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Bernard Shaw (George Bernard Shaw) Biography

(1856–1950), (George Bernard Shaw), Bernard Shaw, Widowers' Houses, The Quintessence of Ibsenism

drama character ideas plays

Irish dramatist, born in Dublin, the youngest child of an alcoholic corn merchant; he did poorly at school. The best account of his parents' troubled marriage and his own unhappy upbringing and self-education, as of his later life, is to be found in Michael Holroyd's massive biography (Bernard Shaw, 4 volumes, 198892). In 1876 he followed his mother to London, where he struggled to make a living. He wrote five unsuccessful novels and a great deal of music, book, and art criticism. He was also a proselytizer for socialism, composing tracts and delivering lectures on that and other political, social, and ethical subjects and, in 1884, becoming a co-founder and highly influential member of the Fabian Society. But it was not until 1892 that his first play, Widowers' Houses, was produced, and then for only two performances to ‘advanced’ audiences. This was written under the influence of Ibsen, whom Shaw had already made the subject of a book, The Quintessence of Ibsenism (1891), and was enthusiastically to promote when he served as the Saturday Review's drama critic from 1895 to 1898 (eventually publishing his reviews under the title Our Theatres in the Nineties, 3 volumes, 1932). Widowers' Houses transforms a conventional love story into an attack on slum landlordism and, like much of his earlier drama, may be said to have given the wellmade play a socialist twist. It was eventually published as one of his ‘Plays Unpleasant’, along with The Philanderer (written 1893, prod. 1905) and Mrs Warren's Profession (written 1893, prod. 1902), which fell foul of the dramatic censor because of its suggestion that prostitution was the inevitable result of social injustice. During the 1890s he also wrote the three ‘Plays Pleasant’, so called because they were comedies and concentrated on the ‘follies’ rather than the ‘vices’ of society. These were Arms and the Man (1894), Shaw's attack on the romantic pretensions of love and war; Candida (1895), in which a ‘muscular’ yet inwardly weak Christian minister and an effete-seeming but actually strong poet compete for the emotional allegiance of the title character; and You Never Can Tell (1898). The ‘Three Plays for Puritans’—The Devil's Disciple (1897), Captain Brassbound's Conversion (1900), Caesar and Cleopatra (1901)—also belong to a phase of Shaw's career when he was using traditional styles of drama to reclaim values from what he regarded as the moral stupidities of society and its institutions. In its published form, each set of plays came complete with prefaces exploring the ideas he had dramatized. Throughout his long career, he continued to use this device to clarify and broaden his didacticism.

Increasingly, however, the plays themselves became more intellectually explicit. Extreme examples would include Getting Married (1908), Misalliance (1910), and Heartbreak House (1920); but his portrait of Ireland, John Bull's Other Island (1904), and Man and Superman (1905) and Major Barbara (1905), though all relatively generous with lively character and event, also helped win Shaw the reputation of writing dialogues or debates rather than drama. This trend was by no means straightforward. Androcles and the Lion (1913), Pygmalion (1913), and St Joan (1923) have proved lastingly popular with audiences at least as much because of the pull of their stories as because of their larger implications. John Bull's Other Island was amusing enough to give Shaw his first substantial success in the London theatre. But it has been well argued, most cogently by the critic Eric Bentley, that the mature Shaw invented a new kind of drama, not merely one in which the importance of a character was the ideas he represented, but one which substituted conflict of ideas for conflict of character and other traditional sources of tension.

Shaw's wit, humour, and ability to create entertaining characters, often verging on Dickensian caricature, remained undiminished throughout his career. He was often accused of frivolity and emotional superficiality; but his own view was that, by provoking laughter, he could ensure his audience's attention while demolishing their moral and social preconceptions. His views did, however, change with time and with his own growing conviction that radical social change was unlikely to occur through the reform of existing institutions. Hence his promotion of what he called ‘creative evolution’, a philosophy most clearly dramatized in the ‘metabiological pentateuch’ Back to Methuselah (1922), which emphasized man's ability himself to will his destiny and his progress towards ‘omnipotence and omniscience’. Hence, too, the impatience with parliamentary democracy and the fascination with ‘supermen’ which link Caesar and Cleopatra and Major Barbara with such late work as The Apple Cart (1929), On the Rocks (1933), and Geneva (1938). Shaw had no sympathy with Hitler or Nazism, but his regard for Mussolini and, in particular, Stalin is well attested.

Other works worth discovering include The Perfect Wagnerite (1898), Common Sense About the War (1914), The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism (1928), as well as the plays The Doctor's Dilemma (1906), a serio-comic attack on the medical profession; Fanny's First Play (1911), which gently mocks theatre critics; and Too True to Be Good (1932), which debates sex, the generation gap, the death of traditional values, and other topics. As this suggests, Shaw expressed strong views about many matters from experiments on animals, vaccination, and meat diets (which he deplored) to euthanasia and the extermination of the morally or mentally ‘unfit’ (which he favoured). Though he had numerous love affairs as a young man, the marriage he made in 1898 to Charlotte Payne-Townshend seems to have been platonic. Certainly, his work shows increasing contempt for the ‘greasy commonplaces of flesh and blood’, meaning all supposedly over-close relationships, and a growing belief that ‘the intellect is a passion as much as sex, with less intensity but lifelong permanency’. Some have been tempted to see in his traumatic childhood an explanation for his Manichaeism, as for the imperviousness to human suffering and lack of a ‘sense of horror’ that has troubled his critics; but the intellectual coherence of his ideas cannot be doubted. It was in recognition of a size of achievement unmatched in contemporary drama that he won the Nobel Prize in 1925. His music criticism has been collected in Shaw's Music (3 volumes, 1981, ed. Dan H. Laurence).

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