George Bernard Shaw, the third and youngest child, and only son, of George Carr Shaw (1815–1885) and Lucinda Gurly (1830–1913),was born on 26th July 1856 at 3 Upper Synge Street (later 33 Synge Street), Dublin. Shaw's father, a corn merchant, was also an alcoholic and therefore there was very little money to spend on George's education. George went to local schools but never went to university and was largely self-taught.
Shaw began work on 26th October 1871, when he was fifteen, as a junior clerk in a Dublin estate agency run by two brothers, Charles Uniacke and Thomas Courtney Townshend, at a salary of £18 a year. He later recalled that he worked in " a stuffy little den counting another man's money… I enter and enter, and add and add, and take money and give change, and fill cheques and stamp receipts". He added that it was a "damnable waste of human life". According to his biographer, Stanley Weintraub: "While he performed his drudgery so conscientiously over fifteen months that his wages rose to £24." His parents moved to London and Shaw joined them in March 1876.
Shaw hoped to become a writer and during the next seven years wrote five unsuccessful novels. He was more successful with his journalism and contributed to Pall Mall Gazette. Shaw got on well with the newspaper's campaigning editor, William Stead, who attempted to use the power of the popular press to obtain social reform.
In 1882 Shaw heard Henry George lecture on land nationalization. This had a profound effect on Shaw and helped to develop his ideas on socialism. Shaw now joined the Social Democratic Federation and its leader, H. H. Hyndman, introduced him to the works of Karl Marx. Shaw was convinced by the economic theories in Das Kapital but was aware that it would have little impact on the working class. He later wrote that although the book had been written for the working man, "Marx never got hold of him for a moment. It was the revolting sons of the bourgeois itself - Lassalle, Marx, Liebknecht, Morris, Hyndman, Bax, all like myself, crossed with squirearchy - that painted the flag red. The middle and upper classes are the revolutionary element in society; the proletariat is the conservative element."
Shaw became an active member of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), and became friends with others in the movement including William Morris, Eleanor Marx, Annie Besant, Walter Crane, Edward Aveling and Belfort Bax. In May 1884 Shaw joined the Fabian Society and the following year, the Socialist League, an organisation that had been formed by Morris and Marx after a dispute with H. H. Hyndman, the leader of the SDF.
George Bernard Shaw gave lectures on socialism on street corners and helped distribute political literature. On 13th November he took part in a demonstration in London that resulted in the Bloody Sunday Riot. However, he always felt uncomfortable with trade union members and preferred debate to action.
By 1886, Shaw tended to concentrate his efforts on the work that he did with the Fabian Society. The society that included Edward Carpenter, Annie Besant, Walter Crane, Sidney Webb and Beatrice Webb believed that capitalism had created an unjust and inefficient society. They agreed that the ultimate aim of the group should be to reconstruct "society in accordance with the highest moral possibilities". As Shaw pointed out: "Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not."
The Fabian Society rejected the revolutionary socialism of the Social Democratic Federation and were concerned with helping society to move to a socialist society "as painless and effective as possible". This is reflected in the fact that the group was named after the Roman General, Quintus Fabius Maximus, who advocated the weakening the opposition by harassing operations rather than becoming involved in pitched battles.
The Fabian group was a "fact-finding and fact-dispensing body" and they produced a series of pamphlets on a wide variety of different social issues. Many of these were written by Shaw including The Fabian Manifesto (1884), The True Radical Programme (1887), Fabian Election Manifesto (1892), The Impossibilities of Anarchism (1893), Fabianism and the Empire (1900) and Socialism for Millionaires (1901). Max Beerbohm, who did not share Shaw's socialist beliefs, described him as "the most brilliant and remarkable journalist in London."
Frank Harris appointed Shaw as drama critics for The Fortnightly Review. He also published long articles by Shaw including Socialism and Superior Brains. Harris described Shaw as "thin as a rail, with a long, bony, bearded face. His untrimmed beard was reddish, though his hair was fairer. He was dressed carelessly in tweeds... His entrance into the room, his abrupt movements - as jerky as the ever-changing mind - his perfect unconstraint, his devilish look, all showed a man very conscious of his ability, very direct, very sharply decisive."
Shaw supported women's rights, and in 1891 wrote: "Unless woman repudiates her womanliness, her duty to her husband, to her children, to society, to the law, and to everyone but herself, she cannot emancipate herself. It is false to say that woman is now directly the slave of man: she is the immediate slave of duty; and as man's path to freedom is strewn with the wreckage of the duties and ideals he has trampled on, so must hers be."
Beatrice Webb wrote in her diary: "Bernard Shaw is a marvellously smart witty fellow with a crank for not making money. I have never known a man use his pen in such a workmanlike fashion or acquire such a thoroughly technical knowledge of any subject upon which he gives an opinion. As to his character, I do not understand it. He has been for twelve years a devoted propagandist, hammering away at the ordinary routine of Fabian Executive work with as much persistence as Graham Wallas or Sidney (Webb). He is an excellent friend - at least to men - but beyond this I know nothing.... Adored by many women, he is a born philanderer. A vegetarian, fastidious but unconventional in his clothes, six foot in height with a lithe, broad-chested figure and laughing blue eyes. Above all a brilliant talker, and, therefore, a delightful companion."
Edith Nesbit was one of the many women who he tried to seduce. She wrote to a friend: "George Bernard Shaw... has a fund of dry Irish humour that is simply irresistible. He is a clever writer and speaker - is the grossest flatterer I ever met, is horribly untrustworthy as he repeats everything he hears, and does not always stick to the truth, and is very plain like a long corpse with dead white face - sandy sleek hair, and a loathsome small straggly beard, and yet is one of the most fascinating men I ever met."
Jack Grein was the founder of Independent Theatre. According to his biographer, John P. Wearing: "Grein's major achievement was establishing the Independent Theatre in London in 1891.... Grein endeavoured to stage plays of high literary and artistic value rejected by the commercial theatre or suppressed by the censor (whom the Independent Theatre circumvented by being a subscription society)." A great admirer of Henrik Ibsen his first production was Ghosts.
The following year Grein met Shaw. During a walk in Hammersmith Grein said he was disappointed that he had not discovered any good British playwrights. Shaw replied that he had written a play "that you'll never have the courage to produce". Grein asked to see the play. He later recalled: "I spent a long and attentive evening in sorting and deciphering it. I had never had a doubt as to my acceptance... But I could very well understand how little chance that play would have had with the average theatre manager."
Widower's Houses opened at the Royalty Theatre in Dean Street, Soho on 9th December, 1892. Michael Holroyd, the author of Bernard Shaw (1998), points out: "The novelty of Widowers' Houses lay in the anti-romantic use to which Shaw put theatrical cliché. When the father discovers his daughter in the arms of a stranger, he omits to horsewhip him, but pitches into negotiations over the marriage - and these negotiations reveal a naked money-for-social-position bargin." According to Holroyd: "At the end of the performance, Shaw hurried before the curtain to make a speech and was acclaimed with hisses. At the second and final performance, a matinee on 13th December, he again climbed on to the stage and, there being no critics present, was applauded."
This was followed by other plays by Ibsen including The Wild Duck, Rosmersholm and The Master Builder. Shaw later wrote: "The Independent Theatre is an excellent institution, simply because it is independent. The disparagers ask what it is independent of.... It is, of course, independent of commercial success.... If Mr Grein had not taken the dramatic critics of London and put them in a row before Ghosts and The Wild Duck, with a small but inquisitive and influential body of enthusiasts behind them, we should be far less advanced today than we are."
In his pamphlets George Bernard Shaw argued in favour of equality of income and advocated the equitable division of land and capital. Shaw believed that "property was theft" and believed like Karl Marx that capitalism was deeply flawed and was unlikely to last. However, unlike Marx, Shaw favoured gradualism over revolution. In a pamphlet, that he wrote in 1897 Shaw predicted that socialism "will come by prosaic installments of public regulation and public administration enacted by ordinary parliaments, vestries, municipalities, parish councils, school boards, etc."
Shaw worked closely with Sidney Webb in trying to establish a new political party that was committed to obtaining socialism through parliamentary elections. This view was expressed in their Fabian Society pamphlet A Plan on Campaign for Labour.
In 1893 Shaw was one of the Fabian Society delegates that attended the conference in Bradford that led to the formation of the Independent Labour Party. Three years later Shaw produced a report for the Trade Union Congress (TUC) that suggested a political party that had strong links with the trade union movement.
In 1894 Frank Harris was sacked by Frederick Chapman, the owner of the The Fortnightly Review, for publishing an article by Charles Malato, an anarchist who praised political murder as "propaganda… by deed". Harris now purchased The Saturday Review and once again appointed Shaw as his drama critic on a salary of £6 a week. Shaw later commented that was "not bad pay in those days" and added that Harris was "the very man for me, and I the very man for him". Shaw's hostile reviews led to some managements withdrawing their free seats. Some of the book reviewers were so severe that publishers cancelled their advertisements. Harris was forced to sell the journal for financial reasons in 1898. Michael Holroyd has argued: "There had been a number of libel cases and rumours of blackmail - later put down by Shaw to Harris's innocence of English business methods."
In January 1896 Beatrice Webb invited Shaw and Charlotte Payne-Townshend to their rented home in the village of Stratford St Andrew in Suffolk. Shaw took a strong liking to Charlotte. He wrote to Janet Achurch: "Instead of going to bed at ten, we go out and stroll about among the trees for a while. She, being also Irish, does not succumb to my arts as the unsuspecting and literal Englishwoman does; but we get on together all the better, repairing bicycles, talking philosophy and religion... or, when we are in a mischievous or sentimental humor, philandering shamelessly and outrageously." Beatrice wrote: "They were constant companions, pedaling round the country all day, sitting up late at night talking."
Shaw told Ellen Terry: "Kissing in the evening among the trees was very pleasant, but she knows the value of her unencumbered independence, having suffered a good deal from family bonds and conventionality before the death of her mother and the marriage of her sister left her free... The idea of tying herself up again by a marriage before she knows anything - before she has exploited her freedom and money power to the utmost."
When they returned to London she sent an affectionate letter to Shaw. He replied: "Don't fall in love: be your own, not mine or anyone else's.... From the moment that you can't do without me, you're lost... Never fear: if we want one another we shall find it out. All I know is that you made the autumn very happy, and that I shall always be fond of you for that."
Michael Holroyd has pointed out in his book, Bernard Shaw (1998): "Charlotte had an apprehension of sexual intercourse... Over the next eighteen months they seem to have found together a habit of careful sexual experience, reducing for her the risk of conception and preserving for him his subliminal illusions... Charlotte soon made herself almost indispensable to Shaw. She learnt to read his shorthand and to type, took dictation and helped him prepare his plays for the press."
Beatrice Webb recorded in her diary that Charlotte Payne-Townshend was clearly in love with George Bernard Shaw but she did not believe that he felt the same way: "I see no sign on his side of the growth of any genuine and steadfast affection." In July 1897 Charlotte proposed marriage. He rejected the idea because he was poor and she was rich and people might consider him a "fortune-hunter". He told Ellen Terry that the proposal was like an "earthquake" and "with shuddering horror and wildly asked the fare to Australia". Charlotte decided to leave Shaw and went to live in Italy.
In April 1898 Shaw had an accident. According to Shaw his left foot swelled up "to the size of a church bell". He wrote to Charlotte complaining that he was unable to walk. When she heard the news she travelled back to visit him at his home in Fitzroy Square. Soon after she arrived on 1st May she arranged for him to go into hospital. Shaw had an operation that scraped the necrosed bone clean.
Shaw's biographer, Stanley Weintraub, has pointed out: "In the conditions of non-care in which he lived at 29 Fitzroy Square with his mother (the Shaws had moved again on 5 March 1887), an unhealed foot injury required Shaw's hospitalization. On 1 June 1898, while on crutches and recuperating from surgery for necrosis of the bone, Shaw married his informal nurse, Charlotte Frances Payne-Townshend, at the office of the registrar at 15 Henrietta Street, Covent Garden. He was nearly forty-two; the bride, a wealthy Irishwoman born at Londonderry on 20 January 1857, thus a half-year younger than her husband, resided in some style at 10 Adelphi Terrace, London, overlooking the Embankment." Shaw later told Wilfrid Scawen Blunt: "I thought I was dead, for it would not heal, and Charlotte had me at her mercy. I should never have married if I had thought I should get well."
On 27th February 1900 the Fabian Society joined with the Independent Labour Party, the Social Democratic Federation and trade union leaders to form the Labour Representation Committee (LRC). The LRC put up fifteen candidates in the 1900 General Election and between them they won 62,698 votes. Two of the candidates, Keir Hardie and Richard Bell won seats in the House of Commons. The party did even better in the 1906 election with twenty nine successful candidates. Later that year the LRC decided to change its name to the Labour Party.
George Bernard Shaw wrote several plays with political themes during this period. These plays dealt with issues such as poverty and women's rights and implied that socialism could help solve the problems created by capitalism. Max Beerbohm was a great supporter of the work of Shaw. Although he did not share Shaw's socialist beliefs, but considered him a great playwright. He was especially complimentary about Man and Superman (1902), which he considered to be his "masterpiece so far". He described it as the "most complete expression of the most distinct personality in current literature".
Beerbohm also liked John Bull's Other Island (1904): "Mr Shaw, it is insisted, cannot draw life: he can only distort it. All his characters are but so many incarnations of himself. Above all, he cannot write plays. He has no dramatic instinct, no theatrical technique... That theory might have held water in the days before Mr Shaw's plays were acted. Indeed, I was in the habit of propounding it myself... When I saw John Bull's Other Island I found that as a piece of theatrical construction it was perfect... to deny that he is a dramatist merely because he chooses for the most part, to get drama out of contrasted types of character and thought, without action, and without appeal to the emotions, seems to me both unjust and absurd. His technique is peculiar because his purpose is peculiar. But it is not the less technique."
Major Barbara was first performed on 28th November 1905. The play completely divided the critics. Desmond MacCarthy told his readers: "Mr Shaw has written the first play with religious passion for its theme and has made it real. That is a triumph no criticism can lessen." The Sunday Times said that Shaw was "the most original English dramatist of the day". However, The Morning Post described the play as a work of "deliberate perversity" without any "straightforward intelligible purpose". Whereas The Clarion claimed it was an "audacious propagandist drama".
In 1912 Shaw began work on his play Pygmalion. His biographer, Stanley Weintraub, pointes out: "Although Shaw claimed that he had written a didactic play about phonetics, and its anti-heroic protagonist, Henry Higgins, is indeed a speech professional, what playgoers saw was a high comedy about love and class, about a cockney flower-girl from Covent Garden educated to pass as a lady, and the repercussions of the experiment... The First World War began as Pygmalion was nearing its hundredth sell-out performance, and gave Shaw an excuse to wind down the production."
Like many socialists, George Bernard Shaw opposed Britain's involvement in the First World War. He created a great deal of controversy with his provocative pamphlet, Common Sense About the War, which appeared on 14th November 1914 as a supplement to the New Statesman. It sold more than 75,000 copies before the end of the year and as a result he became a well-known international figure. However, given the patriotic mood of the country, his pamphlet created a great deal of hostility. Some of his anti-war speeches were banned from the newspapers, and he was expelled from the Dramatists' Club.
Kingsley Martin was one of those who went to hear Shaw speak at an anti-war meeting: "He made an indelible impression on me at this first meeting. I cannot recall what he spoke about. It mattered little. It was George Bernard Shaw you remembered; his physical magnificence, splendid bearing, superb elocution, unexpected Irish brogue, and continuous wit were the chief memories of his speech. He would give his nose a thoughtful twitch between his thumb and finger while the audience laughed. He was one of the best speakers I ever heard."
Shaw's status as a playwright continued to grow after the war and plays such as Heartbreak House (1919), Back to Methuselah (1921), Saint Joan (1923), The Apple Cart (1929) and Too True to be Good (1932) were favourably received by the critics and 1925 he was awarded the Nobel prize for literature. Cyril Joad was one of those who believed Shaw was a genius: "Shaw became for me a kind of god. I considered that he was not only the greatest English writer of his time (I still think that), but the greatest English writer of all time (and I am not sure that I don't still think that too). Performances of his plays put me almost beside myself with intellectual excitement."
Shaw continued to write books and pamphlets on political and social issues. This included The Crime of Imprisonment (1922) and Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism (1928). Charlotte's support of her husband was vitally important to his career. As Stanley Weintraub has pointed out: "Childless, they indulged in surrogate sons and daughters whose children often went to school on quiet Shavian largess. Granville Barker and Lillah McCarthy had their Royal Court and Savoy seasons underwritten by G.B.S., who lost, unconcernedly, all his investment."
In 1928 Frank Harris wrote to Shaw asking if he could write his biography. Shaw replied: "Abstain from such a desperate enterprise... I will not have you write my life on any terms." Harris was convinced that the royalties of the proposed book would solve his financial problems. In 1929 he wrote: "You are honoured and famous and rich - I lie here crippled and condemned and poor."
Eventually, Shaw agreed to cooperate with Harris in order to help him provide for his wife. Shaw told a friend that he had to agree because "frank and Nellie... were in rather desperate circumstances." Shaw warned Harris: "The truth is I have a horror of biographers... If there is one expression in this book of yours that cannot be read at a confirmation class, you are lost for ever. "
Shaw sent Harris contradictory accounts of his life. He told Harris that he was "a born philanderer". On another occasion he attempted to explain why he had little experience of sexual relationships. In 1930 he wrote to Harris: "If you have any doubts as to my normal virility, dismiss them from your mind. I was not impotent; I was not sterile; I was not homosexual; and I was extremely susceptible, though not promiscuously."
Frank Harris died of heart failure on 26th August 1931. Shaw sent Nellie a cheque and she arranged to send him the galley-proofs. The book was then rewritten by Shaw: "I have had to fill in the prosaic facts in Frank's best style, and fit them to his comments as best I could; for I have most scrupulously preserved all his sallies at my expense.... You may, however, depend on it that the book is not any the worse for my doctoring." George Bernard Shaw was published in 1932.
During the Blitz, the Shaws, now in their middle eighties, moved out of London. Shaw was a strong opponent of Britain's involvement in the Second World War, which he described "fundamentally not merely maniacal but nonsensical". He wrote very little but he did find the energy to produce Everybody's Political What's What (1944).
Max Beerbohm did over forty caricatures of George Bernard Shaw during his lifetime. He did not find Shaw's appearance attractive. He mentioned his pallid pitted skin and red hair like seaweed. "The back of his neck was especially bleak; very long, untenanted, and dead white". He admitted that Shaw's political views did not help: "My admiration for his genius has during fifty years and more been marred for me by dissent from almost any view that he holds about anything."
Charlotte Payne-Townshend Shaw, who had suffered from osteitis deformans for many years, died aged eighty-six on 12th September 1943. Shaw continued to write and his last play, Why She Would Not, was completed on 23rd July, 1950, three days before Shaw's ninety-fourth birthday.
George Bernard Shaw had a fall on 10th September 1950, while pruning trees. He was taken to hospital where it was discovered that he had fractured his hip. Bedridden, he developed kidney failure and died on 2nd November.