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Shaw, George Bernard

The Oxford Encyclopedia of Theatre and Performance

Nicholas Grene

Shaw, George Bernard 


Irish novelist, playwright, journalist, cultural critic, political theorist, pundit, and public personality. Born in Dublin, the second child of George Carr Shaw and of Lucinda Elizabeth Gurly, into the class he called the ‘downstarts’, downwardly mobile Anglo-Irish Protestants, he never attended university but started work as a clerk at the age of 15. Escaping to London in 1876, he never returned to live in Ireland. A prolonged period of unemployment, self-education, and unsuccessful novel writing, was ended by work as a journalist, reviewing successively art, books, music, and theatre for London journals and newspapers. A zealous convert to socialism in the 1880s, he became a leading member of the left-wing, middle-class Fabian Society and a well-known lecturer and political publicist.

Shaw came to playwriting in the 1890s as a convinced socialist and a crusader for avant-garde theatre, both evident in his doctrinaire Quintessence of Ibsenism (1891). His first play, Widowers' Houses (1892), written for J. T. Grein's Independent Theatre, was a polemic Ibsenian problem play, designed to accuse its middle-class audience of capitalist complicity in slum-landlordism. Even more scandalous was Mrs Warren's Profession (written 1893), exposing the cash–sex nexus of prostitution as the unspeakable counterpart of respectable marriage. Mrs Warren was denied a public licence in Britain for over 30 years, and provoked a prosecution for immorality when staged in New York in 1905 (see censorship). Shaw's technique was to borrow plots, characters, and situations from the conventional nineteenth-century theatre, which he knew intimately from his experience as a reviewer, and to overturn and subvert all of the audience's expectations of such theatre. So his Arms and the Man (1894) mocked military romance with its unromantic Swiss mercenary soldier Bluntschli; Candida (1897) was written as a counterpart to A Doll's House to illustrate the proposition that in the standard Victorian family it was the male who was the petted doll. Shaw's piquantly playful versions of familiar genres were designed for the theatres and actors of his time. The Devil's Disciple (1897) was intended as an Adelphi melodrama, You Never Can Tell (1899) a farce for the Haymarket, Caesar and Cleopatra (1901) a historical epic vehicle for leading actors Johnston Forbes-Robertson and Mrs Patrick Campbell. But in nearly every case they proved too different, too difficult for contemporary theatre managements. Shaw was forced to collect and publish two volumes of Plays Pleasant and Unpleasant (1898) and Three Plays for Puritans (1901) in default of satisfactory productions. His one major success in the nineteenth century was the American staging of The Devil's Disciple by the British actor-manager Richard Mansfield.

The money made from this production and his marriage in 1898 to the wealthy Irishwoman Charlotte Payne-Townshend enabled Shaw to retire as theatre critic for the Saturday Review, a position he had held since 1895. His collected theatre criticism, published as Our Theatre in the Nineties (1930), is a monument to his achievement in this genre. Ironically, it was not long after he had completed Man and Superman (published 1903), a ‘comedy and a philosophy’ intended to be gargantuanly beyond staging, that Shaw found a theatre able to do justice to his work.

The Vedrenne–Barker management at the Royal Court Theatre (1904–7), and collaboration with Harley Granville Barker, brought the production of eleven Shaw plays, both new and earlier works. Shaw's reputation was made, in particular, by John Bull's Other Island (1904), a treatment of the ‘Irish question’ satirically transposing stereotypes of Irishman and Englishman. The Court productions showed that Shaw's new form of comedy of ideas, apparently so full of talk, so little corresponding to conventionally plotted drama, could nonetheless grip audiences. This was true even of plays such as Man and Superman, which took time out from its battle of the sexes action for a philosophical dialogue, ‘Don Juan in Hell’, and of Major Barbara (1905) with its hard-hitting analysis of philanthropy, power, and moral responsibility. Shaw's dialectic skills, his musical management of long speeches as prose arias, his immense gifts of comic characterization, produced theatre unlike anything that had gone before.

Though his discussion plays Getting Married (1908) and Misalliance (1910) were less well received, Shaw was to achieve one of his greatest and most popular successes with Pygmalion (1914), written for Mrs Patrick Campbell. The Cinderella story of the flower-girl turned into a lady by a professor of phonetics resulted in a lifelong struggle by Shaw, first with the theatre director Beerbohm Tree, and then with film producers, to prevent it being returned to stock with a ‘happy’ ending. This was a battle Shaw was to lose posthumously when the sugar-coated musical comedy adaptation, Lerner and Loewe's My Fair Lady (1956), went on to make more money for the Shaw estate than all his plays put together.

The First World War brought Shaw intense unpopularity in Britain for his unseasonably cool Common Sense about the War (1914) and the disillusionment expressed in Heartbreak House (written 1916–17). This (most un-Chekhovian) experiment in the Chekhovian style— ‘a fantasia in the Russian manner on English themes’—indicted the irresponsibility of the intelligentsia that had led to the war in its ship-shaped country house drifting onto the rocks. Considered dated in Britain in the immediate post-war period, but with a major international reputation, Shaw's plays were increasingly premièred abroad. Both Heartbreak House (1920) and the immense ‘metabiological pentateuch’ Back to Methuselah (1922), dramatizing Shaw's religion of Creative Evolution, were produced by the Theatre Guild in New York.

Shaw's theatrical fortunes were once again revived by St Joan (1923), an enormous success particularly for Sybil Thorndike, who created the part in Britain. Although some critics objected to the jokiness of the epilogue, in which the revived saint debates with her former friends and enemies, the central character, no-nonsense mystic, Protestant and nationalist before her time (as Shaw saw her), has become one of the classic roles for women actors in the modern period. The play helped to win Shaw the Nobel Prize for Literature for 1925. In the 25 remaining years of his life Shaw continued to be immensely productive in the theatre, with The Apple Cart (1929), Too True to Be Good (1932), and a dozen further plays, often on political themes with fantastic or futuristic settings. Few of these had much commercial success, but the Malvern Festival, founded by Barry Jackson, provided a dedicated space for Shaw productions in the 1930s. In spite of his politically irresponsible championship of dictatorial government, he continued to be much admired and much courted, his opinions on all matters sought and publicized to the end of his long life.

Shaw, arguably the most important English-language playwright after Shakespeare, produced an immense oeuvre, of which at least half a dozen plays remain part of the world repertoire. In the English-speaking world they are often staged as part of a classic middlebrow repertoire, generally in conservative, period-style productions, and works such as Heartbreak House and St Joan are periodically revived as star vehicles by London West End managements. The specialist Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, mounts much more imaginative and innovative productions, notably Misalliance (1990) and The Doctor's Dilemma (2000), both directed by Christopher Newton, and Jim Mezon's John Bull's Other Island (1998). Academically unfashionable, of limited influence even in areas such as Irish drama and British political theatre where influence might be expected, Shaw's unique and unmistakable plays keep escaping from the safely dated category of period piece to which they have often been consigned. See also politics and theatre.

Nicholas Grene


Grene, Nicholas, Bernard Shaw: a critical view (Basingstoke, 1984)Find this resource:

    Holroyd, Michael, Bernard Shaw, 5 vols. (London, 1988–92)Find this resource:

      Meisel, Martin, Shaw and the Nineteenth-Century Theater (Princeton, 1963)Find this resource: