George Bernard Shaw Plays & Facts

Luis Ceniceros, Ellie Green
  • Author
    Luis Ceniceros

    Graduating with a 4.0 GPA, Luis Ceniceros earned a master’s degree in English and American Literature from the University of Texas, El Paso. Before his M.A., he earned a B.A. in English and American Literature and a B.A. in Philosophy. Luis Ceniceros has spent the last six years-plus as a General Education Instructor at Western Technical College, teaching English Composition, Research Analysis, Philosophy, Ethics, and Policy courses.

  • 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.

Explore George Bernard Shaw's plays including when they were published and what they were about. Learn about his early life, literary career, and death. Updated: 03/12/2022

Who was George Bernard Shaw?

The title of playwright is most associated with who George Bernard Shaw (1856 - 1950) is, but he was also a reviewer, literary and social critic, novelist, and screenwriter. Born in 1856, Shaw had a literary career spanning over seventy years, writing plays into his nineties. Moreover, Shaw lived across two centuries in a developing modern world at the turn of the century.

During this time, evaluating an industrial world, worker conditions, and modernizing cities would create blowback against capitalism. Bernard Shaw criticized capitalism throughout his literary work and non-fiction writings. As a socialist, Shaw incorporated socialist and humanitarian themes within his plays, standard features of his work throughout his career.

Early Life & Marriage

Bernard Shaw was born in Dublin, Ireland, and lived an impoverished upbringing. Although Shaw's formal schooling ended as a teenager, he independently studied the arts, specifically music and literature. He credited the time he spent exploring the National Gallery of Ireland with forging his education. In 1876, Shaw moved to London, England.

His first writing job earning a living was as a critic, and he began his literary career as a novelist with no success. In 1898, Shaw married Charlotte Payne-Townshend, who was an Irish heiress. He met her when she tended to him after a bout of illness. Shaw continued to write, focusing more on writing plays.

Literary Career

Between authoring novels and writing his first plays, Bernard Shaw primarily worked as a journalist, specifically earning an income writing music reviews and drama critiques. During this time in the 1880s, Shaw became a socialist, helping to develop the Fabian Society and writing and editing Fabian Essays in Socialism. The Fabian Society's form of socialism would be an inspiration for his writing and help direct the main qualities of his work.

Based in London, the Fabian Society advocated for socialist reform throughout the United Kingdom. Shaw did not subscribe to revolutionary socialism but instead to what is described as evolutionary socialism through intellectual and artistic discourse instead of violent means. Furthermore, Shaw's brand of Fabian socialism impacted the content and objectives of his plays. For example, he critiqued society with a sense of humor and debated the effects of capitalism on society and its people.

Shaw's work garnered critical praise, winning various awards and titles. For example, Shaw was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925 for what many believe was his work on Saint Joan. However, Shaw initially declined to accept the award. Only later would Shaw accept the award but still reject the prize money. In that same fashion, Shaw also refused the title of Knighthood. In 1939, Shaw would win the Oscar for Best Writing Screenplay for Pygmalion. Shaw was the first to win the Nobel Prize and an Oscar. Shaw's popularity and critical acclaim extend beyond his lifetime. His work and contributions to the theater are commonly associated with Shakespeare, which demonstrates the level at which Shaw is considered.

Later Life & Death

Bernard Shaw continued to write until his death at ninety-four due to health complications after falling from a ladder. At the time of his death, Shaw was working on what would be his final play. Shaw wrote over sixty plays. After his death, commentators mourned the passing of Shaw, describing him as the last man of letters. However, Shaw expressed criticisms about war, among other controversies, including his anti-war stance directed at the Allied powers, which were not well-received. Despite that, Shaw's legacy as a literary giant cannot be questioned or dismissed.

Influence

Bernard Shaw influenced his peers creatively during his time and continues to influence current and future generations. To be actively be compared to Shakespeare speaks to Shaw's impact that he continues to have throughout Western culture. Several Shaw Societies sprang up from the United Kingdom to the United States and continue to operate today. The word Shavian became part of the English language. The definition of Shavian is to exhibit qualities that are George Bernard Shaw-like. Shaw's plays are still performed, and entire academic journals are dedicated to studying Shaw and his work.

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.

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George Bernard Shaw Plays

George Bernard Shaw plays number over sixty. However, a select few are considered his major works and foundational to English literature.

Arms and the Man (1894)

  • Arms and the Man is a political satire set during the Serbian-Bulgaria War of 1885. The characters wax poetic about the glory of war, while other characters fear and express the horrors of war to counter the romanticization of military conflict, nationhood, and death.

Mrs. Warren's Profession (1902)

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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Video Transcript

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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Frequently Asked Questions

Why is George Bernard Shaw important?

In short, some have referred to Shaw's impact on drama as only second to Shakespeare. The breadth and depth of Shaw's work and his ability to pinpoint the irony and truth of society and human nature are reminiscent of Shakespeare, which is why his work endures.

What is the title of Shaw's first play which was published in 1885?

The title of Shaw's first play is Widower's Houses in 1885. The play highlights Shaw's criticism of slumlords and the exploitation of the poor.

Why is Shaw's play titled Pygmalion?

Shaw's play is titled Pygmalion because it references the Greek mythological character by the same name. Pygmalion sculpted a woman out of ivory, and Professor Higgins sculpts Eliza Doolittle into someone that can act or pretend to be of a higher class.

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