George Bernard Shaw is perhaps one of the most prolific writers of the modern era. Though he is best known as a playwright, Shaw was also a respected critic, journalist, novelist, and essayist. A noted social reformer, Shaw wrote plays which dramatized social commentaries, and in 1925 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for his achievements. Today, his works are studied in literature classes worldwide and are considered classics of modern drama.
Born July 26, 1856, in Dublin, Ireland, Shaw was given a Protestant upbringing by his father, a civil servant, and his mother, a music teacher and a vocalist. Through his mother, Shaw gained an appreciation for classical music that he later credited as the base interest which led to his eventual successes.
The young Shaw disliked organized education; at age fourteen, he decided the whole schooling system was valueless and promptly dropped out. But he had a passion for learning, so Shaw gave himself an informal education. He read voraciously, and he frequented the National Gallery of Dublin, where he studied art and history.
At age twenty, Shaw made the trip to London to begin a literary career. He made a name for himself as a music critic, and soon he was writing criticisms of art, literature, and drama. By 1890, Shaw had been published in nearly every major London publication, including The Pall Mall Gazette and Saturday Review. During this time, he also wrote five novels, published mainly in socialist papers, which were never as successful as his plays and essays.
By this time, Shaw was an active member of the socialist movement. He had read Marx's Das Kapital, and by 1884 he had joined the Fabian Society, an influential group dedicated to establishing a socialist democracy in Britain. As a Fabian, Shaw learned to articulate his ideas and philosophies. He quickly became a spokesman for the Fabians and their ideals. This gave him his first opportunity to express his beliefs in a public forum, and brought his name to the public as his writing never had.
Shaw was greatly impressed by Henrik Ibsen. Ibsen's plays represented a social realism that Shaw hadn't known was possible. For the first time, Shaw saw that the stage could become a platform for the communication of ideas. He despised the sentimental melodrama being produced in London theatres, and so he began writing plays of his own.
In 1898, Shaw published his first six plays together in a volume titled Plays Pleasant and Unpleasant, which included the play You Never Can Tell. The plays were produced to great critical acclaim by independent and experimental theatres in London. Several plays followed, including such classics as Man and Superman, Major Barbara, and Pygmalion. Soon Shaw's plays were being published and produced on both sides of the Atlantic.
With each play, Shaw began to place more emphasis on social commentary and less emphasis on story or plot. That's not to say that Shaw's plays were not good theatre; to the contrary, Shaw was a master of wordplay, paradox, and character, and audiences were entertained by his works even more than they were enlightened. But entertainment was not Shaw's intent. To him, the world was an imperfect place desperately in need of change, and theatre was his forum for presenting the evils he saw to the public.
Whether the cause was ending poverty, reorganizing government, or removing sexual stigmas and limitations, Shaw sought to confront audiences with issues of social and political importance.
Not everyone embraced Shaw's work as great theatre. His many critics argued that art was a means of communicating human experience, and not a forum to teach or preach. Shaw's plays, they contended, were seriously flawed because of their wordiness, their excessive argument, and their lack of interesting story.
"Primarily, they are not plays," one critic wrote. "They are tracts in dramatic forms." But Shaw strongly disagreed, arguing that "social criticism is the most important function of all art," and that "literature should imitate life so that we might act on it rather than on some misinterpretation of life."
After winning the Nobel Prize, Shaw continued to write plays until his death in 1950. His later works never enjoyed wide success. Still, Shaw stands as one of the great playwrights of the modern era. For better or worse, he changed the way the world viewed drama and theatre. With plays like Rent, Chicago, and Angels in America, Shaw's influence on modern theatre continues to be felt.