The Shaw Festival: Behind the Curtain
Biography of Bernard Shaw
BERNARD SHAW (1856-1950), (he detested the name George) was born in Dublin on July 26, 1856 to George Carr Shaw, an unsuccessful grain merchant and sometime civil servant, and Lucinda Elizabeth Shaw, a professional singer. He grew up in an atmosphere of genteel poverty. He attended four schools and was tutored by a clerical uncle, but left his formal education at the age of 15 harboring a lifelong animosity towards schools and teachers, saying, "Schools and schoolmasters, as we have them today, are not popular as places of education and teachers, but rather prisons and turnkeys in which children are kept to prevent then disturbing and chaperoning their parents."
He developed a wide knowledge of music, art and literature under the influence of his mother and as a result of his frequent visits to the National Gallery of Ireland. In 1876 he moved to London, where he spent his afternoons in the British Museum and his evenings pursuing his informal education in the form of lectures and debates. He declared himself a Socialist in 1882 and joined the Fabian Society in 1884. Soon he distinguished himself as a fluent and effective public speaker, and an incisive and irreverent critic of music, art and drama; his criticisms showed the sharp edge that would become characteristic of his dramatic writing.
Shaw's first play, Widowers' Houses, was produced privately in 1892 for the members of a progressive theatre club called the Independent Theatre Society. It was followed by The Philanderer and Mrs. Warren's Profession. Published as Plays Unpleasant (1898), these Bernard Shaw plays reflect Shaw's admiration for the "new drama" of Henrik Ibsen. In the Victorian era, the London stage generally featured 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 Ibsen, who pioneered modern realistic drama—drama designed to heighten awareness of some important social issue.
More palatable, though still rich with challenges to conventional middle-class values, were his Plays Pleasant (1898) which included Arms and The Man, Candida, The Man of Destiny and You Never Can Tell. In 1897 Shaw attained his first commercial success with the American premiere of The Devil's Disciple, which enabled him to quit his job as a drama critic and to make his living solely as a playwright. In 1898 he married Charlotte Payne-Townsend, an Irish heiress whom he met through his Fabian friends Beatrice and Sidney Webb.
Bernard Shaw’s plays first attained popularity in London through a famous repertory experiment at the Royal Court Theatre from 1904 to 1907. Among his plays presented there were the premieres of John Bull’s Other Island (1904), Man and Superman (1905), Major Barbara (1905) and The Doctor’s Dilemma (1906). Pygmalion, by far Shaw's most popular work, was first performed in 1913. The outbreak of World War I in 1914 forged a change in Shaw's life. He was deeply opposed to the war and wrote a series of newspaper articles to this end. He suffered greatly for his stand and endured much public condemnation. In Heartbreak House (performed 1920) he exposed the spiritual bankruptcy of the generation responsible for the carnage. Following the end of World War I, Shaw gradually rebuilt his reputation. He rediscovered his dramatic edge and wrote a series of plays culminating in the publication of Saint Joan (1923), acclaim for which led to his receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature for 1925.
Shaw continued to write plays and essays until his death in 1950 at the age of 94. Shaw had become a household name in both Britain and Ireland and was famed throughout the world. His ironic wit endowed English with the adjective "Shavian", used to characterize observations such as: "Do not try to live forever. You will not succeed."
Now, more than six decades after his death, Shaw’s fame continues to grow. He entertains and stimulates the 21st-century audience no less profoundly than he teased and delighted those a century ago. The themes Shaw articulated through more than sixty plays and many thousands of pages of critical writings are as fresh today as when he wrote them. Shaw’s plays succeed on two levels: first, they are delightfully witty, sophisticated entertainments; and second, they are penetrating examinations of ideas or themes.
As the Shaw Festival's Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell says, "We all know the man can talk, but Bernard Shaw is also one of the most prescient, provocative, sparkling articulate writers in the English language. His words and ideas, expressed in plays that are well known or in plays that are not so familiar but no less interesting, have extraordinary relevance today. It is a joy to draw attention to those ideas and bring them to life on our stages."