George Bernard Shaw was one of the world's greatest playwrights whose characters, professor Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle, live on in the musical, "My Fair Lady." A prolific writer, Shaw has more recently come under scrutiny for his radical beliefs. But who is the man behind the reputation - the self-described socialist, atheist, and vegetarian who believed in women's rights, creative evolution and more?
On July 26, 1856, George Bernard Shaw was born in Dublin, Ireland, as the third and youngest child of George Carr Shaw and Lucinda Elizabeth Gurly Shaw. Although the Shaw family belonged to the landed Irish gentry, they were poor. His father was a low-ranking civil servant, then an unsuccessful grain merchant. His mother was a professional singer. For Shaw, being part of the genteel poor was far worse than being merely poor.
Shaw disliked formal education and avoided school as much as possible. He once said, "A fool's brain digests philosophy into folly, science into superstition, and art into pedantry. Hence University education."
Shaw's mother introduced him to the arts, including music, fine art, and literature. She frequently took him to the National Gallery of Ireland. Her voice teacher, George John Vandeleur Lee, lived with the family for a number of years.
Shaw's parents ended their marriage in 1872 - his mother left for London with Vandeleur Lee, taking Shaw's sisters with her.
Shaw stayed behind in Dublin with his father for a time. He continued with his education and worked in a land agent's office, but by this time he knew he wanted to be a writer. In 1876, at the age of 20, Shaw joined his mother, Vandeleur Lee, and sister Lucinda in London; his other sister, Elinor, had passed away from tuberculosis.
When Shaw settled in London, his mother gave him a pound a week allowance so he could visit the British Museum reading room and public libraries while honing his craft. He wrote a music column for the London "Hornet," but his work was credited to his mother's new love interest, Vandeleur Lee.
Shaw completed his first semi-autobiographical novel, "Immaturity," in 1879. The book was rejected by every publisher in London, but he continued writing. By the mid-1880s Shaw became self-supporting, writing book reviews for the "Pall Mall Gazette," art criticism for the "World," and musical columns for the "Star." For the latter, he used the pen name Corno di Bassetto, which is Italian for basset horn. He often wore a velvet jacket to theatrical performances, despite protests from management that patrons should wear conservative evening attire.
Romance and the Fabian Society
George Bernard Shaw was an advocate for the working class. He said, "A government that robs Peter to pay Paul can always depend on the support of Paul." He believed that property should be publicly owned and that income from that property should be divided equally among citizens.
He joined the Fabian Society in 1884 as an outlet for his socialist leanings. The group wanted to transform Britain into a socialist democracy through permeation - spreading socialist theory by word of mouth to create an intellectual political base. Other famous Fabians included H.G. Wells, Virginia Woolf, and E. Nesbit. In 1889 Shaw edited "Fabian Essays in Socialism."
Shaw married a fellow member of the Fabian Society, Charlotte Payne-Townshend, in 1898, when they were both forty-one. She had always been determined not to marry, having turned down many proposals, because she valued her independence.
Shaw had his own strong opinions about marriage. He once wrote, "Marriage is an alliance entered into by a man who can't sleep with the window shut, and a woman who can't sleep with the window open." He believed that monogamy was a false goal; he also theorized that most women or men would prefer polygamy if they could have a one-tenth share of a superior partner rather than the whole of a mediocre one.
Nevertheless, Shaw and Payne-Townshend enjoyed spending time together, discussing politics, philosophy, and bicycle repair. The two never consummated their marriage. They lived amicably, sharing two residences, and had, in effect, an open marriage. She died in 1943.
In his long lifetime Shaw wrote more than sixty plays. He released collections of his early dramas, labeling them as "Plays Pleasant" and "Plays Unpleasant." The unpleasant ones violated the Victorian expectation for light entertainment and laid groundwork for his later works.
Shaw had strong ideas about socialism, marriage, vegetarianism, religion, eugenics, and many other matters, but his plays included characters who disagreed with his philosophies. Shaw explained, "My method of getting a play across the footlights is like a revolver shooting: every line has a bullet in it and comes with an explosion."
He is the first person to have won both an Oscar and the Nobel Prize in Literature for the same work - "Pygmalion." The play was later reworked into the popular musical, "My Fair Lady."
Shaw also wrote novels, essays, and speeches, but his greatest success came from using comedy in his plays to explore important themes.
George Bernard Shaw lived simply. He abstained from alcohol and caffeine; he was also a vegetarian. He said, "While we ourselves are the living graves of murdered animals, how can we expect any ideal living conditions on this earth?"
In his earlier years he was a self-described atheist, but when he reached middle age he modified that stance. He believed in creative evolution, meaning that God and man work together, using trial and error, to adapt to a changing world. He used philosophy, rather than organized religion, as a guide to morality. He did not believe in Heaven or Hell. He once commented, "The idea of personal salvation is intensely repugnant to me when it is not absurd. Imagine Roosevelt, the big brute, preserving his personality in a future state and swaggering about as a celestial Rough Rider!"
Shaw's critics point to his radical views, seemingly in line with the Nazis' goal of creating a superior race. Shaw endorsed positive eugenics, meaning that people should procreate based on their Life Force - their intuitive sense of which potential mate would help produce superior offspring. He wrote, "If a woman can, by careful selection of a father, and nourishment of herself, produce a citizen with efficient senses, sound organs and a good digestion, she should clearly be secured a sufficient reward for that natural service to make her willing to undertake and repeat it."
In his later years Shaw was captured on film, preaching radical views which seem to support genetic engineering and a thinning of the herd. In a 1931 clip from Paramount, for example, he said, "If you're not producing as much as you consume, or perhaps a little more, then clearly we cannot use the big organization of our society for the purpose of keeping you alive, because your life does not benefit us and it can't be of very much use to yourself."
In the 1930s Shaw made comments in support of dictators, including Mussolini, Stalin, and the leader of the Nazis. He did not, however, support Nazi persecution of Jews.
Readers should keep in mind that Shaw often employed satire or exaggeration to make a point, so his provocative statements should not be taken at face value. He was not advocating the use of gas chambers when he said, "We should all be obliged to appear before a board every five years and justify our existence... on pain of liquidation." It is unfair to pull selected quotes out of context in order to paint Shaw as a brutal proponent of social engineering. After all, he once said, "All genuinely intellectual work is humorous." He supported the oppressed worker, campaigned for women's rights, and railed against the rigidity of society and organized religion.
He was not self-aggrandizing - he turned down most honors and awards. He refused to accept the Nobel Prize at first, until he realized he could use the prize money to start a society to promote Scandinavian literature. He turned down an opportunity to be a Member of Parliament and refused a knighthood.
Shaw endorsed the end of individual or class ownership of property. In a debate he used shock value to make this point: "If I own a large part of Scotland I can turn the people off the land practically into the sea, or across the sea. I can take women in child-bearing and throw them into the snow and leave them there. That has been done. I can do it for no better reason than I think it is better to shoot deer on the land than allow people to live on it."
Shaw despised capitalism, which allows a privileged few to benefit from the sweat of many. He compared socialism with capitalism as follows: "In Socialism private property is anathema, and equal distribution of income the first consideration. In capitalism private property is cardinal, and distribution left to ensue from the play of free contract and selfish interest on that basis, no matter what anomalies it may present." Capitalists, according to Shaw, put their own needs before the needs of others, thus earning his scorn. He said, "The worst sin toward our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them: that's the essence of inhumanity."
Shaw advocated the creation of a new alphabet, to remove spelling irregularities from the English language. His alphabet, to be funded by a trust he created, was to feature letters based on phonemes, or sounds. He wanted the alphabet to contain at least forty letters, with each letter corresponding to only one phoneme. He wanted the new alphabet to look nothing like the traditional Latin alphabet. The Shavian alphabet was created, but the project had limited success, ultimately, due to legal issues involving the trust fund. One book was published - Shaw's play, "Androcles and the Lion," presented in both the Latin and Shavian alphabets.
Final Days and A Final Thought
At the age of ninety-four, Shaw fell from a ladder and broke his leg. He was already suffering from chronic health problems. He died on November 2, 1950, in Ayot St. Lawrence, Hertfordshire, United Kingdom, in one of the two homes he had shared with his wife.
He had requested that his grave marker should not feature a cross or other symbol of blood sacrifice. There is no gravestone for Shaw, however; he was cremated. His ashes were mixed with those of his wife, then scattered in their garden.
To those who dislike Shaw for his controversial views - consider this quote, which indicates that he did not value himself over other citizens: "I have a strong feeling that I shall be glad when I am dead and done for - scrapped at last to make room for somebody better, cleverer, more perfect than myself."