George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950)

George Bernard Shaw has introduced a new form of drama, the publicistic drama. His plays are suited for reading as much as for acting. An important aim of his many plays was to face his audiences with completely new points of view and ways of looking at themselves and the society they lived in. His ideas are expressed in short wise, witty sayings. He enjoyed the shock when his ideas were expressed with much wit He turned to drama as the medium of expression, as the means to criticize and educate society. Shaw delighted in saying and showing the opposite of what his audiences expected.

When writing on the social problems of the 20th century, he often uses striking paradoxes and aphorisms. These are some of them:

Time enough to think of the future when you haven’t any future to think of.

The love of money is the root of all evil.

George Bernard Shaw was born in Ireland, but spent most of his long life in England. All his references to his childhood, the extreme coldness and inhuman isolation of that home are apparent in his memoirs: “We as children, had to find our way in a household – where there was neither hate nor love, fear nor reverence, but always personality… The fact that nobody cared for me particularly gave me a frightful self-sufficiency.” Shaw tells how as a child he went for a walk one day with his father who playfully pretended to throw him into the canal — and nearly did. Returning home he ran to his mother to share his suspicion that “Papa is drunk”. Her bitter reply “When is he anything else?” was a violent destruction of His Universe. He says: “I have never since believed in anything and anybody.”

After four ineffective schools which did not even teach Latin, Shaw at fifteen became a clerk in a land agent’s office by the father’s more successful brothers. His mother and sister left for London soon after his 15th birthday, Shaw remained in Dublin for another five years. The five years of his office life were memorable to him chiefly for the many hours spent with the excellent picture collection in the Dublin National Gallery, to which Shaw eventually left a large part of his fortune.

George Bernard Shaw joined his mother in London, and in the four years from 1879 to 1883 he wrote five long novels and sent them to as many publishers as he could find stamps to reach. He writes: “My mother was not interested in my manuscripts. I don’t think she ever read a single of them. She accepted me as a good-for nothing, just what she would expect from a son of her husband.” His few immature novels had little success, and his own experience had taught him that he had no promising future in the novel.

During this period of time Bernard Shaw supported the forces of democracy. In 1885 he was elected to the executive board of the Fabians, who considered themselves Marxists and accepted a very unrealistic materialism. They proclaimed an immediate revolution under Fabian leadership, and they set the probable day of the revolution “no later than 1889” — the anniversary of Bastille Day. The Fabians participated with other socialists in the struggle for freedom of speech at street meetings which had begun in 1885 and let up to the “Bloody Sunday” in the Trafalgar Square in November, 1887, during which several men were killed. Shaw supported the straggle against fascism, imperialism and wars. He criticized the vices of the capitalist society.

In 1892 he turned to drama. He used the stage to expose injustice of British imperialism.

His plays are divided into three cycles:

1. Unpleasant Plays (1892-1894)

2. Pleasant Plays (1894-1897)

3. Three Plays for Puritans (1897-1899)

The most significant plays are “Widower’s Houses” (1892), “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” (1894), “The Man of Destiny” (1895), “Pygmalion” (1912), “The Apple Cart” (1930).

The high spirits which characterized his plays before 1914 often bringing into his comedy a lively element of farce, did not appear so much afterwards. His plays are full of brilliant dialogues and witty paradoxes. He mocks at bourgeois charity, satirizes bourgeois businessmen. Shaw called himself a jester of English society. A jester can say whatever he likes. Nobody can be offended with jester’s jokes. His method of developing a play often involves a turn which takes the audience half by surprise, as it may have taken the dramatist himself. Shaw writes: “When I am writing a play I never invent a plot: I let the play write itself and shape itself which it always does even when up to the last moment I do not foresee the way out. Sometimes I do not see what the play was driving at until quite a long time after I have finished it.”

Pygmalion” (1912) is well-known because it was the basis for the musical play and film “My Fair Lady”. The title of the play comes from a Greek myth. Pygmalion, a sculptor carved a statue out of ivory. It was the statue of a beautiful young girl called Galatea. Pygmalion fell in love with Galatea, so the goddess Aphrodite breathed life into the statue, and Galatea became a beautiful young creature. In Bernard Shaw’s story the professor of phonetics, Henry Higgins by name, takes a flower-seller from the London streets and makes her into a grand Lady. Eliza Doolittle, a girl of eighteen, comes from the lowest social level and speaks with a strong Cockney accent, the most illiterate English, which was like a stamp on anybody’s reputation.

The play shows how Eliza, having heard the conversation between Higgins and Pickering about herself, sees a chance of being pulled out of the gutter. She comes to Higgins’s house and stays there to be taught. Higgins, in his turn, bets Pickering that he will pass Eliza off “as a duchess at an ambassador’s garden party in six months”. Higgins is convinced that it is only a manner of speaking which can distinguish a common flower-girl from a duchess. At last Eliza passes as a princess at an Embassy. So she has won the professor’s bet for him. The experiment completed, Higgins loses all his interest in the matter, entirely forgetting that he has been dealing with a human being. Eliza’s feelings are wounded, and she decides to give the professor a lesson. For Eliza the flower-seller, the most important thing in human relationship is that people care about each other; for professor Higgins, the most important thing is that they help each other to improve themselves.

Eliza: He (Pickering) treats a flower girl as if she was a duchess.

Higgins: And I treat a duchess as if she was a flower girl. (Act V)

Eliza: Oh! If I only could go back to my flower basket! I should be independent of both you and father and all the world! Why did you take my independence from me? Why did I give it up? I’m a slave now, for all my fine clothes.

Eliza: … I never thought of us making anything of one another; and you never think of anything else. I only want to be natural. […] I want a little kindness. I know I’m a common ignorant girl, and you are a book-learned gentleman; but I’m not dirt under your feet. […] I did it because we were pleasant together and I come — came — to care for you; not to want you to make love to me, and not forgetting the difference between us. (Act V)

As in his many other plays, Bernard Shaw delights in turning upside down the accepted traditions of his time using sharp and witty language.

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