George Bernard Shaw, Irish playwright, critic, and polemicist, dies at the age of 94 on November 2, 1950 at Ayot St. Lawrence, Hertfordshire, England. His influence on Western theatre, culture, and politics extend from the 1880s to his death and beyond.
Shaw 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, he becomes the leading dramatist of his generation, and in 1925 is awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Shaw is born on July 26, 1856, at 3 Upper Synge Street in Portobello, a lower-middle-class area of Dublin. The Shaw family is of English descent and belong to the dominant Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland. Between 1865 and 1871, Shaw attends four schools, all of which he hates. His experiences as a schoolboy leave him disillusioned with formal education. In October 1871 he leaves school to become a junior clerk in a Dublin firm of land agents, where he works hard and quickly rises to become head cashier. During this period, he is known as “George Shaw”; after 1876, he drops the “George” and styles himself “Bernard Shaw.”
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 include 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 Shaw provides the screenplay for a filmed version of Pygmalion for which he receives an Academy Award. His 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 Mussolini and Stalin. In the final decade of his life he makes fewer public statements, but continues to write prolifically until shortly before his death, refusing all state honours including the Order of Merit in 1946.
During his later years, Shaw enjoys tending the gardens at Shaw’s Corner. He dies on November 2, 1950, at the age of 94 of renal failure precipitated by injuries incurred when falling while pruning a tree. His body is cremated at Golders Green Crematorium on November 6, 1950. His ashes, mixed with those of his wife Charlotte, are scattered along footpaths and around the statue of Saint Joan in their garden.
Since Shaw’s death scholarly and critical opinion has varied about his works, but he has regularly been rated as second only to Shakespeare among English-language dramatists. Analysts recognise his extensive influence on generations of playwrights. The word “Shavian” has entered the language as encapsulating Shaw’s ideas and his means of expressing them.