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In tribute to George Bernard Shaw
by Bridget Haggerty

Did you know that G.B.S. wrote more plays than Shakespeare? Not only was he a prolific dramatist, he was also a supporter of women's rights, advocated equality of income, supported radical change in the voting system and campaigned for the simplification of spelling and the reform of the English alphabet. In 1925 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He accepted the honor but refused the money.

While he was basically rather a shy person, he created the persona of G.B.S - the showman, controversialist, satirist, critic, pundit, wit, intellectual buffoon and dramatist. As a public speaker, Shaw gained the status of one of the most sought-after orators in England. His accomplishments are legendary when one considers his somewhat humble beginnings.

He was born in Dublin on July 25th, 1856. His father, George Carr Shaw, was in the wholesale grain trade. His mother, Lucinda Elisabeth (Gurly) Shaw, was the daughter of an impoverished landowner. Childhood for Shaw was far from happy. His father was a drunk which made the son a teetotaller. In fact, when his dad died in 1885, not one member of the immediate family went to the funeral. As for his mother, she left the rearing of Shaw and his two sisters mostly to servants. While that may sound as if the family had money, the truth was that they had very limited resources, living in what can only be described as genteel poverty in a shabby area of Dublin.

At age 14, Shaw left school and went to work as a junior clerk. Six years later, the family moved to London, England, where his mother pursued a career as a music teacher. Shaw would not return to the land of his birth for nearly three decades.

For the next several years, he continued his education at the British Museum and became keenly interested in cultural topics. He began his literary career by writing critiques of music and drama. He also wrote several novels, including the semi-autobiographical Immaturity, but without much success.

A vegetarian who eschewed alcohol and tobacco, Shaw became interested in socialism and joined the Fabian Society, a middle-class socialist group in 1884. He served on its executive committee from 1885 to 1911, lectured widely and became well-known for his brilliance as a public speaker. It was during this time that he brought into the society Beatrice and Sidney Webb and it was through them that he met Charlotte Payne-Townshend whom he married in 1898.

One has to wonder if the man ever slept. In 1893, he collaborated with Keir Hardie in writing the platform for the new Independent Labour party; he was co-founder with the Webbs of the London School of Economics, and he launched the petition against the imprisonment of Oscar Wilde. In 1897, he entered local government. In the meantime, he continued to pour forth a seemingly endless stream of letters, music and drama reviews, and the first of an amazing litany of plays which were to revolutionize British theater.

The Norwegian playwright, Henrik Ibsen had a great influence on Shaw's thinking. His early plays, Widower's Houses, (which criticized slum landlords), as well as several subsequent ones, were not well received because of their ideological attacks on the evils of capitalism and explorations of moral and social problems. These were followed by lighter, more entertaining productions. For example, Candida was a comedy about the wife of a clergyman, and what happens when a weak, young poet wants to rescue her from her dull family life. However, it was not until the debut of John Bull's Other Island that he truly became popular with British theater-goers.

He also wrote on many social aspects of the day: essays including Commonsense about the War (1914), How to Settle the Irish Question (1917), and The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism (1928). Unfortunately , Shaw's popularity declined after Common Sense About the War was published because the public thought it was was unpatriotic. But, with the debut of his masterpiece, Saint Joan, he regained his literary stature and was acclaimed as 'the second Shakespeare.' Not one to shy away from controversy and his perception of the truth, Shaw wrote the play in 1924 - four years after Joan was declared a saint. As opposed to portraying her as a heroine and martyr, his Joan is a stubborn, sexless woman and he is sympathetic toward her judges.

Over the years, Shaw gained a reputation for brilliant prefaces to his plays which, in general, are dramatized essays that address the topics of individual responsibility or the refusal to accept the conformist demands of society. They are also characterized by combining contemporary moral problems with what has come to be known as "Shavian Wit" - deliciously ironic phrases such as "He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches", "England and America are two countries divided by a common language", and "I never resist temptation because I have found that things that are bad for me do not tempt me."

Shaw continued to write into his 90s. As for his personal life, he was occasionally linked with other women; he carried on a passionate correspondence with the actress, Mrs. Patrick Campbell, a widow who got the starring role of Eliza in Pygmalion because all of the other actresses refused to say the taboo word 'bloody.' When she wanted to publish his love letters to her, Shaw answered: "I will not, dear Stella, at my time of life, play the horse to your Lady Godiva."

He corresponded with other women too; but ultimately, he stayed with his wife, Charlotte, until her death. Shaw himself, died at their home in Ayot St. Lawrence, Hertfordshire, on November 2, 1950. It was his wish that he be cremated and his ashes mixed with Charlotte's, who had preceded him in death seven years earlier.

More than 50 years after his passing, his works are still as popular as ever; the following quotes from several of his plays and essays, as well as several from the great man himself, are testimony to his incredible wit and wisdom.

PICKERING: Have you no morals, man?
DOOLITTLE: Can't afford them, Governor. (from Pygmalion)

Build a system that even a fool can use, and only a fool will want to use it.

Christianity might be a good thing if anyone ever tried it.

The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and, if they can't find them, make them.

Reading made Don Quixote a gentleman, but believing what he read made him mad.

I assume that to prevent illness in later life, you should never have been born at all.

I like flowers. I also like children, but I do not chop off their heads and keep them in bowls of water around the house.

When I was young, I observed that nine out of ten things I did were failures. So I did ten times more work.

Few people think more than two or three times a year. I have made an international reputation for myself by thinking once or twice a week.

Am reserving two tickets for you for my premiere. Come and bring a friend - if you have one. (note to Sir Winston Churchill, inviting him to the opening of Saint Joan)
Churchill was more than a match for this one. He replied asking if it would be possible to have tickets for the second night - "if there was one."

The trouble with her is that she lacks the power of conversation but not the power of speech.

I would like to take you seriously, but to do so would be an affront to your intelligence.

There is no satisfaction in hanging a man who does not object to it.

The more things a man is ashamed of, the more respectable he is.

All great truths begin as blasphemies.

If all the economists in the world were laid end to end, they still wouldn't reach a conclusion.

Resources: "Atlantic Brief Lives", "Dictionary of Quotations", "The Concise Columbia Encyclopedia."
Image: Shaw holding his hat from Barewalls prints.
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Sun, Oct 1, 2017

Ireland's Most Haunted Castle

South-east of Birr between Kinnity and Roscrea, in Co. Offaly are the remains of Leap Castle. Originally an O'Carroll fortress, it guarded the pass from the Slieve Bloom into Munster. Said to have more than 50 ghosts, its dark and mysterious past includes the murder of a priest by his brother in the "Bloody Chapel" and the slaughter by their Irish employers of more than 50 Scots mercenaries in order to avoid payment. It has always had a reputation of being haunted and locals have described seeing the windows at the top of the castle "light up for a few seconds as if many candles were brought into the room" late at night. For more details read our article Creepy Irish Castles & Houses.
Photo Credit & More Details: H. J. Moncrieff


Click for More Culture Corner.




George Bernard Shaw's most popular comedy, the basis for MY FAIR LADY, concerns a phoneticist who bets that he can pass a flower girl off as a duchess.
See our Article Tribute to G.B. Shaw
Click here for Pygmalion


 

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