George Bernard Shaw
When Bernard Shaw died in 1950 at the
age of ninety-six, his plays had been famous, or infamous, for over
half a century. His
first produced play, "Widower's Houses," in 1892, exposed slum landlords.
Shaw wrote that the first performance was both "applauded" and "hooted,"
at which he made a curtain speech that was discussed in the newspapers
"for a whole fortnight . . . . I had not achieved a success, but
I had provoked an uproar; and the sensation was so agreeable that
I resolved to try again."
A decade later, "Mrs. Warren's Profession," was staged
at a private London club after being banned by the English censor
because the profession in the title was that of a prostitute who
chose her vocation over poverty. So well known did the outspoken
Shaw become that a new adjective, "Shavian," joined the language,
meaning daring in subject matter and cleverly satiric in writing.
A man of many interests, he attributed his energy to his life-long
There has never been a Shaw revival because his plays
have held the stage continually since they were written. In 2000,
"Widowers' Houses," staged by Fiona Shaw (no relation) was produced
by the Royal National Theatre and toured England, "Heartbreak House"
and "The Doctor's Dilemma" played at the Chichester Festival Theatre,
and the Royal Shakespeare Company offered "Back to Methuselah" at
Stratford-upon-Avon. In Ontario, Canada, at Niagara-on-the-Lake,
the Shaw Festival presented "The Doctor's Dilemma" and "The Apple
George Bernard Shaw was born in Dublin on July 26,1856.
His father George was a Protestant, a government pensioner, part-owner
of a failing mill, and a drinker whose comic gifts his son appreciated.
His mother Lucinda endowed young Bernard with her own love of music,
which says Shaw, was her "salvation." She studied voice with music
conductor and teacher George Lee, who came to live with the Shaws.
When Lee's book on voice production became a success, he left for
London in 1872, followed by Lucinda and her grown children. She
supported them and herself by teaching music.
Shaw educated himself by avidly reading philosophy,
economics and literature in the reading room at the British Museum.
Interested in politics and sociology, he trained himself to become
a brilliant public speaker, so that he might speak out on these
subjects. He supported the Fabian Society, a new liberal organization
whose founders included Beatrice and Sidney Webb.
The Fabians aimed at the transformation of English
society not through revolution but "permeation" of the nation's
intellectual and political life. Through them he met Irish heiress
Charlotte Payne-Townsend, whom he married in 1898. From 1897 to
1903 he served as a councilor for the borough of St. Pancras in
the Bloomsbury district of London, dominated by the beautiful St.
Pancras Church. His house in nearby Fitzroy Square is marked with
a plaque. Tall and red-bearded, Shaw cut a striking figure, and
spoke in behalf of social reform two or three times a week, asking
Serving as a journalist, he edited the Fabian Essays
in 1899, after which he wrote music and theater criticism for The
World and then The Saturday Review. His forward-looking theater
reviews, published in three volumes in 1931 as "Our Theatres in
the Nineties" contain advice still pertinent for today's actors
and directors. Shaw deplored the cutting of Shakespeare's plays
by Henry Irving, the leading Shakespearean actor of the nineties,
and ridiculed the elaborate scenery whose erection dictated deletions
of the text as well as long "waits" between scenes. With his love
and knowledge of music, he also appreciated the lyricism of Shakespeare
and criticized actors' diction and rhythm that failed the poetry.
He wrote novels like Cashel Byron's Profession, which were unsuccessful.
At the British Museum reading room, a chance meeting
with William Archer, the translator of Ibsen, led Shaw to become
a dramatist. In Ibsen, to whose plays Archer introduced him, Shaw
found the crusading spirit, the realism of character and situation,
and the structure of suspense that he admired and emulated. Archer
suggested that they collaborate on a play, but Shaw soon took over,
the two mutually agreeing that the joint effort was a mistake, and
the play became "Widowers' Houses." Shaw based the play on his own
experience as a rent collector in his early days in London, and
it is highly critical of slum landlords who carve up houses into
single- room dwellings for entire families. "Mrs. Warren's Profession"
is less relevant today regarding Mrs. Warren's choice of profession,
but the main theme is the timeless conflict between parent and child,
between the daughter Vivie, a "new woman" and her mother, Mrs. Warren,
who defends her profession as being dictated by poverty.
Shaw was fortunate that at the time of these two plays,
banned by the censor for their frankness and scorned by the commercial
theater for their message, the Stage Society was formed, as a private
club for performances of plays "of obvious power and merit." In
addition, in 1904, Harley Granville-Barker and J.E. Vedrenne began
their management of the Royal Court Theatre, which soon became a
home to Shaw's works and which is still flourishing and presenting
new plays at its newly remodeled home in Sloane Square. .
Besides the wit and humor with with Shaw makes his
serious points, there is always paradox to surprise the audience.
To the patriarchal Edwardian audience, he suggested in "Candida"
that the wife was the stronger in a marriage where she must choose
between the romantic young poet Marchbanks and her husband, the
Reverend James Morrell, who would be helpless without her. Twenty-two-year-old
Granville-Barker played Marchbanks, as his first Shavian role, and
he also directed most of the eleven of Shaw's plays offered at the
Court. The two men remained close friends until Barker left the
theater to work on his volumes of Shakespearean criticism, with
special emphasis on staging the works.
In "The Devil's Disciple" Barker played the title role
of Dick Dudgeon, described by Shaw as "like all genuinely religious
men, a reprobate and an outcast." Dick is pitted against the historical
General Burgoyne, who here is sardonic and witty regarding the war
in which he is engaged - the American Revolution. "Caesar and Cleopatra"
presents as its main character another historical military leader,
as does "Man of Destiny," with Napoleon. Shaw's Caesar, he says
in his preface, is true to history as Shakespeare's is not. As acted
by Claude Raines in the movie version, the mature Caesar is wise
and understanding, indulging the young Cleopatra but not overwhelmed
by her, and alert to all the dangers attendant on high places, recognizing
that "He who has never hoped can never despair."
A "dramatic parable of Creative Evolution," "Man and
Superman" had its debut at the Royal Court in 1905 and was Shaw's
longest running play of its time. In Shaw's own mischievous and
witty way, he demonstrates that even a superman who disdains marriage
is helpless against a superwoman who has made up her mind to marry
him. The "life force," contends the play, is too strong for hero
Jack to resist. Shaw 's work not only answers Darwin's theory of
"blind" evolution by restoring a "sense of divinity," but his plot
cleverly uses Mozart's "Don Giovanni," which the former music critic
considered "the perfect opera." Jack Tanner is Don Juan, Anne Whitfield
is Donna Anna, and the faithful Octavius is nicknamed Ricky-Ticky-Tavy
by Anne. In the "Don Juan in Hell" episode of Act III, which is
as long as the rest of the play, they assume their operatic names,
and Donna Anna's father, the Commandatore, also appears prominently.
In Hell, the four engage in a lively discussion, each presenting
his or her own point of view. The Devil warns, prophetically, "Beware
the pursuit of the Superman: it leads to an indiscriminate contempt
for the Human." In an outstanding presentation in London, John Clements
played Jack and his wife Kay Hammond was Anne. The "Don Juan in
Hell" episode was performed on alternate days.
"Major Barbara" had its debut in the same year at the
Royal Court and Shaw's description of the play as "A Discussion
in Three Acts" might have kept audiences away if the playwright
were not so well known. As in his other plays, Shaw delights in
presenting both answers to a question, here, which benefits mankind
the most, the Salvation Army or a manufacturer of armament? One
would expect the answer to be easy, but Shaw argues for both sides
with such conviction that one is not surprised when Barbara realizes
she can do more good working for spiritual uplift at the village
created by her manufacturer father than she could at the Army shelter
for down-and-outs who are as conniving as her father. In 2001, a
New York production by the Roundabout Theater starred Cherry Jones
as the Salvation Army Major and David Warner as her tycoon father,
"The Doctor's Dilemma," Shaw labeled "a tragedy," describing
not the genre of the play but the incompetence of some members of
the medical profession, as has recently been exposed in Great Britain.
He satirizes the jargon of the profession, the "bedside manner,"
and unneeded operations, and seriously considers as the "dilemma"
of the title whether one human being is worth saving over another
when only one can be saved: an artist of genius but low character
or a hardworking doctor of practical use to society.
"Pygmalion" Shaw wrote with the intention of having
Eliza played by the actress Stella (Mrs. Patrick) Campbell, with
whom he had been carrying on a correspondence love affair. The play
was a triumph on its first performance in 1912, with Stella as Eliza
and Herbert Beerbohm Tree as Professor Higgins. In Shaw's satire
on class distinction, Higgins succeeds in his experiment to turn
a Cockney flower seller into a duchess. Shaw insisted that the play
end with Higgins adamant in his belief that Eliza was only the subject
of his experiment but Tree injected affection for her. Outraged,
Shaw confronted the actor, who insisted, "my ending makes money;
you should be grateful." Shaw retorted, " your ending is damnable;
you should be shot."
"Heartbreak House" is Shaw's tribute to the Russian
playwright whose works he admired, Chekhov. Written as World War
I broke out, the play has a living-room setting that resembles a
ship. It is presided over by octogenarian Captain Shotover, and
peopled by his attractive, flirtatious daughters Hesione Hushaby
and her philandering husband and Lady Utterword, visiting after
a long absence. Visitors include young Ellie, who seems innocent
and weak, a contrast to the daughters, but actually Ellie is a woman
who knows what she wants, in this case a rich husband. Although
her romantic, ineffectual elders idealistically argue against such
an alliance, Ellie retorts that it would mean a better life than
the poverty she has known. Outspoken and outrageous, Captain Shotover
is so Shavian in his remarks that he is usually made up to resemble
the playwright. Shotover has no illusions about the onset of war;
as Shaw points out in the preface, "the dumb capables and the noisy
incapables" should have acted, but did nothing, nor did the idle
rich, "helpless wasters of their inheritance, like the people in
Chekhov's 'Cherry Orchard.'" At the end, as the bombs explode and
then subside, Mrs. Hushaby says, "What a glorious experience! I
hope they'll come again tomorrow night."
"Heartbreak House" was warmly received at the Chichester
Festival Theatre, and is a favorite work for revival, each of the
characters a "star" role. At Chichester, Joss Ackland's interpretation
of Shotover was praised by John Peter of the Times: "[a] monstrous,
craggy figure. . . . AcklandÉunderstands Shotover perfectly. He
is playing a difficult, self-centered, basically pompous old man
who is quite harmless on one level but lethal on another. . .a crusty
savior/destroyer, a fabulous, half-baked prophet of doom and a visionary
clown whose misanthropy and misogyny are only on the surface, expressed
in entertaining, malevolent aphorisms." Clare Higgins and Anna Carteret
played the daughters
The premiere of "Heartbreak House" took place in 1920
in New York, where "St Joan also had its debut, in 1923, both produced
by the Theatre Guild. Winifred Lenihan was Joan. Many revivals have
followed , with the title role enacted by such stars as Katherine
Cornell, Siobhan McKenna, and Barbara Jefford. Shaw wrote it for
Sybil Thorndike, who appeared in the English debut. Shaw bases his
account on history, and typically, gives good arguments to both
Joan and the church that denounced and martyred her. He was criticized
for the Epilogue, showing Joan's rehabilitation by the church that
had condemned her, but this turnaround is typical of Shaw's plays
and he could not resist, especially when, as here, he is historically
"Back to Methusaleh" is seldom seen because of its
length. Most recently, the Royal Shakespeare Company produced it
at Stratford-upon-Avon. "Back to Methusaleh," Shaw states, goes
"back to the legend of the Garden of Eden." He describes the theme
as "a second legend of Creative Evolution without distractions and
embellishments. . . .my beginnings of a Bible for Creative Evolution."
Like the recently announced mapping of DNA, Shaw's Brothers Barnabas
foresee longevity for the human race. The first section, "In the
Beginning" treats Adam and Eve as they discover language and art,
and the final section, "As Far as Thought Can Reach," treats the
future, with some of the characters previously introduced achieving
Shaw died in 1950. When the National Trust sent Harold
Nicholson to see whether they should take over the running of Shaw's
house in Ayot St.Lawrence, which he willed to the Trust, Nicholson
reported, negatively: I do not think that Shaw will be a great literary
figure in 2000 A.D." Fortunately, the Trust ignored his report,
as thousands visit the home yearly, and applause rings out on stages
all over the world for the witty, profound, and timeless plays of
George Bernard Shaw.