Biography of Famous Playwrights: George Bernard Shaw

About the famous English playwright George Bernard Shaw, history and biography about the master of drama.

George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950)

The great secret, Eliza, is not having bad manners or good manners or any other particular sort of manners, but having the same manner for all human souls: in short, behaving as if you were in Heaven, where there are no 3rd-class carriages, and one soul is as good as another.

Pygmalion, Act V

The reading public, not the professional critic, 1st recognized the stage skills of George Bernard Shaw. Until Plays Pleasant and Unpleasant reached the bookstalls in 1898, Shaw was a failure as a playwright. Of 10 plays written prior to 1900, 9 were presented and nearly all failed. When the book appeared, containing 7 of the rejects, it sold extremely well. The plays were subsequently given a 2nd chance, and this time were greeted with rousing acclaim. In later years, the same book-then-stage technique was sometimes employed, with equally satisfying results.

Two of the 7 (The Philanderer, Mrs. Warren's Profession) dealt with "unpleasant" themes repugnant to Victorian England. But the book reviewers--public sales not withstanding--were also caustic about the "pleasant" topics (Widowers' Houses, Arms and the Man, Candida, The Man of Destiny, and You Never Can Tell), blasting them roundly. The London Times, noting that "good" actors would turn down the roles, scathingly commented that Shaw was "one who, except for the oddity of his dress and views, would never have attracted much notice."

Shaw's views on sex, marriage, and domestic bliss stemmed from his seduction, at 29, by Jenny Paterson, a wench he later described as "sexually insatiable." The amorous Jenny left a lifelong impression. Shocked into 15 years of abstinence by the unnerving experience, Shaw's later devotion for Mrs. Patrick Campbell steadfastly followed his rule that the perfect love affair was one "conducted entirely by post." His marriage to Irish heiress, Charlotte Payne-Townshend, also felt the Paterson aftershock, when Shaw spent his honeymoon in 1898 writing the antiromantic Caesar and Cleopatra. Two years later, in Man and Superman, generally regarded as one of his masterpieces, Shaw again rebelled against marriage. In the same play, he gave stage managers their greatest headache: how to stage the 3rd act, a 2-hour discourse of subjects from sex to salvation entitled "Don Juan in Hell." Nearly all elected to omit the scene as unplayable until 1951, when, staged separately, it went on a successful U.S. tour.

Of Shaw's more than 50 plays, none achieved greater unexpected success than Pygmalion. In it, guttersnipe Eliza is made into an elegant lady by Professor Henry Higgins when he teaches her the correct way to speak and act in society. His creation, having come to life, falls in love with her creator. Adapted for the New York stage in 1956 as My Fair Lady, starring Julie Andrews, the play broke Broadway records in its long run.

The play's theme was the written expression of Shaw's long-standing agitation for a new English alphabet of 42 letters, each having just one specific sound. In his will, Shaw continued the battle, leaving money in trust for research on a "Proposed British Alphabet" of at least 40 letters.

At 67, Shaw wrote Saint Joan, thought by many admirers to be his greatest effort. At 91, still creative, he finished Buoyant Billions and promptly began a new comedy, working in a one-room hut he called "The Shelter." It revolved on a swivel, to rotate with the sun. Just over 2 years later, the Methuselah of play-wrights finally relinquished his deserved rank as the greatest living writer of the English language, dying at Ayot St. Lawrence, from complications following a fall, on November 2, 1950.

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