The undying genius of George Bernard Shaw

george-bernard-shaw George Bernard Shaw

On November 2, 1950, the world lost a literary legend, Nobel Prize winner and political activist. Known for his intellectual works (Pygmalion being the most famous one), he once made King Edward VII break a chair from laughing so much at one of his plays. Shaw is often touted as Britain’s finest dramatist (second only to Shakespeare), and here we take a look at some of the interesting elements in his varied life.

He started working when he was 15: Shaw hated going to school and attended four of them before dropping out when he was 15. He began work as a junior clerk in an estate agency, and called it “a damnable waste of human life”. Disliking all forms of organised education, Shaw never went to university and was largely self-taught.

He had a love-hate relationship with Shakespeare: Shaw has repeatedly professed his (rather contradictory) opinions about the renowned playwright, even going to the extent of insisting that Shakespeare be spelt as Shakespear. In fact, his play ‘Caesar and Cleopatra’ was often thought of as a counterblast to Shakespeare’s ‘Antony and Cleopatra’. He once wrote, “With the single exception of Homer, there is no eminent writer…..that I despise so entirely as I despise Shakespear when I measure my mind against his.” To add to the list, Shaw’s last work was called ‘Shakespeare vs Shaw’, a ten-minute puppet play consisting of the both of them trading insults. On the other hand, he was also a knowledgeable Shakespearian and also praised him, saying ‘he has outlasted a thousand thinkers and will outlast a thousand more.’ Talk about sitting on the fenc. I mean fence.

He was friends with Annie Besant: Both of them were in the prestigious Fabian Society together. In fact, Shaw was the one who recruited Besant after noticing her oratory skills.

He wanted to restructure the alphabet: Shaw actually added a provision in his will to donate money towards the fundamental reform of the English alphabet into a phonetic version with 40 letters. Phew, school children dodged a bullet there.

He didn’t like awards: Shaw was famously the first person to receive a Nobel Prize and an Oscar. However, he hated Hollywood, and described his Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay (Pygmalion, 1938) as an ‘insult.’ Did anyone say ‘first world problems’? He also rejected the prize money that came with the Nobel Prize he received for Saint Joan. What’s more, he rejected all state honours, including the Order of Merit in 1946, stating that an author's merit could only be determined by the posthumous verdict of history.

He thought Hitler and Mussolini were great: He supported Mussolini’s rise to power in Italy, and said that considering the circumstances, Mussolini was the ‘right kind of tyrant.’ Shaw also admired Hitler, calling him ‘a very able and remarkable man.’ Most of all however, he took the side of Stalin, tirelessly sticking up for his regime throughout the 1930s. Minor side note—Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin were collectively responsible for the deaths of more than 50 million people. 

He was a feminist: Shaw frequently stood up for the rights of women, and wrote ‘The Intelligent Woman’s Guide’ in the 1920s. In his opinion,"Unless woman repudiates her womanliness, her duty to her husband, to her children, to society, to the law, and to everyone but herself, she cannot emancipate herself."

He had the best quotes: Some of his most well known quotes include, “Never wrestle with pigs. You both get dirty and the pig likes it”; “There is nothing more dangerous than the conscience of a bigot”; “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they'll kill you”. And, of course, who can forget this savage exchange between Shaw and Churchill: “I am enclosing two tickets to the first night of my new play; bring a friend ... if you have one”. Churchill’s response: "Cannot possibly attend first night; will attend second, if there is one."

All said and done, George Bernard Shaw left an undoubtable mark on the literary world. Widely thought of as the pioneer of intelligent drama, many have acknowledged his influence on the upcoming generation of writers. Go ahead, take out your ancient copy of Pygmalion or watch My Fair Lady again. Remember George Bernard Shaw.