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Infidels, Freethinkers, Humanists, and Unbelievers
Shaw, George Bernard (1856-1921)

"The fact that a believer is happier than a sceptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one. The happiness of credulity is a cheap and dangerous quality."

"We know now that the soul is the body, and the body the soul. They tell us they are different because they want to persuade us that we can keep our souls if we let them make slaves of our bodies."

"The early Christian rules of life were not made to last, because the early Christians did not believe that the world itself was going to last."

-- George Bernard Shaw

Bernard Shaw was an Irish playwright and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925. After those of William Shakespeare, Shaw's plays are some of the most widely produced in English language theatre.

It should be noted that Shaw hated the name "George", which was his father's first name, and never used it, either personally or professionally: he was Bernard Shaw throughout his long career, not George Bernard Shaw. Unfortunately, since his death it has become customary to use all three of his names, even in reference works - hence the heading of this article (which is, arguably, misleading, but, just as arguably, helpful). His own usage will be respected below.

Born at 33 Synge Street in Dublin, Ireland to rather poor Church of Ireland parents, Bernard Shaw was educated at Wesley College, Dublin and moved to London during the 1870s to embark on his literary career. He wrote five novels, none of which were published, before finding his first success as a music critic on the Star newspaper. He wrote his music criticism under the pseudonym Corno di Bassetto. In the meantime he had become involved in politics, and served as a local councillor in the St Pancras district of London for several years from 1897. He was a noted socialist who took a leading role in the Fabian Society.

In 1895, Shaw became the drama critic of the Saturday Review, and this was the first step in his progress towards a lifetime's work as a dramatist. In 1898, he married an Irish heiress, Charlotte Payne-Townshend. His first successful play, Candida, was produced in the same year. He followed this with a series of classic comedy-dramas, including The Devil's Disciple (1897), Arms and the Man (1898), Mrs Warren's Profession (1898), Captain Brassbound's Conversion (1900), Man and Superman (1903), Caesar and Cleopatra (1901), Major Barbara (1905), Androcles and the Lion (1912), and Pygmalion (1913).

After World War I, during which he was a staunch pacifist, he produced more serious dramas, including Heartbreak House (1919) and Saint Joan (1923). A characteristic of Shaw's published plays is the lengthy prefaces that accompany them. In these essays, Shaw wrote more about his usually controversial opinions on the issues touched by the plays than about the plays themselves. Some prefaces are much longer than the actual play.

The political turmoil in his native country did not leave him untouched. Shaw campaigned against the executions of the rebel leaders of the Easter Rising, and he became a personal friend of the Cork-born IRA leader Michael Collins, whom he invited to his home for dinner while Collins was negotiating the Anglo-Irish Treaty with Lloyd-George in London. After Collins's assassination in 1922, Shaw sent a personal message of condolence to one of Collins's sisters.

Shaw's correspondence with Mrs Patrick Campbell was adapted for the stage by Jerome Kilty as DEAR LIAR: A Comedy of Letters. His letters to another prominent actress, Ellen Terry, have also been published and dramatised.

By the time of his death, Shaw was not only a household name in Britain, but a world figure. His ironic wit endowed the language with the adjective "Shavian" to refer to such clever observations as "England and America are two countries divided by a common language." [1]

Concerned about the inconsistency of English spelling, he willed a portion of his wealth to fund the creation of a new phonemic alphabet for the English language. On his death bed, he did not have much money to leave, so no effort was made to start such a project. However, his estate began to earn significant royalties from the rights to Pygmalion when My Fair Lady, a musical adapted from the play by his comrade film producer Gabriel Pascal, became a hit. It then became clear that the will was so badly worded that the relatives had grounds to challenge the will, and in the end an-out-of-court settlement granted only a small portion of the money to promoting a new alphabet. This became known as the Shavian alphabet. The National Gallery of Ireland, RADA and the British Museum all received substantial bequests.

Shaw had a long time friendship with G. K. Chesterton, the Catholic-convert British writer, and there are many humorous stories about their complicated relationship. Another great friend was the composer Edward Elgar. Shaw's correspondence with the motion picture producer Gabriel Pascal, who was the first to successfully bring Shaw's plays to the screen and who later adapted Pygmalion into "My Fair Lady," is published in a book titled Bernard Shaw and Gabriel Pascal.

Shaw is the only person ever to have won both a Nobel Prize (for Literature in 1925) and an Academy Award (Best Screenplay for Pygmalion in 1938).

From 1906 until his death in 1950 at the age of 94 from natural causes, Shaw lived at Shaw's Corner in the small village of Ayot St Lawrence, Hertfordshire. The house is now a National Trust property, open to the public.

The Shaw Theatre, Euston Road, London was opened in 1971 and named in his honour. The Shaw Festival, an annual theater festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, began as an eight week run of Don Juan in Hell and Candida in 1962 and has grown into an annual festival with over 800 performances a year, dedicated to producing the works of Shaw and his contemporaries.

A stage play based on a book by Hugh Whitemore, The Best of Friends, provides a window on the friendships of Dame Laurentia McLachlan, OSB (late Abbess of Stanbrook) with Sir Sydney Cockerell and Shaw through adaptations from their letters and writings.

Socialism and political beliefs
Shaw had a vision (letter to Henry James of January 17, 1909):

“I, as a Socialist, have had to preach, as much as anyone, the enormous power of the environment. We can change it; we must change it; there is absolutely no other sense in life than the task of changing it. What is the use of writing plays, what is the use of writing anything, if there is not a will which finally moulds chaos itself into a race of gods.”

Shaw held that each class worked towards its own ends, and that those from the upper echelons had won the struggle; for him, the working class had failed in promoting their interests effectively, making Shaw highly critical of the democratic system of his day (to the extent that he praised Stalin in the 1930s and even published some (possibly ironic) statements that seemed to praise Hitler. Shaw seems to have shared the anti-semitism that was more or less ubiquitous in the intellectual milieus in which he moved, but, again, the extent to which he was merely being provocative is not clear). The writing of Shaw, such as his plays Major Barbara and Pygmalion, has a background theme of class struggle.

Shaw’s second career — after the theatre — was in support of socialism. In 1882 Henry George’s lecture on land nationalization gave depth and direction to Shaw’s political ideology. Shortly thereafter he applied to join the Social Democratic Federation. Its leader H. M. Hyndman introduced him to the works of Karl Marx. Instead, in May of 1884 he joined the newly-formed Fabian Society. He played a pivotal role with the Fabian Society and wrote a number of their pamphlets. He argued that property was theft and for an equitable distribution of land and capital. He was involved with the formation of the Labour Party. For a clear statement of his position read The Intelligent Women’s Guide to Socialism, Capitalism, Sovietism, and Fascism.

Bernard Shaw was a noted vegetarian. The following was taken from the archives of The Vegetarian Society UK:

“The Summer of 1946 seems to have been a season of anniversaries and memorials. The Vegetarian Society itself was looking forward to its 100th anniversary and giving its members advance warnings of celebratory plans.”

But the big story of the July issue of The Vegetarian Messenger was the tribute to George Bernard Shaw, celebrating his 90th birthday on the 26th of that month. He had, at that time, been a vegetarian for 66 years and was commended as one of the great thinkers and dramatists of his era. "No writer since Shakespearean times has produced such a wealth of dramatic literature, so superb in expression, so deep in thought and with such dramatic possibilities as Shaw." The writer was a staunch vegetarian, anti-vivisectionist and opponent of cruel sports.

The information on which this page is based has been drawn from research on the Internet. For example, much use has been made of, to whom we are greatly indebted. Since the information recording process at Wikipedia is prone to changes in the data, please check at Wikipedia for current information. If you find something on this page to be in error, please contact us.
The Talk Of Lawrence