George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950)
Shaw was born in Dublin of Protestant Irish stock. His mother was a talented amateur singer; his father was a corn trader. His education was irregular, due to his dislike of any organized training. After working in an estate agent's office for a while he moved to London as a young man (1876), where he established himself as a leading music and theatre critic.
From 1879-1903, Shaw was a councillor for the London borough of St Pancras, getting practical experience of social problems in local government. All his life he remained interested in questions of social reform.
In 1884, he joined the Fabian Society where he met Sidney Webb and joined him in his attempt to make socialism respectable. Shaw became famous as a socialist agitator, speaking publicly (and for no fee) all over London, once or twice a week for the next 12 years.
He began his literary career as a novelist; as a fervent advocate of the new theatre of Ibsen (The Quintessence of Ibsenism, 1891) he decided to write plays in order to illustrate his criticism of the English stage. His earliest dramas were called appropriately Plays Pleasant and Unpleasant (1898). Shaw's radical rationalism, his utter disregard of conventions, his keen dialectic interest and verbal wit often turn the stage into a forum of ideas. He wrote lengthy stage directions and character descriptions, more in the style of a novel than a play, as they were read - and admired - but deemed unsuitable for stage performance. Only in the Twenties they began to be accepted and appreciated by the public.
It is a combination of the dramatic, the comic, and the social corrective that gives Shaw's comedies their special flavour. In the plays of his later period discussion sometimes drowns the drama, in Back to Methuselah (1921), although in the same period he worked on his masterpiece Saint Joan (1923), in which he rewrites the well-known story of the French maiden and extends it from the Middle Ages to the present.
Other important plays by Shaw are Caesar and Cleopatra (1901), a historical play filled with allusions to modern times, and Androcles and the Lion (1912), in which he exercised a kind of retrospective history and from modern movements drew deductions for the Christian era. In Major Barbara (1905), one of Shaw's most successful «discussion» plays, the audience's attention is held by the power of the witty argumentation that man can achieve aesthetic salvation only through political activity, not as an individual. The Doctor's Dilemma (1906), facetiously classified as a tragedy by Shaw, is really a comedy the humour of which is directed at the medical profession. Candida (1898), with social attitudes toward sex relations as objects of his satire, and Pygmalion (1912), a witty study of phonetics as well as a clever treatment of middle-class morality and class distinction, proved some of Shaw's greatest successes on the stage. In 1925 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Shaw accepted the honour but refused the money.
Shaw's complete works appeared in thirty-six volumes between 1930 and 1950, the year of his death. He died at the age of 94, whilst pruning an apple tree.