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George Bernard Shaw

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George Bernard Shaw

One of the greatest realistic writers in world literature was Bernard Shaw. He had close connections with English socialism. His life as a writer began in the eighties of the 19th century and lasted till the middle of our century. A great publicist and dramatist, he was always in the midst of political life in Britain. He took an active part in solving hum in problems, and he was deeply moved by questions of war and peace.

Bernard Shaw was born in 1856 in Dublin, the capital of Ireland. As a boy he seldom saw his parents. His father was occupied in a business which was almost bankrupt because it could not stand up against competition, and his mother devoted all her time to musical interests.

Shaw had a well-educated uncle, a clergyman with whom he read the classics. So when he entered school at the age of ten, he was much advanced and did better than all the other pupils in English composition. But the school course of studies was so dull for him that he soon grew tired of it and took refuge in idleness.

His parents made him change schools. He left one school for another, and then another, and again another, but everywhere the old-fashioned dull textbooks were the same, and they could not rouse the boy’s interest. He educated himself by reading, and by studying foreign languages. His mother, who had a very good voice, taught her son singing. This voice culture helped him later in his speeches, because his wonderful voice held people spell-bound.

At the age of fifteen Shaw went to work as a clerk. He came in contact with the common people and saw all the stages of poverty into which the Irish peasants had fallen. Many years later Shaw treated this subject in the play “John Bull’s Other Island”.

Shaw took a great interest in social movements and politics. He called himself an Irish proletarian. When the first socialist organizations appeared, he joined the Socialists.

In 1876 Bernard Shaw moved to London, where his mother had been making a living by giving music lessons. While in Dublin, Shaw had wanted to go in for art and study music, but in London he gave up this idea and decided to try his hand at writing. He had ripened to a new understanding of literature, and realized that the object of literature was to form people’s minds, to solve human problems, to lead people in social struggles.

Shaw took to reading literature on social subjects. In the eighties he read “Capital” by Karl Marx in the French translation. The works of Marks helped him to see the injustice of the capitalist system.

At the end of the century youth began to search for a new creed. Shaw held communistic ideas.

When the Fabian Society was being organized, Shaw took an active part in it. He wrote the manifesto for the Society and many pamphlets and articles on Socialism. But Shaw failed to see what the oppressed classes had to do in order to win liberty.

Yet in his writings he satirized all the faults of the British system of government so brilliantly, and ridiculed the imperialist policy with such wit that he gained tremendous popularity, and the English people nicknamed him ‘the bad boy of the nation’.

Engels and Lenin appreciated his witty criticism of the bourgeois system, but they regretted that Shaw could not find his way in politics and understood nothing about economies.

Along with political articles Shaw also wrote novels. By the end of the century he had written five novels. The best of these was “An Unsocial Socialist” in which he criticized capitalism very wittily.

Bernard Shaw and art

In 1885 Shaw was invited to review books, new plays and exhibitions for the Pall Mall Gazette. His knowledge of music made him an independent critic of the opera as well. His artistic taste was excellent. He insisted on sanity in art, that is to say that art should always be in step with life.

Shaw believed that if a dramatist or composer of opera followed only the old patterns of the classics, art would degenerate. Only when the dramatist portrayed life as near as possible to reality, would drama and opera develop new artistic forms, for life was constantly changing. He noticed that playgoers were growing in number and said that the theatre should become a factory for thought and should direct people in life.
Bernard Shaw and war

When the World War of 1914 broke out, Shaw wrote a strongly-worded pamphlet against militarism- “Common Sense about the War”. He said that Germany and Britain were equally to blame for starting the war, and advised the soldiers to shoot their own officers and return home in time for the harvest. Of course the pamphlet was furiously attacked by the reactionary ruling class, and Shaw was accused of being a traitor. A cartoon appeared showing Bernard Shaw as a mongrel: half Irish setter and half German police dog.


After the First Imperialist War finished two plays which he had begun in 1912. They were “Pygmalion” and “Heartbreak House”. The latter was written under the influence of Russian classics. Bernard Shaw considered both these plays among his best works.

Bernard Shaw and the Soviet Union

Bernard Shaw sympathized with Russia at the time of the Great October Socialist Revolution. Early in the twenties Bernard Shaw wrote many political pamphlets, all his articles showed him to be a friend of the Soviet Union. He visited our country in 1931 and enjoyed a healthy welcome. His 75th birthday was celebrated in Moscow.

Shaw’s opinion on the Soviet Union is reflected in his play “Too true to be good” (1931), in the pamphlet “The adventures of the black girl in her search for God” (1932), and in his political play “On the rocks” (1933), “Everybody’s political what’s what” (1944).
Bernard Shaw died at his country home in Herdfordshire, on November 2, 1950, at the age of ninety-four.

Works of Bernard Shaw

The creative works of Bernard Shaw is divided into two periods. The first period begins in 1879 and lasts till World War I. His literary work of the period comprises five novels, and a number of pamphlets, critical articles on art, and plays. The most important plays are:

Plays Unpleasant” (3 plays)

Plays Pleasant” (4 plays)

Three Plays for Puritans”

Man and Superman”

John Bull’s Other Island”

Major Barbara”

All together twenty-two plays were written between 1879 and 1918.

The works of the first period expose the vices of capitalist society. They also reveal human psychology as a product of this society. There are no heroes in the plays. The principal character is society itself.

The second period of Shaw’s creative work began with the end of the war and with the Great October Socialist Revolution, and ended in the middle of the 20th century.

In the works of this period Bernard Shaw goes deeper into politics. The problem of class struggle as necessary for the reconstruction of the world, appears as a special topic. The twenty plays represent the second period include:

Pygmalion” (1919)

Heartbreak House” (1919)

Saint Joan” (1924)

The Apple Cart” (1931)

On the Rocks” (1933)

Bernard Shaw is remembered as a humanist who was a tireless defender of the working masses and Irish peasant in particular. He believed in Socialism as the only system which might bring justice to the people, and all his life he defended it. Under the conditions of imperialism he chose satire as a weapon to fight for his ideals, and thus he carried on and developed the best traditions of Critical Realism in English literature.

Questions and tasks

  1. What conditions in Britain urged Bernard Shaw to become a Socialist?

  2. What was Bernard Shaw’s attitude towards art?

  3. What helped Bernard Shaw to see the injustice of the capitalist system?

  4. How did Bernard Shaw act during World War I?

  5. What is characteristic of Bernard Shaw’s dramatic works?

  6. What features characterize the plays of Shaw written before the War and the Great October Socialist Revolution, and those written after these events?

  7. Why did Bernard Shaw become a friend of the Soviet Union?


Socialism /ˈsəʊʃəˌlɪz(ə)m/ a political system that aims to create a society in which everyone has equal opportunities and in which the most important industries are owned or controlled by the whole community
publicist /ˈpʌblɪsɪst/ someone whose job is to use newspapers, television etc in order to make people notice a person, organization, or product
bankrupt /ˈbæŋkrʌpt/ a person or business that is bankrupt has officially admitted that they have no money and cannot pay what they owe

advanced  /ədˈvɑːnst/

1)at a high academic level

2) having achieved a high standard or level
refuge /ˈrefjuːdʒ/ a place where you go to protect yourself from something dangerous or threatening
idle /ˈaɪd(ə)l/

1) lazy

2) not doing anything, when there are things that you should do
spell-bound /ˈspelˌbaʊnd/ so impressed by something that you do not pay attention to anything else
poverty  /ˈpɒvə(r)ti/ a situation in which someone does not have enough money to pay for their basic needs
peasant /ˈpez(ə)nt/ someone who works on another person’s farm or on their own small farm. This word is used mainly about people in poor countries or people in history
proletarian  /ˌprəʊləˈteəriən/ working-class
ripen /ˈraɪpən/ to become ripe, or to make something ripe

* ripe /raɪp/ -language or humour that is ripe is funny but slightly rude

take to – 1)take to someone/something to begin to like someone or something

2) to start doing something as a habit

injustice /ɪnˈdʒʌstɪs/  failure to treat someone fairly and to respect their rights
youth /juːθ/  young people in general

a new creed /kriːd/ a new system of beliefs or opinions
pamphlet /ˈpæmflət/ a very thin book with a paper cover, usually given free to people
oppressed /əˈprest/ suffering from unfair and cruel treatment by a more powerful person or government
ridicule  /ˈrɪdɪˌkjuːl/ to try to make someone or something seem silly by making fun of them in an unkind way
imperialist   /ɪmˈpɪəriəlɪst/ 1) relating to imperialism

2) wanting to take control of other countries

tremendous /trəˈmendəs/  used for emphasizing that something such as an amount, achievement, or feeling is extremely great, important, or strong
criticism  /ˈkrɪtɪˌsɪz(ə)m/ comments that show that you think something is wrong or bad
bourgeois /ˈbʊə(r)ʒwɑː/  typical of middle-class people and their attitudes. This word often shows that you dislike people like this, especially because you think they are too interested in money and possessions and in being socially respected
sanity /ˈsænəti/ health of mind, judgment
portray /pɔː(r)ˈtreɪ/  if an actor portrays a person, they play the part of that person in a film, play etc
playgoers / pleɪɡəʊə(r)/ someone who regularly goes to watch plays
break out - if something bad such as a war or disease breaks out, it starts
traitor /ˈtreɪtə(r)/ someone who tells secrets about their own country to a country that is its enemy
mongrel /ˈmʌŋɡrəl/ a dog that is a mixture of different breeds
major /ˈmeɪdʒə(r)/  important, serious, large, or great
expose /ɪkˈspəʊz/ to deliberately make something publicly known because you believe that it is wrong or illegal
vice /vaɪs/ extremely bad and immoral behavior
particular /pə(r)ˈtɪkjʊlə(r)/  used for emphasizing that you aretalking about one specific person or thing and not anyoneor anything else

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