“My life belongs to the whole community and as long as I live, it is a privilege to do for it whatsoever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no ‘brief candle’ to me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment; and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.”
—Shaw, at Brighton, 1907
Shaw was born in Dublin, Ireland on July 26, 1856, to George Carr Shaw, who was in the wholesale grain trade, and Lucinda Elisabeth (Gurly) Shaw. Experiencing poverty and a troubled family life at an early age, Shaw took refuge in reading books such as The Arabian Nights, The Pilgrim’s Progress, Shakespeare, the novels of Sir Walter Scott and the poetry of Byron and Shelley. He claimed he had been fascinated by the novels of Charles Dickens, eagerly devouring the melodrama of Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities by the age of seven.
In 1866 the family moved into a better neighborhood. Shaw went to the Wesleyan Connexional School, then moved to a private school near Dalkey, then to Dublin’s Central Model School and ended his formal education at the Dublin English Scientific and Commercial Day School. Despite all his schooling, he claimed that he “had learned little and was largely self-educated.”
At the age of 15 he went to work as a junior clerk. In 1876 he moved to London, joining his sister and mother, who had created a career as a music teacher. Shaw did not return to Ireland for nearly thirty years.
Seeing himself as not having “any real work” in London, Shaw set out to become a novelist, but with little success. Between 1879 and 1884, he produced five books:Immaturity, The Irrational Knot, Love Among the Artists, Cashel Byron’s Profession and An Unsocial Socialist.
The literary world was relatively unimpressed with his novelistic talents, so Shaw turned to art, music and drama criticism, churning out over a million words which he said, in later years, were unintelligible and outdated. His criticism appeared in the The Star (1886-1890), the Pall Mall Gazette (1885-1889), The World (1890-1894) and The Saturday Review (1895-1898). His music criticism has been collected in Shaw’s Music (1981).
In 1884, Shaw joined the Fabian Society, a middle-class socialist group, which also attracted H.G. Wells. He served on its executive committee from 1885 to 1911. As a public speaker, Shaw gained status as one of the most sought-after orators in England.
It was in London that Shaw became acquainted with his two most famous Irish literary contemporaries, Yeats and Oscar Wilde, and formed rather uneasy friendships with both.
Yeats and Shaw spent much time with William Morris, Yeats appreciating the arts and crafts side of Morris, and Shaw more the political and socialist side. They shared the same mistress, the actress Florence Farr, who produced a season of plays by Irish writers backed by Annie Horniman, later the benefactress of the Abbey Theatre. When one of the plays (by John Todhunter) failed, Florence appealed to Shaw to save the season. He gave her the play he had just finished writing, Arms and the Man. It became his first popular success.
In 1898, at the age of forty-two, and after thirteen years of philandering, he married Charlotte Payne Townshend, a wealthy Irish woman and fellow Fabian. Neither wished to marry, but Shaw, under the misapprehension that he was dying, proposed to her, offering her widowhood. It was an unorthodox, but happy marriage that lasted until Charlotte’s death in 1943.
In 1904 Shaw wrote his ‘Irish’ play John Bull’s Other Island, which began his wide popularity in England and abroad. John Bull’s Other Island was staged at the Royal Court Theatre where its success put the seal on his reputation as a dramatist in London.
Shaw lived and worked over an enormous period of time. As a playwright he made the most comprehensive contribution to dramatic literature in the English language, writing over fifty plays, and creating a string of masterpieces which continue to be widely performed, including: Arms and the Man, Caesar and Cleopatra, Man and Superman, Major Barbara, The Doctor’s Dilemma, Pygmalion (later adapted as My Fair Lady), Heartbreak House, Back to Methuselah and Saint Joan. He was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1925.
In the last three decades of his life Bernard Shaw’s fame as sage, mystic and prophet was widespread; he was probably one of the most quoted individuals of his time. In his native Ireland he was known as a communist and an atheist. Most of Shaw’s contemporaries regarded him as an irritating but talented egotist. Shaw perhaps summed it up best himself when he said “I am not altogether an orthodox man”.
In 1947 when he was 92 he wrote: ” I cannot hold my tongue nor my pen. As long as I live I must write. If I stopped writing I should die for wanting something to do.” Shaw died in 1950 at the age of 94.
Biographies, Plays, and Quotes:
- Shaw plays and biographies
- A Shaw Biography
- The On-Line Books page of selected Shaw works
- Shaw collection – Harry Ransom Humanities Center
- History of a Shaw quote
- A variety of Shaw quotes
- The Prizefighter and the Playwright by Jay Tunney