Born in Dublin, Shaw was the son of an unsuccessful merchant; his mother was a singer who eventually left her husband to teach singing in London. Shaw left school at 14 to work in an estate agent's office. In 1876 he went to London and for nine years was largely supported by his parents. He wrote five novels, several of them published in small socialist magazines. Shaw was himself an ardent socialist, a member of the Fabian Society, and a popular public speaker on behalf of socialism.
Work as a journalist led to his becoming a music critic for the Star in 1888 and for the World in 1890; his enthusiasm for Wagner proved infectious to his readers. As drama critic for the Saturday Review after 1895, he won readers to Ibsen; he had already written The Quintessence of Ibsenism (1891). In 1898 Shaw married Charlotte Payne-Townshend, a wealthy, wellborn Irishwoman. By this time his plays were beginning to be produced.
Although Shaw's plays focus on ideas and issues, they are vital and absorbing, enlivened by memorable characterizations, a brilliant command of language, and dazzling wit. His early plays were published as Plays Pleasant and Unpleasant (2 vol., 1898). The "unpleasant" plays were Widower's Houses (1892), on slum landlordism; The Philanderer (written 1893, produced 1905); and Mrs. Warren's Profession (written 1893, produced 1902), a jibe at the Victorian attitude toward prostitution. The "pleasant" plays were Arms and the Man (1894), satirizing romantic attitudes toward love and war; Candida (1893); and You Never Can Tell (written 1895).
In 1897 The Devil's Disciple, a play on the American Revolution, was produced with great success in New York City. It was published in the volume Three Plays for Puritans (1901) along with Caesar and Cleopatra (1899), notable for its realistic, humorous portraits of historical figures, and Captain Brassbound's Conversion (1900).
During the early 20th cent. Shaw wrote his greatest and most popular plays: Man and Superman (1903), in which an idealistic, cerebral man succumbs to marriage (the play contains an explicit articulation of a major Shavian theme—that man is the spiritual creator, whereas woman is the biological "life force" that must always triumph over him); Major Barbara (1905), which postulates that poverty is the cause of all evil; Androcles and the Lion (1912; a short play), a charming satire of Christianity; and Pygmalion (1913), which satirizes the English class system through the story of a cockney girl's transformation into a lady at the hands of a speech professor. The latter has proved to be Shaw's most successful work—as a play, as a motion picture, and as the basis for the musical and film My Fair Lady (1956; 1964).
Of Shaw's later plays, Saint Joan (1923) is the most memorable; it argues that Joan of Arc, a harbinger of Protestantism and nationalism, had to be killed because the world was not yet ready for her. In 1920 Shaw, much criticized for his antiwar stance, wrote Heartbreak House, a play that exposed the spiritual bankruptcy of the generation responsible for World War I.
Among Shaw's other plays are John Bull's Other Island (1904), The Doctor's Dilemma (1906), Fanny's First Play (1911), Back to Methuselah (1922), The Apple Cart (1928), Too True to Be Good (1932), The Millionairess (1936), In Good King Charles's Golden Days (1939), and Buoyant Billions (1949). Perhaps his most popular nonfiction work is The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism (1928).
See his collected plays with their prefaces, ed. by D. H. Laurence (7 vol., 1970-75); his letters, particularly those to Ellen Terry (1931), Mrs. Patrick Campbell (1952), Granville-Barker (1957), and Molly Tompkins (1960); his collected letters, ed. by D. H. Laurence (4 vol., 1965-88); his complete musical criticism, ed. by D. H. Laurence (3 vol., 1981); and his autobiography, reconstructed by S. Weintraub (2 vol., 1969-70).
See also biographies by A. Henderson (3 vol., 1911-56), F. Harris (1931), H. Pearson (1942 and 1950), and M. Holroyd (4 vol. 1988-93, abr. ed. 1998); studies by E. R. Bentley (2d ed. 1967), L. Crompton (1969), M. M. Morgan (1972), M. Valency (1973), E. Bentley (1985), H. Bloom (1987), and S. Weintraub (1996); bibliography by D. H. Laurence (2 vol., 1983).
George Bernard Shaw, photograph by Yousuf Karsh.
Learn more about Shaw, George Bernard with a free trial on Britannica.com.
Although Shaw's first profitable writing was music and literary criticism, his talent was for drama, and he authored more than 60 plays including Pygmalion. Nearly all of his writings deal sternly with prevailing social problems, but have a vein of comedy to make their stark themes more palatable. Shaw examined education, marriage, religion, government, health care, and class privilege and found them all defective. He was most angered by the exploitation of the working class, and most of his writings censure that abuse. An ardent socialist, Shaw wrote many brochures and speeches for the Fabian Society. He became an accomplished orator in the furtherance of its causes, which included gaining equal political rights for men and women, alleviating abuses of the working class, rescinding private ownership of productive land, and promoting healthful lifestyles.
Shaw married Charlotte Payne-Townshend, a fellow Fabian, whom he survived. They settled in Ayot St. Lawrence in a house now called Shaw's Corner. Shaw died there, aged 94, from chronic problems exacerbated by injuries he incurred by falling.
He is the only person to have been awarded both the Nobel Prize for Literature (1925) and an Oscar (1938). These were for his contributions to literature and for his work on the film Pygmalion, respectively. Shaw wanted to refuse his Nobel Prize outright because he had no desire for public honors, but accepted it at his wife's behest: she considered it a tribute to Ireland. He did reject the monetary award, requesting it be used to finance translation of Swedish books to English.
Shaw expressed this attitude in the astringent prologue to Cashel Byron's Profession where young Byron's educational experience is a fictionalized description of Shaw's own schooldays. Later he painstakingly detailed the reasons for his aversion to formal education in his Treatise on Parents and Children. In brief, he considered the standardized curricula useless, deadening to the spirit and stifling to the intellect. He particularly deplored the use of corporal punishment, which was prevalent in his time.
When his mother left home and followed her voice teacher, George Vandeleur Lee, to London, Shaw was almost sixteen years old. His sisters accompanied their mother but Shaw remained in Dublin with his father, first as a reluctant pupil, then as a clerk in an estate office. He worked efficiently, albeit discontentedly, for several years. In 1876, Shaw joined his mother's London household. She, Vandeleur Lee, and his sister Lucy, provided him with a pound a week while he frequented public libraries and the British Museum reading room where he studied earnestly and began writing novels. He earned his allowance by ghostwriting Vandeleur Lee's music column, which appeared in the London Hornet. His novels were rejected, however, so his literary earnings remained negligible until 1885, when he became self-supporting as a critic of the arts.
Influenced by his reading, he became a dedicated Socialist and a charter member of the Fabian Society, a middle class organization established in 1884 to promote the gradual spread of socialism by peaceful means. In the course of his political activities he met Charlotte Payne-Townshend, an Irish heiress and fellow Fabian; they married in 1898. In 1906 the Shaws moved into a house, now called Shaw's Corner, in Ayot St Lawrence, a small village in Hertfordshire; it was to be their home for the remainder of their lives, although they also maintained a residence at 29 Fitzroy Square in London.
Shaw's plays were first performed in the 1890s. By the end of the decade he was an established playwright. He wrote sixty-three plays and his output as novelist, critic, pamphleteer, essayist and private correspondent was prodigious. He is known to have written more than 250,000 letters. Along with Fabian Society members Sidney Webb and Beatrice Webb and Graham Wallas, Shaw founded the London School of Economics and Political Science in 1895 with funding provided by private philanthropy, including a bequest of £20,000 from Henry Hunt Hutchinson to the Fabian Society. One of the libraries at the LSE is named in Shaw's honor; it contains collections of his papers and photographs.
During his final years Shaw enjoyed attending to the grounds at Shaw's Corner. His death, at 94, from renal failure, was precipitated by injuries incurred by falling while pruning a tree. His ashes, mixed with those of his wife, were scattered along footpaths and around the statue of Saint Joan in their garden.
Much of Shaw’s music criticism, ranging from short comments to the book-length essay—The Perfect Wagnerite—extols the work of the German composer Richard Wagner. Wagner worked 25 years composing Nibelung’s Ring, a massive four-part musical dramatization drawn from the Teutonic mythology of gods, giants, dwarves and Rhine maidens; Shaw considered it a work of genius and reviewed it in detail. Beyond the music, he saw it as an allegory of social evolution where workers, driven by "the invisible whip of hunger", seek freedom from their wealthy masters. Wagner did have socialistic sympathies, as Shaw carefully points out, but made no such claim about his opus. Conversely, Shaw disparaged Brahms, deriding A German Requiem by saying "it could only have come from the establishment of a first-class undertaker". Although he found Brahms lacking in intellect, he praised his musicality, saying ”...nobody can listen to Brahms’ natural utterance of the richest absolute music, especially in his chamber compositions, without rejoicing in his natural gift.” Shaw's writings about music gained great popularity because they were understandable and fair, as well as pleasantly light-hearted and free of affectation, thus contrasting starkly with the dourly pretentious pedantry of most critiques in that era. All of his music critiques have been collected in Shaw's Music.
As the drama critic for the Saturday Review, a post he held from 1895 to 1898, Shaw championed Henrik Ibsen whose realistic plays scandalized the Victorian public. His influential Quintessence of Ibsenism was written in 1891.
Shaw wrote five unsuccessful novels at the start of his career between 1879 and 1883. Eventually all were published.
The first to be printed was Cashel Byron's Profession (1886), which was written in 1882. Its eponymous character, Cashel, a rebellious schoolboy with an unsympathetic mother, runs away to Australia where he becomes a famed prizefighter. He returns to England for a boxing match, and falls in love with erudite and wealthy Lydia Carew. Lydia, drawn by sheer animal magnetism, eventually consents to marry despite the disparity of their social positions. This breach of propriety is nullified by the unpresaged discovery that Cashel is of noble lineage and heir to a fortune comparable to Lydia's. With those barriers to happiness removed, the couple settles down to prosaic family life with Lydia dominant; Cashel attains a seat in Parliament. In this novel Shaw first expresses his conviction that productive land and all other natural resources should belong to everyone in common, rather than being owned and exploited privately. The book was written in the year when Shaw first heard the lectures of Henry George who advocated such reforms.
Written in 1883, An Unsocial Socialist was published in 1887. The tale begins with a hilarious description of student antics at a girl's school then changes focus to a seemingly uncouth laborer who, it soon develops, is really a wealthy gentleman in hiding from his overly affectionate wife. He needs the freedom gained by matrimonial truancy to promote the socialistic cause, to which he is an active convert. Once the subject of socialism emerges, it dominates the story, allowing only space enough in the final chapters to excoriate the idle upper class and allow the erstwhile schoolgirls, in their earliest maturity, to marry suitably.
Love Among the Artists was published in the United States in 1900 and in England in 1914, but it was written in 1881. In the ambiance of chit-chat and frivolity among members of Victorian polite society a youthful Shaw describes his views on the arts, romantic love and the practicalities of matrimony. Dilettantes, he thinks, can love and settle down to marriage, but artists with real genius are too consumed by their work to fit that pattern. The dominant figure in the novel is Owen Jack, a musical genius, somewhat mad and quite bereft of social graces. From an abysmal beginning he rises to great fame and is lionized by socialites despite his unremitting crudity.
The Irrational Knot was written in 1880 and published in 1905. Within a framework of leisure class preoccupations and frivolities Shaw disdains hereditary status and proclaims the nobility of workers. Marriage, as the knot in question, is exemplified by the union of Marian Lind, a lady of the upper class, to Edward Conolly, always a workman but now a magnate, thanks to his invention of an electric motor that makes steam engines obsolete. The marriage soon deteriorates, primarily because Marian fails to rise above the preconceptions and limitations of her social class and is, therefore, unable to share her husband's interests. Eventually she runs away with a man who is her social peer, but he proves himself a scoundrel and abandons her in desperate circumstances. Her husband rescues her and offers to take her back, but she pridefully refuses, convinced she is unworthy and certain that she faces life as a pariah to her family and friends. The preface, written when Shaw was 49, expresses gratitude to his parents for their support during the lean years while he learned to write and includes details of his early life in London.
Shaw's first novel, Immaturity, was written in 1879 but was the last one to be printed in 1931. It relates tepid romances, minor misfortunes and subdued successes in the developing career of Robert Smith, an energetic young Londoner and outspoken agnostic. Condemnation of alcoholic behavior is the prime message in the book, and derives from Shaw's familial memories. This is made clear in the books's preface, which was written by the mature Shaw at the time of its belated publication. The preface is a valuable resource because it provides autobiographical details not otherwise available.
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. The story is so different from Shaw's ordinary style that it is hard to believe he wrote it.
Often his plays succeeded in the United States and Germany before they did in London. Although major London productions of many of his earlier pieces were delayed for years, they are still being performed there. Examples include Mrs. Warren's Profession (1893), Arms and the Man (1894), Candida (1894) and You Never Can Tell (1897).
Shaw's plays, like those of Oscar Wilde, were fraught with incisive humor, which was exceptional in among playwrights of the Victorian era; both authors are remembered for their comedy. However, Shaw's wittiness should not obscure his important role in revolutionizing British drama. In the Victorian Era, the London stage had been regarded as a place for frothy, sentimental entertainment. Shaw made it a forum for considering moral, political and economic issues, possibly his most lasting and important contribution to dramatic art. In this, he considered himself indebted to Henrik Ibsen, who pioneered modern realistic drama, meaning drama designed to heighten awareness of some important social issue. Significantly, Widowers Houses—an example of the realistic genre—was completed after William Archer, Shaw's friend, had translated some of Ibsen's plays to English and Shaw had written The Quintessence of Ibsensism.
As Shaw's experience and popularity increased, his plays and prefaces became more voluble about reforms he advocated, without diminishing their success as entertainments. Such works, including Caesar and Cleopatra (1898), Man and Superman (1903), Major Barbara (1905) and The Doctor's Dilemma (1906), display Shaw's matured views, for he was approaching 50 when he wrote them. From 1904 to 1907, several of his plays had their London premieres in notable productions at the Court Theatre, managed by Harley Granville-Barker and J. E. Vedrenne. The first of his new plays to be performed at the Court Theatre, John Bull's Other Island (1904), while not especially popular today, made his reputation in London when King Edward VII laughed so hard during a command performance that he broke his chair.
By the 1910s, Shaw was a well-established playwright. New works such as Fanny's First Play (1911) and Pygmalion (1912)—on which the award-winning My Fair Lady (1956) is based—had long runs in front of large London audiences. A musical adaptation of Arms and the Man (1894)—The Chocolate Soldier by Oscar Strauss (1908)—was also very popular, but Shaw detested it and, for the rest of his life, forbade musicalization of his work, including a proposed Franz Lehár operetta based on Pygmalion; the Broadway musical My Fair Lady could be produced only after Shaw's death.
Shaw's outlook was changed by World War I, which he uncompromisingly opposed despite incurring outrage from the public as well as from many friends. His first full-length piece, presented after the War, written mostly during it, was Heartbreak House (1919). A new Shaw had emerged—the wit remained, but his faith in humanity had dwindled. In the preface to Heartbreak House he said:
"It is said that every people has the Government it deserves. It is more to the point that every Government has the electorate it deserves; for the orators of the front bench can edify or debauch an ignorant electorate at will. Thus our democracy moves in a vicious circle of reciprocal worthiness and unworthiness.
Shaw had previously supported gradual democratic change toward socialism, but now he saw more hope in government by benign strong men. This sometimes made him oblivious to the dangers of dictatorships. Near his life's end that hope failed him too. In the first act of Buoyant Billions (1946–48), his last full-length play, his protagonist asks:
"Why appeal to the mob when ninetyfive per cent of them do not understand politics, and can do nothing but mischief without leaders? And what sort of leaders do they vote for? For Titus Oates and Lord George Gordon with their Popish plots, for Hitlers who call on them to exterminate Jews, for Mussolinis who rally them to nationalist dreams of glory and empire in which all foreigners are enemies to be subjugated.
In 1921, Shaw completed Back to Methuselah, his "Metabiological Pentateuch". The massive, five-play work starts in the Garden of Eden and ends thousands of years in the future; it showcases Shaw's postulate that a "Life Force" directs evolution toward ultimate perfection by trial and error. Shaw proclaimed the play a masterpiece, but many critics disagreed. The theme of a benign force directing evolution reappears in Geneva (1938), wherein Shaw maintains humans must develop longer lifespans in order to acquire the wisdom needed for self-government.
Methuselah was followed by Saint Joan (1923), which is generally considered to be one of his better works. Shaw had long considered writing about Joan of Arc, and her canonization supplied a strong incentive. The play was an international success, and is believed to have led to his Nobel Prize in Literature. He wrote plays for the rest of his life, but very few of them are as notable—or as often revived—as his earlier work. The Apple Cart (1929) was probably his most popular work of this era. Later full-length plays like Too True to Be Good (1931), On the Rocks (1933), The Millionairess (1935), and Geneva (1938) have been seen as marking a decline. His last significant play, In Good King Charles Golden Days has, according to St. John Ervine, passages that are equal to Shaw's major works.
Shaw's published plays come with lengthy prefaces. These tend to be more about Shaw's opinions on the issues addressed by the plays than about the plays themselves. Often his prefaces are longer than the plays they introduce. For example, the Penguin Books edition of his one-act The Shewing-up Of Blanco Posnet (1909) has a 67-page preface for the 29-page playscript.
"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.
Thus he viewed writing as a way to further his humanitarian and political agendas. 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 the 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. His crusading nature led him to adopt and tenaciously hold a variety of causes, which he furthered with fierce intensity, heedless of opposition and ridicule. For example, Common Sense about the War (1914) lays out Shaw's strong objections at the onset of World War I. His stance ran counter to public sentiment and cost him dearly at the box-office, but he never compromised.
Shaw joined in the public's unreasoning attack on vaccination against smallpox, a dire disease that nearly killed him when he contracted it in 1881. In the preface to Doctor’s Dilemma he made it plain he regarded traditional 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 while he was twenty-five, after hearing a lecture by H. F. Lester. In 1901, remembering the experience, he said "I was a cannibal for twenty-five years. For the rest I have been a vegetarian. 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.
As well as plays and prefaces, Shaw wrote long political treatises, such as Fabian Essays in Socialism (1889), and The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism (1912), a 495-page book detailing all aspects of socialistic theory as Shaw interpreted it. Excerpts of the latter were republished in 1928 as Socialism and Liberty, Late in his life he wrote another guide to political issues, Everybody's Political What's What (1944).
Another friend was the composer Edward Elgar. The latter dedicated one of his late works, 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 death. Shaw's correspondence with the motion picture producer Gabriel Pascal, who was the first to successfully bring Shaw's plays to the screen and who later tried to put into motion a musical adaptation of Pygmalion, but died before he could realize it, is published in a book titled Bernard Shaw and Gabriel Pascal. A stage play based on a book by Hugh Whitmore, 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.
In 1882, influenced by Henry George's views on land nationalization, 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. These concepts led Shaw to apply for membership in the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), led by H. M. Hyndman who introduced him to the works of Karl Marx. Shaw never joined the SDF, which favored forcible reforms. Instead, in 1884, he joined the newly formed Fabian Society, which accorded with his belief that reform should be gradual and induced by peaceful means rather than by outright revolution. Shaw was an active Fabian. He wrote many of their pamphlets,, lectured tirelessly on behalf of their causes and provided money to set up the The New Age, an independent socialist journal. As a Fabian, he participated in the formation of the Labour Party. The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism provides a clear statement of his socialistic views. As evinced in plays like Major Barbara and Pygmalion, class struggle is a motif in much of Shaw's writing.
Shaw opposed the execution of Sir Roger Casement in 1916. He wrote a letter "as an Irishman" to The Times newspaper, which was rejected by The Times, but was subsequently printed by the Manchester Guardian on 22 July 1916, and New York American on 13 August 1916.
After visiting the USSR in the 1930s where he met Stalin, Shaw became an ardent supporter of the Stalinist USSR. The preface to his play On the Rocks (1933) is primarily an effort to justify the pogroms conducted by the State Political Directorate (OGPU). In an open letter to the Manchester Guardian, he dismisses stories of a Soviet famine as slanderous and calls reports of its exploited workers falsehoods. Asked why he did not stay permanently in the Soviet 'earthly paradise', Shaw jokingly explained that England was a hell and he was a small devil. He wrote a defense of Stalin's espousal of Lysenkoism in a letter to Labour Monthly.
In his old age, Shaw was a household name both in Britain and Ireland, and was famed throughout the world. His ironic wit endowed English with the adjective "Shavian", used to characterize 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) to fund the creation of a new phonemic alphabet for the English language. 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, once My Fair Lady—a musical adapted from the play 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. 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.
Shaw's home, now called Shaw's Corner, in the small village of Ayot St Lawrence, Hertfordshire is a National Trust property, open to the public. The Shaw Theatre, Euston Road, London, opened in 1971, was named in his honour. 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 theater festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, 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.
He is also remembered as one of the pivotal founders of the London School of Economics, whose library is now called the British Library of Political and Economic Science. The Fabian Window designed by Shaw, hangs in the Shaw Library in the main building of the LSE.