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A CurtainUp Feature: Playwrights Album
An Overview of George Bernard Shaw's Career
by Elyse Sommer

Check out our Playwright's Album for more famous playwright profiles

Topics Covered
Personal Statistics

Chronology of Produced Plays

Trademarks Of Shaw's Plays

Shaw Trivia

Links To Plays We've Reviewed and Books you Might Want to Read


Personal Statistics
G. Bernard Shaw was born in Dublin, Ireland, July 26, 1856 and died on Nov. 2, 1950.

His reputation was made as a playwright but he was also an influential critic (music and drama), essayist and speaker. His social interests were widespread and his opinions on everything ranging from male-female relations, economics, religion and politics are still widely quoted.

When Shaw was a teenager, his mother left Dublin for London. He remained unhappily behind -- unhappy with his family situation (which, as with other playwrights, became grist for future plays), his schooling and his job in a real estate office. At twenty he joined his mother and older sister Lucy in London hoping to make his way as a writer. His efforts as a novelist failed and for a number of years he wrote anonymous music criticism (his interest in music having been nurtured by his mother who had been a singer, as his sister was to be later on).

During this early London period Shaw also became interested in socialism and seeing none of his serious interests addressed in the theater, he decided to himself fill the gap. Success was far from instant. His early works had brief, if any, productions and it was only by publishing them as anthologies that he first caught the public's ear. There was also the matter of talkiness (to wit, the identifying tag of "discussion plays"). Eventually, however, audiences found the ideas in his work sufficiently stimulating to overlook that debate-like dialogue often overrode plot.

In 1925 won the Nobel Prize for literature for Saint Joan. Like many other playwrights, his earliest works were more successful than the works of his later years though he continued to write until his death.

He was a prodigious and prolific letter writer, corresponding with many luminaries. His epistolary exhanges with the actresses Ellen Terry and Mrs. Patrick Campbell and with the Benecdtine nun Dame Laurentia MacLachline have themselves been subjected to dramatization. Back to the top

Chronology of Produced Plays Note: The list that follows is not inclusive.

1891. Widower's Houses. This was written to order for J.T. Grein, a fellow critic and director of The Independent Theatre, a progressive new play society. He had more difficulty persuading other London Theaters to produce his next plays but he managed to attract public attention by publishing his and his next five plays as Plays Pleasant and Unpleasant:
  1893: The Philanderer and Mrs. Warren's Profession (1893),
  1894. Arms and the Man
  1896. Candida
  1899. You Never Can Tell

Three plays, again gathered into an anthology (Three Plays for Puritans (1901)) included:
  1897. The Devil's Disciple
  1899. Caesar and Cleopatra
  1900. Captain Brassbound's Conversion

1902. Mrs. Warren's Profession When this first premiered in New York in 1905, it sparked such an outcry that it was shut down after a single performance - this after news about the risque subject matter sparked a hefty black-market for tickets, with some going as high as $30, which was a lot higher than regular prices of those days. By the time it took another crack at New York in 1975, this time with Ruth Gordon and Lynn Redgrave, there was enough real prostitution in the theater's neighborhood for the play not to raise any eyebrows.
1903. The Admirable Bashville, or Constancy Unrewarded
1904. How He Lied to Her Husband
1904. The two plays written this year set him firmly on the road to success: Man and Superman (which marked the beginning of his emphasis on ideas over comedic entertainment and plot) and John Bull's Other Island (written for but rejected by the Abbey Theatre in Dublin as an insult to the Irish character).
1905. Major Barbara
1905. Man and Superman--A Comedy and a Philosophy
1906. Caesar and Cleopatra (premiered in Germany).
1906. The Doctor's Dilemma
1907. Don Juan in Hell
1907. The Philanderer
1908. Don Juan In Hell

The following are generally lumped into the discussion group :
  1908. Getting Married
  1910. Misalliance
  (1911. Fanny's First Play

Note: The discussion genre actually began in the last act of Major Barbara and Misalliance which was initially a flop, was inspired by and a response to his friend and colleague Harley Granville-Barker's The Madras House. Misalliance in turn prompted Granville-Barker to add a line to his play about one of the characters going off to have lunch with his friend Tarleton (the man at whose country home Misalliance takes place. 1910. The Dark Lady of the Sonnets
1912. Androcles and the Lion (premiered in Germany).
1913. Pygmalion, Shaw's super success and comic masterpiece was adapted as a movie and musicalized as My Fair Lady. The endings of both subverted Shaw's much more bittersweet and unresolved ending.
1917. Hearbreak House-- A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes. A dark play during his darkest period and considered by many to be a Shaw masterpiece.
1920. Back to Methuselah -- A Metabiolgocial Pentateuch
1923. Saint Joan (Nobel Prize winner)
1923. Jitta's Atonement. This was actually an adaptation of a play by his German translator. Not a triumph then or a few season's ago when the Berkshire Festival's artistic director decided to pull it out of the trunk of long forgotten plays. (See Links below)
1929. The Apple Cart (premiered in Poland).
1932. Too Good to be True. A Political Extravaganza.
1936. The Millionairess -- A Jonsonian Comedy in Four Acts (premiered in Germany). A number of well-known actresses have attempted this part with repeatedly unspectacular results -- most recently Raquel Welch for Shakespeare & Co. in Boston and Lenox.
1957. Why She Would Not. The play Shaw was working on when he fell off a ladder and died of complications. Back to the top

Trademarks Of Shaw's Plays
  • Being a man of the printed word who wanted his plays read as well as seen, Shaw decided to make them interesting to read by adding detailed stage directions written in narrative almost novel-like style and prefacing them with long and extremely well-written introductory essays.
  • Shaw saw his plays as teaching instruments and dramatic forums of social criticism. To some critics this has made them "preachy" and more tracts than dramas. Yet, when the continuing revival of and response to his plays is taken into account, it's clear that the old preacher's words still resonate.
  • Shaw ably used comedy and peppy dialogue to probe society's contribution towards its own ills. His discussion-comedies were essentially dramatized debates about marriage, parents, children and women's rights.
  • Shaw also had a mystical side as evidenced in Androcles and the Lion's concern with true and false religious exaltation
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Shaw Trivia
  • Shaw's full name was George Bernard Shaw but he hated the first name and dropped it in both his personal and professional life. His wit and witticism was most famously by-lined by the initials G.B.S.
  • Shaw's father suffered from an eye problem (a squint) which was unsuccessfully treated by another famous Irish playwright's surgeon father, Dr. Wilde (father of Oscar).
  • Shaw was not to the podium born. In fact, he suffered from a stammer and stage fright (the latter most likely the result of the former). However, his passion for socialism led him to public speechmaking which in turn turned the stage-shy Shaw into a dynamic speaker whose style later transferred to his characters.
  • His involvement with the Fabian Society, which was dedicated to socialism through progressive legislation and education, also led to his introduction to a wealthy Irish woman Charlotte Payne-Townsend. Rumor has it that their long marriage was never consummated and that Shaw died a virgin.
  • Shaw's journalistic outcry against World War I not only temporarily derailed his public stature and playwrighting career but almost led to his being tried for treason. Heartbreak House, his only play during the WWI period, was not surprisingly also his bitterest.
  • Shaw donated his 1925 Nobel Prize for Literature money towards the publication of an English edition of the work of the Swedish playwright August Strindberg whose work had never been honored by the Swedish Academy in charge of the awards.
  • Another Shaw bequest specified that part of his estate should be used to revise the English alphabet. An edition of his Androcles and the Lion actually was published with this new alphabet but that was as far as this project went. The royalties from his plays and My Fair Lady, the musicalized version of Pygmalion, have gone far towards keeping such institutions as the National Gallery of Ireland, the British Museum, and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art financially afloat.
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Links To Plays By and About Shaw and Books you Might Want to Read
   Plays Reviewed
2005 Shaw Festival Feature
After The Ball --this is actually Noel Coward's musical chaneling of Shaw's Lady Windemere's Fan (Irish Rep)
Arms and the Man(New Jersey Shakespeare Company2010)
Arms and the Man (Pearl Theater)
Arms and the Man (Berkshires) . . .Roundabout Theater Production
Best of Friends(London)
A Minister's Wifemusical adaptation of Candida (Lincoln Center 2011)
Candida/ George Bernard Shaw(Off-Broadway Irish Rep2010)
Candida(Berkshire Theatre Festival2008)
Candida (Pearl Theatre- 1998)
Candida (Jean Cocteau--2005)
Caesar and Cleopatra/ (Resonance Ensemble, 2009)
Caesar and Cleopatra
Dear Liar revival of epistolary drama about Shaw and Mrs. Patrick Campbell
The Devil's Disciple/George Bernard Shaw (New Jersey 2014)
The Devil's Disciple (Irish Rep 2007)
Fanny's First Play (DC 2006)
Heartbreak House (London 2018)
Heartbreak House (Broadway, 2006)
Heartbreak House (Berkshires, 2004)
Heartbreak House (Pearl Theater Off-Broadway, 2003)
Jitta's Atonement (Berkshires)
John Bull's Other Island (Toronto)
Major Barbara (Pearl Theatre 2014)
Major Barbara(London2008)
Major Barbara
Major Barbara (Canada)
Major Barbara (Kabuki style avante-garde Off-Off Broadway, 2006)
(Irish Rep 2012)
Misalliance (New Jersey 2015)
Misalliance(Los Angeles 2010
Misalliance (2009 Pearl Theater
You Never Can Tell (London)
ard Shaw'(Broadway 2010)
Mrs. Warren's Profession( Roundabout- Broadway 2010)
Mrs Warren's Profession (London 2010)
Mrs. Warren's Profession (Mc Carter Theater, New Jersey 2009)
Mrs. Warren's Profession (Berkshire Theatre Festival2007)
Mrs. Warren's Profession(London)
Mrs. Warren's Profession (Irish Rep-Off-Broadway)
My Astonishing Self a monodrama about G.B.S.
The Philanderer (Pearl Theater 2012)
The Philanderer (Theatre 1010, 2009)
Pygmalion (London 2008)
Pygmalion (Williamstown Theater Festival 2013)
Pygmalion (Roundabout-Broadway 2007)
Pygmalion (London 2011)
Pygmalion (London 2008)
Saint Joan (2018 Broadway)
Saint Joan (London 2007)
Saint Joan (Off-Broadway2013)
Widowers' Houses (2016 Off-Broadway)
Widowers' Houses (Pearl Theater)
Widowers' Houses, modern adaptation (Epic Theatre Center)
You Never Can Tell (Pearl Theater 2013). You Never Can Tell
You Never Can Tell(2005 Shaw Festival--Ontario)

Lots of Shaw books in print and available through our Book Store

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Quotes from Jack's The Revolutionist's Handbook and Pocket Companion and the Don Juan in Hell segment included at the end of review of the 2012 production of Man and Supermanat the Irish Repertory Theatre.

I'm fed up with respectability. I want to be an active verb—Hypatia in Misalliance

He was born to be a great success-- at 50—Lord Summerby about his immature son in Misalliance

He [her daughter's effete fiance) is like one of those expensive little dogs. —Mrs. Tarleton in Misalliance

About the bible: Not bad, if only you could make people believe it. — John Tarleton in Misalliance

Men are not governed by justice, but by law or persuasion. When they refuse to be governed by law or persuasion, they have to be governed by force or fraud, or both.— Lord Summerby in Misalliance

Democracy reads well but it doesn't act well — Lord Summerby in Misalliance

I like a book with a plot in it. You like a bookwith nothing in it but some idea that the chap that writes it keeps worrying, like a cat chasing its own tail. I can stand a little of it, just as I can stand watching the cat for two minutes, say, when I've nothing better to do. But a man soon gets fed up with that sort of thing. The fact is, you look on an author as a sort of god. _I look on him as a man that I pay to do a certain thing for me. I pay him to amuse me and to take me out of myself and make me forget. — Johnny Tarleton to his father in Misalliance

Once children grow up it's the end of relations. — John Tarleton in Misalliance

I came here to kill you and then myself— Gunner in Misalliance

Plot is the curse of serious drama. ---- George Bernard Shaw, correspondence

Her father {the ingenue heroine, Ellie Dunn) is a remarkable man. His name is Mazzini Dunn. Mazzini was a celebrity of some kind who knew Ellie's grandparents. They were both poets, like the Brownings; and when her father came into the world Mazzini said 'Another soldier born for freedom!' So they christened him Mazzini; and he has been fighting for freedom in his quiet way ever since. That's why he is so poor. --Mrs. Hushabye
I am proud of his poverty--Ellie
Of course you are, pettikins. Why not leave him in it, and marry someone you love? -- Mrs. Hushabye

But how can you love a liar?--Ellie upon discovering that Mrs. Hushabye's husband has been misrepresenting himself to her.
I don't know. But you can, fortunately. Otherwise there wouldn't be much love in the world. --Mrs. Hushabye.

Decent men are like Daniel in the lion's den: their survival is a miracle and they do not always survive.
--Hector Hushabye, Act 1 Heartbreak House.

Are we to be kept forever in the mud by these hogs to whom the universe is nothing but a machine for greasing their bristles and filling their snouts?-- Captain Shotover on his efforts to invent a dynamite that will undo the hogs represented by Boss Mangan.

What do men want? They have their food, their firesides, their clothes mended and our love at the end of the day. Why are they not satisfied. Why do they envy us the pain with which we bring them into the world, and make strange dangers and torments for themselves to be even with us?
-- Hesione Hushabye, Act 1 Heartbreak House.

Why do women always want other women's husbands? -- Ellie Dunn
Why do horse-thieves prefer a horse that is broken in to one's will?-- Captain Shotover
Act 1 Heartbreak House.

Papa, don't say you think I've no heart ---Lady Utterwood
If you had no heart how could you want to have it broken? -- Captain Shotover
Act 1 Heartbreak House.

Old-fashioned people think you can have a soul without money. Young people nowadays know better. Aa soul is a very expensive thing to keep, much more so than a motor car -- Ellie Dunn
Is it? How much does your soul eat?-- Captain Shotover
Oh, a lot. It eats music and pictures and books and mountains and lakes and beautiful things to wear and nice people to be with. In this country you can't have these without lots of money: that's why some souls are so horribly starved. -- Ellie Dunn
-- Ellie Dunn
Act 2 Heartbreak House.

A man's interest in the world is only the overflow from his interest in himself? When you are a child your vessel is not yet full so you care for nothing but your own affairs. When you grow up, your vessel overflows, and you are a politician, a philosopher, or an explorer and adventurer. In old age, the vessell dries up: there is no overflow: you are a child again.
-- Captain Shotover, Act 2 Heartbreak House.

I was brought up to be respectable. I don't mind the women dying their hair and men drinking; it's human nature. But it's not human nature to tell everybody about it. . . How can we have any self-respect if we don't keep it up that we're better than we really are?
-- Boss Mangan , Act 2 Heartbreak House.

I drink to keep sober. --Captain Shotover, Act 2 Heartbreak House.

We sit here talking and leave everything to Mangan {a businessman in the mold of many modern corporate executives} and to chance and to the devil. Think of the powers of destruction that Mangan and his mutual admiration gang wield? It's madness: it's like giving a torpedo to a badly brought up child to play at eqrthquakes with.
Act 2 Heartbreak House.

When your heart is broken, your boats are burned: nothing matters anymore. It is the end of happiness and the beginning of peace. --Hector Hushabye, Act 1 Heartbreak House.

We of this house are only moths flying into the candle.
--Hector Hushabye, Act 1 Heartbreak House.


The important thing is not to have the last word, but to have your own way--Lady Utterwood-- when Mangan, the man who wishes for the last word, tells Lady Utterwood that Ellie wants both, she tells him: She won't get them. Providence always has the last word.

is the coward's revenge for being intimidated.
--Barbara Undershaft, in Major Barbara, Act 3.

I like a bit of mongrel myself, whether it's a man or a dog; they're the best for every day.
Episode 1--Misalliance

Prostitution is caused, not by female depravity and male licentiousness, but simply by underpaying, er-valuing and over-working women. -- George Bernard Shaw in his preface to Mrs Warren's Profession.

If I thought I was going to be like that {referring to her mother's friend Sir George Crofts} -- that I was going to be a waster, shifting along from one meal to another with no purpose, and no character, and no grit in me, I'd open an artery and bleed to death without a moment's hesitation--Vivie Warren in Mrs. Warren's Profession.

Do you think I did what I did because I liked it, or thought it right, or wouldn't rather have gone to college and been a lady if I'd had a chance?— Mrs. Warren in Mrs. Warren's Profession.

Everybody has some choice, mother. . .People are always blaming circumstances for what they are. I don't believe in circumstances. The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and, if they can't find them, make them.— Vivie Warren in Mrs. Warren's Profession.

If you're going to pick and choose your acquaintances on moral principles,you'd better clear out of this country, unless you want to cut yourself out of all decent society.—Sir George Croft to Vivie Warren in Mrs. Warren's Profession.

People have pointed out evidences of personal feeling in my notices as if they were accusing me of a misdemeanor, not knowing that criticism written without personal feeling is not worth reading. It is the capacity for making good or bad art a personal matter that makes a man a critic. . .
-- from an essay by Shaw the critic in 1890. It concludes with "Never in my life have I penned an impartial criticism, and I hope I never may." His theater columns for The Saturday Review were a running campaign to displace the hypocisies of the theater of the time which he tagged "sardoodledom."

Criticism has positive popular attractions in its. . .gladiatorship
-- from The Quintessence of G.B. S. br>
Shaw On Himself Few people think more than two or three times a year; I have made an international reputation for myself by thinking once or twice a week.<

My reputation grows with every failure.

My whole secret is that I have got clean through the old categories of good and evil, and no longer use them, even for dramatic effect.

A mind of the calibre of mine cannot derive its nutriment from cows.

I turned my hand to playwriting when a great deal of talk about "the New Drama" followed by the actual establishment of a "New" theatre (The Independent) threatened to end in the humiliating discovery that the New Drama, in England at least, was a figment of the revolutionary imagination. I had rashly taken up the case, and rather than let it collapse, I manufactured the evidence. — Shaw on becoming a playwright.

Shaw Interviewing himself on his First Play (1893)
As a playwright, Mr. Shaw, you are of course a follower of Ibsen?

What! I a follower of Ibsen? My good sir, as far as England is concerned, Ibsen is a follower of mine

Shakespeare is your model perhaps?

Shakespeare! stuff! Shakespeare —a disillusioned idealist! a pessimist! a rationalist! a capitalist! If the fellow had not been a great poet, his rubbish would have been forgotten long ago. Moli4re, as a thinker, was worth a thousand Shakespeares. If my play is not better than Shakespeare, let it be damned promptly.

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