Heartbreak House:

People's Light & Theatre Company

June, 1998

Dramaturg's Note

Bernard Shaw: a Brief Biography

Cary M. Mazer, University of Pennsylvania

Guest Dramaturg

Born in Dublin in 1856 to a precariously middle-class Protestant family, G. Bernard Shaw received a minimal secondary-school education and worked, miserably, as a clerk until 1876, when he set out for London and moved in with his mother (who had abandoned Shaw's father four years earlier to pursue her career as a singer). Once in London, Shaw began to educate himself in earnest, spending hours and hours in the main reading room of the British Museum reading art, literature, music, and political theory. He learned to overcome stagefright and a stammer by lecturing on soapboxes at Speakers Corner in Hyde Park. And he began to write, trying his hand at novels (he wrote five) and making a living as a professional journalist, writing about art, music, and theatre.

During the next twenty years, Shaw became a prominent advocate of numerous political causes, including socialism, vegetarianism, anti- vivisectionism (i.e. animal rights), rational dress, state subsidy of the arts, spelling reform, and alphabet reform. He co-founded the Fabian Society, a political organization dedicated to transforming Britain into a socialist state, not by revolution but by systematic progressive legislation, bolstered by persuasion and mass education.

In 1891 Shaw tried his hand at playwriting. For the next twelve years, he wrote close to a dozen plays, though he generally failed to persuade the managers of the London Theatres to produce them. Only a few were produced commercially or abroad; and a few others were performed by private experimental theatre societies. Then, in 1904, a younger contemporary, Harley Granville Barker, initiated a progressive theatre management at the Court Theatre, and began producing Shaw's plays, new and old, under Shaw's direction. With his new commercial success as a playwright (and after marrying an Irish heiress in 1898 and finally moving out of his mother's house), Shaw was now financially independent, and could dedicate his boundless energies to writing, lecturing, and political activism. Over the course of his long life, he wrote over forty plays; countless lectures, article, pamphlets, and letters to newspapers; and thousands of letters. Every problem in society, it seemed, could be solved by clear-thinking, sheer exuberance, and a torrent of words.

The outbreak of war in 1914 momentarily changed all that. For Shaw, the war represented the bankruptcy of the capitalist system, the last desperate gasps of the nineteenth-century empires, and a tragic waste of young lives, all under the guise of patriotism. He expressed his opinions in a series of newspaper articles under the title Common Sense About the War. He was shocked to discover that no one agreed with him: he was treated as an outcast in his adopted country, and there was even talk of his being tried for treason. The failure of his readers to see, and his own failure to make them see, affected Shaw deeply, leaving him, in his early sixties, with profound doubts about his vocation. His dramatic output ground to a halt, and he succeeded in writing only one major play during the war years: Heartbreak House. Only after the war, with Saint Joan in 1923 and the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925, did his reputation recover. From then until his death in 1950, he continued to write, and his plays continued to be produced and revived around the world.