive preacher, worshiped by women and by his curate. Marchbanks is a shy, effeminate eighteen-year-old, in manner somewhat reminiscent of a young Percy Bysshe Shelley, and he is possessed too of Shelley’s inner strength, though this is not immediately apparent. The young poet declares to Morell his love for Candida, Morell’s beautiful thirty-three-year-old wife. The self-assured Morell indulges the young man and assures him that the whole world loves Candida; his is another version of puppy love that he will outgrow. The ethereal Marchbanks cannot believe that Morell thinks Candida capable of inspiring such trivial love in him. He is able, as no one else is, to see that Morell’s brilliant sermons and his equally brilliant conversation are nothing but the gift of gab; Morell is an inflated windbag. Marchbanks forces Morell to see himself in this way, and Morell shows that the poet has hit home when he almost throttles him.
Morell broaches the subject of Marchbanks’s love to Candida, at the young man’s insistence, and Candida assures her husband that she already knows Eugene is in love with her. She is surprised, however, to find Morell upset by it. Nevertheless, the two foolish men force a crisis by making Candida choose between them. When she plays their game and asks what each has to offer, Morell offers his strength for her defense, his honesty for her surety, his industry for her livelihood, and his authority and position for her dignity. Eugene offers his weakness and desolation.
Candida, bemused that neither offers love and that each wishes to own her, acknowledges that the poet has made a good offer. She informs them that she will give herself, because of his need, to the weaker of the two. Morell is desolate, but Eugene is, too, since he realizes that Candida means Morell. Eugene leaves with the now famous “secret in his heart.” The secret the poet knows is that he can live without happiness, that there is another love than that of woman—the love of purpose.
The twist Shaw gives the standard triangle, then, is not merely that the effeminate young poet is stronger than the commanding figure of Morell, but also that Candida is stronger than both. Morell is clearly the doll in this house. Even so, to identify Shaw with Marchbanks, as his fine biographer Archibald Henderson does, makes little sense. Marchbanks is an aesthete like Wilde or the young William Butler Yeats, and the poetic sentiments he expresses to Candida sound very like Shelley’s Epipsychidion. Shaw, who did not share Shelley’s rapture about romantic love and who liked aestheticism so little that he swore he would not face the toil of writing a single sentence for art’s sake alone, clearly cannot be confused with Marchbanks. He has more in common with Morell, who is socialistic and industrious. It is Morell who voices Shaw’s sentiments when he tells Marchbanks that people have no more right to consume happiness without producing it than they have to consume wealth without producing it. The character in this play who comes closest to Shaw, however, is Candida herself. Much stronger than Ibsen’s Nora, she is the only character who does not deceive herself. Morell does not realize that he needs to be coddled in order to play his role as a dynamic, liberal clergyman. Only at the play’s end and with Candida’s help, does Marchbanks discover the truth she has known all along.
Candida is subtitled A Mystery, and, though Shaw is treating a dramatic convention with humor, there is perhaps a more serious sense in which he uses the subtitle: There is some mystery involved in the ties that bind people together in marriage. In the climactic scene, in which Candida is made to choose between the two men, a traditional dramatist might have demonstrated the lover to be a cad and have thrown him out. A more romantic dramatist would have shown the husband to be a tyrant and had the wife and lover elope. Shaw chooses neither solution. He has the wife remain with the husband, but not because the lover is a cad or because she owes it to her husband contractually or for any of the standard reasons Morell offers, but because he needs her and she loves him. In this mystery about what binds partners in marriage, Shaw seems to suggest that it is not the contract, still less any ideal of purity, but simply mutual love and need.
What connects Candida with Arms and the Man, as well as with the later plays, is the demand that persons be true to themselves. Morell taught Candida to think for herself, she tells him, but it upsets him when that intellectual independence leads to conclusions different from his own. Candida will not submit to Christian moralism any more than she will to poetic romanticism. If there is any salvation for Marchbanks, it is that he has learned from Candida the secret that lies hidden in his heart: He is not dependent on happiness or on the love of a woman. In becoming aware of this, he has the potential to be a true artist, one attuned to purpose and not to self-indulgence. Thus, the play leads to the more lengthy dramatization of the struggle between the philosopher-artist and the woman-mother that is evident in Man and Superman.
Man and Superman
Man and Superman promotes Shaw’s philosophy of the Life Force more explicitly than do any of his previous plays. Indeed, much of the play is given to discussion, particularly during the long dream sequence in act 3; Shaw never thought that a play’s action need be physical. The dynamics of argument, of intellectual and verbal exchange, were for Shaw much more exciting than conventional action.
The drama originated in a suggestion by Arthur Bingham Walkley that Shaw write a Don Juan play. After all, did not Shaw suffer as a playwright from an excess of cerebration and a lack of physicality? Surely, Walkley reasoned, the subject of the amours of Don Juan would force him off his soapbox and into the boudoir. In response to this challenge, Shaw wrote a much more cerebral play than he had ever written before. In his lengthy “Epistle Dedicatory” to Walkley, Shaw explains why. The essence of the Don Juan legend is not, like Casanova’s, that its hero is an “oversexed tomcat.” Rather, its essence lies in Juan’s following his own instincts rather than law or convention.
The play is as diffuse and difficult to stage as Candida is concise and delightful to produce. Most of the difficulty has to do with the lengthy Don Juan in Hell dream sequence during act 3, which causes the play to run more than four hours. More often than not, the sequence has been separated from the play. Not until 1964, in fact, when the Association of Producing...
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