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George Bernard Shaw

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George Bernard Shaw
George Bernard Shaw 1936.jpg
Shaw in 1936
Born (1856-07-26)26 July 1856
Dublin, Ireland
Died 2 November 1950(1950-11-02) (aged 94)
Ayot St Lawrence, Hertfordshire, England, UK
Occupation Playwright, critic, political activist
Nationality Irish
Alma mater Wesley College, Dublin
Genre Satire, black comedy
Literary movement Ibsenism, naturalism
Notable awards

Nobel Prize in Literature

Academy Award for Writing Adapted Screenplay
1938 Pygmalion
Spouse Charlotte Payne-Townshend (m.1898–1943, her death)


George Bernard Shaw (26 July 1856 – 2 November 1950) was a Nobel Prize and Oscar-winning Irish playwright, critic and socialist whose influence on Western theatre, culture and politics stretched from the 1880s to his death in 1950. Originally earning his way as an influential London music and theatre critic, Shaw's greatest gift was for the modern drama. Strongly influenced by Henrik Ibsen, he successfully introduced a new realism into English-language drama. He wrote more than 60 plays, among them Man and Superman, Mrs. Warren's Profession, Major Barbara, Saint Joan, Caesar and Cleopatra, and Pygmalion. With his range from biting contemporary satire to historical allegory, Shaw became the leading comedy dramatist of his generation and one of the most important playwrights in the English language since the 17th century.

"Shaw was also the most trenchant pamphleteer since Swift, the most readable music critic in English, the best theatre critic of his generation, a prodigious lecturer and essayist on politics, economics, and sociological subjects, and one of the most prolific letter writers in literature," sums up Stanley Weintraub in the Encyclopædia Britannica.[1] He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925.

As a young man raised in poverty, Shaw embraced socialism and became an early and lifelong force in the Fabian Society, a highly influential British organisation, founded in 1884, to promote a gradual, as opposed to revolutionary, socialism, that was the foundation for the British Labour Party in 1900. He tirelessly wrote and spoke on behalf of its wide-ranging vision to transform British society, advocating a minimum wage for the working-class, universal healthcare, women's right to vote, and the abolition of hereditary privilege. Not quite a pacifist because he justified war when a necessary evil (as in fighting the Nazis in WWII), he worked for a peaceable world and supported the establishment of the League of Nations. He edited the classic text "Fabian Essays in Socialism" (1889), and helped co-founders Sidney and Beatrice Webb create the London School of Economics and Political Science from a bequest by an early Fabian in 1895. He publicly opposed Britain's entry into both World Wars.

He is the only person to have been awarded both a Nobel Prize (Literature, 1925) and an Academy Award (Best Adapted Screenplay, 1938), the first for his contributions to literature and the second for his film adaptation of his most popular play, Pygmalion. The story of a pedantic British linguist who turns a Cockney flower girl into a lady was immortalised after his death in the 1953 Broadway musical My Fair Lady.

Shaw refused all other awards and honours, including the offer of a knighthood.


Early years[edit]

Shaw was born at 3 Upper Synge Street,[n 1] Dublin, the youngest child and only son of George Carr Shaw (1814–85) and Lucinda Elizabeth (Bessie) Shaw (née Gurly; 1830–1913). His elder siblings were Lucinda (Lucy) Frances (1853–1920) and Elinor Agnes (1855–76). Shaw's father came from a family of landed gentry. Shaw's biographer Sir Michael Holroyd records that in 1689 Captain William Shaw went from England to Ireland to fight for William III at the Battle of the Boyne, for which he was rewarded with the grant of a substantial estate in Kilkenny[3] His descendants included men of consequence in the Protestant Ascendancy, as well as failures and alcoholics including George Carr Shaw. The family secured George a sinecure in the civil service, from which he was pensioned off in the early 1850s; thereafter he earned a small and insecure income as a wholesale corn merchant.[4] In 1852 he married Bessie Gurly, who was from a shakily prosperous family lower on the social scale: Bessie's father was a minor landowner; her grandfather owned a pawnbroking business.[5] She was barely half her husband's age, and in Holroyd's view married Shaw to escape the tyrannical great-aunt who had brought her up. If George's reasons for the marriage were mercenary, as Holroyd and others surmise, he was disappointed, as Bessie was prevented from bringing much of her family's money with her.[6] She came to look with scorn on her ineffectual and often drunken husband, with whom she shared a life of "shabby-genteel poverty", as their son later described it.[7]

exterior of modest city house
Shaw's birthplace (2012 photograph). The plaque reads "Bernard Shaw, author of many plays, was born in this house, 26 July 1856".

By the time of Shaw's birth his mother had become close to George John Lee, a well-known and colourful figure in Dublin's musical circles. Shaw retained a lifelong obsession that Lee might have been his biological father;[8] there is no consensus among Shavian scholars on the likelihood of this.[9][10][11][12] The Shaws rented a house in a lower-middle-class district of Dublin, and raised the three children. Shaw senior was a cipher in the household, which was run by Bessie, described by the writer St John Ervine as "a disillusioned young woman of iron will who had no talent for domesticity, and was married to a drunkard whom she despised".[4] The young Shaw, known throughout his childhood and youth as "Sonny", suffered no harshness from his mother, but he later recalled that her indifference and lack of affection affected him deeply.[13] He found solace in the music that abounded in the house. Lee, who lived near the Shaws, was a conductor and teacher of singing. Bessie had a fine mezzo-soprano voice and was much influenced by Lee's unorthodox method of vocal production. Under his influence the Shaws' house was filled with music, with frequent gatherings of singers and players.[4]

In 1862 Lee and the Shaws agreed to share a large house in a more upmarket part of Dublin, and in the months of milder weather they also shared a country cottage on Dalkey Hill, overlooking Killiney Bay. Shaw, a sensitive boy, found the less salubrious parts of Dublin shocking and distressing, and he was happier at the cottage than he had ever been. Although Lee was no reader, his students often gave him books, which the young Shaw read avidly [14] As well as gaining a thorough musical knowledge of choral and operatic works by Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Handel, Verdi, Donizetti, Mozart and others, he became familiar with literature from Homer to Shakespeare, Bunyan, Macaulay, Dickens and George Eliot.[15]

Between 1865 and 1871 Shaw attended four schools, all of which he hated.[16][n 2] He became joint head boy at the last of them, but his experiences as a schoolboy left him disillusioned with formal education: "Schools and schoolmasters, as we have them today, are not popular as places of education and teachers, but rather prisons and turnkeys in which children are kept to prevent them disturbing and chaperoning their parents."[17] In October 1871 he left school, aged fifteen, and obtained a post as a junior clerk in a Dublin firm of land agents. He did not enjoy the work, but was good at it, and quickly rose to become head cashier.[8] During this period he was no longer called "Sonny" and was "George Shaw" for the first and only time in his life, before dropping the "George" and styling himself "Bernard Shaw" after his move to London.[n 3]

In June 1873 Lee left Dublin for London, and never returned. A fortnight later Bessie followed him, taking Agnes with her. Lucy joined them soon afterwards.[8] Shaw's reminiscences of his early years have been shown by scholars to be factually unreliable.[19] By his account, Lee left Ireland because he had outgrown the musical possibilities of Dublin; in fact Lee overreached himself, and tried to oust Sir Robert Stewart as the city's leading conductor. Stewart, professor of music at Trinity College, denounced him as a charlatan, and succeeded in driving him out.[20] Shaw's explanation of why his mother followed Lee was that without the latter's financial contribution the joint household had to be broken up.[21] Shaw and his father remained in Dublin, where Shaw compensated for the sudden absence of music in the house by teaching himself to play the piano.[8]


Early in 1876 Shaw learned from his mother that Agnes was dying of tuberculosis. Taking this opportunity to abandon his uncongenial work and dull home life with his father, he resigned from the land agents, travelled to England and joined his mother and Lucy at Agnes's funeral on the Isle of Wight in March. He never again lived in Ireland, and did not visit it for another twenty-nine years, when he did so to please his wife.[4]

Shaw in 1879

Despite his good record in commercial office work, Shaw refused to seek such employment in London. His mother allowed him to live free of charge in her house in South Kensington, but he nevertheless needed an income from some source. He had abandoned a teenage ambition to become a painter, and had no thought of writing for a living, but Lee found a little work for him, ghostwriting a musical column printed under Lee's name in a satirical weekly, The Hornet.[4] Lee's relations with Bessie deteriorated after their move to London. Shaw attributed this to Bessie's disillusion when Lee abandoned the teaching methods she so revered, pursuing instead a cynically commercial exploitation of gullible pupils;[n 4] others, including Holroyd, have suggested that Bessie was resentful that Lee's affections were turning elsewhere, not least to her daughter Lucy.[21][22] Despite the rift, Shaw maintained contact with Lee, who found him work as a rehearsal pianist and occasional singer.[23][n 5]

Eventually Shaw was driven to reconsider his refusal to take an office job, and began applying for vacancies. In the interim he secured a reader's pass for the British Museum Reading Room (the forerunner of the British Library) and spent most weekdays there, reading and writing.[27] His first attempt at drama, begun in 1878, was a blank-verse satirical piece on a religious theme. It was abandoned unfinished, as was his first try at a novel. His first complete novel, Immaturity (1879) was too grim to appeal to publishers and did not appear until the 1930s.[8] He was employed briefly by the Edison Telephone Company in 1879–80, and as in Dublin achieved rapid promotion. Nonetheless, when the Edison firm merged with the rival Bell Telephone Company, Shaw chose not to seek a place in the new organisation.[28] In 1881 for the sake of economy, and increasingly as a matter of principle, he became a lifelong vegetarian.[8] He grew a beard to hide a facial scar left by smallpox.[29] In rapid succession Shaw wrote two more novels: The Irrational Knot (1880) and Love Among the Artists (1881), but neither found a publisher; each was serialised a few years later in the socialist magazine Our Corner.[30][n 6]

In 1880 Shaw began attending meetings of the Zetetical Society, a debating group whose stated objective was to "search for truth in all matters affecting the interests of the human race".[33] Here he met Sidney Webb, a junior civil servant who, like Shaw, was busy educating himself. Despite considerable difference of style and temperament, the two quickly recognised qualities in each other and developed a lifelong friendship. Shaw later reflected: "You knew everything that I didn't know and I knew everything you didn't know ...We had everything to learn from one another and brains enough to do it".[34]

Shaw continued his search for knowledge among other groups, and on 5 September 1882 he attended a meeting on Land Reform at the Memorial Hall, Farringdon, addressed by the political economist Henry George.[35] Shaw bought and read George's book Progress and Poverty, which awakened his interest in economics.[36] At meetings of the Democratic Federation (later the Social Democratic Federation or SDF), he discovered the writings of Karl Marx, and spent much of 1883 in the British Museum Reading Room, reading Das Kapital in its French translation. He described this experience as the turning point in his career; he was less enamoured of the SDF and of its founder, H. M. Hyndman, whom he found autocratic, ill-tempered and lacking leadership qualities. He doubted the ability of the SDF to harness the working classes into an effective radical movement; he preferred, he said, to work with men who were his intellectual equals.[37]

Victorian photograph of man in early middle age, with centre-parted hair and a walrus moustache
William Archer, colleague and benefactor of Shaw

Shaw's next attempt at drama was in 1884, Un Petit Drame, a one-act playlet in French, not published in his lifetime.[38] In the same year the critic William Archer suggested a collaboration, with a plot by Archer and dialogue by Shaw.[39] The project foundered, but Shaw returned to the draft as the basis of Widowers' Houses in 1892,[40] and the connection with Archer proved of immense value to Shaw's career.[41]

Fabian Society[edit]

After reading a tract, Why Are The Many Poor?, issued by the recently formed Fabian Society,[n 7] Shaw decided to investigate this organisation,[43] and went to its next advertised meeting, on 16 May 1884.[44] Holroyd writes that Shaw "saw at once an opportunity of dominating this group with his ideas".[45] He was formally admitted to membership in September 1884,[44] and before the year's end had provided the society with its first manifesto, published as Fabian Tract No. 2.[46] This document lists 17 propositions, including the nationalisation of land and curbs on private capital.[45] In a later Fabian tract (No. 41, The Fabian Society: Its Early History, 1892),[46] Shaw would mock the idealism of the society's early years, and the assumption that the society could bring about "a tremendous smash-up" of the existing social system and its replacement by "complete Socialism".[47] He joined the society's executive committee in January 1885, and later that year recruited his friends Webb and Annie Besant, the latter of whom had a reputation as a fine orator.[44]

"The most striking result of our present system of farming out the national Land and capital to private individuals has been the division of society into hostile classes, with large appetites and no dinners at one extreme, and large dinners and no appetites at the other"

Shaw, Fabian Tract No. 2: A Manifesto (1884). [48]

From 1885 to 1889, alongside his journalistic and political activities, Shaw attended the fortnightly meetings of the British Economic Association; it was, Holroyd observes, "the closest Shaw had ever come to university education." His political ideas developed and changed; while still promoting widespread social and economic change, he moved away from Marxism and became an apostle of gradualism.[49] In the 1886–87 Fabian debates concerning the adoption by the society of Anarchism, as advocated by Charlotte Wilson, Besant and others, Shaw was initially equivocal, but eventually joined the majority in rejecting this approach.[50] When on 13 November 1887 ("Bloody Sunday"), a Trafalgar Square rally addressed by Besant was violently broken up by the authorities, Shaw quickly left the scene.[51][52] The events of the day convinced him of the folly of attempting to challenge police power.[53] Thereafter, having previously argued for the establishment of a new Radical party to establish socialism, he largely accepted the principle of "permeation" as advocated by Webb: the notion whereby socialism could best be achieved by infiltration of people and ideas into existing political parties.[54]

Throughout the 1880s the Fabian Society remained small: 67 members in 1886,[55] and less than 100 at the end of 1888.[56] Moreover, its message of moderation was frequently unheard among more strident voices.[55] Its profile was raised in 1889 with the publication of Fabian Essays in Socialism, edited by Shaw who also provided two of the essays. The second of these, "Transition", sets out in detail the case for gradualism and permeation, asserting that "the necessity for cautious and gradual change must be obvious to everyone".[57] In 1890 Shaw produced Tract No. 13, What Socialism Is,[46] a revision of an earlier tract in which Charlotte Wilson had defined socialism in anarchistic terms.[58] In Shaw's new version, readers were assured that "socialism can be brought about in a perfectly constitutional manner by democratic institutions".[59]


1885–86 marked a turning point in Shaw's life, both personally and professionally. He lost his virginity; he had two novels published; and he began a career as a critic.[60] Shaw had been celibate until his twenty-ninth birthday, when his shyness was overcome by a predatory widow, Jane (Jenny) Patterson. Their affair continued, not always smoothly, for eight years. Shaw's sex life has been the subject of much speculation and debate by his biographers, but there is a consensus that the relationship with Patterson was one of his few romantic liaisons that were not platonic.[n 8]

The published novels were his two final efforts in this genre: Cashel Byron's Profession written in 1882–83, and An Unsocial Socialist, begun and finished in 1883. The latter was the first to be published, as a serial in ToDay magazine in 1884, although it did not appear in book form until 1887. Cashel Byron appeared in magazine and book form in 1886.[8] Both were written in the early stages of Shaw's socialist enthusiasm. Shaw later explained that An Unsocial Socialist was intended as "the first chapter of a vast work depicting capitalistic society in its downfall".[65] Gareth Griffith, in a study of Shaw's political thought, sees the novel as an interesting record of conditions, both in society at large and in the nascent socialist movement of the 1880s.[65]

two elderly, bushily bearded, Victorian men
William Morris (left) and John Ruskin: important influences on Shaw's aesthetic views

Shaw became a critic thanks to Archer, through whose influence he was engaged to write book and music reviews for London papers in 1884 and 1885. The following year Archer, having more work than he could comfortably cope with, resigned as art critic of The World, and secured the succession for Shaw.[66] The two figures in the contemporary art world whom Shaw most admired were John Ruskin and Morris, and he sought to follow their precepts in his criticisms.[66] Their emphasis on morality appealed to Shaw, who rejected the idea of art for art's sake, and insisted that all great art must be didactic.[67]

Of Shaw's various activities as a reviewer in the 1880s and 1890s it was as a music critic that he was best known.[68] After serving as deputy in 1888, he became musical critic of The Star in February 1889, writing under the pen-name Corno di Bassetto.[69] In May 1890, in search of a higher salary, he moved back to The World, where he wrote a weekly column as "G.B.S." for more than four years. In the 2016 version of the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Robert Anderson writes, "Shaw's collected writings on music stand alone in their mastery of English and compulsive readability."[70] Shaw ceased to be a salaried music critic in August 1894, but published occasional articles on the subject throughout his career; his last was published in 1950.[71]

From 1895 to 1898, Shaw was the theatre critic for The Saturday Review, edited by his friend Frank Harris. As at The World, he used the by-line "'G.B.S.". He campaigned against the artificial conventions and hypocrisies of the Victorian theatre and called for plays of real ideas and true characters. By this time he had embarked in earnest on a parallel career as a playwright: "I had rashly taken up the case; and rather than let it collapse I manufactured the evidence".[8]

Playwright and politician 1890s[edit]

Having returned in 1892 to the plot of the aborted collaboration with Archer for Widowers' Houses, staged for two performances in London in December, Shaw continued writing plays. At first he made slow progress. The Philanderer was written in 1893, but not published until 1898 and had to wait until 1905 for a stage production. Similarly, Mrs Warren's Profession (1893) was written five years before publication and nine years before reaching the stage.[n 9]

Man in early middle age, with full beard
Shaw in 1894 at the time of Arms and the Man

Shaw's first play to achieve box-office success was Arms and the Man (1894), a mock-Ruritanian comedy satirising conventions of love, military honour and class.[8] The notices were not enthusiastic. Fun declared the play "a joke drawn out to three acts. … He sets himself to ridicule heroism, patriotism, pluck. Why? Has some one been accusing Mr Shaw of these anachronisms?"[73] The Standard commented that Shaw had shown natural ability and "invaded the Gilbertian world of topsy-turveydom with some slight success" but that he took too jaundiced a view of humanity.[74] The Observer concurred that the play owed much to Gilbert, though lacking his good humour, and was "a clever piece, but not a successful piece, for it suggests more head than heart."[75][n 10] Reynolds's Newspaper thought the play "an overstrained and somewhat commonplace piece of satire".[77] The public took a different view, and the management of the theatre staged extra matinée performances to meet the demand.[78] The play ran from April to July, toured the provinces and was staged in New York.[79] Among the cast of the London production was Florence Farr, with whom Shaw had a romantic relationship between 1890 and 1894, much resented by Jenny Patterson.[80]

The success of Arms and the Man was not immediately replicated. Candida, which presented a young woman making a conventional romantic choice for unconventional reasons, received a one-night performance in South Shields in 1895.[81] In 1897 a playlet about Napoleon called The Man of Destiny had a single staging at Croydon.[82] In the 1890s Shaw's plays were better known in print than on the West End stage; his biggest success of the decade was in New York in 1897 when Richard Mansfield's production of the historical melodrama The Devil's Disciple earned the author more than £2,000 in royalties.[4]

In January 1893, as a Fabian Society delegate, Shaw attended the Bradford conference which led to the foundation of the Independent Labour Party.[83] He was sceptical about this venture,[84] expressing his misgivings at the conference and defending permeation. He scorned the likelihood that the new party could switch the allegiance of the working class from sport to politics;[85] he did, however, persuade the conference to adopt resolutions abolishing indirect taxation, and taxing unearned income "to extinction".[86] Back in London, Shaw produced what Margaret Cole, in her Fabian history, terms his "grand philippic" against the minority Liberal administration that had taken power in 1892. To Your Tents, O Israel excoriated the government for ignoring social issues and concentrating solely on Irish Home Rule, a matter Shaw declared of no relevance to socialism.[87][88][n 11] In 1894 the Fabian Society received a substantial bequest from a sympathiser, Henry Hunt Hutchinson—Holroyd mentions £10,000. Webb, who chaired the board of trustees appointed to supervise the legacy, proposed to use most of it to found a school of economics and politics. Shaw demurred; he thought such a venture was contrary to the condition that the money be used for specific Fabian purposes. He and others on the Fabian executive were eventually persuaded to support the proposal, and the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) opened in the summer of 1895.[90]

Shaw was invited to stand in the 1895 general election as a candidate for Chelsea, but turned the opportunity down.[91] His Fabian affairs lessened as he concentrated on making his name as a dramatist.[92] However, in 1897 he allowed his name to go forward to fill an uncontested vacancy for a vestryman (parish councillor) in London's St Pancras district. As one of his first acts in this official capacity, he denounced as "a ghastly, wicked, wasteful folly" the Princess of Wales's fund to provide a celebration dinner for poor people in honour of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee.[91] Shaw took to local government;[n 12] when London government was reformed in 1899, and the St Pancras vestry became the Metropolitan Borough of St Pancras , Shaw was elected to the newly formed borough council.[94]

In 1898, as a result of overwork, Shaw's health broke down. He was nursed by Charlotte Payne-Townshend, a rich Anglo-Irish woman whom he had met through the Webbs and become close to. The previous year she had proposed that she and Shaw should marry.[95] He had declined, but when she insisted on removing him from London to nurse him in a house in the country, Shaw, concerned that this might cause scandal, agreed that they should marry.[4] The ceremony took place on 1 June 1898, in the register office in Covent Garden.[96] The bride and bridegroom were both aged forty-one. In Ervine's view, "their life together was entirely felicitous".[4] There were no children of the marriage, which it is generally believed was never consummated; whether this was wholly at Charlotte's wish, as Shaw liked to suggest, is less widely credited.[97][98][99][100][101] Charlotte had a London flat in Adelphi Terrace, and in 1906 they found a country home in Ayot St Lawrence, Hertfordshire; they renamed the house "Shaw's Corner", and lived there for the rest of their lives, maintaining a London flat in the Adelphi, and later at Whitehall Court.[102]

Stage success: 1900–14[edit]

Stage photograph showing actor as Julius Caesar and actress as Cleopatra in Egyptian setting
Gertrude Elliott and Johnston Forbes-Robertson in Caesar and Cleopatra, New York, 1906

During the first decade of the twentieth century Shaw established a firm reputation as a playwright. In 1904 J. E. Vedrenne and Harley Granville-Barker established a company at the Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square, Chelsea to present modern drama. Over the next five years they presented fourteen of Shaw's plays.[103][n 13] The first, John Bull's Other Island, a comedy about an Englishman in Ireland, attracted leading politicians and was seen by Edward VII, who laughed so much that he broke his chair.[104] Man and Superman followed, and was a success both at the Royal Court and in New York, where Robert Loraine's production earned large sums for Shaw and the producer. Among the other Shaw works presented by Vedrenne and Granville-Barker were Major Barbara (1905), depicting the contrasting morality of arms manufacturers and the Salvation Army;[105] The Doctor's Dilemma (1906), a mostly serious piece about professional ethics;[106] and Caesar and Cleopatra, Shaw's counterblast to Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, seen in New York in 1906 and in London in 1907.[107]

Now prosperous and established, Shaw experimented with unorthodox theatrical forms described by the biographer Stanley Weintraub as "discussion drama" and "serious farce"; in a 1983 study, R. J. Kaufmann suggests that Shaw was "godfather, if not actually finicky paterfamilias" to the Theatre of the Absurd.[108] These plays included Getting Married (premiered 1908), The Shewing-Up of Blanco Posnet (1909) Misalliance (1910), and Fanny's First Play (1911). The second of these four plays was banned on religious grounds by the Lord Chamberlain (the official theatre censor in England), and was produced instead in Dublin, beyond the Chamberlain's jurisdiction; it filled the Abbey Theatre to capacity.[109] Fanny's First Play, a comedy about suffragettes, had the longest initial run of any Shaw play—622 performances.[110]

Androcles and the Lion (1912), a less heretical study of true and false religious attitudes than Blanco Posnet, ran for eight weeks in September and October 1913.[111] It was followed by one of Shaw's most successful plays, Pygmalion, written in 1912 and staged in Vienna in 1913, and in Berlin shortly afterwards.[112] Shaw commented, "It is the custom of the English press when a play of mine is produced, to inform the world that it is not a play—that it is dull, blasphemous, unpopular, and financially unsuccessful. ... Hence arose an urgent demand on the part of the managers of Vienna and Berlin that I should have my plays performed by them first."[113] The British production opened in April 1914, starring Sir Herbert Tree and Mrs Patrick Campbell as, respectively, a professor of phonetics and a cockney flower-girl. There had earlier been a romantic liaison between Shaw and Campbell that caused Charlotte Shaw considerable concern, but by the time of the London premiere it had blown over.[114] The play attracted capacity audiences until July, when Tree insisted on going on holiday, and the production closed. His co-star then toured in the piece in the US.[115][116][n 14]

Fabian years 1900–1913[edit]

Shaw in 1914 aged 57

In 1899 the Boer War began. Shaw did not wish the society to take a firm stance on the war, which he deemed, like Home Rule, a "non-Socialist" issue. Others, including the future Labour prime minister Ramsay MacDonald, wanted unequivocal opposition, and resigned from the society when it voted for the Shaw position.[119] Shaw produced the Fabians' war manifesto, Fabianism and the Empire, which espoused the view that "until the Federation of the World becomes an accomplished fact we must accept the most responsible Imperial federations available as a substitute for it".[120] Shaw described this approach as "International Collectivism, "a synthesis between radicalism and unsentimental administration".[121]

As the new century began, Shaw was increasingly disillusioned by the limited impact of the Fabians on national politics.[122] This was reflected in his decision, although a nominated Fabian delegate, not to attend the Memorial Hall conference in February 1900 that led to the formation of the Labour Representation Committee—precursor of the modern Labour Party.[123] By 1903, when his term as borough councillor expired, he had lost his earlier enthusiasm for local government. He wrote: "After six years of Borough Councilling I am convinced that the borough councils should be abolished".[124] Nevertheless, in 1904 he was persuaded to stand in the London County Council elections. After an eccentric campaign, which Holroyd characterises as "[making] absolutely certain of not getting in", he finished in third place. It was his final foray in electoral politics; Beatrice Webb commented that he would never again be selected for any winnable seat, and Shaw asserted that he had no intention of ever standing again.[124]

Having abandoned elective politics, Shaw addressed the issue of Protectionism versus Free trade in Fabian Tract No. 116, Fabianism and the Fiscal Question (1904).[125] This booklet, primarily an attempt to reconcile the wide divisions on this issue among the Fabians, was described by the historian A. M. McBriar as a "masterpiece",[126] although the long-serving Fabian secretary Edward Pease considered it "Shaw's least successful Fabian pronouncement".[127] The tract was largely overlooked in the aftermath of the January 1906 general election, which saw a large Liberal majority and an intake of 29 Labour members. Shaw viewed this outcome with scepticism; he had a low opinion of the new prime minister, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, and saw the Labour members as inconsequential: "I apologise to the Universe for my connection with such a body".[128]

In the years after the 1906 election, Shaw felt that the Fabians needed fresh leadership, and saw this in the form of his fellow-writer H.G. Wells, who had joined the society in February 1903.[129] However, Wells's ideas for reform—particularly his proposals for closer cooperation with the ILP—soon placed him at odds with the "Old Gang", led by Shaw.[130] According to Cole, Wells "had minimal capacity for putting [his ideas] across in public meetings against Shaw's trained and practised virtuosity".[131] In Shaw's view, "the Old Gang did not extinguish Mr Wells, he annihilated himself".[131] Wells resigned from the society in September 1908;[132] Shaw remained a member, but resigned from the executive in April 1911. He later speculated whether the Fabian Society would have benefited if he and the Old Gang had withdrawn earlier, and given Wells his chance.[133][134]

Although less active—he blamed his inertia on old age—Shaw remained a Fabian. In 1912 he was persuaded to invest £1,000 for a one-fifth share in the Webbs' new publishing venture, a socialist weekly magazine called The New Statesman, which appeared in April 1913. He became a founding director, publicist, and in due course a contributor, mostly anonymously.[135] He was soon at odds with the magazine's editor, Clifford Sharp, who by 1916 was rejecting his contributions—"the only paper in the world that refuses to print anything by me", according to Shaw.[136]

World War; Ireland[edit]

"I see the Junkers and Militarists of England and Germany jumping at the chance they have longed for in vain for many years of smashing one another and establishing their own oligarchy as the dominant military power of the world."

Shaw: Common Sense About the War (1914).[137]

When the First World War began in August 1914, Shaw declared that both sides were committing a crime against civilization.[138] In November 1914 he set out his position in a lengthy tract entitled Common Sense About the War, in which he developed his thesis of equally shared culpability among the warring nations.[139] Such views, and his recommendation that soldiers on both sides should "shoot their officers and go home",[137] were anathema in an atmosphere of fervent patriotism, and offended many of Shaw's friends; Ervine records that "[h]is appearance at any public function caused the instant departure of many of those present."[140] His works were removed from bookshops and libraries, and J. C. Squire called for him to be tarred and feathered.[141] Despite these attacks, Shaw maintained his outward sang-froid and controversialism. No pacifist, he argued that the war should be a struggle between "the red flag of socialism and the black flag of capitalism" rather than between rival empires. In 1915, in his sequel More Common Sense About the War, Shaw proclaimed his readiness to shoot all pacifists rather than cede them power and influence.[142] On the advice of Beatrice Webb, this pamphlet remained unpublished.[143]

Burial place and memorial of the leaders of the 1916 Dublin Easter Rising, Arbour Hill

Shaw was involved in further controversies in 1916, over Ireland. He supported federal Home Rule,[144][n 15] but strongly opposed Irish separatism, both cultural and political. He mocked the pretensions of the Gaelic League to represent modern-day Ireland—the League had, he said, been "invented in Bedford Park, London"[146]—and his play John Bull's Other Island was withheld from Irish theatres for fear of the affront it might provoke.[8] Shaw later wrote that William Butler Yeats, who had requested the play, "got rather more than he bargained for...It was uncongenial to the whole spirit of the neo-Gaelic movement, which is bent on creating a new Ireland after its own ideal, whereas my play is a very uncompromising presentment of the real old Ireland."[147][n 16] In April 1916, in a long New York Times article, he was scathing about Irish nationalists, writing: "In point of learning nothing and forgetting nothing these patriots of mine leave the Bourbons standing."[155] Independence, he asserted, was impractical; alliance with a bigger power (preferably England) was essential.[155] A few weeks later, after the suppression of the Dublin Easter Rising, Shaw maintained this position, although expressing horror at the summary execution of the rebel leaders. He outraged many in England, who considered the Rising leaders to be traitors, by his vain fight to secure a reprieve for Roger Casement, sentenced to death for his role in seeking German aid for the rebels.[156] This action may have helped to cost Shaw a place on Lloyd George's 1917 Irish Convention. Unabashed, he set out his own proposals in How to Settle the Irish Question (1917), in which he envisaged a federation of three nations ("four if you count Wales"), governed by parliaments on three levels: National, Federal and Imperial. However, as Holroyd records, by this time "the frontiers of political reality were shifting"; the extreme nationalist party Sinn Fein was in the ascendency, and both Shaw and the Convention were superseded.[157]

Despite his errant reputation, Shaw's skills as a propagandist were recognised by the British authorities, and early in 1917 he was invited by Field Marshal Haig to visit the Western Front battlefields. Shaw accepted; his 10,000-word report, which emphasised the human rather than the martial aspects of the soldier's life, received a mainly favourable response. Although still an outsider, he became less of a lone voice. In April 1917 he joined the national consensus in welcoming America's entry into the war as "a first class moral asset to the common cause against junkerism".[158]

Only three plays by Shaw were premiered during the war, all short pieces. The Inca of Perusalem, written in 1915, encountered problems with the censor for burlesquing not only the enemy but the British military command; it was performed in 1916 in Birmingham.[159] O'Flaherty V.C., satirising the government's attitude to Irish recruits, was banned in the UK and was presented at a Royal Flying Corps base in Belgium in 1917.[160] Augustus Does His Bit, a genial farce, was granted a licence; it opened at the Royal Court in January 1917.[161]


In the postwar period, Shaw's belief that a future independent Ireland could retain its links with England was undermined by the Anglo-Irish War, which began in January 1919 when the newly elected First Dáil declared its separation from Westminster.[162][163] He was driven to despair by the British government's coercive policies,[164] and joined his fellow-writers Hilaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton in publicly condemning these actions.[165] The signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December 1921 led to the partition of Ireland between north and south, a prospect that horrified Shaw.[164] In 1922 civil war broke out in the south between its pro-treaty and anti-treaty factions, the former of whom had established the Irish Free State.[166] Shaw visited Dublin in August, and met Michael Collins, then head of the Free State's Provisional Government.[167] Shaw was impressed by Collins's moderation, and was saddened when, three days later, he was ambushed and killed by anti-treaty forces.[168] In a letter to Collins's sister, Shaw wrote: "I met Michael for the first and last time on Saturday last, and am very glad I did. I rejoice in his memory, and will not be so disloyal to it as to snivel over his valiant death".[169] Shaw remained a British subject all his life, but twelve years after the Irish Free State was established he took dual nationality in 1935.[170]

The movable hut in the garden of Shaw's Corner, Ayot St Lawrence, where Shaw wrote most of his works after 1906

Shaw's first major work to appear after the war was Heartbreak House, written in 1916–17 and performed in 1920. It was given on Broadway in November, and was coolly received: "Mr Shaw on this occasion has more than usual to say and takes twice as long as usual to say it".[171] After the London premiere in October 1921, The Times concurred with the American critics: "As usual with Mr Shaw, the play is about an hour too long", although containing "much entertainment and some profitable reflection".[172] St John Ervine in The Observer thought the play brilliant but ponderously acted, except for Edith Evans as Lady Utterword.[173]

Shaw's largest-scale theatrical work was Back to Methuselah, written in 1918–20 and staged in 1922. Weintraub describes it as "Shaw's attempt to fend off 'the bottomless pit of an utterly discouraging pessimism'".[8] It is a cycle of five interrelated plays depicting evolution, and the effects of longevity, from the Garden of Eden to the year 31,920 AD.[174] The cycle received mixed notices: critics found the five plays strikingly uneven in quality and invention.[175] The original run was brief, and the work has been revived infrequently.[176][177] Shaw felt he had exhausted his remaining creative powers in the huge span of this "Metabiological Pentateuch". He was now sixty-seven, and expected to write no more plays.[8]

This mood was short lived. In 1920 Joan of Arc was proclaimed a saint by Pope Benedict XV; Shaw had long found Joan an interesting historical character, and his view of her veered between "half-witted genius" and someone of "exceptional sanity".[178] He had thought of writing a play about her in 1913, and the canonisation prompted him to return to the subject.[8] He wrote Saint Joan in the middle months of 1923, and the play was premiered on Broadway in December of that year. It was enthusiastically received there,[179] and at its London premiere the following March.[180] In Weintraub's phrase, "even the Nobel prize committee could no longer ignore Shaw after Saint Joan", and he was offered the literature prize for 1925. He caused some controversy by accepting the award but rejecting the monetary prize that went with it, on the grounds that "My readers and my audiences provide me with more than sufficient money for my needs".[181][n 17]

After Saint Joan, it was six years before Shaw wrote a new play. In 1924 he began work on a political treatise which he entitled The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism. It arose from a request by his sister-in-law, Mary Cholmondeley, for an explanation of what "socialism" meant, for the benefit of her Study Circle. In response, Shaw spent four years writing 200,000 words of text, to produce what he described as his "magnum opus".[184] When it appeared in 1928, the Labour Party leader Ramsay MacDonald considered it the world's most important book since the Bible.[185] Other socialists were more critical: Harold Laski thought its arguments outdated, and showed Shaw's lack of concern for individual freedoms.[186] Nevertheless, the book was popular and sold well.[4][n 18] At the end of the decade Shaw produced Fabian Tract 226, a brief commentary on the League of Nations, which Shaw had visited in Geneva in 1928.[188] He described the League as "a school for the new international statesmanship as against the old Foreign Office diplomacy", but thought that it had not yet become the "Federation of the World".[189]

In 1922 Shaw had welcomed Mussolini's accession to power in Italy. "People are so tired of indiscipline and muddle and Parliamentary deadlock", he wrote, "that they feel the need for a strenuous tyranny, and think Mussolini is the right kind of tyrant".[190] Shaw was prepared to tolerate certain dictatorial excesses, if it could be demonstrated that Mussolini was accepted by the Italian people.[191] Weintraub in his ODNB biographical sketch comments that Shaw's "flirtation with authoritarian inter-war regimes" took a long time to fade; Beatrice Webb thought he was "obsessed" about Mussolini.[8]

Shaw returned to the theatre with what he called "a political extravaganza", The Apple Cart, written in late 1928. It was, in Ervine's view, unexpectedly popular, taking a conservative, monarchist anti-democratic line that appealed to contemporary audiences. The premiere was in Warsaw in June 1928, and the first British production was two months later, at Sir Barry Jackson's inaugural Malvern Festival.[4] The other eminent creative artist most closely associated with the festival was Sir Edward Elgar, with whom Shaw enjoyed a deep friendship and mutual regard.[192] He described The Apple Cart to Elgar as "a scandalous Aristophanic burlesque of democratic politics, with a brief but shocking sex interlude".[193]


"We the undersigned are recent visitors to the USSR ... We desire to record that we saw nowhere evidence of economic slavery, privation, unemployment and cynical despair of betterment. ... Everywhere we saw [a] hopeful and enthusiastic working-class ... setting an example of industry and conduct which would greatly enrich us if our systems supplied our workers with any incentive to follow it."

Letter to The Manchester Guardian, 2 March 1933, signed by Shaw and 20 others.[194]

In 1920 Shaw had hailed Lenin as "the one really interesting statesman in Europe".[195] Throughout the 1920s, although by no means an uncritical observer of events in the Soviet Union, Shaw countered what he called the "campaign of calumny" in the press with his own more sympathetic commentary.[196] Having turned down several chances to visit Russia, in 1931 he joined a party led by Nancy Astor, which left London on 18 July for a two-week trip to Moscow.[197] The carefully stage-managed visit culminated in a lengthy meeting with Stalin, of whom Shaw later wrote: "I expected to see a Russian working man, and I found a Georgian gentleman ...There was no malice in him ..."[198] At a dinner in Moscow's Trade Union Central Hall, given in honour of his 75th birthday, Shaw told the gathering: "I have seen all the 'terrors' and I was terribly pleased by them".[199] On his return to England he praised the "great Communist experiment", as the best means whereby the collapse of civilisation would be averted.[198] Seemingly blind to any manipulation by his erstwhile hosts, in March 1933 Shaw was a co-signatory to a letter in The Manchester Guardian protesting at the continuing misrepresentation of Soviet achievements: "No lie is too fantastic, no slander is too stale, no intervention too absurdly contrary to what is now common knowledge for employment by the more reckless elements of the British press."[194]

Shaw was developing a belief, illustrated by his admiration for Mussolini and Stalin, that dictatorship was the only viable political arrangement; the party system, that "unparalleled engine for preventing anything being done",[200] needed replacement. Thus, when the Nazi Party came to power in Germany in January 1933, Shaw described Hitler as "a very remarkable man, a very able man".[200] While never endorsing the Nazis' Judophobia, he sometimes made light of it,[201] and professed himself proud to be the only writer in England who was "scrupulously polite and just to Hitler".[202][n 19] However, his principal admiration was for Stalin, whose regime he championed uncritically throughout the decade.[199] When in August 1939 Germany and the Soviets signed their non-aggression pact, Shaw saw this as a triumph for Stalin who, he said, now had Hitler under his thumb.[205]

Shaw's first play of the decade was Too True to be Good, written in 1931 and premiered in Boston in February 1932. The reception was not enthusiastic. Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times, commenting that Shaw had "yielded to the impulse to write without having a subject", judged the play a "rambling and indifferently tedious conversation". The correspondent of The New York Herald Tribune said that most of the play was "discourse, unbelievably long lectures" and that although the audience enjoyed the play it was bewildered by it.[206]

During the decade Shaw travelled further and more often than he had done before. Most of his journeys were with Charlotte; she enjoyed voyages on ocean liners, and he found peace to write during the long spells at sea.[207] Shaw met an enthusiastic welcome on South Africa in 1932, despite his strong remarks about the racial divisions of the country.[208] In December 1932 the couple embarked on a round-the-world cruise.[207] In March 1933 their ship, the Empress of Britain, docked at San Francisco harbour, at the start of Shaw's first visit to the US. He had earlier refused to visit the US, which he called "that awful country, that uncivilized place", "unfit to govern itself … illiberal, superstitious, crude, violent, anarchic and arbitrary".[209] He visited Hollywood, with which he was unimpressed, and New York, where he gave a lecture to a capacity audience in the Metropolitan Opera House.[210] Harried by the intrusive attentions of the press, Shaw was glad to leave the US when his ship sailed from New York harbour.[211] New Zealand, which he and Charlotte visited the following year, struck him as "the best country I've been in"; he urged its people to be more confident and loosen their dependence on trade with Britain.[212] He used the weeks at sea to complete two plays—The Simpleton of the Unexpected Isles and The Six of Calais—and begin work on a third, The Millionairess.[213]

Despite his contempt for Hollywood and its aesthetic values Shaw was enthusiastic about cinema, and in the middle of the decade he wrote screenplays for prospective film versions of Pygmalion and Saint Joan. The latter was never made, but Shaw entrusted the rights to the former to the unknown Gabriel Pascal, who produced it at Pinewood Studios in 1938. Shaw's determination that Hollywood should have nothing to do with the film was successful, except that he was powerless to prevent the conferral of two Academy Awards ("Oscars") for it; he described the award to him for "best-written screenplay" as an insult, coming from such a source.[214][n 20] He became, and at 2016 remains, the only person to have been awarded a Nobel Prize and an Oscar.[217][n 21] In a 1993 study of the Oscars Anthony Holden observes that Pygmalion was soon spoken of as having "lifted movie-making from illiteracy to literacy".[220]

Shaw's final plays of the 1930s were Cymbeline Refinished (1936), Geneva (1936) and In Good King Charles's Golden Days (1939). The first, a fantasy reworking of Shakespeare, made little impression, but the second, a satire of right-wing and left-wing dictators, attracted more notice, much of it unfavourable.[221] In particular, Shaw's parody of Hitler as "Herr Battler" was considered mild, almost sympathetic.[203][222] The third play, an historical conversation piece first seen at Malvern, ran briefly in London in May 1940.[223] James Agate commented that the play contained nothing to which even the most conservative audiences could take exception, and though it was long and lacking in dramatic action only "witless and idle" theatregoers would object.[223] After their first runs none of the three plays were seen again in the West End during Shaw's lifetime.[224]

Towards the end of the decade both the Shaws began to suffer ill health. Charlotte was increasingly incapacitated by Paget's disease of bone, and Shaw developed pernicious anaemia. His treatment, involving injections of concentrated animal liver, was successful, but this breach of his vegetarian creed distressed him and brought down condemnation from militant vegetarians.[225]

Second World War and final years[edit]

Although Shaw's new works since Saint Joan had been received without great enthusiasm, the popularity of his earlier plays was a feature of the West End throughout the Second World War, with revivals starring such actors as Edith Evans, John Gielgud, Deborah Kerr and Robert Donat.[226] In 1944 nine Shaw plays were staged in London, including Arms and the Man with Ralph Richardson, Laurence Olivier, Sybil Thorndyke and Margaret Leighton in the leading roles. [226] Two touring companies took his plays round the British provinces, taking in cities, towns and villages.[227] The revival in his popularity did not tempt Shaw to write a new play, and he concentrated on journalism, writing prolifically.[227] A second Shaw film produced by Pascal, Major Barbara (1941) was less successful, artistically and commercially, than Pygmalion, partly because of Pascal's insistence on directing, to which he was unsuited.[228]

"The rest of Shaw's life was quiet and solitary. The loss of his wife was more profoundly felt than he had ever imagined any loss could be: for he prided himself on a stoical fortitude in all loss and misfortune."

St John Ervine on Shaw, 1959[4]

Shaw was accused of defeatism and lack of pride when, in a New Statesman article written after the conquest of Poland in September 1939, he declared the war over and demanded a peace conference.[229] Nevertheless, when he became convinced that a negotiated piece with Germany was impossible, he appeared in a short prologue to the American release of the Major Barbara film, urging the neutral US to join in the fight.[230] The London blitz, beginning in 1940, led the Shaws, both now in their mid-eighties, to keep away from their London flat and live full-time at Ayot St Lawrence. Even there they were not immune from enemy air raids, and for respite they stayed on occasion with Nancy Astor at her country house, Cliveden.[231] In 1943, the worst of the London bombing over, the Shaws moved back to Whitehall Court, where medical help for Charlotte was more easily arranged. Her condition deteriorated and she died in September.[231]

Shaw spent much of the war writing his final political treatise, Everybody's Political What's What, published in 1944. Holroyd describes this as "a rambling narrative ...that repeats ideas he had given better elsewhere and then repeats itself".[232] The book sold well—85,000 copies by the end of the year.[233] After Hitler's suicide in May 1945, Shaw approved of the formal condolences offered by the Irish Taoiseach, Éamon de Valera, at the German embassy in Dublin.[234] He disapproved of the postwar trials of the defeated German leaders, as an act of self-righteousness, believing that "we are all potential criminals".[235]

The author allowed Pascal a third venture into filmed Shaw with Caesar and Cleopatra (1945). It cost three times its original budget, and was rated "the biggest financial failure in the history of British cinema".[236] The film was not well received by British critics, although American reviews were friendlier. Shaw thought its lavishness nullified the drama, and he considered the film "a poor imitation of Cecil B. de Mille".[237]

In 1946, the year of Shaw's ninetieth birthday, he accepted two official public awards, becoming an honorary freeman of Dublin and the first honorary freeman of the metropolitan borough of St Pancras, London.[4] In the same year a member of the British government informally asked Shaw if he would accept the Order of Merit. He declined on the grounds that an author's merit could only be determined by the posthumous verdict of history.[238][n 22]

Shaw continued to write into his nineties. His last plays were Buoyant Billions (1947) which was his final full-length work;[239] Farfetched Fables (1948) a set of six short plays revisiting several of his earlier themes such as evolution;[240] a comic play for puppets, Shakes versus Shav (1949), a ten-minute piece in which Shakespeare sues Shaw for slander;[241] and Why She Would Not (1950), which Shaw described as "a little comedy", written in one week shortly before his ninety-fourth birthday.[242]

During his later years, Shaw enjoyed attending to the grounds at Shaw's Corner. He died at the age of ninety-four of renal failure precipitated by injuries incurred by falling while pruning a tree.[243] He was cremated at Golders Green Crematorium on 6 November. His ashes, mixed with those of Charlotte, were scattered along footpaths and around the statue of Saint Joan in their garden.[244][245]



Early works[edit]

Shaw's first three full-length plays dealt with social issues. He later grouped them together as "Plays Unpleasant".[246] Widower's Houses concerns the landlords of slum properties, and introduces the first of Shaw's New Women—a recurring feature of later plays.[247] The Philanderer develops the theme of the New Woman, draws on Ibsen, and has elements of Shaw's personal relationships, the character of Julia being based on Jenny Patterson.[248] In a 2003 study, Julia Evans describes Mrs Warren's Profession as "undoubtedly the most challenging" of the three Plays Unpleasant, taking Mrs Warren's profession—prostitute and, later, brothel-owner—as a metaphor for a prostituted society.[249]

Shaw followed the first trilogy with a second, published as "Plays Pleasant".[246] Arms and the Man conceals beneath a mock-Ruritanian comic romance a Fabian parable contrasting impractical idealism with pragmatic socialism.[250] The central theme of Candida is a woman's choice between two men; the play contrasts the outlook and aspirations of a Christian Socialist and a poetic idealist.[251] The third of the Pleasant group, You Never Can Tell, portrays social mobility, and the gap between generations, particularly in how they approach social relations in general and mating in particular.[252]

The "Three Plays for Puritans"—The Devil's Disciple, Caesar and Cleopatra and Captain Brassbound's Conversion—and The Admirable Bashville all centre on questions of empire and imperialism, a major topic of political discourse in the 1890s.[253] The "Three Plays for Puritans"—The Devil's Disciple, Caesar and Cleopatra and Captain Brassbound's Conversion—and The Admirable Bashville all centre on questions of empire and imperialism, a major topic of political discourse in the 1890s.[253] The three Puritan plays are set, respectively, in 1770s America, Ancient Egypt, and 1890s Morocco.[254] The fourth, a blank verse dramatisation of Shaw's novel Cashel Byron's Profession, focuses on the imperial relationship between Britain and Africa.[255] The Gadfly, an adaptation of a popular novel by Ethel Voynich, was unfinished and unperformed.[256] The Man of Destiny is a short curtain raiser about Napoleon.[257]


Shaw and Shakespeare[edit]

Shaw maintained a provocative and frequently self-contradictory attitude to Shakespeare (whom he insisted on spelling "Shakespear").[258] Many found him difficult to take seriously on the subject;[259] Duff Cooper observed that by attacking Shakespeare "it is Shaw who appears a ridiculous pigmy shaking his fist at a mountain."[260] Shaw was, nevertheless, a knowledgeable Shakespearean, and in an article in which he wrote, "With the single exception of Homer, there is no eminent writer, not even Sir Walter Scott, whom I can despise so entirely as I despise Shakespear when I measure my mind against his," he also said, "But I am bound to add that I pity the man who cannot enjoy Shakespear. He has outlasted thousands of abler thinkers, and will outlast a thousand more".[261] Shaw had two regular targets for his more extreme comments about Shakespeare: undiscriminating "Bardolaters", and actors and directors who presented insensitively cut texts in over-elaborate productions.[262] In a 1969 study, John F. Matthews credits Shaw with a successful campaign against the two-hundred-year-old tradition of editing Shakespeare into "acting versions", often designed to give star actors greater prominence, to the detriment of the play as a whole.[263][264] Shaw was in favour of cuts intended to enhance the drama by omitting what he saw as Shakespearean rhetoric.[265] He was continually drawn back to Shakespeare, and wrote three plays that directly relate to him: The Dark Lady of the Sonnets, Cymbeline Refinished and Shakes versus Shav.[266] In a 2001 analysis of Shaw's Shakespearean criticisms, Robert Pierce concludes that Shaw, who was no academic, saw Shakespeare's plays, like all theatre, from an author's practical point of view: "Shaw helps us to get away from the Romantics' picture of Shakespeare as a titanic genius, one whose art cannot be analyzed or connected with the mundane considerations of theatrical conditions and profit and loss, or with a specific staging and cast of actors."[267]


As a drama critic for the Saturday Review, a post he held from 1895 to 1898, Shaw championed Henrik Ibsen whose realistic plays scandalised the Victorian public. Shaw's influential Quintessence of Ibsenism was written in 1891.[268]


Shaw's collected musical criticism, published in three volumes, runs to more than 2,700 pages. It covers the British musical scene from to 1950, but the core of the collection dates from his six years as music critic of The Star and The World in the late 1880s and early 1890s. In Shaw's view, music criticism should be interesting to everyone rather than just the musical élite, and he wrote for the non-specialist, avoiding technical jargon—"Mesopotamian words like 'the dominant of D major'". In 1893 he published a parody of music critics' idiom in a mock-academic analysis of Hamlet's "To be or not to be" speech:

"Shakespear, dispensing with the customary exordium, announces his subject at once in the infinitive, in which mood it is presently repeated after a short connecting passage in which, brief as it is, we recognize the alternative and negative forms on which so much of the significance of repetition depends. Here we reach a colon; and a pointed pository phrase, in which the accent falls decisively on the relative pronoun, brings us to the first full stop."[269]

He was fiercely partisan in his columns, promoting the music of Wagner and decrying that of Brahms and those British composers such as Stanford and Parry whom he saw as Brahmsian.[70][270] He campaigned against the prevailing fashion for performances of Handel oratorios with huge amateur choirs and inflated orchestration, calling for "a chorus of twenty capable artists".[271] He railed against opera performances unrealistically staged or sung in languages the audience did not speak.[272]

Short stories[edit]

A collection of Shaw's short stories, The Black Girl in Search of God and Some Lesser Tales, was published in 1934.[273] The Black Girl, an enthusiastic convert to Christianity, goes searching for God. In the story, written as an allegory, somewhat reminiscent of Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, Shaw uses her adventures to expose flaws and fallacies in the religions of the world. At the story's happy ending, the Black Girl quits her searchings in favour of rearing a family with the aid of a red-haired Irishman who has no metaphysical inclination.

One of the Lesser Tales is The Miraculous Revenge (1885), which relates the misadventures of an alcoholic investigator while he probes the mystery of a graveyard—full of saintly corpses—that migrates across a stream to escape association with the body of a newly buried sinner.


In a letter to Henry James dated 17 January 1909,[274] Shaw said,

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.[275]

Thus he viewed writing as a way to further his humanitarian and political agenda. His works were very popular because of their comedic content, but the public tended to disregard his messages and enjoy his work as pure entertainment. He was acutely aware of that. His preface to Heartbreak House (1919) attributes its rejection to the need of post-World War I audiences for frivolities, after four long years of grim privation, more than to their inborn distaste of instruction.

Shaw joined in the public opposition to vaccination against smallpox, calling it "a peculiarly filthy piece of witchcraft",[276] despite having nearly died from the disease in 1881. In the preface to Doctor's Dilemma he made it plain he regarded conventional medical treatment as dangerous quackery that should be replaced with sound public sanitation, good personal hygiene and diets devoid of meat. Shaw became a vegetarian when he was twenty-five, after hearing a lecture by H. F. Lester.[277] In 1901, remembering the experience, he said "I was a cannibal for twenty-five years. For the rest I have been a vegetarian."[278] As a staunch vegetarian, he was a firm anti-vivisectionist and antagonistic to cruel sports for the remainder of his life. The belief in the immorality of eating animals was one of the Fabian causes near his heart and is frequently a topic in his plays and prefaces. His position, succinctly stated, was "A man of my spiritual intensity does not eat corpses."[279]

As well as plays and prefaces, Shaw wrote long political treatises. Late in his life he wrote another guide to political issues, Everybody's Political What's What (1944).

Correspondence and friends[edit]

Shaw corresponded with an array of people, many of them well known. His letters to and from Mrs. Patrick Campbell were adapted for the stage by Jerome Kilty as Dear Liar: A Comedy of Letters,[280] as was his correspondence with the poet Lord Alfred 'Bosie' 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,[281] to the boxer Gene Tunney,[282] and to H.G. Wells,[283] have also been published. Eventually the volume of his correspondence became insupportable, as can be inferred from apologetic letters written by assistants.[284] He much admired (and was admired by) G. K. Chesterton.[285] When Chesterton died, Shaw mourned his death in a poignant letter to Chesterton's widow; he had always expected that he would predecease Chesterton, being the latter's senior by almost two decades.

Shaw also enjoyed a (somewhat stormy) friendship with T.E. Lawrence, the British Army officer renowned for his liaison role during the Sinai and Palestine Campaign, as well as the Arab Revolt, which Lawrence memorialised in his book Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Lawrence even used the name "Shaw" as his nom de guerre when he joined the Royal Air Force as an aircraftman in the 1920s.

Another friend was the composer Edward Elgar, whose work Shaw revered. Though Elgar was a Conservative, they had interests, besides music, in common. For instance, both opposed vivisection. Elgar dedicated one of his late works, The Severn Suite, to Shaw; and Shaw exerted himself (eventually with success) to persuade the BBC to commission from Elgar a third symphony: though this piece remained incomplete at Elgar's and Shaw's deaths a version has since been successfully completed and performed. Shaw's correspondence with the motion picture producer Gabriel Pascal, who was the first to bring Shaw's plays successfully to the screen and who later tried to put into motion a musical adaptation of Pygmalion, but died before he could realise it, is published in a book titled Bernard Shaw and Gabriel Pascal.[286] A stage play 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. A television adaptation of the play, aired on PBS, starred John Gielgud as Cockerell, Wendy Hiller as Laurentia, and Patrick McGoohan as Shaw. It is available on DVD.

Perhaps Shaw's most personally revealing and definitely most voluminous letter correspondence, though, was with his fellow playwright and intimate childhood friend, Mathew Edward McNulty.[287] The very small extant fragment of this correspondence is housed in the Rare Book Collection at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.


Shaw took up photography in 1898 and was an active amateur photographer until his death in 1950 amassing some 10,000 prints and more than 10,000 negatives.[288] Before 1898 Shaw had been an early supporter of photography as a serious art form. His non-fiction writing includes many reviews of photographic exhibitions such as those by his friend Alvin Langdon Coburn.

The photographs document a prolific literary and political life – Shaw's friends, travels, politics, plays, films and home life.[288][289] It also records his experiments with photography over 50 years and for the photographic historian provides a record of the development of the photographic and printing techniques available to the amateur photographer between 1898 and 1950.

The collection is archived at the London School of Economics and a major restoration and cataloguing project was undertaken by the joint LSE and National Trust. The exhibition Man & Cameraman, revealing Shaw's photographic legacy, took place in 2011 at the Fox Talbot Museum and in conjunction the LSE hosted an online exhibition.[288]

Political, social, and religious views[edit]

Shaw asserted that each social class strove to serve its own ends, and that the upper and middle classes won in the struggle while the working class lost. He condemned the democratic system of his time, saying that workers, ruthlessly exploited by greedy employers, lived in abject poverty and were too ignorant and apathetic to vote intelligently.[290] He believed this deficiency would ultimately be corrected by the emergence of long-lived supermen with experience and intelligence enough to govern properly. He called the developmental process elective breeding but it is sometimes referred to as shavian eugenics, largely because he thought it was driven by a "Life Force" that led women — subconsciously — to select the mates most likely to give them superior children.[291] The outcome Shaw envisioned is dramatised in Back to Methuselah, a monumental play depicting human development from its beginning in the Garden of Eden until the distant future.[292]

In 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 and 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. Oscar Wilde was the sole literary signator of Shaw's petition for a pardon of the anarchists arrested (and later executed) after the Haymarket massacre in Chicago in 1886.[293]

Early support of the USSR[edit]

Shaw continued his support for the Soviet system in the preface to his play On the Rocks (1933) writing:

But the most elaborate code of this sort would still have left unspecified a hundred ways in which wreckers of Communism could have sidetracked it without ever having to face the essential questions: are you pulling your weight in the social boat? are you giving more trouble than you are worth? have you earned the privilege of living in a civilised community? That is why the Russians were forced to set up an Inquisition or Star Chamber, called at first the Cheka and now the Gay Pay Oo (Ogpu), to go into these questions and "liquidate" persons who could not answer them satisfactorily.[294]

Yet, Shaw defends "the sacredness of criticism":

Put shortly and undramatically the case is that a civilisation cannot progress without criticism, and must therefore, to save itself from stagnation and putrefaction, declare impunity for criticism. This means impunity not only for propositions which, however novel, seem interesting, statesmanlike, and respectable, but for propositions that shock the uncritical as obscene, seditious, blasphemous, heretical, and revolutionary.[295]

He wrote a defence of Lysenkoism in a letter to Labour Monthly, in which he asserted that an "acquired characteristic" could be heritable, writing of Lysenko: "Following up Michurin's agricultural experiments he found that it is possible to extend the area of soil cultivation by breeding strains of wheat that flourish in a sub-Arctic climate, and transmit this acquired characteristic to its seed."

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.[296] According to Shaw "The voice of the Irish gentleman and Spanish grandee was a welcome relief from the chorus of retaliatory rancor and self-righteousness then deafening us".[297]


Shaw delivered speeches on the theory of eugenics and he became a noted figure in the movement in England.[298] Unusually, his eugenics included marriage between different races and across classes.

Shaw's play Man and Superman (1903) has been said to be "invested with eugenic doctrines" and "an ironic reworking" of Nietzsche's concept of Übermensch.[298][299] The main character in the play, John Tanner, is the author of "The Revolutionist's Handbook and Pocket Companion", which Shaw published along with his play. The Revolutionist's Handbook includes chapters on "Good Breeding" and "Property and Marriage". In the "Property and Marriage" section, Tanner writes:

To cut humanity up into small cliques, and effectively limit the selection of the individual to his own clique, is to postpone the Superman for eons, if not for ever. Not only should every person be nourished and trained as a possible parent, but there should be no possibility of such an obstacle to natural selection as the objection of a countess to a navvy or of a duke to a charwoman. Equality is essential to good breeding; and equality, as all economists know, is incompatible with property.

In this Shaw was managing to synthesise eugenics with socialism, his best-loved political doctrine. This was a popular concept at the time.[300]

Shaw in 1905

When, in 1910, Shaw wrote that natural attraction rather than wealth or social class should govern selection of marriage partners, the concept of eugenics did not have the negative connotations it later acquired after having been adopted by the Nazis of Germany.[301] 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.[302] He seems to have maintained his opinion throughout his life.[301]

As with many of the topics that Shaw addressed, but particularly so in his examination of the "social purity" movement, he used irony, misdirection and satire to make his point.

In a newsreel interview released on 5 March 1931, dealing with alternatives to the imprisonment of criminals, Shaw says

You must all know half a dozen people at least who are no use in this world, who are more trouble than they are worth. Just put them there and say Sir, or Madam, now will you be kind enough to justify your existence? If you can't justify your existence, if you're not pulling your weight in the social boat, if you're not producing as much as you consume or perhaps a little more, then, clearly, we cannot use the organisations of our society for the purpose of keeping you alive, because your life does not benefit us and it can't be of very much use to yourself.[303][304]

Shaw often used satiric irony to mock those who took eugenics to inhumane extremes and commentators have sometimes failed to take this into account.[305][306] Some noticed that this was an example of Shaw satirically employing the reductio ad absurdum argument against the eugenicists' wilder aspirations: The Globe and The Evening News recognised it as a skit on the dreams of the eugenicists, though many others in the press took his words out of their satirical context. Dan Stone of Liverpool University writes: "Either the press believed Shaw to be serious, and vilified him, or recognised the tongue-in-cheek nature of his lecture".[306][307]


In his will, Shaw stated that his "religious convictions and scientific views cannot at present be more specifically defined than as those of a believer in creative revolution."[308] He requested that no one should imply that he accepted the beliefs of any specific religious organization, and that no memorial to him should "take the form of a cross or any other instrument of torture or symbol of blood sacrifice."[308]

Gary Sloan summarises Shaw's religious views as follows:

Until he was thirty or so, Shaw called himself an Atheist. He became one, he later quipped, before he could think. He adjudged the doctrines of the Church of Ireland, which he attended as a child, unintelligible or absurd. Since the first of its Thirty-nine Articles describes god as "without body, parts, or passions," he waggishly theorized that the church was atheistic. An incomprehensible god, he opined, was tantamount to no god. In 1875, he blazoned his Atheism abroad. In a letter to Public Opinion, a Dublin newspaper, he announced "with inflexible materialistic logic, and to the extreme horror of my respectable connections, that I was an atheist." In Immaturity, the first of five novels he wrote in his twenties, the young protagonist, obviously Shaw's alter ego, walks pensively in the cloisters of Westminster Abbey: "His hushed step, impressive bearing, and reflective calm, marked him as a confirmed freethinker."
In "The New Theology," he prepped his audience: "When you are asked, 'Where is God? Who is God?' stand up and say, 'I am God and here is God, not as yet completed, but still advancing towards completion, just in so much as I am working for the purpose of the universe, working for the good of the whole society and the whole world, instead of merely looking after my personal ends."' God "would provide himself with a perfectly fashioned and trustworthy instrument. And such an instrument would be nothing less than God himself."[309]


The Shaw Theatre, Euston Road, London, opened in 1971, was named in his honour.[310] Near its entrance, opposite the new British Library, a contemporary statue of Saint Joan commemorates Shaw as author of that play.

The Shaw Festival, an annual theatre festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Canada, began as an eight-week run of Don Juan in Hell (as the long third act dream sequence of Man And Superman is called when staged alone) 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. The portrait of Shaw located at Niagara-on-the-Lake was commissioned by hotelier Si Wai Lai and sculpted by Dr. Elizabeth Bradford Holbrook, CM (1913–2009).[311][312]

The Fabian Window, designed by Shaw, hangs in the Shaw Library in the main building of the London School of Economics.

In his old age, Shaw was a household name in English-speaking countries, and was famed throughout the world. His ironic wit endowed English with the adjective "Shavian", used to characterise observations such as: "My way of joking is to tell the truth. It's the funniest joke in the world." Concerned about the vagaries of English spelling, Shaw willed a portion of his wealth (probated at £367,233 13s)[313] to fund the creation of a new phonemic alphabet for the English language.[314] However, the money available was insufficient to support the project, so it was neglected for a time. This changed when his estate began earning significant royalties from the rights to Pygmalion after My Fair Lady—the musical adapted from Pygmalion by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe—became a hit. However, the Public Trustee found the intended trust to be invalid because its intent was to serve a private interest instead of a charitable purpose, and as a non-charitable purpose trust, it could not be enforced because it failed to satisfy the beneficiary principle.[315] In the end an out-of-court settlement granted only £8600 for promoting the new alphabet, which is now called the Shavian alphabet. The National Gallery of Ireland, RADA and the British Museum all received substantial bequests.

Notes and references[edit]


  1. ^ Now (2016) known as 33 Synge Street.[2]
  2. ^ The four schools were the Wesleyan Connexional School, run by the Methodist Church in Ireland; a private school near Dalkey; Dublin Central Model Boys' School; and the Dublin English Scientific and Commercial Day School.[16]
  3. ^ In a 1964 article in The Shaw Review Arthur Nothorcot set out the various versions of the name used by Shaw throughout his career. Although "Shaw hated the name 'George' and attempted with increasing assiduity to eliminate it from both public and private use", he complicated matters by continuing to use his full initials—G.B.S.—as a by-line, and by often signing himself "G. Bernard Shaw" rather than simply "Bernard Shaw".[18]
  4. ^ Lee now promised to make young ladies sing like Adelina Patti in twelve lessons.[22]
  5. ^ Shaw had a passable baritone voice,[24] though he admitted that he was far outclassed as a singer by his sister Lucy, who had a career as a soprano with the Carl Rosa and D'Oyly Carte opera companies.[25][26]
  6. ^ The Irrational Knot was eventually published in book form by Constable, in 1905.[31] Love Among the Artists was first published as a book in 1900, by H. S. Stone of Chicago.[32]
  7. ^ The Fabian Society was founded in January 1884 as a splinter group from the Fellowship of New Life, a society of ethical socialists founded in 1883 by Thomas Davidson.[42]
  8. ^ Some writers, including Lisbeth J. Sachs, Bernard Stern and Sally Peters, believe Shaw was a repressed homosexual, and that after Jenny Patterson all his relationships with women, including his marriage, were platonic.[61] Others, such as Maurice Valency, suggest that at least one other of Shaw's relationships—that with Florence Farr—was consummated.[62] Evidence came to light in 2004 that a well-documented relationship between the septuagenarian Shaw and the young actress Molly Tompkins was not, as had been generally supposed, platonic.[63] Shaw himself stressed his own heterosexuality to St John Ervine ("I am the normal heterosexual man") and Frank Harris ("I was not impotent: I was not sterile; I was not homosexual; and I was extremely, though not promiscuously susceptible"). [64]
  9. ^ The first British production was at a private theatre club in 1902; the play was not licensed for public performance until 1925.[72]
  10. ^ Shaw was sensitive to the charge of emulating Gilbert. He insisted that it was Gilbert who was heartless, while he himself was constructive.[76]
  11. ^ With another election looming in 1895, the text of To Your Tents was modified, to become Fabian Tract No. 49, A Plan of Campaign For Labor.[89][46]
  12. ^ Shaw served on the vestry's Health Committee, the Officers Committee and the Committee for Public Lighting.[93]
  13. ^ At the Royal Court and then at the Savoy, the Shaw plays presented by the partnership between 1905 and 1908 were You Never Can Tell (177 performances), Man and Superman (176), John Bull's Other Island (121), Captain Brassbound's Conversion (89), Arms and the Man (77), Major Barbara (52), The Doctor's Dilemma (50), The Devil's Disciple (42), Candida (31), Caesar and Cleopatra (28), How He Lied to Her Husband (9), The Philanderer (8), Don Juan in Hell (8) and The Man of Destiny (8).[103]
  14. ^ In Tree's absence from the American production, his role, Professor Higgins, was successfully taken by Philip Merivale, who had played Colonel Pickering in London.[117] Campbell continued to romanticise the piece, contrary to Shaw's wishes.[118]
  15. ^ In the Preface to John Bull's Other Island (1904) Shaw wrote: "Even if Home Rule were as healthy as an Englishman's eating, as intemperate as his drinking, as filthy as his smoking, as licentious as his domesticity, as corrupt as his elections, as murderously greedy as his commerce, as cruel as his prisons, and as merciless as his streets, Ireland's claims to self-government would still be as good as England's."[145]
  16. ^ In a 1950 study of the Abbey Theatre, Peter Kavanagh wrote in 1950, "Yeats and Synge did not feel that Shaw belonged to the real Irish tradition. His plays would thus have no place in the Irish theatre movement". Kavanagh added, "an important part of Shaw's plays was political argument, and Yeats detested this quality in dramatic writing."[148] Nonetheless, Shaw and Yeats were close friends, [149] and Yeats and Lady Gregory tried unsucessfully to persuade Shaw to take up the vacant co-directorship of the Abbey after Synge's death in 1909.[150] In the early 1930s, Shaw accepted Yeats's invitation to join him in founding the Irish Academy of Letters.[149] Shaw wrote, "If you want to bore an Irishman … introduce him to another Irishman",[151] but he admired other figures in the Irish Literary Revival, including George Russell[152] and James Joyce,[153] and was a close friend of Seán O'Casey, who wrote that he was set on the path to becoming a playwright by reading John Bull's Other Island".[154]
  17. ^ Shaw had been considered and rejected for a Nobel Prize four or five times before this.[182] The 1925 Nobel citation praised his work as "... marked by both idealism and humanity, its stimulating satire often being infused with a singular poetic beauty".[183] Shaw arranged for the prize money to be used to sponsor a new Anglo-Swedish Literary Foundation, for the translation into English of Swedish literature, including August Strindberg's plays.[4]
  18. ^ In 1937 the book was reissued, with additional chapters and an extended title, The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism, Capitalism, Sovietism and Fascism, and was published by Pelican Books as the first in the new paperback series called Pelicans.[187]
  19. ^ Shaw was not alone in being initially deceived by Hitler. The former British prime minister David Lloyd George described the Führer in 1936 as "unquestionably a great leader".[203] A year later the former Labour Party leader George Lansbury recorded that Hitler "could listen to reason", and that "Christianity in its purest sense might have a chance with him".[204]
  20. ^ This did not prevent him from putting the award—a golden figurine—on his mantelpiece.[215] Shaw was one of four to receive the award, along with Ian Dalrymple, Cecil Lewis and W. P. Lipscomb, who had also worked on adapting Shaw's text.[216]
  21. ^ Al Gore, a Nobel Laureate (2007),[218] appeared in the Oscar-winning film An Inconvenient Truth, but was not himself awarded an Oscar.[219]
  22. ^ In the early 1920s Lloyd George had considered putting Shaw's name forward for the award, but concluded that it would be more prudent to offer it to J. M. Barrie, who accepted it. Shaw later said he would have refused it if offered, just as he refused the offer of a knighthood.[238]
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  304. ^ A transcript was prepared for Fox News:Beck, Glenn (25 January 2010). "The Revolutionary Holocaust: Live Free or Die". Fox News. Retrieved 20 January 2011. 
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Awards and achievements
Preceded by
Anton Lang
Cover of Time Magazine
24 December 1923
Succeeded by
Anthony Fokker