George Bernard Shaw

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Shaw, George Bernard

Shaw, George Bernard, 1856–1950, Irish playwright and critic. He revolutionized the Victorian stage, then dominated by artificial melodramas, by presenting vigorous dramas of ideas. The lengthy prefaces to Shaw's plays reveal his mastery of English prose. In 1925 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Early Life and Career

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).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Shaw, George Bernard


Born July 26, 1856, in Dublin; died Nov. 2, 1950, in Ayot St. Lawrence. English playwright. Irish by birth.

Shaw spent his early years in Dublin and worked as a clerk after he graduated from school in 1871. In 1876 he moved to London and devoted himself to journalism, including work as a music reviewer, and literature. His novels The Irrational Knot (1880), Love Among the Artists (1881), and Cashel Byron’s Profession (1882) and the novel of sharp social content An Unsocial Socialist (1883, separate edition 1887; Russian translation The Amateur Socialist, 1910) were rejected by bourgeois publishers and were printed in socialist periodicals. As one of the leaders of the Fabian Society, Shaw worked for a number of years to propagate the ideas of socialism, publishing tracts, pamphlets, and books.

Even in Shaw’s first literary work, his novels, the heart of his creative method was determined—the use of paradox as a means of overcoming prevailing ideologies. His first play, Widowers’ Houses (1892), caused a scandal and was unsuccessful, as was the play that followed, The Philanderer (1893). Mrs. Warren’s Profession (1894), which dealt with the theme of prostitution, was first staged in England in 1907. The difficulties with production forced Shaw to publish his plays (the press was not subjected to prior censorship). Widowers’ Houses, The Philanderer, and Mrs. Warren’s Profession were published in a collection entitled Plays Unpleasant (1898); a second cycle, Plays Pleasant, was then published, including Arms and the Man (1894), Candida (1894), The Man of Destiny (1895), and You Never Can Tell (1895). These were followed by a third cycle, Three Plays for Puritans (1901), which included The Devil’s Disciple (1896–97), Caesar and Cleopatra (1898), and Captain Brassbound’s Conversion (1899).

One of the founders of the modern “drama of ideas,” Shaw created a type of discussion play, in which the clash of ideas and hostile ideologies posed the most acute problems of social and personal morality. Man and Superman (1901–03), a “comedy and philosophy” by Shaw’s definition, transforms the traditional theme of Don Juan: the hero is pursued by a woman. In the interlude of this play, “Don Juan in Hell,” a strikingly forceful criticism of the vices of capitalist civilization is expressed through the mouth of the Devil. In John Bull’s Other Island (1904), Shaw used his two main characters to contrast not only national types—the Irishman and the Englishman—but correspondingly the “romantic” and the “realist,” as Shaw interpreted them. Major Barbara (1905) contains a criticism of bourgeois philanthropy; in the play Shaw first expressed the idea that bourgeois violence must be opposed by a force that serves social progress and justice. Even in the solution of personal problems, Shaw remained a distinctly social dramatist. The Doctor’s Dilemma (1906) shows how medicine loses its humane character under bourgeois conditions; Androcles and the Lion (1913) criticizes dogmatic Christianity. Getting Married (1908), Misalliance (1910), and Fanny’s First Play (1911) are devoted to questions of family, marriage, and education. The Shewing-Up of Blanco Posnet (1909) depicts the exposure of the religious sanctimoniousness of the petite bourgeoisie. Pygmalion (1913), which deals with problems of culture based on differing speech patterns and with general spiritual development, shows the moral superiority of a girl from the lower classes over an outwardly intelligent, aristocratic professor of phonetics.

Shaw responded to the October Revolution of 1917 in Russia with the grotesque farce Annajanska, the Bolshevik Empress (1918), in which he spoke out very determinedly for the use of violent methods to transform society. In the play Heartbreak House (1913–19), written under the obvious influence of A. P. Chekhov, he denounces the parasitism of the ruling class, their loss of spiritual values, and the erosion of individuality of character. On the other hand, old Captain Shotover in the play sees salvation in work and in the decisive reform of the entire structure of life. Back to Methuselah (1918–20), a “metabiological” drama consisting of five parts not connected by a common plot, depicts a whimsical utopia inhabited by a race of long-livers. Saint Joan (1923) is a tragedy, the only one written by Shaw. In his treatment of the story of Joan of Arc, Shaw introduced a new theme: the Maid’s power comes not from a psychological obsession, but from reason, which is feared equally by the French and the English. When the “danger” represented by Joan has disappeared after her execution, she is exonerated; however, no one desires that she should come back to life.

After an interval of several years, Shaw returned to writing plays, startling the world with the freshness and wit of his “political extravaganzas” (so-called eccentric comedies): The Apple Cart (1929), Too True to Be Good (1931), On the Rocks (1933), The Simpleton of the Unexpected Isles (1934), and Geneva (1938), as well as with the historical play Good King Charles’s Golden Days (1939) and the comedy The Millionairess (1936). The idea that capitalist society has reached an impasse and bourgeois democracy is experiencing an acute crisis runs through all of the plays; fascism is condemned in Geneva.

In 1931, Shaw visited the USSR, of which he had been a friend from the first years of the Great October Socialist Revolution. The fighting spirit of the publicist was evident in his public appearances until Shaw’s last years. His last plays were Buoyant Billions (1948) and Farfetched Fables (1950).

Although their staging was delayed, Shaw’s plays gradually gained widespread recognition and became a major force in the literature of the late 19th and the first half of the 20th century. His work bore the clear stamp of the publicist and was inspired by deep philosophical meditation on the social, cultural, and biological future of mankind. His remarkable skill turned his plays into a forum for social and philosophical discussion. Shaw’s best plays have become part of the standard repertoire of many theaters in the Soviet Union. Shaw was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1925.


The Standard Edition of the Works of Bernard Shaw, vols. 1–36. London, 1931–50.
In Russian translation:
Poln. sobr. soch., vols. 1–10. Moscow, 1910–11.
Izbr. proizv., vols. 1–2. Moscow, 1956.
O drame i teatre. Moscow, 1963.
O muzyke i muzykantakh. Moscow, 1965.
Pis’ma. Moscow, 1971.
Novelly. Moscow, 1971.


Lunacharskii, A. V. “B. Shou.” In his O teatre i dramaturgii: Izbr. stat’i, vol. 2. Moscow, 1958.
Romm, A. Dzh. B. Shou. Leningrad-Moscow, 1965.
Obraztsova, A. B. Shou i evropeiskaia teatral’naia kul’tura na rubezhe XIX–XX vekov. Moscow, 1974.
Pirson, Kh. B. Shou. Moscow, 1972.
Bernard Shou: Biobibliografich ukazatel’k 100-letiiu so dnia rozhdeniia. Moscow, 1956.
Henderson, A. George Bernard Shaw: Man of the Century. New York [1956].
Chesterton, G. K. George Bernard Shaw. London, 1909.
Bentley, E. Bernard Shaw: A Reconsideration. Norfolk, Conn. [1947].
Woodbridge, H. E. G. B. Shaw: Creative Artist. Carbondale, III., 1963.
Kaufmann, R. J., ed. G. B. Shaw: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1965.
Crompton, L. Shaw the Dramatist. London, 1971.
Berst, C. A. Bernard Shaw and the Art of Drama. Urbana, Ind., 1973.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.