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George Bernard Shaw was born Protestant in a predominantly Catholic Dublin in 1856. When Shaw was sixteen, his mother, an accomplished singer, left Ireland to escape her husband's alcoholism and follow her singing teacher to London. Shaw remained to complete his education but, finding his schooling largely inadequate, soon began to pursue his studies independently. During this time, his father's alcoholism came to affect him deeply, making him a dedicated teetotaler for most of his adult life. At age twenty, Shaw followed his mother to London to pursue his writing and political career.
A staunch progressive, Shaw joined in 1884 the Fabian Society, an organization of middle-class socialists dedicated to mass education and the legislative reform of England. The Fabians would later become instrumental in the founding of the London School of Economics and Labour Party. As a member of their executive committee, Shaw established himself as an orator, social critic, and public intellectual. Throughout his career as a playwright, he would thus remain active with the Fabians and work on behalf of a number of causes, including the abolishment of the public censors and the establishment of a National Theater.
Shaw's writing career began almost simultaneously with his political one. His first literary endeavors consisted a series of rather unsuccessful novels crafted in the 1870s and 1880s. During this time, Shaw also worked as an art, music, and theater critic for the Saturday Review and published a number of pamphlets on the arts, most famously "The Perfect Wagnerite," a commentary on Wagner's Ring Cycle, and "The Quintessance of Ibsenism," an homage to one of his primary muses.
Shaw produced his first play, Widower's Houses, a strident attack on London's slumlords, in 1892 with a private progressive theater company. He did so as the play could have never hoped to pass public censors at the time. A collection of further anti-capitalist works appeared in the 1898 anthology, Plays Pleasant and Unpleasant. Indeed, Shaw found himself forced to publish a number of his more famous works in reading editions before they ever saw the theater.Though critics generally received them well, they almost unanimously agreed that they were better suited to novels than to the stage. Lengthy stage directions and character descriptions, dizzying intellectual discussions, and the absence of conventional dramatic action made their production seem unlikely at best.
Shavian drama ultimately came to the stage, however, introducing what has come to be known as the "discussion play"—that is, works primarily driven by ideas, argument, and debate—to modern Anglophone theater. Shaw wrote these plays in a variety of genres, ranging from the comedy to the chronicle. Examples include Caesar and Cleopatra (1901); the philosophically imposing Man and Superman (1903); Major Barbara, a tale of a broken family some biographers relate to Shaw's own; The Doctor's Dilemma (1906); the beloved Pygmalion, a tale on gender, class, and phonetics later adapted as the musical My Fair Lady; and Androcles and the Lion (1912), the only text to appear in Shaw's reformed alphabet.
With the outbreak of World War I, which for him tolled the death knell of the capitalist system, Shaw would publish a series of anti-war newspaper articles entitled "Common Sense about the War." The series would temporarily ruin his public reputation and lead him to abandon the limelight. After the interruption of his dramatic output caused by World War I, Shaw returned to the stage with last major works, including his ambitious Back to Methuselah (1921), a meta-biologist five-play cycle on what he called "creative evolution," and Saint Joan (1923), the play that would win him back his popular appeal.
Other notable political writings from his long career include "How to Settle the Irish Question" (1917) and "The Intellectual Woman's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism." Shaw lived until the age of 94, dying in 1950 after falling from a ladder while gardening. He famously left a portion of his estate to his last reform campaign, an ill-fated project to simplify the English language alphabet.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Major Barbara!