George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) was born in Dublin, the capital of Ireland, which was then under British rule. His father was a small employee and he had a very limited income he could not keep his son long at school. Shaw left school at the age of fourteen and at the age of fifteen he had to become an office worker to earn his livelihood. His mother divorced her husband and went to London, where – having a beautiful voice – she started giving concerts and teaching music. At the age of twenty Shaw also went to London, where he lived in poverty and struggling hard to find his way in life. He lived on a very small income which his father sent him – his mother could hardly make both ends meet – and studied all day long in the library of the British Museum, which helped him get a thorough knowledge of literature and culture in general.
There he also studied Karl Marx’s Capital and the works of well-known economists. He became attached to the Socialist movement and a member of the Fabian Society, which was founded in 1884 and for which he wrote the Manifesto or declaration of principles.
Very soon he succeeded in revealing himself to the British public as an immensely energetic journalist, critic, publicist, novelist, and reformer.
Shaw began his literary career by writing novels. But it was in the drama that Shaw found the congenital medium for the dissemination of his ideas. He popularized dramatic criticism with his Quintessence of Ibsenism (1891), in which he presented the Norwegian dramatist as as the exponent of a new genre – the “social plays” – and by articles in the periodical reviews. At the same time he sent the example of how a play should be written writing himself such plays as Widower’s Houses (1892) and Mrs. Warren’s Profession, which dealt with social evils.
His first three plays from a cycle which he called Plays Unpleasant because they revealed unpleasant things connected with the ruling classes. In them, he shows that the welfare of the respectable middle classes is based on the misery of the poor population.
Because of the great scandal his first plays caused, Shaw changed the tone of his later ones and wrote the cycle which he entitled The four Pleasant Plays (1894-1895).
Of these Arms of the Man and The Man of Destiny deserve special mention. In them Shaw endeavors the wipe out the romantic aura with which middle-class militarists try to surround war and historical military figures. Thus he tells us that the genius of Napoleon lies in having discovered that with the help of cannons more men can be killed than with the usual rifles and bayonets.
In Major Barbara Shaw’s criticism of the capitalist system reaches its culminating point. Undershaft, the ammunition manufacturer, is the ruler of England and the cynicism with which he confesses how he holds the government, the political people, the press and the police in his hands and at his orders is most characteristic of all unscrupulous exploiters. In power of thought and brilliance of style never surpassed Major Barbara which has come to be considered as his masterpiece.
Shaw saw in the drama a vehicle for presenting in entertaining and provocative form his criticism of the abuses and contradictions of the social order of his time and his suggestions of the true way in which to view life and social institutions.
As a supporter of socialist ideas, he disapproved of the institutions of the society in which he lived.
He took great pleasure in ridiculing, upsetting, scandalizing his public, for his object was to satirize, not the invented characters in the plays, but the audience. In this connection he himself tells us:
“I must warn my readers that my attacks are directed against themselves, not against my stage figures,” because these readers, the audiences, the public, tolerated the state of affairs against Shaw rose.
Shaw regarded himself as primarily and antiromantic. The romantic view, he claimed, got in the way of people’s seeing what really went on in the world, with the result that it made them accept the most appalling horrors only because the society in which they lived was educated to approve them. To “romantic morality”, he opposed “natural morality”.
SOURCE: V. Stefanescu-Draganesti, George Bernard Shaw