*Shaw, George Bernard

George Bernard Shaw

George Bernard Shaw



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Shaw, George Bernard

Irish, 1856–1950
George Bernard Shaw is best known for his plays, but at the end of his life he reproved one of his biograpbers for thinking of him only as a playwright: “For every play I have written I have made hundreds of speeches and published big books on Fabian Socialism” (Sixteen Self Sketches, 1949). Shaw actually began his career making speeches from soapboxes to anyone who would listen, and his style is predominantly a speaking one: forceful, witty, frequently paradoxical, and yet straightforward enough to be understood at one brisk reading. On the negative side, this does not leave much scope for personal emotion, and the shock statements and paradoxes can lead to oversimplification and brightly polished half-truths. Yet Shaw is seldom merely superficial; rather, he makes serious points in a witty manner.
Shaw first published book reviews, going on to review music, theater, and painting. He also wrote more generally on the arts, notably when discussing Ibsen and Wagner. He reminisced on his own career (though guardedly) and about people he had known. He added long prefaces to his plays, expanding on the ideas they presented. The majority of his writings are, in the wider sense, political—on how society should be organized. They often originated as speeches and then appeared as articles, pamphlets, books, and even lengthy letters to the editor. Nearly all of Shaw’s prose is journalism, in the sense that it is based on “what everybody is thinking about (or ought to be thinking about) at the moment of writing” (preface to The Sanity of Art, 1908). Most journalism loses its significance as time passes and circumstances change; many of Shaw’s articles do not read as independent literary essays because they are tied to a particular event or situation, such as a dramatic performance. However, other articles—a small proportion of his great output, but still enough to fill a sizable book—have outlasted the topics that prompted them, and survive as literature. These topics are usually biographical, artistic, or (most commonly) political.
Despite a reputation for self-promotion, Shaw seldom writes directly about his own personal experiences. There are the Self Sketches, but these are curiously unrevealing about his feelings and not very interesting as essays. However, his pen portraits of others are valuable, partly because many of the people are well known—William Morris, Oscar Wilde, H.G.Wells—but also because many have a personal tone usually missing in Shaw’s writing. His affection is evident in the essays on Morris (1899), the editor H.W.Massingham (1925), and the drama critic William Archer (1927). Of the last he says:“… after more than forty years, I have not a single unpleasant recollection.” His response to H.G.Wells’ furious public criticisms of Shaw and other leaders of the Fabian Society (which aimed at gradual socialism) is typical of Shaw’s ability to be hard-hitting and yet genuinely affable, partly, as he says elsewhere, by “the art of softening a touchy point by a stroke of humorous exaggeration” (1899).
Biography is combined with the discussion of art, particularly when Shaw describes the leading actors of his period and their performances. He wages a long campaign against actordirector Henry Irving who, Shaw claims, altered Shakespeare’s plays so drastically that they were unrecognizable. He makes the same criticism of Herbert Beerbohm Tree, but goodnaturedly: “As far as I could discover, the notion that a play could succeed without any further help from the actor than a simple impersonation of his part never occurred to Tree. The author, whether Shakespeare or Shaw, was a lame dog to be helped over the stile by the ingenuity and inventiveness of the actor-producer” (1920).
The success of Shaw’s plays, without being rewritten by the actors, simply “bewildered” Tree.
Shaw is always willing to speak against the majority, and prepared to praise where others condemn. He strongly defends Henry James’ ill-fated play Guy Domville, and defends Wilde against the fashionable charge that his plays are facile (1895): “As far as I can ascertain, I am the only person in London who cannot sit down and write an Oscar Wilde play at will.” He does share the majority view on Dickens, and a pretended letter of complaint from the Rev. Stiggins about the Wellers of Pickwick Papers, “sensual, ribald, and unseemly” (1887), brings out the perennial attraction of Dickens’ characters.
His introduction to Hard Times (1913) anticipates Orwell’s more famous essay (“Charles Dickens,” 1940) in many important points, examining the novel as announcing a major shift in Victorian perceptions of society.
The political essays are usually tied to contemporary situations, but some address wider topics. “War Delirium” (from the preface to Heartbreak House, 1919) is a study of how, in World War I, “the ordinary war-conscious citizen went mad,” and what this reveals of human nature. It combines a balanced, humanitarian view with trenchant judgments. “Fools exulted in ‘German losses.’ They were our losses as well. Imagine exulting in the death of Beethoven because Bill Sykes dealt him his death blow!”
“Democracy” (1929) has similar qualities but the tone is lighthearted: Parliament is compared to a hot-air balloon that touches down briefly once every five years. “The Crime of Poverty” (1912) and “Death of an Old Revolutionary Hero” (1905) use sustained irony that, in the latter, becomes satire. The “revolutionary hero” has opposed all the reforms of the 19th century, however worthy, on the grounds that they did not go far enough. Shaw, the gradualist socialist, makes fun of “all or nothing” men. As usual, his genial skepticism allows him to be highly critical and yet open-minded and entertaining.


Born 26 July 1856 in Dublin. Studied at various schools in Dublin, 1867–69. Worked for an estate agent in Dublin, 1871–76, then moved to London. Ghost writer for a music critic, 1876–77 and 1881; wrote serialized novels and literary and art criticism for various magazines and newspapers, 1879–83. Joined the Fabian Society, 1884, becoming a member of the executive committee, 1885–1911. Music, art, or drama reviewer for various journals, sometimes using the pseudonyum Corno di Bassetto for his music reviews, 1885–98. Helped to establish the London School of Economics, 1895.
Playwright: first play, Widowers’ Houses, produced 1892. Vestryman and councillor, Borough of St. Pancras, London, 1897–1903. Married Charlotte Payne-Townshend, 1898 (died, 1943). Lived mainly at country home in Ayot St. Lawrence, Hertfordshire, from 1906. Cofounder, the New Statesman, 1913.
Awards: Nobel Prize for Literature, 1926;
Irish Academy of Letters Medal, 1934; Academy Award (Oscar), for screenplay, 1939.
Died in Ayot St. Lawrence, 2 November 1950.

Selected Writings
Essays and Related Prose
The Quintessence of Ibsenism, 1891; revised, enlarged edition, 1913
Dramatic Opinions and Essays, 2 vols., 1906
The Sanity of Art, 1908
Mustc in London, 1890–1894, 3 vols., 1931
Our Theatre in the Nineties, 3 vols., 1931
London Music in 1888–89, 1937
Sixteen Self Sketches, 1949
Plays and Players: Theatre Essays, edited by A.C.Ward, 1952,
Shaw on Theatre: Sixty Years of Letters, Speeches, and Articles, edited by E.J.West, 1958
Major Critical Essays, 1958
Dramatic Criticism, 1895–98, edited by John F.Matthews, 1959
Shaw on Shakespeare, edited by Edwin Wilson, 1961
The Religious Speeches, edited by Warren Sylvester Smith, 1963
Shaw on Language, edited by Abraham Tauber, 1963
Selected Non-Dramatic Writings, edited by Dan H.Laurence, 1965
Shaw on Religion, edited by Warren Sylvester Smith, 1967
The Road to Equality: Ten Unpublished Lectures and Essays, 1884–1918, edited by Louis Crompton and Hilayne Cavanaugh, 1971
Nondramatic Literary Criticism, edited by Stanley Weintraub, 1972
Practical Politics: Twentieth-Century Views on Politics and Economics, edited by Lloyd J.Hubenka, 1976
Shaw and Ibsen: Bernard Shaw’s The Quintessence of Ibsenism, and Related Writings, edited by J.L.Wisenthal, 1979
Shaw’s Music: The Complete Musical Critidsm, edited by Dan H. Laurence, 3 vols., 1981
Agitations: Letters to the Press, 1875–1950, edited by Dan H. Laurence and James Rambeau, 1985
Book Reviews: Originally Published in the Pall Mall Gazette from 1885 to 1888, edited by Brian Tyson, 1991
The Drama Observed, edited by Bernard F.Dukore, 1993
The Complete Prefaces, edited by Dan H.Laurence and Daniel J. Leary, 2 vols., 1993–95

Other writings: many plays (including Arms and the Man, 1894; Candida, 1897; Mrs. Warren’s Profession, 1898; Man and Superman, 1903; Major Barbara, 1905;
Pygmalion, 1914; Heartbreak House, 1919; Saint Joan, 1924), five complete novels, screenplays, correspondence (published in Collected Letters, edited by Dan H.Laurence,
4 vols., 1965–88), diaries, and autobiography. Also edited (and contributed two essays to)
Fabian Essays in Socialism (1889).
Collected works edition: Works (Standard Edition), 37 vols., 1931–50.

Haberman, Donald C., J.P.Wearing, and Elsie B. Adams, G.B. Shaw: An Annotated Bibliography of Writings About Him, De Kalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 3 vols., 1986–87
Laurence, Dan H., Bernard Shaw: A Bibliography, Oxford: Clarendon Press, and New York: Oxford University Press, 2 vols., 1983

Further Reading
Barber, George S., “Shaw’s Contributions to Music Criticism,” PMLA 72 (December 1957):1005–17
Barr, Alan P., “Diabolonian Pundit: G.B. S. as Critic,” Shaw Review 11 (January 1968):11–23
Breuer, Hans-Peter, “Form and Feeling: George Bernard Shaw as Music Critic,” Journal
of Irish Literature 11 (September 1982): 74–102
Fromm, Harold, Shaw and the Theater in the Nineties: A Study of Shaw’s Dramatic Criticism, Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1967
Gassner, John, “Shaw as a Drama Critic,” Theatre Arts 35 (May 1951):26–19, 91–95
Glicksberg, Charles I., “The Criticism of Bernard Shaw,” South Atlantic Quarterly 50 (January 1951):96–108
Hadsel, Martha, “The Uncommon-Common Metaphor in Shaw’s Dramatic Criticism,” Shaw Review 23 (September 1980):119–29
Hill, Eldon C., George Bernard Shaw, Boston: Twayne, 1978
Irvine, William, “G. B.Shaw’s Musical Criticism,” Musical Quarterly 32 (July 1946):319–32
King, Carlyle, “G. B.Shaw on Literature: The Author as Critic,” Queen’s Quarterly 66 (Spring 1959):135–45
Shenfield, M., “Shaw as a Music Critic,” Music and Letters 39 (October 1958):378–84
Silverman, Albert H., “Bernard Shaw’s Shakespeare Criticism,” PMLA 72 (September 1957):722–36
Smith, J.Percy, “Superman Versus Man: Bernard Shaw on Shakespeare,” Yale Review 42 (Autumn 1952):67–82

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