Jul 262016
 

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Today is the birthday (1856) of George Bernard Shaw, who preferred simply Bernard Shaw but is often referred to now as Shaw or GBS. He was an Irish playwright, critic and polemicist whose influence on Western theatre, culture and politics has extended from the 1880s to the present day. He wrote more than sixty plays, including perennial favorites such as Man and Superman (1902), Pygmalion (1912) and Saint Joan (1923). Pygmalion was the basis for My Fair Lady, of course. Shaw was the leading dramatist of his generation, and is the only person to have won both a Nobel Prize in Literature, and an Oscar.

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Shaw was born in Dublin, and moved to London in 1876, where he struggled to establish himself as a writer and novelist. By the mid-1880s he had become a respected theatre and music critic. Following a political awakening, he joined the gradualist Fabian Society and became its most prominent pamphleteer. Shaw had been writing plays for years before his first public success, Arms and the Man in 1894. He sought 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 20th century his reputation as a dramatist was secured with a series of critical and popular successes that included Major Barbara, The Doctor’s Dilemma, and Caesar and Cleopatra.

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Shaw’s views were, let us say, controversial. On the more mundane side, he wanted a reform of the system of writing English, including an end to the use of the apostrophe. One certainly can’t quarrel with his demonstrations that English spelling lacks logic, and is an impediment to literacy. He promoted eugenics, and opposed vaccination and organized religion. He courted unpopularity by denouncing both sides in the First World War as equally culpable, and castigated British policy on Ireland in the postwar period. By the late 1920s he spoke favorably of dictatorships on the right and left, expressing admiration for both Mussolini and Stalin. In the final decade of his life he was largely a recluse, but continued to write prolifically.  He refused all state honors including the Order of Merit in 1946.

I don’t believe that there is any need to ramble on about Shaw’s life nor his beliefs. I’m not particularly keen on his plays, but I do like In Good King Charles’s Golden Days, because it’s his opportunity to explore key themes of the Enlightenment period. It’s a discussion play in which the issues of nature, power, and leadership are debated between King Charles II (‘Mr Rowley’), Isaac Newton, George Fox and the artist Godfrey Kneller, with interventions by three of the king’s mistresses (Barbara Villiers, 1st Duchess of Cleveland; Louise de Kérouaille, Duchess of Portsmouth; and Nell Gwynn) as well as his queen, Catherine of Braganza.

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This little exchange at the beginning gives the flavor:

MRS BASHAM.  And you have been sitting out there forgetting everything