Introduction to George Bernard Shaw: Life and Major Plays

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  • 0:05 A Man of Many Accomplishments
  • 0:58 Shaw's Life
  • 3:28 Shaw's Plays
  • 5:26 Philosophical Plays
  • 8:52 Popular Plays
  • 11:35 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ellie Green

Ellie holds a B.A. with Honors in English from Stanford University. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature at Princeton University.

George Bernard Shaw is one of the most prolific and important playwrights in the last 150 years. Don't believe us? Watch this video to learn about his social activism, his important contribution to the world of education and, of course, his plays.

A Man of Many Accomplishments

Though he was born over 150 years ago, Irish author George Bernard Shaw comes off as an incredibly modern and relevant man. He's also an incredibly accomplished man, the kind of accomplished that might make you think 'What am I doing with my life?' - like one of those annoying cousins you probably have that makes everyone else in the family look bad because they're perfect.

For instance, he's the only person in existence to ever win both a Nobel Prize in Literature and an Oscar. He helped to establish the London School of Economics, which is one of Europe's (and really, the world's) premiere institutions of higher education.

He made his name - and some good money - writing critiques of music and plays before producing his own. In total, he wrote over 60 stage productions, many of which achieved substantial financial and popular success. These are just some of the feats of the 94 years of his life (so if you're younger than 94, you still have time to catch up), and they've earned him a spot amongst the literary greats of Western culture.

Shaw's Life

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's dig a little bit into Shaw's life and look at a few of his major works to get a better understanding of this great figure in Western literature. Shaw was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1856 to a struggling grain merchant (his father) and a singer (his mother). He received an education at a number of institutions as a kid, but he wasn't a big fan of the school system in general, preferring to self-guide his study and work alongside of his father.

When Shaw was about 16 years old, his mother absconded to London with her singing coach and Shaw's sisters, which was kind of an exciting scandal - probably not so much for Shaw. He actually ended up joining them when he was 21, continuing his fervent studies and trying to begin a writing career by authoring some novels. No one was really interested in publishing those novels, but Shaw was able to eke out a bit of money ghost-writing a column on music for his mother's coach.

This opportunity defined the early stages of his writing career, where he derived his income from living as a critic. He was notable especially for his essays on stage productions and music. Although Shaw's now more celebrated for the plays that he wrote himself, he was no slouch in the criticism department. Some scholars credit his incisive pen, for instance, with ending the long tradition of theatrical companies editing Shakespeare down into 'acting versions' that gutted their potency and really took away what makes Shakespeare 'Shakespeare.' Similarly, his music writing was known for its ability to appeal to any well-read person; it stood in contrast to the more boring, pedantic work usually associated with music criticism of its day. Shaw used this position to champion not only original productions of Shakespeare but also the skill of contemporary playwright Henrik Ibsen and famed German composer Richard Wagner; both of these subjects eventually got the full-book treatment from Shaw. Ibsen you might know from The Wild Duck or A Doll's House, and Richard Wagner wrote a number of operas that were a big deal in Germany. King Ludwig was a big, big fan of Wagner's. He's most noted for a series of operas called The Ring Cycle which are awesome and also very similar in plot to The Lord of the Rings.

During this time, Shaw kept plugging away at his novels, publishing a total of five throughout his life (all of them were published many years after they were written). However, in a case of proving the adage 'write what you know,' it would be Shaw's staged plays - a form he had spent years studying and critiquing - that would bring him his greatest success.

Shaw's Plays

As I mentioned, Shaw wrote over 60 plays in his lifetime, which is a ton. It would be impossible for us to do justice to most of them in this video, so I'm just going to pick a few of the key highlights that show off the depth of his career - and also the ones that he's most well-known for. Before getting into specifics, it'd be helpful to keep in mind a few of the common elements that appear in all of Shaw's work and can help you identify something as a piece of Shaw's.

First is a sharp critique of society. Shaw was a notable social activist in his day. He was a proud Socialist and a founding member of one of England's major Socialist groups, the Fabians, who are credited with helping to form the Labour Party, which is one of the UK's two major parties today. Shaw hated the exploitation of the working class, and he saw that rampant in Western society. He used his plays as a vehicle to challenge this and what he perceived as other social ills. In fact, the published versions of his plays would often include prefaces, some longer than the plays themselves, spelling out the philosophical background that led Shaw to write that particular work. Other hard-held beliefs that Shaw was known for include vegetarianism and the idea that property should be owned publicly and not privately.

The second major trait of Shaw's work is a strong sense of humor, and I think part of what makes his work still beloved is that there's a lot of funny stuff in there. Shaw always tempered his social critiques with laughs, though these were often of a darker, sarcastic and witty sense of humor - sort of like a slightly less vulgar South Park. His humor had a ton of admirers, including England's King George VII, who once laughed so hard at a Shaw play that he broke his chair. In fact, Shaw's plays were often well-received not only because of but sometimes in spite of their social messages. So maybe people didn't really like what Shaw had to say, but they thought it was so funny they didn't care. The audiences of his day weren't necessarily as interested in social change as they were in just watching a fun show. This is something you can probably see in modern audiences as well.

Philosophical Plays

With that prelude out of the way, let's talk about five of his most famous works. First, we'll address some of his more philosophical plays. Among those is 1903's Man and Superman. Chronologically, this story is published in between philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche's use of the term 'Superman' (or in German, 'Ubermensch') and the famous comic book character.

This is Shaw's take on the classic Don Juan legend, a tale about an amorous man's quest for love. Shaw kind of inverts this story, though, by having his main male character, John Tanner, constantly trying to ward off the advances of a seductress named Ann Whitefield.

We talked earlier about Shaw's social critique, and it's really strong in this play. In fact, Man and Superman lays out some of Shaw's key philosophies. For one, it gives him a chance to introduce his idea of the 'life force,' the drive that pushes humankind towards its ultimate evolution as sophisticated free-thinkers. Shaw believed that women possessed this force to seek out and mate with superior men, thus producing the most perfect children possible. These are the 'Supermen' that Shaw speaks of - it's not Superman as in 'It's a bird; it's a plane!'

Shaw's ideas of eugenics, or controlling the human population through regulated reproduction, were actually embraced by the early Nazi party, although Shaw never intended such an inhumane application of the idea. Eugenics is the idea that only the most intelligent or the most talented people should mate with each other to produce the most intelligent and talented children. I'm sure you can see a lot of problems with this theory; its adaptation by the Nazi party points in that direction.

Shaw's philosophies began to change a bit in 1919's Heartbreak House, which is his first post-World War I work. The effects of the war on Shaw's optimistic philosophies about the Superman are made obvious here. Notably, Shaw uses this play - a family drama in which no one is who they appear - to question whether society really can affect the capability for change.

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