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George Bernard Shaw

(1856—1950) playwright and polemicist

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Irish playwright, critic, and propagandist. He accepted the Nobel Prize for Literature (1925), but declined all other public honours.

Shaw's parents were an ill-assorted impoverished Dublin couple with pretensions to gentility. The discovery of his father's secret drinking was a traumatic experience for the boy. At the Wesley School, which he entered in 1867, he failed to distinguish himself, but nonetheless his mother's interest in music broadened his horizons and he read extensively. In 1871 Shaw became a clerk in an estate agent's office; in 1875 his mother and two sisters left Dublin for good, leaving Shaw with his father. Despite promising progress in his career, Shaw too left Dublin in 1876 to join his mother in London. For some years he lived in straitened circumstances, using periods of unemployment to write unsuccessful novels and evolve his socialist philosophy. By determined practice he became an effective orator. In 1884 he became one of the earliest members of the Fabian Society. At the instigation of drama critic William Archer (1856–1924), an acquaintance from the British Museum Library, Shaw became book reviewer on the Pall Mall Gazette (1885–88) and art critic on the World (1886–89). In 1888 he became music critic on the Star, writing under the name ‘Corno di Bassetto’, and in 1890 moved to the same post on the World. In 1895 he became drama critic on the Saturday Review.

His first play, originally conceived in 1885 as a collaboration with Archer, was Widowers' Houses (1892), but many of the plays he wrote in the 1890s were not performed until much later; for instance, Mrs Warren's Profession, printed in Plays Pleasant and Unpleasant (1898), was banned from the stage until 1925. The seven plays in this collection each had a Preface and thereafter Shaw invariably included a long elegant Preface with each of his plays, using them as vehicles for his diverse opinions, which were not always connected with the plays they prefaced. Other plays met with little success, although productions in the USA of Arms and the Man (1894) and The Devil's Disciple (1897) were better received. In 1898 he married a wealthy young Irish girl, Charlotte Payne-Townshend, who had nursed him through an illness caused by overwork. The marriage, based more on economic convenience than passion, lasted until her death in 1943. In 1899 Shaw's friend Mrs Patrick Campbell starred in his Caesar and Cleopatra. He did not, however, achieve true recognition in the London theatre until 1904, with the production of John Bull's Other Island, followed by Man and Superman (completed 1903). Other prewar successes included Major Barbara (1905; filmed with additional scenes by Shaw in 1940), The Doctor's Dilemma (1906), Androcles and the Lion (1913), and Pygmalion (1914; filmed 1938 and made into a musical, My Fair Lady, in 1964). Shaw's essay Common Sense About the War (1914) attracted much odium, but his popularity recovered after the war. In 1921 Heartbreak House was staged in London, a year after its New York premiere. Saint Joan (1924) had Sybil Thorndike in the title role, and The Apple Cart (1929), a political extravaganza, was first performed in Warsaw.


Subjects: Literature

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