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.
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.
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.
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.
That play explains 1921's Back to Methuselah, a massive five-play epic (which is really meant to be read and not performed) in which Shaw revisits this notion of the life force and the Superman somewhat indirectly. The title references a Biblical figure known as the oldest person ever to live. These five plays take place across time, starting in 4004 BC and ending in 31920 AD - so the really, really distant future. Here, Shaw finally lays out his idea that humans will need to live longer individual lifespans in order to truly learn how to govern themselves.
Each play in Methuselah is set in a different time, and as time progresses, human beings discover the necessity of extending their lives in order to grow more sensible. By the end of the play, in the year 31920, 'short-livers' are only a memory; people live for ages and are, in fact, born into maturity. Shaw presents this as the eventual human ideal to be achieved. Back to Methuselah is a rare example of Shaw engaging with science fiction, although you might imagine that he had more political than scientific interests in writing these plays. The biological process by which Shaw's characters attain longevity isn't as important as the idea behind it - that is, as they live now, people just aren't ready for that kind of power or responsibility.
Those are pretty heavy plays and pretty heavy ideals, maybe not the kind of thing you'd want to go do on a Saturday night. Let's get away from some of those more ponderous works and look at his more popular stuff.
Let's start by talking about Saint Joan, which was produced in 1923. It's widely regarded as one of Shaw's best works - in fact, it's suspected that Saint Joan is what's responsible for Shaw's Nobel Prize in Literature. As you might guess from the title, Saint Joan is based on the life and trial of Joan of Arc, the 15th century figure - the persecuted French warrior who the Catholic Church had finally canonized as a saint just three years before this was written, performing an about-face on their position on her (that event probably provided Shaw with his inspiration for the play). This play is characterized as Shaw's only tragedy and notably does not feature any villains; Shaw believed that drama was more interesting when every character thought he or she possessed truly noble motivations. Perhaps it's this nuanced - although historically inaccurate, some claim - dramatization of Joan of Arc's turbulent story that led to its massive popularity.
However, stepping back in time a bit, in 1912 we saw Shaw produce what has somewhat indirectly become his most famous work, and that's Pygmalion.
This is the story of a lower-class flower girl (not like a flower girl in a wedding). Her name is Eliza Doolittle, and she takes lessons on high society from someone named Professor Henry Higgins in an effort to see if she can be passed off as an upper-class lady. If that sounds familiar, that's because it's the basis for the popular musical My Fair Lady. This is also the work that netted Shaw the Oscar we mentioned earlier - Shaw co-wrote the 1938 adaptation of Pygmalion for film. (There would later be a film adaptation of My Fair Lady as well, starring the incomparable Audrey Hepburn.)
The twin elements of social critique and comedy that I touched upon earlier are really apparent in Pygmalion (and also in My Fair Lady). While the main idea of the play has a lot of opportunities for humor in it (trying to make a poor person act and sound like a rich person is a pretty classic plot for a farce), the situation Shaw sets up is also fertile ground to pick apart the trivialities of upper-class England - and, as a Socialist, this is something Shaw probably would be really interested in doing, pointing out the frivolity of the people he opposes, essentially. There's also a lot in the play about societal roles and potential objectification of women. This is a philosophically loaded work that's also incredibly entertaining. If Shaw's legacy were to be condensed into one play, I think it would be Pygmalion. Of course, when you've got a career as storied as Shaw's, there's no way to condense it all into just one play, but if forced, that's what I would do.
Besides writing over five dozen stage plays, Shaw built up a large portfolio of criticism, short stories and novels, as well as co-founding a major school and also a major political movement in England. That's an impressive amount of stuff to get done, even in 94 years. I hope we're all that lucky.
But, as I've said before, it was really Shaw's plays that proved to be his greatest success both financially and critically. Many of his works are known for incorporating both his wicked sense of humor as well as a sharp eye for social critique. On the more philosophical end of things, it's plays like Man and Superman, Heartbreak House, and Back to Methuselah that really detail Shaw's thoughts and eventual forecast for the human race. Meanwhile, popular works like Saint Joan and Pygmalion show off his keen eye for dramatic situations, scathing social critique and truly great comedy. And that's George Bernard Shaw.
After watching this lesson, you should be able to:
- Describe George Bernard Shaw's life, including what he wrote before he wrote plays
- Identify the main characteristics of Shaw's plays
- Summarize Man and Superman, Heartbreak House, Back to Methuselah, Saint Joan, Pygmalion and My Fair Lady
- Discuss the ways Shaw's beliefs and philosophies are present in his plays