|The Book of Irish Writers Chapter 32 - George Bernard Shaw, 1856-1950
Everything about George Bernard Shaw is overwhelming. He lived to be 94 and seemingly never stopped writing - or talking.
By the age of 30 he had written five novels. In the 1880s and ’90s he was an influential and prolific critic of music and theatre, but these activities were merely false starts as he went on to become world-famous as a playwright.
Shaw wrote more than 40 plays, along with film scripts and essays. He also made frequent broadcasts - including his farewell to broadcasting on BBC television on his 90th birthday. He is also said to have written a quarter of a million letters.
Shaw’s background makes his achievement all the more impressive. Born in Dublin in 1856 into a family of what he called ‘downstarts’, that is shabby-genteel poverty, his father was an alcoholic and his mother a cold and remote figure. Shaw’s formal education was patchy at best.
He started work at the age of 15 in an estate agency which he hated as a ‘damnable waste of human life’ - though his characteristic efficiency led to him being head cashier by the age of 17.
When he was 20, he moved to London where he educated himself in the reading room of the British Museum and through meetings with the radicals who gathered there.
He began to take socialism seriously - which led to a central role in the ‘Fabian Society’. This was founded in 1884 with the aim of a complete reform of society through persuasion and argument.
As a speaker Shaw was a force to be reckoned with. The skills he learned in argument and debate sharpened his style as a writer. His belief in social justice motivated his writing.
His early plays were controversial. Mrs Warren’s Profession from 1893, for example, suggested that running a brothel was no different from any other business.
His career would continue to be controversial. He once said -
My reputation as a dramatist grows with every play of mine that is not performed.
Shaw was also capable of concentrating on the ludicrous aspects of life. Arms and the Man from 1894 is light comedy – set in the war against Serbia and Bulgaria of 1885. The romantic Raina, in love with the noble Sergius, meets Bluntschli, a professional soldier, who confronts her with the hardheaded practicality of war:
Bluntschli: You can always tell an old soldier by the inside of his holsters and cartridge boxes. The young ones carry pistols and cartridges; the old ones, grub.
Bluntschli wins the day and Raina ends by marrying her ‘chocolate cream soldier’.
Partly out of his own conviction that marriage was ‘an irrational knot’ and partly because of his early poverty, Shaw had avoided marriage by having affairs with married women. He described himself as
… an Irishman, an irregular artistic person, an anarchist in conduct [and the] creator of an atmosphere subtly disintegrative of households.
This changed when he was 42.
Despite his massive productivity, Shaw’s health had never been entirely sound. In 1898, while recovering from an operation he married Charlotte Payne-Townshend who had nursed him. The marriage lasted until Charlotte’s death in 1943.
Shaw’s later works such as Back to Methuselah - which covers history from the Garden of Eden to the year 31920 - would predict that procreation would be handled scientifically while people found pleasure in other ways.
Shaw published his plays – his aim was to overcome theatrical censorship and to make them accessible to a wider audience.
His lengthy Prefaces dealt with the ideas in the plays. The ‘Preface’ to one of his Irish plays, John Bull’s Other Island from 1904, is typical. As a socialist Shaw believed that nationalism was a diversion from real reform since it ‘change[d] nothing but the necktie of the man that picks your pocket’.
In forthright manner his Preface attacks the idea of a pure Irish race:
I am a genuine typical Irishman of the Danish, Norman, Cromwellian, and (of course) Scotch invasions. I am violently and arrogantly Protestant by family tradition; but let no English Government therefore count on my allegiance...
If anything the English come off even worse in the play - but
John Bull’s Other Island was taken seriously by leading politicians and when King Edward VII saw it, he laughed so much that he broke his chair!
G.B.S., as he was now known, was a major public figure whose views were sought on all kinds of subjects.
He would go on to win a Nobel Prize in 1925, though he turned down the prize money, insisting it was used to fund an Anglo-Scandinavian Literary Foundation. He also won an Oscar in 1938 for Pygmalion which would later be the basis for the musical My Fair Lady.
The last word should be Shaw’s:
My reputation has been gained by my persistent struggle to force the public to reconsider its morals.