The interesting life of the great playwright
George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) was a prolific writer of plays but also of essays justifying his plays: the two (double-columned) volumes of his Plays and Prefaces both stretch to over 1,000 pages. In this post, we’re going to attempt to distill his busy life into a very short biography – and, we hope, an interesting one – covering some of the most fascinating aspects of the man known variously as Bernard Shaw, George Bernard Shaw, or even just plain ‘GBS’.
George Bernard Shaw was born in 1856 to an alcoholic father and a mother, Lucinda, who was a singer and music teacher who doted on her youngest child. She would later support Shaw financially as he struggled to make a living as a writer. He left school early, never went to university (though he later helped to found one: the London School of Economics), and was largely self-taught. The famous quip attributed to him (probably wrongly – it was Grant Allen who first said it), ‘My education was only interrupted by my schooling’, sums up his attitudes to formal education. One of the numerous schools he attended he dubbed a ‘boys’ prison’. For Shaw, education was not confined to school walls or the university campus.
Shaw attracted a fair number of female admirers, and had (largely Platonic) relationships with several women. He married Charlotte Payne-Townshend in 1898, though whether the marriage was ever consummated remains a moot point among his biographers.
In 1884, George Bernard Shaw joined the left-leaning Fabian Society, whose other high-profile members would include H. G. Wells and Emmeline Pankhurst. Shaw became involved in the political causes of the day: when news reached him that suffragettes on hunger strike were being force-fed in prison, Shaw wrote to the Prime Minister, William Gladstone, inviting him to dine with them, provided that Gladstone ‘ate’ his food and wine through a nasal tube. According to Karen Farrington in her fascinating collection of short biographies, Great Lives: As heard on Radio 4, Shaw once gave a 90-minute speech at Speaker’s Corner in London, in the pouring rain. His audience consisted of just six people, all policemen.
After several unsuccessful attempts at writing novels, George Bernard Shaw decided to write for the stage, inspired by Henrik Ibsen (of whose work Shaw was one of the earliest English-speaking champions). He would go on to write dozens of plays, the most popular of which remain widely known: Major Barbara, Man and Superman, Back to Methuselah, Saint Joan, Heartbreak House, Androcles and the Lion, and, most famously of all, Pygmalion, which also inspired the musical My Fair Lady. Shaw used his plays to debate social issues and to encourage people to want to change the world around them. Shaw was an outspoken critic of Shakespeare, coining the word ‘bardolatry’ to describe hero-worship of the Bard, which he detested. His last play, Shakes versus Shav, completed a year before his death, is a puppet play in which the two playwrights meet and argue over who is better. No prizes for guessing who wins.
His political views often made the name George Bernard Shaw a dirty word in certain circles: his reputation suffered a hit in 1914 when Shaw opposed Britain’s involvement in the First World War, and again in 1931 when Shaw praised Joseph Stalin, even travelling to the Soviet Union to meet him. Nevertheless, Shaw was acknowledged as a towering figure in British theatre, and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925. He died in 1950, following complications attending a fall in his garden while pruning trees. He was 93. He left money in his will for the establishment of a new phonetic alphabet, designed to iron out the inconsistencies in English pronunciation.
Winston Churchill called Shaw the greatest living master of letters in the English language. His witticisms and bon mots are celebrated worldwide. But, looking back on a long and productive life, Shaw himself said that the achievement he was most proud of was having overseen the installation of new sewage pipes, and the introduction of a vaccination programme to eradicate smallpox, in St Pancras, the area of London in which he had been made a municipal councillor in 1897.
We hope you found this very short introduction to George Bernard Shaw’s life interesting and useful. If you’d like to discover more about him, we recommend this site.
Image: Anglo-Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw writing in notebook at time of first production of his play “Pygmalion.” Date: 1914. Via Wikimedia Commons.