Fast Facts About George Bernard Shaw's Life and Plays

George Bernard Shaw. Getty Images

Born: July 26th, 1856

Died: November 2nd, 1950

Overview:

George Bernard Shaw is a model to all struggling writers. Throughout his 30s, he wrote five novels – all of them failed. Yet, he did not let that deter him. It was not until 1894, at the age of 38, that his dramatic work made its professional debut. Even then, it took some time before his plays became popular.

Although he wrote mostly comedies, Shaw greatly admired the natural realism of Henrik Ibsen.

Shaw felt that plays could be used to influence the general population. And since he was filled with ideas, George Bernard Shaw spent the rest of his life writing for the stage, creating over sixty plays. He won a Nobel Prize for Literature for his play The Apple Cart. Also, his cinematic adaptation of Pygmalion earned him an Academy Award.

Major Plays:

  1. Mrs. Warren’s Profession
  2. Man and Superman
  3. Major Barbara
  4. Saint Joan
  5. Pygmalion
  6. Heartbreak House

Shaw’s most financially successful play was Pygmalion, which was adapted into a popular 1938 motion picture, and then into a Broadway musical smash: My Fair Lady.

His plays touch upon a wide variety of social issues: government, oppression, history, war, marriage, women’s rights. It’s hard to say which among his plays are the most profound, but I do humbly offer an annotated list of my five favorite George Bernard Shaw plays.

Shaw’s Childhood:

Although he spent most of his life in England, George Bernard Shaw was born and raised in Dublin, Ireland.

His father was an unsuccessful corn merchant (someone who buys the corn wholesale and then sells the product to retailers). His mother, Lucinda Elizabeth Shaw, was a singer. During Shaw’s adolescence, his mother began an affair with her music teacher, Vandeleur Lee.

By many accounts, it seems that the playwright’s father, George Carr Shaw, was ambivalent about his wife’s adultery and her subsequent departure to England.

This unusual situation of a sexually magnetic man and woman interacting with an “odd-man-out” male figure would become common in Shaw’s plays: Candida, Man and Superman, and Pygmalion.

His mother, his sister Lucy, and Vandeleur Lee moved to London when Shaw was sixteen years old. He stayed in Ireland working as a clerk until he moved into his mother’s London home in 1876. Having despised the education system of his youth, Shaw took a different academic path – a self-guided one. During his early years in London he spent hours on end reading books in the city's libraries and museums.

George Bernard Shaw: Critic and Social Reformist

In the 1880s, Shaw began his career as a professional art and music critic. Writing reviews of operas and symphonies eventually led to his new and more satisfying role as a theater critic. His reviews of London’s plays were witty, insightful, and sometimes painful to playwrights, directors, and actors who did not meet Shaw’s high standards.

In addition to the arts, George Bernard Shaw was passionate about politics. He was a member of the Fabian Society, a group in favor of socialist ideals such as socialized health care, minimum wage reform, and the protection of the impoverished masses.

Instead of attaining their goals through revolution (violent or otherwise), the Fabian Society sought gradual change from within the existing system of government.

Many of the protagonists in Shaw’s plays serve as a mouth-piece for the precepts of the Fabian Society.

Shaw’s Love Life:

For a good portion of his life, Shaw was a bachelor, much like some of his more comical characters: Jack Tanner and Henry Higgins, in particular. Based upon his letters (he wrote thousands to friends, colleagues, and fellow theater-lovers), it seems that Shaw had a devout passion for actresses.

He maintained a long, flirtatious correspondence with actress Ellen Terry. It seems that their relationship never evolved beyond mutual fondness. During a serious ailment, Shaw married a wealthy heiress named Charlotte Payne-Townshend.

Reportedly, the two were good friends but not sexual partners. Charlotte did not want to have children. Rumor has it, the couple never consummated the relationship.

Even after marriage, Shaw continued to have relationships with other women. The most famous of his romances was between him and Beatrice Stella Tanner, one of England’s most popular actresses better known by her married name: Mrs. Patrick Campbell. She starred in several of his plays, including Pygmalion. Their affection for one another is evident in their letters (now published, like many of his other correspondences). The physical nature of their relationship is still up for debate.

Shaw’s Corner:

If you are ever in England’s small town of Ayot St. Lawrence, be certain to visit Shaw’s Corner. This beautiful manor became the final home of Shaw and his wife. Upon the grounds you will find a cozy (or should I say cramped) cottage just big enough for one ambitious writer. In this tiny room, which was designed to rotate to capture as much sunlight as possible, George Bernard Shaw wrote many plays and countless letters.

His last major success was In Good King Charles Golden Days, written in 1939. But Shaw kept writing into his 90s. He was full of vitality until the age of 94 when he fractured his leg after falling off a ladder. The injury led to other problems: a failing bladder and kidney. Finally, Shaw did not seem as interested in staying alive anymore if he could not stay active. When an actress named Eileen O'Casey visited him, Shaw discussed his impending death: "Well, it will be a new experience, anyway." He died the following day.