Listen to excerpts of Shaw's play Caesar and Cleopatra
Read Shaw's Pygmalion, free from Project Gutenberg
It should be noted that Shaw hated the name "George", which was his father's first name, and never used it, either personally or professionally: he was Bernard Shaw throughout his long career, not George Bernard Shaw. Since his death it has become customary to use all three of his names, even in reference works.
Born at 33 Synge Street in Dublin, Ireland to rather poor Church of Ireland parents, George Bernard Shaw was educated at Wesley College, Dublin and moved to London during the 1870s to embark on his literary career. He wrote five novels, none of which were published, before finding his first success as a music critic on the Star newspaper. He wrote his music criticism under the pseudonym Corno di Bassetto. In the meantime he had become involved in politics, and served as a local councillor in the St Pancras district of London for several years from 1897. He was a noted socialist who took a leading role in the Fabian Society.
In 1895, Shaw became the drama critic of the Saturday Review, and this was the first step in his progress towards a lifetime's work as a dramatist. In 1898, he married an Irish heiress, Charlotte Payne-Townshend. His first successful play, Candida, was produced in the same year. He followed this with a series of classic comedy-dramas, including The Devil's Disciple (1897), Arms and the Man (1898), Mrs Warren's Profession (1898), Captain Brassbound's Conversion (1900), Caesar and Cleopatra (1901), Man and Superman (1903), Major Barbara (1905), Androcles and the Lion (1912), and Pygmalion (1913). After World War I, during which he was a staunch pacifist, he produced more serious dramas, including Heartbreak House (1919) and Saint Joan (1923). A characteristic of Shaw's published plays is the lengthy prefaces that accompany them. In these essays, Shaw wrote more about his usually controversial opinions on the issues touched by the plays than about the plays themselves. Some prefaces are much longer than the actual play.
The political turmoil in his native country did not leave him untouched. Shaw campaigned against the executions of the rebel leaders of the Easter Rising, and he became a personal friend of the Cork-born IRA leader Michael Collins, whom he invited to his home for dinner while Collins was negotiating the Anglo-Irish Treaty with Lloyd-George in London. After Collins's assassination in 1922, Shaw sent a personal message of condolence to one of Collins's sisters.
Shaw, in his lifetime, maintained correspondence with hundreds of personages, many notable and many not. His letters to and from Mrs. Patrick Campbell were adapted for the stage by Jerome Kilty as Dear Liar: A Comedy of Letters; as was his correspondence with the poet Lord Alfred Douglas (the intimate friend of Oscar Wilde), into the drama Bernard and Bosie: A Most Unlikely Friendship by Anthony Wynn. His letters to the prominent actress, Ellen Terry, the boxer Gene Tunney, and H.G. Wells have also been published.
By the time of his death, Shaw was not only a household name in Britain, but a world figure. His ironic wit endowed the language with the adjective "Shavian" to refer to such clever observations as "England and America are two countries divided by a common language."
Concerned about the inconsistency of English spelling, he willed a portion of his wealth to fund the creation of a new phonemic alphabet for the English language. On his death bed, he did not have much money to leave, so no effort was made to start such a project. However, his estate began to earn significant royalties from the rights to Pygmalion when My Fair Lady, a musical adapted from the play by his comrade film producer Gabriel Pascal, became a hit. It then became clear that the will was so badly worded that the relatives had grounds to challenge the will, and in the end an-out-of-court settlement granted only a small portion of the money to promoting a new alphabet. This became known as the Shavian alphabet.
The National Gallery of Ireland, RADA and the British Museum all received substantial bequests.
Shaw had a long time friendship with G. K. Chesterton, the Catholic-convert British writer, and there are many humorous stories about their complicated relationship. Another great friend was the composer Edward Elgar. Shaw's correspondence with the motion picture producer Gabriel Pascal, who was the first to successfully bring Shaw's plays to the screen and who later adapted Pygmalion into "My Fair Lady," is published in a book titled Bernard Shaw and Gabriel Pascal.
Shaw is the only person ever to have won both a Nobel Prize (for Literature in 1925) and an Academy Award (Best Screenplay for Pygmalion in 1938).
From 1906 until his death in 1950 at the age of 94 due to a fall from a ladder, Shaw lived at Shaw's Corner in the small village of Ayot St Lawrence, Hertfordshire. The house is now a National Trust property, open to the public.
The Shaw Theatre, Euston Road, London was opened in 1971 and named in his honour. The Shaw Festival, an annual theater festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, began as an eight week run of Don Juan in Hell and Candida in 1962 and has grown into an annual festival with over 800 performances a year, dedicated to producing the works of Shaw and his contemporaries.
A stage play based on a book by Hugh Whitemore, The Best of Friends, provides a window on the friendships of Dame Laurentia McLachlan, OSB (late Abbess of Stanbrook) with Sir Sydney Cockerell and Shaw through adaptations from their letters and writings.
Actor Barry Morse, acquianted with Shaw beginning in the mid-1930s as a student at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and former Artistic Director of the Shaw Festival of Canada, is the current President of the London Shaw Society. It is an organization dedicated to promoting and educating the public on the life and works of Shaw. Notable members include Dame Judi Dench, Michael Holroyd, Rosalind Knight, Ann Mitchell, Malcolm Sinclair and Fiona Shaw.
Socialism and political beliefs
Shaw had a vision (letter to Henry James of January 17, 1909):
“I, as a Socialist, have had to preach, as much as anyone, the enormous power of the environment. We can change it; we must change it; there is absolutely no other sense in life than the task of changing it. What is the use of writing plays, what is the use of writing anything, if there is not a will which finally moulds chaos itself into a race of gods.”
Shaw held that each class worked towards its own ends, and that those from the upper echelons had won the struggle; for him, the working class had failed in promoting their interests effectively, making Shaw highly critical of the democratic system of his day. The writing of Shaw, such as his plays Major Barbara and Pygmalion, has a background theme of class struggle.
Shaw's second career — after the theatre — was in support of socialism. In 1882 Henry George’s lecture on land nationalization gave depth and direction to Shaw’s political ideology. Shortly thereafter he applied to join the Social Democratic Federation. Its leader H. M. Hyndman introduced him to the works of Karl Marx. Instead, in May of 1884 he joined the newly-formed Fabian Society. He played a pivotal role with the Fabian Society and wrote a number of their pamphlets. He argued that property was theft and for an equitable distribution of land and capital. He was involved with the formation of the Labour Party. For a clear statement of his position read The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism, Capitalism, Sovietism, and Fascism.
Despite the fact that he identified as being a democratic socialist, in the 1930s Shaw approved of the regime of Stalin and also made some ambiguous statements that are often interpreted as being pro-Hitler. In 1945, his preface to the play Geneva staked a claim that the majority of the victims of the Nazi extermination camps had in fact died of "overcrowding". However, he also stated that Hitler had become a "mad messiah" over time. Shaw contrasted this with the situation in the Soviet Union where, according to Shaw, "Stalin... made good by doing things better and much more promptly than parliaments". Shaw also made numerous anti-semitic comments at this time, although the extent to which he was merely being ironic or provocative is unclear.
His strongly favorable view of Stalin and the Soviet Union is quite evident, but often goes unremarked in discussions of his work. He declared all the stories of a famine were slander. Having been asked why he didn't want to stay permanently in the Soviet 'earthly paradise', Shaw ironically marked that England was a 'hell' but of course he was a small devil himself.