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George Bernard Shaw was born on July 26th, 1856 in Synge Street, Dublin. His parents, George Carr Shaw, an unsuccessful grain merchant and sometime civil servant, and Lucinda Elizabeth Shaw, née Gurly, a professional singer, also had two daughters; Lucinda Frances born in 1853 and Elinor Agnes born in 1855.
Shaw’s education began at Wesley College, Dublin, before he moved to a private school near Dalkey and then on to Dublin's Central Model School. He ended his formal education at the Dublin English Scientific and Commercial Day School. He was not enamoured with the education system, saying "Schools and schoolmasters are not popular as places of education, but rather prisons and turnkeys in which children are kept to prevent them disturbing and chaperoning their parents."
He was a particular opponent of corporal punishment which was the main means of discipline at the time.
The family broke up when Shaw was almost sixteen. His mother left home and followed her voice teacher, George Vandeleur Lee, to London, taking her daughters with her. Shaw remained with his father in Dublin.
His career began as a clerk in an estate office which lasted for several years. In 1876, Shaw joined his mother's London household. She, Vandeleur Lee, and his sister Lucy, provided him with a pound a week while he frequented public libraries and the British Museum reading room where he studied earnestly and began writing novels. In return for his keep he turned his hand to ghost writing Vandeleur Lee's music column for the London Hornet.
All his early novels were initially rejected. It was only when he was almost thirty that his writing as a critic enabled him to live off of his own resources.
His first novel, Immaturity, was written in 1879 (but only published in 1931). Of interest to scholars rather than the wider public it was notable only for its condemning of alcoholic behaviour.
Shaw followed this with The Irrational Knot in 1880 (published in 1905). An early example of Shaw’s allegiance with the nobility of workers, it follows the marriage of Marion Lind.
Love Among the Artists was written in 1881 (published in the U.S in 1900). The novel traces the rise of Owen Jack, a musical genius from destitute beginnings to great fame and to being lionized by socialites despite his unremitting crudity.
An Unsocial Socialist in 1883 (published in 1887) is the Shaw that we now more easily recognise. The tale begins with a hilarious description of student antics at a girl's school then changes focus to a seemingly uncouth labourer who is really a wealthy gentleman in hiding from his overly affectionate wife. He needs the freedom gained by matrimonial truancy to promote the socialistic cause, to which he is an active convert and which is the main theme of the work.
The year before, 1882, influenced by Henry George's view that the rent value of land belongs to all, Shaw concluded that private ownership of land and its exploitation for personal profit was a form of theft, and advocated equitable distribution of land and natural resources with their control by governments intent on promoting the commonwealth. Shaw believed that income for individuals should come solely from the sale of their own labour and that poverty could be eliminated by giving equal pay to everyone. This led him to join the newly formed Fabian Society in 1884. He wrote many of their pamphlets and lectured for their causes.
Shaw became a critic of the arts when, sponsored by William Archer, he joined the reviewing staff of the Pall Mall Gazette in 1885. There he wrote under the pseudonym "Corno di Bassetto" ("basset horn")—chosen because it sounded European and nobody knew what a corno di bassetto was. In a hotch potch of other periodicals, including Dramatic Review (1885–86), Our Corner (1885–86), and the Pall Mall Gazette (1885–88) his byline was "GBS". From 1895 to 1898, Shaw was the drama critic for the Saturday Review, in which position he campaigned brilliantly to displace the artificialities and hypocrisies of the Victorian stage with a theatre of actuality and thought. His earnings as a critic now made him self-supporting as an author and his articles for the Saturday Review made his name well-known.
This recognition undoubtedly paved the way for his early novels to be published. The first to be pushed into the public arena was his novel Cashel Byron's Profession (written 1882), which was published in 1886 and continues his socialist beliefs under the original influence of Henry George. Its lead character, Cashel, a rebellious schoolboy with an unsympathetic mother, runs away to Australia where he becomes a famed prizefighter. He returns to England for a boxing match, and falls in love with the erudite and wealthy Lydia Carew. Lydia, drawn by sheer animal magnetism, eventually consents to marry despite the disparity of their social positions. This breach of propriety is nullified by the discovery that Cashel is of noble lineage and heir to a fortune comparable to Lydia's. With those barriers to happiness removed, the couple settles down to family life and Cashel attains a seat in Parliament. In this novel Shaw first expresses his conviction that productive land and all other natural resources should belong to everyone in common, rather than being owned and exploited privately.
Shaw began working on his first play destined for production, Widowers' Houses, in 1885 in collaboration with critic William Archer, who supplied the structure. However Archer decided that Shaw could not write a play, so the project was abandoned. Years later, Shaw tried again and, in 1892, completed the play without collaboration. Widowers' Houses, a scathing attack on slum landlords, was first performed at London's Royalty Theatre on 9 December 1892. Shaw would later call it one of his worst works, but he had found the medium through which he could best transmit his message. His first significant financial success as a playwright came from Richard Mansfield's American production of The Devil's Disciple.
As well as plays and prefaces, Shaw wrote long political treatises, such as Fabian Essays in Socialism (1889), and The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism, a 495-page book detailing all aspects of socialistic theory as Shaw interpreted it.
Shaw was a co-founder of the London School of Economics and Political Science in 1895 with funding provided by private philanthropy. One of the libraries at the London School of Economics is named in Shaw's honour; it contains collections of his papers and photographs.
By now a well established playwright Shaw had already declined to stand for Parliament but did 1897 gain election as a local councillor to the St Pancras Vestry. During these political activities, he met Charlotte Payne-Townshend, an Irish heiress and fellow Fabian; they married in 1898.
The marriage was never consummated, at Charlotte's insistence, and thereafter he had a number of affairs principally with married women.
Shaw was an early enthusiast of photography and bought his first camera in 1898. He considered it a serious art form and took many thousands of photographs right up until his death. These photographs document a prolific literary and political life as well as friendships, travels, plays, films and home life.
As Shaw's experience and popularity increased, his plays and prefaces became more strident in the advocation of reforms though cleverly not diluting their entertainment value. Such works, including Caesar and Cleopatra (1898), Man and Superman (1903), Major Barbara (1905) and The Doctor's Dilemma (1906), display Shaw's matured views – not unlikely as he was by now approaching 50.
With the creation of the Metropolitan Borough of St Pancras in 1900 Shaw was elected as a borough councillor but dismissed any party label, claiming "I have not yet discovered the party that is anxious to claim me as its representative." He resigned from the council at the next election in 1903 as "in his view, the only perfect Council should consist of millionaires and labourers" and he was neither.
From 1904 to 1907, several of his plays had their London premieres in productions at the Royal Court Theatre. The first, John Bull's Other Island, made his reputation in London when King Edward VII laughed so hard during a command performance that he broke his chair.
In 1906, the Shaw’s moved into a house, now called Shaw's Corner, in Ayot St. Lawrence, a small village in Hertfordshire, England; it was to be their home for the remainder of their lives, although they also maintained a residence at 29 Fitzroy Square in London.
Shaw became a noted figure in the original eugenics movement. In 1910, he wrote that natural attraction rather than wealth or social class should govern selection of marriage partners. At that point the corruption of this idea by the later Nazi’s had not sullied its reputation. Shaw sometimes treated the topic in a light-hearted way, pointing out that if eugenics had been thought about some generations previously, he himself may not have been born, so depriving humanity of his great contributions.
In other areas he also pushed against the grain; he was against most modern medicine believing that a good diet was far more preferable – he himself had been a strict vegetarian since he was 25.
In 1908 Shaw had permitted an operatta, albeit with many restrictions, to be made of Arms and the Man called The Chocolate Soldier. It proved to be a big hit and would have made Shaw rich had he not waived his royalties, but he detested it and for the rest of his life forbade any works being turned into musicals. Several of his plays formed the basis of musicals after his death—most famously the musical My Fair Lady.
In the 1910s Shaw’s plays continued to generate both fame and fortune. Works such as Fanny's First Play (1911) and Pygmalion (1912), had long runs in front of large London audiences.
Shaw helped to found the left-wing magazine New Statesman in 1913 with the Webbs and other prominent members of the Fabian Society.
His outlook in many areas was changed by World War I; which he uncompromisingly opposed, despite incurring outrage from the public as well as from many friends. His first full-length piece, presented after the War was Heartbreak House (1919). In it the wit remained, but his faith in humanity had dwindled.
In 1921, Shaw completed Back to Methuselah, his "Metabiological Pentateuch". The massive, five-play work starts in the Garden of Eden and ends thousands of years in the future; it showcases Shaw's postulate that a "Life Force" directs evolution toward ultimate perfection by trial and error. Shaw proclaimed the play a masterpiece, but many critics disagreed.
Saint Joan followed in 1923. Shaw had long considered writing about Joan of Arc, and her canonization in 1920 supplied a strong incentive. The play was an international success.
Shaw was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1925 for his contributions to literature. The citation praised his work as "... marked by both idealism and humanity, its stimulating satire often being infused with a singular poetic beauty".
Shaw wanted to refuse his Nobel Prize outright having no desire for public honours. His wife insisted it he accept it as a tribute to Ireland. He did but rejected the monetary award, requesting it be used to finance translation of fellow playwright August Strindberg's works from Swedish to English.
He continued to write plays for the rest of his life, but very few of them were as successful as his earlier work. The Apple Cart (1929) was the most popular work of this era. Later plays like Too True to Be Good (1931), On the Rocks (1933), The Millionairess (1935), and Geneva (1938) have been seen as marking a decline.
After visiting the USSR in 1931 and meeting Joseph Stalin, Shaw became a supporter of the Stalinist USSR. On 11 October 1931 he broadcast a lecture on American national radio telling his audience that any 'skilled workman ... of suitable age and good character' would be welcomed and given work in the Soviet Union. Apparently several hundred did.
In a letter to the Manchester Guardian in 1933, he dismissed stories—which were later proved true—of a Soviet famine as slanderous, and contrasts them with the hardships then current in the West during the Great Depression: “We desire to record that we saw nowhere evidence of such economic slavery, privation, unemployment and cynical despair of betterment as are accepted as inevitable and ignored by the press as having "no news value" in our own countries."
Despite Shaw's scepticism about the creation of the Irish Free State, he was supportive of Éamon de Valera's stance on the Second World War, including his policy of refusing to fall in line with the Allies' demand for neutral countries to deny asylum to Axis war criminals during the war. According to Shaw "The voice of the Irish gentleman and Spanish grandee was a welcome relief from the chorus of retaliatory rancour and self-righteousness then deafening us".
During his later years, Shaw enjoyed attending to the grounds at Shaw's Corner. At 91 he joined the Interplanetary Society for the last three years of his life.
George Bernard Shaw died on November 2nd, 1950 at the age of 94, of renal failure precipitated by injuries incurred by a fall whilst pruning a tree.
He was cremated at Golders Green Crematorium on November 6th. His ashes, mixed with those of his wife, Charlotte, were scattered along footpaths and around the statue of Saint Joan in their garden.
Shaw is the only person to have been awarded both a Nobel Prize in Literature (1925) and an Academy Award (1938), for his contributions to literature and for his work on the film Pygmalion.
Shaw refused all other awards and honours, including the offer of a knighthood.
He wrote sixty-three plays and his output as novelist, critic, pamphleteer, essayist and private correspondent was prodigious. As a writer of letters he is known to have written over 250,000 of them.
Nearly all his writings address prevailing social problems with a vein of comedy which makes their stark themes more palatable. Issues which engaged Shaw's attention included education, marriage, religion, government, health care, and class privilege. In his long and productive life he continued his pursuit of social justice until his death.