Today in Literary History – July 26, 1856 – George Bernard Shaw is born

George Bernard Shaw, one of the greatest playwrights of the modern era and the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature was born in Dublin, Ireland on July 26, 1856.

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Shaw lived a long and eventful life, spanning the Victorian, Edwardian, and post World War II eras. He died in 1950 at the age of 94, still in vigorous physical and mental health.

Shaw was the only son of George Shaw, an alcoholic who was supported by his family, and his wife Lucinda Elizabeth, known as Bessie.

Bessie was an aspiring singer, and her tutor, George Lee, moved into the household in 1862, when Shaw was seven, and effectively usurped the constantly inebriated George Shaw’s role.

Ten years later Bessie left her husband for good and moved to England with George Lee and her two daughters.

Shaw was obsessed throughout his life with the possibility that George Lee was his biological father.

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Shaw himself hated the name George and never used it either professionally or privately, insisting on being known as Bernard Shaw, but despite his efforts he usually lost the battle.

Shaw joined his mother and sisters in London in 1876, never to live in Ireland again. He worked at low-paying jobs, became a vegetarian on ethical grounds, and grew a beard in order to hide his smallpox scars.

While in London Shaw published several unsuccessful novels and eked out an existence as a book reviewer and music, theatre and art critic for newspapers and magazines, while receiving a stipend from his mother.

Politics, primarily the socialist Fabian Society, began to absorb his time. Shaw’s early plays were coloured by his overt political messaging.

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Saw posing as Rodin’s The Thinker, 1906

It wasn’t until near the end of the 19th century that Shaw finally hit his stride with a string of plays that artfully mixed politics and humour with compelling storytelling.

As the new century began, Shaw was writing enormously popular plays that are considered classics today: Man and Superman (1903), Major Barbara (1905), Pygmalion (1912), and Saint Joan (1923).

Pygmalion is Shaw’s most famous and popular play. It was filmed in 1938 and Shaw won an Academy Award for his screenplay. It was reworked in 1964 as the film My Fair Lady.

Shaw’s politics were always very naïve. He was a great supporter of Joseph Stalin, who he met in 1931. He also praised Adolf Hitler in 1933 as “a very remarkable man, a very able man.”

Shaw died at the age of 94, after breaking a leg in a fall while pruning trees in his garden, leading to other complications

Aware of his impending death, Shaw said “Well, it will be a new experience, anyway.”

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