George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950)

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.

Background on Arms and the Man

Written in 1893 and 1894 and first performed in 1894, Arms and the Man is one of Shaw’s earlier plays, and one that grows out of several contexts. The first is historical. There was a Serbo-Bulgarian War in 1885, and there was, too, an historic Battle of Slivnitza, won by the Bulgarians. Although Shaw takes advantage of actual historical information in the construction of the work, he is more concerned not with what allowed the Bulgarians to gain power in the region, but in broader forces of political and social agitation, and in the manner by which love can create, and redraw, relations between groups. Raina, Bluntschli, Sergius, and the rest of the characters are simply figures through which these political and social forces play out, as much as they are characters with which the viewer is to identify.

Some scholars have called Arms and the Man a satire, or a work that criticizes political or social issues of the day through humor or exaggeration. It is also a comedy, as evidenced from its ending in a flurry of weddings to its continued poking fun at Bulgarian “refinement.” But there is a great deal of dark comedy evident. The stakes of the work are high; the characters in it fear death and flee it, and characters off-stage, like Bluntschli’s friend, suffer terrible ends. This kind of comedy allows Shaw to broach serious issues like equality among the sexes, the nature and necessity of war, and the impact of technological development on European warmaking—but do so satirically with Louka’s subtle laughter and Petkoff’s buffoonish behavior.

Arms and the Man is a fitting entry-point into Shaw’s career, which goes on to encompass many more plays investigating the nature of relationships between men and women. In his prefaces to the works, collected later in his life, Shaw explains how certain settings, scenes, characters, and dialogue might help the reader or viewer to find political truths in these works of fiction. It is impossible to read through Shaw’s career, too, without accounting for the “Great War” at its middle. World War I challenged many artists’ assumptions about best methods for social organization, and about the role of art in a world that seemed more than willing to blow itself up in order to further small gains along a trench-line.

As scholars have noted, Shaw’s works can be read against the plays and poems of his fellow Irishman William Butler Yeats, and the plays, poems, and collected prose pieces of Oscar Wilde. Both these men were, like Shaw, more than willing to upend social orders they found stifling, including the behavioral demands on the middle classes. And though Wilde, Yeats, and Shaw were very different artists working with very different tones and styles, they nevertheless bridged the 1800s and 1900s, both in lifespan and in sensibility, as they saw the world change drastically in the first third of the latter century.