George Bernard Shaw, Irish playwright, critic and polemicist, wins the Nobel Prize in Literature on November 11, 1925. Born in Dublin on July 26, 1856, Shaw is the only person to receive both a Nobel Prize in Literature and an Oscar (1938), for his work on the film Pygmalion, the adaptation of his play of the same name.
Shaw’s influence on Western theatre, culture and politics extends from the 1880s to his death and beyond. He writes more than sixty plays, including major works such as Man and Superman (1902), Pygmalion (1912) and Saint Joan (1923). With a range incorporating both contemporary satire and historical allegory, Shaw becomes the leading dramatist of his generation, culminating in 1925 with his awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Shaw moves to London in 1876, where he struggles to establish himself as a writer and novelist, and embarks on a rigorous process of self-education. By the mid-1880s he has become a respected theatre and music critic. Following a political awakening, he joins the gradualist Fabian Society and becomes its most prominent pamphleteer. He has been writing plays for years before his first public success, Arms and the Man, in 1894. Influenced by Henrik Ibsen, he seeks to introduce a new realism into English-language drama, using his plays as vehicles to disseminate his political, social and religious ideas. By the early twentieth century his reputation as a dramatist is secured with a series of critical and popular successes that included Major Barbara, The Doctor’s Dilemma and Caesar and Cleopatra.
Shaw’s expressed views are often contentious. He promotes eugenics and alphabet reform, and opposes vaccination and organised religion. He courts unpopularity by denouncing both sides in World War I as equally culpable, and although not a republican, castigates British policy on Ireland in the postwar period. These stances have no lasting effect on his standing or productivity as a dramatist. The inter-war years see a series of often ambitious plays, which achieve varying degrees of popular success. In 1938 he provides the screenplay for a filmed version of Pygmalion for which he receives an Academy Award.
Shaw’s appetite for politics and controversy remain undiminished. By the late 1920s he has largely renounced Fabian gradualism and often writes and speaks favourably of dictatorships of the right and left. He expresses admiration for both Benito Mussolini and Joseph Stalin. In the final decade of his life he makes fewer public statements, but continues to write prolifically until shortly before his death on November 2, 1950, refusing all state honours including the Order of Merit in 1946.
Since Shaw’s death scholarly and critical opinion has varied about his works, but he has regularly been rated as second only to William Shakespeare among British dramatists. Analysts recognise his extensive influence on generations of English-language playwrights. The word “Shavian” has entered the language as encapsulating Shaw’s ideas and his means of expressing them.