George Bernard Shaw

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George Bernard Shaw
Middle-aged man with greying hair and full beard
Born 26 July 1856(1856-07-26)
Portobello, Dublin, Ireland
Died 2 November 1950 (aged 94)
Ayot St Lawrence, Hertfordshire, England
Resting place Shaw's Corner, Ayot St Lawrence
Citizenship British (1856–1950)
Irish (dual citizenship, 1934–1950)
Occupation Playwright, critic, polemicist, political activist
Spouse Charlotte Payne-Townshend (m. 1898; died 1943)

George Bernard Shaw (26 July 1856 – 2 November 1950) was an Anglo-Irish playwright, literary critic, and political activist, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925. He has been considered the greatest British dramatist since Shakespeare, possibly in part due to having leftist views. Shaw remained a radical socialist throughout his life and career.

His most popular play is Pygmalion, which has been filmed many times, also adapted as the very popular musical My Fair Lady, revived several times. One theme is criticism of class divisions, with a lower class girl learning the speech and manners of a higher class. Recent productions may be about immigration and race instead of traditional classes, supporting a blank slate view.

He was involved in the socialist Fabian Society. Later, he is stated to have become more authoritarian, expressed certain admiration for both Mussolini and Hitler, but more so for Stalin, whose regime he championed uncritically throughout the 1930s. He criticized anti-Semitism and racism.

He is claimed to have supported eugenics, a popular view during some parts of his life, but he may have mainly opposed marriages based on wealth and status, claiming that this would cause eugenic effects. Other supposedly eugenic statements on exterminations of the useless may have been jokes or support for Stalin's terror.



Although he spent most of his life in England, Shaw was born and raised in Dublin, Ireland. His father was an unsuccessful corn merchant. His mother, Lucinda Elizabeth Shaw, was a singer. During Shaw’s adolescence, his mother began an affair with her music teacher, Vandeleur Lee. Shaw's racial heritage is an open question; his surname may be an Anglicisation of O'Shea making him a Gael (his ancestors were known to live in Kilkenny, which would vertify this), or it may be derived from Lowland Scots settlers. In any case he was culturally Anglicised and a member of the Anglican Church in Ireland.

By many accounts, it seems that the playwright’s father, George Carr Shaw, was ambivalent about his wife’s adultery and her subsequent departure to England. This unusual situation of a sexually magnetic man and woman interacting with an “odd-man-out” male figure would become common in Shaw’s plays: Candida, Man and Superman, and Pygmalion.

His mother, his sister Lucy, and Vandeleur Lee moved to London when Shaw was sixteen years old. He stayed in Ireland working as a clerk until he moved into his mother’s London home in 1876. Having despised the education system of his youth, Shaw took a different academic path – a self-guided one. During his early years in London he spent hours on end reading books in the city's libraries and museums.

Shaw and the Soviet Union

Socialist luminaries like Bernard Shaw (in 1934 78 years old, maybe senile, however, this does not disburden him from any responsibility), Beatrice and Sidney Webb and PM Edouard Herriot of France, toured Ukraine during 1932-33 and proclaimed reports of famine were false.[1] Shaw announced:

"I did not see one under-nourished person in Russia."

Stalin's show trials, which led to the deaths of millions of people in the Soviet Union during the 1930s, were strongly defended by the British author and playwright George Bernard Shaw.[2]

Asked whether he believed that the revolution had "attracted degenerate types", Shaw replied:

On the contrary it has attracted superior types all the world over to an extraordinary extent wherever it has been understood.

He continued, apparently justifying Stalin's execution of many of those who had led the Bolshevik revolution in 1917:

But the top of the ladder is a very trying place for old revolutionists who have had no administrative experience, who have had no financial experience, who have been trained as penniless hunted fugitives with Karl Marx on the brain and not as statesmen. They often have to be pushed off the ladder with a rope around their necks.

Shaw argued that what he called "this Russian trial" had been exaggerated and he rejected suggestions that the accused had only pleaded guilty because they had been drugged or tortured. At least 720,000 people were executed in the terror that followed. Millions more died from hunger and ill-treatment in concentration camps.

Shaw’s idolization of Stalin is a great puzzle. The man known around the world by his initials G.B.S. was not just a great playwright; he was arguably the single most influential public intellectual of the first half of the 20th century. At Shaw’s death, Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of independent India, said, “He was not only one of the greatest figures of his age, but one who influenced the thought of vast numbers of human beings during two generations.” That influence could be summed up in one bracing imperative: the duty to be a skeptic. He challenged his readers and audiences to burst bubbles of conventional wisdom on almost every issue imaginable, from the rightful place of women to the pretensions of empires, from the glory of war to the treatment of animals, from homosexuality to children’s rights, from religious doctrine to the treatment of the poor. When Shaw’s demolitions of received ideas provoked outrage and obloquy, he courageously defended his intellectual independence. He abhorred cruelty and made mincemeat of propaganda. And yet, he was devoted to one of the cruelest figures in the bloody annals of tyranny, and he was a willing dupe of the propaganda that projected the Soviet Union as a workers’ paradise. The great skeptic allowed all his skepticism to melt away when he looked at the picture of Stalin he kept by his mantelpiece. [...] It was, of course, Marx who wrote that everything in history happens twice, “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” There is something tragic in Shaw’s journey from Tolstoy to Stalin, from seeing Russia as the place to give the world back its lost soul to his eventual embrace of the Soviet project as “the only hope of the world.” But perhaps this same impulse is now with us — in full-on farcical mode.[3]


Although his first profitable writing was music and literary criticism, in which capacity he wrote many highly articulate pieces of journalism, his main talent was for drama, and he wrote more than 60 plays. Nearly all his writings deal sternly with prevailing social problems, but have a vein of comedy to make their stark themes more palatable. Shaw examined education, marriage, religion, government, health care and class privilege.

He was most angered by what he perceived as the exploitation of the working class, and most of his writings censure that abuse. An ardent socialist, Shaw wrote many brochures and speeches for the Fabian Society. He became an accomplished orator in the furtherance of its causes, which included gaining equal rights for men and women, alleviating abuses of the working class, rescinding private ownership of productive land, and promoting healthy lifestyles.

He is the first person to have been awarded both a Nobel Prize for Literature (1925) and an Oscar (1938), for his contributions to literature and for his work on the film Pygmalion (adaption of his play of the same name), respectively.[4] Shaw wanted to refuse his Nobel Prize outright because he had no desire for public honors, but accepted it at his wife's behest: she considered it a tribute to Ireland. He did reject the monetary award, requesting it be used to finance translation of Swedish books to English.


Shaw's was raised as an Anglican, although Irish Anglicans were frequenly called "Protestants" instead of "Anglicans." As a child Shaw attended the Church of Ireland, which is an autonomous province of the Anglican Communion. Until he was about thirty years old, Shaw identified himself as an Atheist.


Shaw married Charlotte Payne-Townshend, a fellow Fabian, whom he survived. They settled in Ayot St. Lawrence in a house now called Shaw's Corner. Shaw died there, aged 94, from chronic problems exacerbated by injuries he incurred by falling.


  • The notion that persons should be safe from extermination as long as they do not commit willful murder, or levy war against the Crown, or kidnap, or throw vitriol, is not only to limit social responsibility unnecessarily, and to privilege the large range of intolerable misconduct that lies outside them, but to divert attention from the essential justification for extermination, which is always incorrigible social incompatibility and nothing else.
  • We should find ourselves committed to killing a great many people whom we now leave living, and to leave living a great many people whom we at present kill. We should have to get rid of all ideas about capital punishment. A part of eugenic politics would finally land us in an extensive use of the lethal chamber. A great many people would have to be put out of existence simply because it wastes other people's time to look after them.
  • The moment we face it frankly we are driven to the conclusion that the community has a right to put a price on the right to live in it. If people are fit to live, let them live under decent human conditions. If they are not fit to live, kill them in a decent human way. Is it any wonder that some of us are driven to prescribe the lethal chamber as the solution for the hard cases which are at present made the excuse for dragging all the other cases down to their level, and the only solution that will create a sense of full social responsibility in modern populations?

Further reading


  1. Remembering Ukraine's Unknown Holocaust
  3. Why George Bernard Shaw Had a Crush on Stalin
  4. Al Gore also won a Nobel Prize (but not for Literature), and starred in an Academy Award-winning documentary, but the latter was not awarded to him personally.