George Bernard Shaw is one of Ireland’s greatest writers and social commentators. The Hollywood musical My Fair Lady was based on his play Pygmalion. He wrote 63 plays, many of which are still regularly performed today. His major works include Androcles and the Lion, Man and Superman, Arms and the Man, Candida, St Joan and Pygmalion.Shaw was also a prolific novelist, essayist, short story writer, journalist and critic. He is also said to have written 250,000 letters throughout the course of his lifetime. He is renowned as a great wit, and he remains one of the world’s most quoted writers
Shaw was a man of the people and much of his writing addressed social problems, particularly those faced by the working classes.
He was a member of the left wing Fabian Society and wrote numerous pamphlets on its behalf on subjects dear to his heart such as improving conditions for the poor, improving education and health care, and removing social injustices and class privilege.
His plays also addressed social issues but without preaching. Shaw’s genius was that he could explore serious issues in a way that was entertaining and amusing as well as enlightening.
Shaw’s interest in widening access to education led to him becoming one of the founding members of the London School of Economics, which is now one of Britain’s leading universities.
Shaw’s early life in Dublin
Shaw was born in Dublin in 1856 and attended the Wesley College grammar school for a short time before moving to Dublin’s Central Model School. He didn’t enjoy his school years, he felt it deadened his spirit and stifled his intellect. He likened the experience to being in prison.
In 1876, he moved to London and worked as a music and theatre critic. He also had ambitions to become a novelist. He quickly found work as a journalist but he wasn’t an instant success as an author. He wrote five novels between 1879 and 1883 but failed to find a publisher for any of them. However, over the next 50 years all would eventually be published.
His first successful novel was Cashel Byron’s Profession, which was written in 1882 and published in 1886. It told the story of a boxer who fell in love with a wealthy lady. They married despite their different social standings but their lives only became easier when they discovered that the boxer was also from a noble family.
The second novel to be published was An Unsocial Socialist, which was written in 1883 and published in 1887. It was about a wealthy gentleman who becomes involved in the socialist cause.
Love Among the Artists was written in 1881 and in 1900 became Shaw’s third novel to be published in the US. It was about an extremely talented musician who was highly regarded within the social elite despite his poor background and lack of social graces.
In 1905, The Irrational Knot was published. It was written in 1900 and told the story of a working class man who became rich after inventing an electric motor. He married an upper class lady but the marriage failed as they had nothing in common.
She ran away with an upper class man who ended up deserting her and leaving her in trouble. Being a good man, the husband is still there to offer help but she refuses as she feels she is unworthy.
International success as a playwright
By 1885, Shaw had shifted his focus towards writing plays rather than novels. He started to work with the critic, William Archer, on a play about slums called Widower’s Houses. However, Archer felt that Shaw wasn’t cut out for writing plays and the project was abandoned.
Eventually Shaw completed the play on his own and it was premiered seven years after he had first started working on it. It was his first successful play although he would later say it was his worst piece of work.
However, he wasn’t discouraged and went on to write 63 plays. He continued writing until he died in 1950 aged 94.