Tuesday 22 October 2019

Flashback: George Bernard Shaw was born 160 years ago today

George Bernard Shaw. Picture believed to have been taken in 1928.
(Part of the Independent Newspapers Ireland/NLI Collection)
George Bernard Shaw. Picture believed to have been taken in 1928. (Part of the Independent Newspapers Ireland/NLI Collection)

The playwright and literary icon George Bernard Shaw was born 160 years ago today.

Considered the foremost playwright and literary figure of the first half of the 20th century, the achievements of George Bernard Shaw range from receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925 and an Oscar in 1938 (making him the only person to receive both awards), a posthumous appearance an iconic Beatles’ album cover and his very own adjective- Shavian.

Spanning theatre, film and literature his work is recognisable for an acerbic wit and dry humour that elevates his damning observations to lyrical social commentary.

Now a celebrated stop on Dublin’s tourist trail, Shaw’s childhood home in South Dublin city was the setting for his unconventional upbringing. His mother’s close friend George John Lee was a constant figure in the young Shaw’s life and introduced him to what would become a lifelong obsession for words and music.

After school Shaw pursued a clerical career which he worked in until he relocated to London in 1876. His mother had moved there several months before with Lee and her daughters and Shaw would not return to Ireland for many years.

The 1880s saw his foray into both playwriting and politics, both of which were characterised by his tendency to generate controversy. His views on everything from Home Rule in Ireland to Nazi Germany and the genteel ways of Stalin made Shaw a contentious figure in social circles, however his mastery of the English language saw his star rise.

He wrote prolifically through the decades, first as a respected music and theatre critic for publications like The Star and The World before he began producing novels but it was his writing for the stage, and later the screen, that garnered him great acclaim.

Despite his success with film his regard for the medium was not held high- he would not sell the rights to his screen plays but instead lease for five-year periods.

His most celebrated screenplays are Pygmalion, Major Barbara and Caesar and Cleopatra, the last of which Shaw had the most involvement in and is considered to be one of the biggest film flops in Hollywood history. It is doubtful this had much impact on Shaw’s opinion of his own capabilities, as he said himself “A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing.”

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