The Kennedy Center

George Bernard Shaw


George Bernard Shaw was born in Dublin in 1856 into a lower-middle class family of Scottish-Protestant ancestry. During his career, despite his shyness, Shaw created the persona of showman, controversialist, satirist, critic, pundit, wit, intellectual buffoon and dramatist. Commentators brought a new adjective into the English language, Shavian, to describe how Shaw combined contemporary moral problems with ironic tone and paradoxes.

After Shaw’s arrival in London in 1876, he became involved in progressive politics. Standing on soapboxes at Speaker's Corner in Hyde Park and at socialist rallies, Shaw learned to overcome his stagefright and developed an energetic and aggressive speaking style that is evident in all of his writing. With Beatrice and Sidney Webb, Shaw founded the Fabian Society, a socialist political organization dedicated to transforming Britain into a socialist state by systematic progressive legislation, bolstered by mass education. Shaw wrote several pamphlets on the progressive arts, ranging from Wagner’s music to Ibsen’s plays. In addition, Shaw worked as art critic, music critic and, 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 The Independent Theatre, Shaw wrote his first play, Widower's Houses, an attack on social hypocrisy. For the next twelve years, he wrote close to a dozen plays. In 1904, Harley Granville Barker set up the Court Theatre in Chelsea as an experimental theatre specializing in new and progressive drama. Over the next three seasons, Barker produced ten plays written and directed by Shaw. During the ensuing ten years, Shaw continued to write plays including Pygmalion (1914), on which the musical My Fair Lady is based. Throughout this period, Shaw remained active in the Fabian Society, in city government and on committees dedicated to ending dramatic censorship, and to establishing a subsidized National Theatre.

During World War I, Shaw’s dramatic output ground to a halt, and he succeeded in writing only one major play, Heartbreak House, into which he projected his bitterness and despair about British politics and society. After the war, Shaw found his dramatic voice again in the play, Saint Joan (1923), regarded as a masterpiece. Then, in 1925, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Shaw's plays were regularly produced and revived in London and in several theatre companies in the United States. Shaw lived the rest of his life as an international celebrity, traveling the world, continually involved in local and international politics. He continued to write thousands of letters and over a dozen more plays. In 1950, Shaw died at the age of 94, due to complications from an injury.
George Shaw