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The Life of George Bernard Shaw and How Pygmalion Was Created

Bernard Shaw (he hated the "George" and never used it) was born on July, 26th 1856 in Dublin, in a lower-middle class family of Scottish-Protestant ancestry, a family he described as of shabby genteel lineage. His father was a failed corn-merchant, with a drinking problem and a squint (which Oscar Wilde's father, a leading Dublin surgeon, tried unsuccessfully to correct); his mother was a professional singer, a voice teacher claiming to have a unique and original approach to singing.

Lucinda Elizabeth (Bessie) Shaw (née Gurly; 1830–1913)

He grew up a Protestant in the predominantly Catholic city of Dublin. He attended four schools and was tutored by a clerical uncle, but left his formal schooling behind him at the age of 14 and was always critical of formal education. Shaw gave himself a rigorous informal education. He developed a wide knowledge of music, art and literature under the influence of his mother, a singer and vocal music teacher, and as a result of his visits to the National Gallery of Ireland.

Vandeleur Lee (no good photo exists)

When Shaw was just short of his sixteenth birthday, his mother left her husband and son and moved with Vandeleur Lee to London, where the two set up a household, along with Shaw's older sister Lucy (who later became a successful music hall singer). Shaw remained in Dublin with his father, working as a clerk for an estate office (which he hated).His father drank heavily. Shaw becames a Teetotaller (noalcohol). Shaw's emarassing alcoholic father claimed to be descendent from Macduff, the slyer of Macbeth. When the father of Shaw died in 1885, noone of his children nor his wife attended the funeral.

In 1876, at the age of 20, he moved to London, to embark on a literary career. There he lived off of his mother and sister while pursuing a career in journalism and writing. He spent his afternoons in the British Museum, and his evenings pursuing his informal education in the form of lectures and debates.

The first medium he tried as a creative writer was prose, completing five novels (the first one appropriately titled Immaturity), that no one would publish until friends serialized them in magazines, started on his first play, and made public speeches on various topics of political and social controversy.

Bernard Shaw declared himself a socialist in 1882 and joined the Fabian Society in 1884; soon he distinguished himself as a fluent and effective public speaker and an incisive and irreverent critic of music, art and drama. Influenced by socialist lectures and by reading Marx's Das Kapital, he joined the Fabian Society in 1884. The Fabian Society was an influential group dedicated to establishing a socialist democracy in Britain. Shaw quickly became a major spokesperson for the Fabians and their ideas. Standing on soapboxes, at Speaker's Corner in Hyde Park and at socialist rallies, he learned to overcome his stagefright and his stammer. And, to hold the attention of the crowd, he developed an energetic and aggressive speaking style that is evident in all of his writing. Among his associates in the Society were the artist William Morris, author H.G. Wells, feminist Annie Besant, and economic reformers Sidney and Beatrice Webb. The Fabian society would later be instrumental in founding the London School of Economics and the Labour Party. Shaw lectured for the Fabian Society, and wrote pamphlets on the progressive arts, including The Perfect Wagnerite, an interpretation of Richard Wagner's Ring cycle, and The Quintessence of Ibsenism, based on a series of lectures about the progressive Norwegian playwright, Henrik Ibsen.

As a writer, he struggled through the late 1870s and much of the 1880s trying to establish a name for himself by writing reviews and criticism for numerous publications: book reviews for The Pall Mall Gazette, art criticism for The World, music criticism for The Star and The World (writing under the pseudonym "Corno di Bassetto"), and finally, from 1895 to 1898, as Theatre Critic for the Saturday Review, where his reviews appeared over the infamous initials "GBS."

In 1891, at the invitation of J.T. Grein, a merchant, theatre critic, and director of a progressive private new-play society, The Independent Theatre, a company founded to produce new plays by new modern playwrights, Shaw wrote his first play, Widower's Houses. Widowers' Houses was this company's second production, following the English premiere of Ibsen's Ghosts the year before.

It was followed by The Philanderer and Mrs Warren’s Profession. Published as Plays Unpleasant (1898), these Bernard Shaw plays reflect Shaw’s admiration for the “new drama” of Ibsen. Like many of his peers, Shaw was greatly impressed with Ibsen's new drama of social realism. In 1891 he wrote an essay on the subject entitled The Quintessence of Ibsenism. Shaw despised the sentimental romance being presented to London audiences in contemporary plays. He advocated instead that greater attention be paid to Ibsen and his innovations. Shaw valued the way the stage could become a platform for the communication of ideas: through his own plays he sought to confront audiences with issues of social and political importance.

For the next twelve years, he wrote close to a dozen plays, though he generally failed to persuade the managers of the London Theatres to produce them. A few were produced abroad; one (Arms and the Man) was produced under the auspices of an experimental management; one (Mrs Warren's Profession) was censored by the Lord Chamberlain's Examiner of Plays (the civil servant who, from 1737 until 1967, was empowered with the prior censorship of all spoken drama in England); and several were presented in single performances by private societies.

In 1898, after a serious illness, Shaw resigned as theatre critic, and moved out of his mother's house (where he was still living at the age of 42) to marry Charlotte Payne-Townsend, an Irish woman of independent means. Their marriage (quite possibly sexually unconsummated) lasted until Charlotte's death in 1943.

He maintained a passionate correspondence with Beatrice Stella Patrick Campbell, a widow and actress. Pygmalion was written for her.

Shaw's plays, including Misalliance, are filled with problematic parent-child relationships: with children who are brought up in isolation from their parents; with foundlings, orphans, and adopted heirs; and with parents who wrongly presume that they are entitled to their children's obedience and affection. He aimed to stimulate not only the hearts, but also the minds of London's theatre-goers. One of the major innovations of Shavian drama was the unusually large role he gave to thought and debate - but thought enlivened with a love of wordplay and paradox.

Although initially considered subversive because of the subjects he chose to portray, by the turn of the century Shaw had secured his reputation as a major playwright. His plays were produced on both sides of the Atlantic, and his scripts were published and distributed widely.
In 1904, Harley Granville Barker, an actor, director and playwright twenty years younger than Shaw who had appeared in a private theatre society's production of Shaw's Candida, took over the management of the Court Theatre on Sloane Square in Chelsea (outside of the "Theatreland" of the fashionable West End) and set up it up as an experimental theatre specializing in new and progressive drama. Over the next three seasons, Barker produced ten plays by Shaw (with Barker officially listed as director, and with Shaw actually directing his own plays), and Shaw began writing new plays with Barker's management specifically in mind. 

Over the next ten years, all but one of Shaw's plays (Pygmalion in 1914) was produced either by Barker or by Barker's friends and colleagues in the other experimental theater managements around England. With royalties from his plays, Shaw, who had become financially independent on marrying, now became quite wealthy. Throughout the decade, he remained active in the Fabian Society, in city government (he served as vestryman for the London borough of St. Pancras), and on committees dedicated to ending dramatic censorship, and to establishing a subsidized National Theatre.

The outbreak of war in 1914 changed Shaw's life. For Shaw, the war represented the bankruptcy of the capitalist system, the last desperate gasps of the nineteenth-century empires, and a tragic waste of young lives, all under the guise of patriotism. He expressed his opinions in a series of newspaper articles under the title Common Sense About the War. These articles proved to be a disaster for Shaw's public stature: he was treated as an outcast in his adopted country, and there was even talk of his being tried for treason. His dramatic output ground to a halt, and he succeeded in writing only one major play during the war years, Heartbreak House, into which he projected his bitterness and despair about British politics and society.

After the war, Shaw found his dramatic voice again and rebuilt his reputation, first with a series of five plays about "creative evolution," Back to Methuselah, and then, in 1923, with Saint Joan.

After the advent of talking films in the 1920s, Shaw's scripts began to find a place in the burgeoning film industry. Although a fan of movies since the early days of silent films, Shaw refused to sell the screen rights to his scripts unless he could retain some control over the final product. In the 1930s and 1940s he adapted several of his plays for film, including How He Lied to Her Husband (1931), Arms and The Man (1932), Pygmalion (1938), Major Barbara (1941), and Caesar and Cleopatra (1945).

In 1925 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Not needing the money, he donated the cash award towards an English edition of the Swedish playwright August Strindberg, who had never been recognized with a Nobel prize by the Swedish Academy. Shaw's plays were regularly produced and revived in London. Several theatre companies in the United States began producing his plays, old and new, on a regular basis (most notably the Theatre Guild in New York, and the Hedgerow Theatre, in Rose Valley, PA, which became internationally known for its advocacy of the plays of Shaw and the Irish playwright Sean O'Casey). In the late 1920s, a Shaw festival was established in England (in a town, coincidentally, named Malvern).

In 1938 he wrote a screenplay for Pygmalion and became the first and only man ever to be awarded both the Nobel Prize and an Oscar, an Academy Award.

Shaw lived the rest of his life as an international celebrity, travelling the world with his wife, continually involved in local and international politics. (He visited the Soviet Union at the invitation of Stalin; and he came briefly to the United States at the invitation of William Randolph Hearst, stepping on shore only twice, for a lecture at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, and for lunch at Hearst's castle in San Simeon in California). And he continued to write thousands of letters and over a dozen more plays.

In 1950, Shaw fell off a ladder while trimming a tree on his property at Ayot St. Lawrence in Hertfordshire, outside of London, and died a few days later of renal failure precipitated by injuries at the age of 94. He was cremated at Golders Green Crematorium on 6 November 1950. His ashes, mixed with those of Charlotte, were scattered along footpaths and around the statue of Saint Joan in their garden.

He had been at work on yet another play (Why She Would Not). In his will, he left a large part of his estate to a project to revamp the English alphabet. (Only one volume was published with the new "Shaw Alphabet": a parallel text edition of Shaw's Androcles and the Lion). After that project failed, the estate was divided among the other beneficiaries in his will: the National Gallery of Ireland, the British Museum, and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Royalties from Shaw's plays (and from the musical My Fair Lady, based on Shaw's Pygmalion) have helped to balance the budgets of these institutions ever since.


The origin of the name: Pygmalion
The King of Cyprus, Pygmalion was a famous  sculptor. He made an ivory image of a woman so lovely that he fell in love with it.Every day he tried to make Galatea up in gold and purple,for that was the name he had given to this mistress of his heart.He embraced and kissed it,but it remained a statue.In despair he went to Aphrodite's shrine for help.Offering rich sacrifice and sending up a passionate prayer,he begged the goddess to give him a wife as graceful as Galatea.Back home,he went straight up to the statue.Even as he gazed at it a change came over it.A faint colour appeared on its cheeks,a gleam shone from its eyes and its lips opened into a sweet smile.Pygmalion stood speechless when Ualatea began to move towards him.She was simple and sweet and alive!Soon the room was ringing with her sliver voice.The work of his own hands became his wife.

Shaw wrote the lead role of   Eliza Doolittle for Mrs Patrick Campbell (though at 49 she  was considered by some to   be too old for the role). Owing to delays in mounting a London production and Mrs.  Campbell's injury in a car accident, the first English presentation did not take place until some time after Pygmalion premiered at the  Hofburg Theatre in Vienna on October 16, 1913, in a German translation by Shaw. The first production in English finally opened at His Majesty's Theatre, London on April 11,1914 and starred Mrs Campbell as Eliza and Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree as Henry Higgins; it was directed by Shaw himself.

Pygmalion is not the typical romance we think of today. Victorian romances, such as Pygmalion set out to examine social issues.They often showcased poor but honorable leading ladies and male protagonists who learned that wealth and social class do not define a person’s character.

  • London, 1912
  • During this era, both in the play and in real life, there were huge differences between the rich and the poor. 
  • Social classes were clearly defined, and it was hard to move from one class to another.
  • Women did not have the same rights as men and were often looked at as inferior.
  • Women’s Rights: the right to vote in 1928, Equal Pay Act of 1970, and Margaret Thatcher became the first woman prime minister. 
  • Technology: radio, television, automobile, airplane, bread slicer, and Kool-aid.

  • Upper Class: didn’t work, noble men and women; In the play: HOST and HOSTESS of the Embassy Ball
  • Upper Middle Class: worked but were employed in safe, clean jobs (lawyers, doctors, professors); In the play: HENRY HIGGINS, COLONEL PICKERING
  • Lower Middle Class: worked in dangerous jobs and unsanitary conditions
  • Lower Class: did not work or worked little, had no financial freedom, were often servants; In the play: ELIZA DOOLITTLE

  • Eliza learns that women in the upper classes in fact do not have the independence that women of the lower classes do.  They must be connected to a man in some way to be respectable within “middle-class morality.”
  • Eliza rejects being a “gold-digger” and Higgins rejects female “puppy-dog” tricks.
  • Only a working skill frees Eliza.

  • Shavian Drama is a type of politically and socially charged “discussion play” made popular by George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde.
  • In Pygmalion, Shaw tackles issues about women’s rights, language, social class, and the idea of self-transformation.