"Christianity might be a good thing if anyone ever tried it."
When examining the life of this great Irish dramatist, one should really study two separate lives: that of GBS, the persona he created to conquer his shyness, a man of sparkling wit and somewhat dubious political and religious beliefs (seemingly), and that of George Bernard Shaw, the recalcitrant genius and philanthropist who longed to be taken seriously.
Some attributes are common to both personae; it is with these that I will begin. Henceforth, if a section should refer to GBS, it will be stated in the title (for example 'Political Opinions' - GBS) and likewise for George Bernard Shaw.
George Bernard Shaw was born in Dublin on the 26th of July, 1856, to George Carr Shaw, a wholesaler in the corn trade and an alcoholic. and Lucinda Elizabeth Shaw. Of his family, he was later to say 'I am a typical Irishman; my family came from Yorkshire.' However, lurking behind this laughter was a sad family history. His father's alcoholism made him teetotal, and when he died, neither Bernard Shaw nor his mother or any of his siblings attended George C.'s funeral. His mother left Dublin to teach music in London, leaving Bernard Shaw and his two siblings to be largely brought up by servants.
During his school career, George first attended the Wesleyan Connexial School, a private school near Dalkey and the Central Model School, Dublin, before leaving school at 15 and starting work at an estate agency as a junior clerk. In 1876, he moved to London, and was not to return to Ireland for 30 years. In London, George educated himself at the British Museum with the aim of becoming a writer. He embarked on this goal by writing criticisms and five largely unsuccessful novels, including the semi-autobiographical Immaturity.
George heard Henry George lecture, in 1882, on land nationalisation. The effect of this was to spark Shaw's interest in socialism. He joined the Social Democratic Federation and was introduced by H. H. Hyndman to the work of Karl Marx. He agreed with the economic theories of Das Kapital, but he knew that it would not effect the working man. He said of the work: 'Marx never got hold of him for a moment. It was the revolting sons of the bourgeois itself - Lassalle, Marx, Liebknecht, Morris, Hyndman, Bax, all like myself, crossed with squirearchy - that painted the flag red. The middle and upper classes are the revolutionary element in society; the proletariat is the conservative element.'
In 1884, Shaw joined the Fabian Society, a group which aimed to reconstruct society 'in accordance with the highest moral principles'. The group was not revolutionary, but aimed to establish socialism as painlessly and effectively as possible. They took their name from the Roman general Fabius Maximus, who believed in overcoming the enemy not by force but by harrassment. It was later to form part of the Labour party.
Writing Career - George Bernard Shaw
Shaw became a drama critic for the Saturday Review in 1895. His articles from this time were collected later in the book Our Theatres in the Nineties. He became an eminent critic, writing for a number of drama and music magazines of the time.
Shaw's early plays were greatly influenced by Henrik Ibsen. He began writing plays with his 'plays unpleasant' - attacks by an ideological man on capitolist principles, were not as well received as his 'plays pleasant' - comedies, such as John Bull's Other Island. From 1904 to 1907, the Royal Court Theatre staged productions of several of his plays.
With his later plays, Saint Joan, Pygmalion and others, George Bernard Shaw began to be recognised as a playwright who had revolutionised the theatre, and his persona GBS grew in stature as he was in more demand.
Pamphlets, Wit and Oratory - GBS
As a member of several socialist groups, GBS wrote many pamphlets on diverse topics, from feminism to wars to the Soviet Union. It was in these that he mixed his own personal viewpoint along with the tongue-in-cheek wit of GBS. He has often been misquoted and misinterpreted as a misanthrope from these pamphlets, but in reality this is just a by-product of George's hiding behind the alter ego of GBS.
In society circles, George also took on the persona of GBS, exhibiting qualities which have later become known as Shavian - wit, eccentricity and humour being prominent, in a similar manner to that of the much-lauded Oscar Wilde, a countryman of Shaw's. To the outside eye, he seemed to revel in this role as a Joker, exaggerating his appearance as much as he could. However, in reality he longed to be taken seriously as George Bernard Shaw.
GBS was known as an excellent orator, and was in much demand. Here, too, his words have been misinterpreted. He employed irony and humour to express his beliefs, and it would no doubt have given him some small joy to hear that people did not understand this even after his death.
Latter Years - Biography
George married Charlotte Payne-Townshend in 1898 and settled in Hertfordshire soon afterward. He died there in 1950 and was cremated. In his long and celebrated career, he had written more than 60 plays and has left an almost unmineable legacy.