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George Bernard Shaw

Born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1856, George Bernard Shaw grew to become one of Great Britain's greatest and most controversial playwrights.  And that doesn't even touch on his scandalous private life!  His most famous play, Pygmalion (1913), tells the story of a cockney girl who learns to pass as a lady with the help of a private tutor.  Sound familiar?  It was made into the classical musical hit, My Fair Lady, exactly one century after the author's birth.

Shaw was born to George Carr Shaw, who was in the wholesale grain trade, and Lucinda Elisabeth Gurly Shaw, 16 years her husband's junior and the daughter of an impoverished landowner.  Lucinda was a professional singer, the sole disciple of Vandeleur Lee, a voice teacher whose primary claim to fame was having a "unique and original" approach to singing.

As a boy, young George led a troubled life.  His father was an alcoholic, which turned his son into a teetotaler.  His father was a lout, which turned his son into a cynic.  His father was a wife batterer, which turned his son into a pacifist.  When Shaw's father died in 1885, neither his children nor his wife attended the funeral. 

Shaw and his two sisters grew up in relative poverty in an unfashionable part of Dublin.  When Shaw was just short of his sixteenth birthday, his mother left her husband and son and moved with Vandeleur Lee to London.  There, with Shaw's older sister Lucy (who later gained success as a music hall singer), they set up household.  Shaw remained in Dublin with his father in order to finish school, which he hated, and continue working as a clerk for an estate office, which he also hated.  In 1866, Shaw's father inherited some money and moved the family to a better neighborhood.  Shaw was enrolled in the Wesleyan Connexional School before transferring to a private school near Dalkey.  He attended Dublin's Central Model School before gleefully ending his formal education at the Dublin English Scientific and Commercial Day School.

In 1876, Shaw, now free from school and nearing the age of adulthood, joined his sister and mother in London.  He did not return to Ireland for nearly thirty years.  In London, he lived off of his mother and sister while pursuing a career in journalism and writing.  At first, he wrote prose, completing five novels before any of them was published. 

During the next two years, Shaw educated himself, mostly at the British Museum, where he used to go to appease his voluminous appetite for reading.  His first novel, the semi-autobiographical Immaturity, was published without much fanfare.  A vegetarian who eschewed both alcohol and tobacco, Shaw found flaws in British society wherever he looked.  Together with friends Beatrice and Sidney Webb, he founded the Fabian Society, a middle-class Socialist group that eventually boasted H. G. Wells and other prominent thinkers of the day as members.  He served on the executive committee of the Society, which would be instrumental in founding the London School of Economics and the Labor Party, from 1885 to 1911. 

A man of many causes, young Shaw the Socialist supported such diverse concepts as the abolition of private property, radical changes in the voting system, the simplification of spelling, and the reform of the English alphabet.  Standing on soapboxes at Speaker's Corner in Hyde Park and at various socialist rallies, he gradually learned to overcome his stage fright and the stammer that had haunted him for years.  To keep the crowd's attention, he developed an energetic and aggressive speaking style that is evident in all of his writing.

Before long, Shaw had become one of the most sought-after public speakers in England.  He argued in his pamphlets in favor of equality of income and advocated the equitable division of land and capital.  He believed that property was "theft" and felt, like Karl Marx, that capitalism was deeply flawed and was unlikely to last.  Unlike Marx, however, Shaw favored gradual reform over revolution.  In one pamphlet written in 1897, he predicted that socialism "will come by prosaic installments of public regulation and public administration enacted by ordinary parliaments, vestries, municipalities, parish councils, school boards, etc."

In 1892, Shaw wrote his first play, Widowers' Houses, about the evils of slumlords.  The play was attacked savagely by people who opposed his politics.  It was then that Shaw knew he was a good playwright--he must have been to have upset so many people with his social commentary.  He went on to revolutionize the English theater by concentrating his writing on various social issues at a time when most other playwrights were writing "sentimental pap."

In 1898, after a serious illness, Shaw moved out of his mother's house (where he was still living) and married Charlotte Payne-Townsend, an Irish woman of independent means.  Their marriage would last until Charlotte's death in 1943.  The newlyweds settled in 1906 in the Hertfordshire village of Ayot St. Lawrence.  Upon their marriage, Shaw--who never believed in the institution personally--wrote up his own "terrible adventure" anonymously, in the manner of a farce, and sent it to the local tabloids:

As a lady and gentleman were out driving in Henrietta-st., Covent-garden yesterday, a heavy shower drove them to take shelter in the office of the Superintendent Registrar there, and in the confusion of the moment he married them…. Startling as was the liberty undertaken by the Henrietta-st. official, it turns out well.  Miss Payne-Townsend is an Irish lady, with an income many times the volume of that which "Corno di Bassetto" used to earn, but to that happy man, being a vegetarian, the circumstance is of no moment…. Years of married bliss to them.

The forty-five years spent together were, indeed, "blissful," although, by mutual consent, sexless.  With the support of his wife's money and management, Shaw was able to maintain his remarkable productivity, as well as his infatuations with a series of actresses, throughout his life.

Toward that end, he carried on a passionate correspondence with Mrs. Patrick Campbell, a widow and actress who won the starring role in Pygmalion because no other actress was willing to say the word "Bloody" in public--something that Shaw demanded of his lower class leading character, Eliza Doolittle.  

Pickering: Have you no morals, man?
Doolittle: Can't afford them, Governor.

- from
Pygmalion

Once, when dame Campbell told him that she was going to publish Shaw's love letters to her, he balked, proclaiming, "I will not, dear Stella, at my time of life, play the horse to your Lady Godiva."

In his writings, Shaw--ever the soapbox orator--tackled contemporary moral problems and presented them paradoxically, relying on irony and sarcasm to delivery his point.  Many of his best works, including Man and Superman (1902), John Bull's Other Island (1904), and Major Barbara (1905), the story of a liberated woman in the Salvation Army during the battle for equal rights, were philosophical addresses on the subject of individual responsibility and freedom of spirit as they confronted the conforming demands of society.  His plays dealt with issues such as poverty and women's rights and implied that socialism could help solve the problems created by capitalism--a view that many Europeans considered heresy during the first World War.

With the outbreak of World War I, Shaw's life was changed forever.  For him, the war represented the moral repugnancy of the Capitalist system, the last dying gasp of the British Empire, a tragic waste of young life under the guise of patriotism.  Naturally, his feelings were too strong to keep welled up inside, so he began distributing anti-war articles under the title, Common Sense About the War.  To him, Shaw's anti-war preaching made sense.  Most of his fellow Brits, however, failed to agree.  Before long, Shaw found himself an outcast, a social pariah in his adopted country.  He was even accused of treason.

Shaw's dramatic output screeched to a halt.  He produced only one major play during the war, Heartbreak House, into which he poured his feelings of hopelessness and despair about British society and the future.

Following the war, Shaw rediscovered his dramatic voice and slowly began rebuilding his reputation, first with a series of five plays about "creative evolution," including Back to Methuselah, and then, in 1923, with Saint JoanSaint Joan (1923), the story of Joan of Arc who had been canonized four years earlier, was royally received.  Critics called it the playwright's masterpiece, and it helped Shaw climb back up from the ashes into the good graces of both peers and public.  He suddenly found himself acclaimed as a "Second Shakespeare," a new revolutionary in the staid British theater, a harbinger of light in a dismal Drury Lane. 

In the play, Shaw portrayed Joan of Arc not as a heroine or a martyr but rather as a stubborn, sexless young woman of uncommon spirit.  Paradoxically, Shaw portrayed her judges with sympathy.  The play premiered in New York in 1923, in London in 1924, and finally won for Shaw a Nobel Prize in 1925.

In all, Shaw wrote some 65 plays, continuing his writing well into his nineties.  Along the way, he coined phrases such as, "He who can, does.  He who cannot, teaches" and "England and America are two countries divided by a common language."  Disheartened by what he viewed to be the crumbling morality of society, he once remarked that "Christianity might be a good thing if anyone ever tried it." 

Besides his prolific work as a playwright, Shaw was an obsessive letter writer, penning an estimated quarter million pieces of correspondence in his lifetime, averaging out to a little over nine letters a day.  He had a strong opinion about nearly everything and never balked at expressing it.  Eventually, he became better known for his outgoing personality and socialist views than for his writing.  He once admitted, "Few people think more than two or three times a year; I have made an international reputation for myself by thinking once or twice a week."  He also coined the phrase: "Youth is a wonderful thing.  What a crime to waste it on children."

As witty as he was productive throughout his life, Shaw impressed everyone with his irascible humor and redoubtable spirit.  One young journalist who interviewed the playwright on his 90th birthday said that he hoped to interview him again on his 100th, to which the author replied, "I don't see why not; you look healthy enough to me."

Up until his last months on earth, Shaw maintained his writing and political campaign schedules.  When his doctor said that he might live to be 100 if he would submit to more treatment, Shaw responded by going home.

George Bernard Shaw died at Ayot St. Lawrence, Hertfordshire, on November 2, 1950, at the age of 94.  News of his passing raced around the world, leading the Indian cabinet to adjourn, Australian theater audiences to rise for two minutes of silence, and the lights on Broadway and in Times Square to be dimmed.  Although Shaw rankled at the thought of Westminster Abbey and public ceremonies, one can't help but believe he would have been pleased at the way one Cockney woman who turned out to mourn him summed up her feelings:

"We'll never see his like again."

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