Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw was born in Dublin, on July 26, 1856, the son of a civil servant, George Shaw, and Lucinda Gurly, a professional singer. One of Shaw’s sisters was also a singer. The young Shaw moved from school to school; he was always independent and dissatisfied with formal education. When his mother and sisters moved to London to study music, Shaw stayed with his father and worked in an estate agent’s office. Finally in 1876, he joined his mother and sisters in London. He finished his education in libraries and the British Museum reading room. His early novels did not find acceptance, but he became a well-known theater and music critic in the 1880s and 1890s, promoting the operas of Richard Wagner and the realistic plays of Henrik Ibsen. He was a charter member of the Fabian Society in 1884, an organization that promoted socialism. He wrote Fabian pamphlets, advocating equal rights for men and women, and for workers. He and other Fabians founded the London School of Economics and Political Science in 1895. He married Charlotte Payne-Townshend, another Fabian, in 1898, and they retired to their home, “Shaw’s Corner” in Hertfordshire, England, where Shaw could write in peace.
To critique the English stage as well as current social problems, Shaw wrote his own dramas that furthered humanitarian causes. His first play, Widowers Houses (1892) is about slum landlords; Mrs. Warren’s Profession (1893) discusses prostitution; Arms and the Man (1894) tackles war and the class system. The Devil’s Disciple (1897) concerns the principles of the American Revolution.
Shaw believed that drama should be a forum of ideas, but his disregard of social convention caused dismay in early audiences, who wanted to be entertained. Candida (1898) overturns the accepted idea of male dominance; Caesar and Cleopatra (1901) speaks of the art of governing. One of his most famous plays is Man and Superman (1903) about the Life Force that tries to produce a superior being through the attraction of the sexes. Major Barbara (1905) asserts salvation through politics rather than religion. The Doctor’s Dilemma (1906) treats the medical profession and vegetarianism; Androcles and the Lion (1912) tells a new history of Christianity. Pygmalion (1912), a favorite that became the musical “My Fair Lady,” examines phonetics and middle-class morality. Other well-known plays include Heartbreak House (1919), Back to Methuselah (1921), and Saint Joan (1923). Shaw won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925.
The combination of comic wit, social problems, and imaginative drama make Shaw’s plays distinctive. The only author who has won both an Oscar (for the screenplay of Pygmalion) and a Nobel Prize for Literature, Shaw wrote 63 plays, 5 novels, a collection of short stories, and voluminous criticism, including lengthy Prefaces to his own plays. Shaw died in 1950 at the age of 94 from complications from a fall.