The focus of this article is on George Bernard Shaw- one of the most remarkable English playwrights of the modern period. Since a study unit is not adequate to do a profound study of a man who has written over 60 plays on vast subject-matters, attempt will only be made to highlight his personality, polemics, and the nature of his drama. Heartbreak House will be succinctly examined as a play that deals with almost all the ideas that Shaw was occupied with in his dramaturgy.
Biography of George Bernard Shaw
George Bernard Shaw, an Irish music and drama critic, novelist, essayist, political activist, and playwright, was born in Dublin, Ireland on 26 July, 1856, to George Carr Shaw and Lucinda Elizabeth Shaw, a professional singer. He was educated at Wesley College, Central Model
School, and Dublin English Scientific and Commercial Day School. One important fact to note about Shaw and education is that he had a great hatred for formal education. According to Wikipedia:
He harboured a lifelong animosity towards school and teachers, saying “Schools and Schoolmasters, as we have them today, are not popular as places of education and learning, but rather prisons and turnkeys in which children are kept to prevent them disturbing and chaperoning their parents. Shaw’s major reason for hating formal education is detailed in his Treatise on Parents and Children. However, the summary of his argument is that “he considered the standardised curricula useless, deadening to the spirit and stifling to the intellect”. He favoured the idea of free exploration of knowledge.
When Shaw came out of school, he found a job as a clerk in an estate office before joining his father in his unsuccessful business. However, when he became dissatisfied with life in Dublin, he joined his mother and sister in London. In London, Shaw spent his early years reading and searching for knowledge in British Museum and public libraries.
Shaw started his writing career as a ghost novelist. But he never succeeded as a novelist. However, by 1880s he had established himself as a renowned music critic first for the Star and then to the World. In 1895, he became a drama critic for the Saturday Review. He had earlier in 1891 published The Quintessence of Ibsenism at the period Henrik Ibsen was gaining popularity in England, to champion the works of this great Norwegian playwright. Shaw wrote the book in defence of Ibsen’s plays of which many Victorian critics had aversion for.
Clement Scott and others had described the first performance of Ghosts in England in 1891 in an unpalatable terms as “an open drain, a loathsome sore unbandaged, a dirty act done publicly, or “a lazar house with all its doors and windows open” (The Quintessence of Ibsenism 25) The Quintessence of Ibsenism was written to correct the above view of the plays of Ibsen which Shaw considered a misconception. He argues:
When Ibsen began to make plays, the art of the dramatist had shrunk into the art of contriving a situation. And it was held that the stranger the situation, the better the play, Ibsen saw that, on the contrary, the more familiar the situation, the more interesting the play. Shakespeare had put ourselves on the stage but not our situations. Our uncles seldom murder our fathers, and cannot legally marry our mothers; we do not meet witches; our kings are not as a rule stabbed and succeeded by their stabbers; and when we raise money by bills we do not promise to pay pounds of our flesh. Ibsen supplies the want left by Shakespeare. He gives us not only ourselves, but ourselves in our own situations. The things that happen to his stage figure are things that happen to us. (182).
Shaw’s argument is that the works of Ibsen enable us to be freed from the tyranny of idealism. Shaw’s interest in political activism led him to join the Fabian Society – a society of which he rose to become its prominent member and composer of its pamphlets. Fabian society, a middle-class political organisation is a brand of Marxist school which promoted the spread of socialism by gradual means. The society rejected the idea of class struggle and supported gradual transformation of capitalism to socialism. The Fabians adopted the methodology of permeation which seeks change through peaceful means and through acts of parliament. However, the revolution of 1917 taught Shaw certain positive value of violence.
As a Puritan, George “Bernard Shaw exhibits all that is purest in the Puritan; the desire to see truth face to face even if it slays us, the high impatience with irrelevant sentiment or obtrusive symbol; the constant effort to keep the soul at its highest pressure and speed” (Chesterton 33), Shaw as a Puritan never wavers. According to Chesterton, Shaw:
never gives his opinion a holiday; he is never irresponsible even for an instant. He has no nonsensical second self which he can get into as one gets into a dressing – gown; that ridiculous disguise which is yet more real than the real person (32).
George Bernard Shaw believed in change and its inevitability. Tom F. Driver notes that Shaw was not a disciple of any philosopher “but he shared with several the conviction that all things are in process and that life cannot be adequately defined by reference to external verities, fixed orders of truth (whether in philosophy or science), or stable patterns in society” (253). He argues that all moral principles “are all relativised by a progressive force of life which carries men and institutions forward, some to fruition and some to wreckage, as on the current of an undammable stream” (253 – 254).
For Shaw, therefore, any conclusion is partial and tentative because it represents a stage in the development process. Shavian reality is a reality that is “ever changing, ever on the way towards new stages of being”
(258). For Shaw, nothing is stable, everything is passing away. Ideas perform like characters. They evolve and mutate. Decisions are guided by expediency. Shaw was an apostle of positive change. In a letter to Henry James in 1909, he observed:
I, as a socialist, have had to preach, as much as anyone, the enormous power of the environment. We can change it; we must change it; there is absolutely no other sense in life than the task of changing it. What is the use of writing plays. What is the use of writing anything, if there is not a will which finally moulds chaos itself into a race of gods?
Shaw was interested in life, in the goodness of life. This made him to hate cruel sports and to become a vegetarian at the age of 25. In fact, “The belief in the immorality of eating animals was one of the Fabian causes near to his heart and is frequently a topic in his plays and prefaces” (wikipedia). For him, “A man of my spiritual intensity does not eat corpses”.
Nevertheless, George Bernard Shaw had a shortcoming of self-praise. This “pose of arrogance” is probably the major factor many critics especially of the pre-war period hated his plays. Eric Bentley quotes Shaw to have written elsewhere about himself thus, “I dare not claim to be the best playwright in English language; but I belief myself to be one of the best ten and may therefore be classed as one of the best hundred”. In a different place, he placed himself above Walter Scott and even Shakespeare. The only person he considered superior to him in writing is Homer.
Though interested in self-praise, Shaw never showed concern for rank and public honours. G.K. Chesterton referring to this notes that Shaw “desires less to win fame than to bear fruit” (58). Yet the fruits Shaw bore in literature attracted him public honours. In 1925, he won the Nobel Prize in literature. He wanted to refuse that award but his wife compelled him to accept it in honour of Ireland. He accepted the certificate at the behest of his wife, but “he did reject the monetary award, requesting it to be used to finance translation of Swedish books into English” (Wikipedia).
Shaw became a popular name in England and Ireland. He did a lot to promote the creation of new English phonetics known today as Shavian phonetics. In fact, he willed a substantial part of his wealth to fund the project. He equally donated money to the British Museum and the Ireland National Art Gallery.
Bernard Shaw was a co-founder of the famous London School of Economics. The Fabian Window designed by Shaw, hangs in library named after him in the school. Today, there is the Shaw Theatre in Euston Road London, opened in 1971. His home, known as Shaw’s corner, located in Ayot St. Lawrence, Hertfordshire, is a National Trust property open to the public. The Shaw Festival in Ontario, Canada hosts over eight hundred performances annually.
Shaw died of renal failure in 1950 at the ripe age of 94 years. His remains were cremated and “his ashes mixed with those of his wife Charlotte Payne Townsend, were scattered along footpaths and around the statue of Saint Joan in their garden” (Wikipedia).