Shaw, George Bernard

Tagged: Author

(1856-1950) Irish-born playwright, critic and author, in the UK from 1876, where he remained ferociously active throughout a writing career lasting almost seventy-five years (see Longevity (in Writers and Publications)); though often referred to as GBS, he increasingly wrote as Bernard Shaw. Under whatever form of his name, he was central to the Fabian Society from its founding in 1884, editing Fabian Essays (anth 1889) and beginning contentious intellectual friendships with G K Chesterton and H G Wells soon after. His late summation of the Utopian socialism that underwrote his nonfiction and fiction alike was most massively presented as The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism (1928; rev vt The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism, Capitalism, Sovietism and Fascism 1937 2vols). The much later Everybody's Political What's What (1944) reflected the impact of World War Two on his thinking, at the heart of which remained a prescient contempt for all valuations of human selfhood based on the Homo economicus model (see Economics).

Some of Shaw's early plays are of some interest for their explorations into the fantastic. Arms and the Man (performed 1894; in Plays Pleasant and Unpleasant, coll 1898 2vols) is Ruritanian; Man and Superman: A Comedy and a Philosophy (1903; performed minus the Don Juan in Hell sequence 21 May 1905; whole performed 1915) discusses, in the Hell adumbrated at the close of Mozart's Don Giovanni (1787), the concept of the Superman (but does not present one on stage) and "Creative Evolution", which is seen to be both immanent and self-projected toward perfection, all shaped on the ground through Eugenics; John Bull's Other Island (performed 1904; as main title of coll 1907), though not specifically fantastic, offers a scathing proleptic vision of a free Ireland, which Shaw advocated despite forebodings; and Androcles and the Lion (performed 1912; as title of coll 1916) contains fantasy elements; though in all cases these elements are deployed with a cool Shavian sanity which repudiates any sense of escapism. Press Cuttings (performed 1909; 1909 chap), a play about women's rights set in the Near Future, is close to sf, and the destruction of the old world order in Heartbreak House (written before 1917; in coll 1919; performed 1920) seemed backward-looking only because of the play's delayed publication, during which period World War One – this conflict deeply affected the noncombatant Shaw, who was in his sixties – demonstrated the case it made for cultural heartbreak: it is a lament composed in anticipation of the catastrophe; the Inventions of its aged protagonist are death machines; that it was only first performed in 1920 and in America signals the passionate ostracism aroused in the UK by any expression of doubt about the course of civilization in the context of the Great War.

Shaw's first genuine sf play, an important example of the Scientific Romance, is Back to Methuselah: A Metabiological Pentateuch (1921; rev 1921 UK; performed 1922: further rev several times; much rev 1945), a five-part depiction of mankind's Evolution – it was his culminating presentation of Creative Evolution – from the time of Genesis (see Adam and Eve) into the Far Future, during the course of which people have become long-lived (see Immortality) and, by the year 31,920 CE, are on the verge of suffering corporeal Transcendence into disembodied thought-entities; incidental sf devices include cellphone equivalents, a kind of Force Field and the revelation that by 3000 CE nothing whatever remains of London. The play's reputation has suffered not only from the variable quality of its successive sequences, but from an implied conflation of Eugenics and the reticently argued but unmistakably anti-Darwinian Lamarckian principles that underlie his vision of humanity's rapid progress upwards.

Hereafter Shaw's plays – which have only posthumously escaped the charge that their dissolution of realist conventions simply or at all demonstrated the senility of their author – increasingly utilized sf or fantasy modes to make a series of remarkably bleak though sometimes scattershot utterances about Homo sapiens and about the chances of the species ever doing well. The Apple Cart: A Political Extravaganza (performed 1929; 1930), set in the UK near the end of the century after a Channel Tunnel has been built, ironically posits monarchism as an answer to the power of great corporations. Several later plays more scathingly and far-rangingly explore similar material. Too True to be Good: A Political Extravaganza (performed 1932), a dream fantasy about the Near Future, and On the Rocks: A Political Comedy (performed 1933), in which democracy fails in Near Future England and a Dystopian government takes over, were both assembled in Too True to be Good, Village Wooing & On the Rocks (coll 1934). The Simpleton of the Unexpected Isles: A Vision of Judgment (performed 1935), a fantasy that climaxes with "the angels weeding the garden" so that the unworthy of the world disappear utterly, and The Millionairess (performed 1936), a Satire on Eugenics set on a Pacific Island, again in the Near Future, were both assembled in The Simpleton, The Six of Calais, and the Millionairess (coll 1936). Geneva: A Fancied Page of History (performed 1938; 1939) satirizes contemporary dictators, perhaps too mildly. Buoyant Billions: A Comedy of No Manners (1948 Switzerland; first performed in English 1949) [see Checklist for editions] presents some terminal Utopian thoughts in the guise of fantasy, and Farfetched Fables – in Buoyant Billions, Farfetched Fables, and Shakes versus Shav. (coll 1950) – visits a distant future distinct from that envisioned at the end of Back to Methuselah.

None of Shaw's nineteenth-century novels are of genre interest, but The Adventures of the Black Girl in her Search for God (1932 chap) is a fantasy Satire on evolving views of Religion, and some of the items assembled in Short Stories: Scraps and Shavings (coll 1932) are sf, including "Aerial Football: The New Game" (November 1907 The Neolith). Both books were assembled with revisions as Short Stories, Scraps and Shavings (omni 1934; vt The Black Girl in Search of God, and Some Lesser Tales 1946). Shaw early developed a strategy for his dramatic works, where his plays as published are accompanied by extensive prefaces in which various theses, some of broad sf interest, are eloquently expounded; he developed no similar strategy for his fiction, which he seemed (correctly) to think of as peripheral. Bernard Shaw was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1925. [JC]

see also: Recursive SF; Theatre.

George Bernard Shaw

born Dublin, Ireland: 26 July 1856

died Ayot St Lawrence, Hertfordshire: 2 November 1950

works (selected)

Many of Shaw's plays were issued for the use of actors long before their official release, and upon official release were generally revised; moreover, during the last half-century of his life – financial independence allowing him to subsidize this activity – Shaw was in the habit of making constant revisions, many of them unsignalled, to the extremely numerous reprints of his work. We have not attempted to trace these changes.





individual titles (highly selected)

about the author

Studies of Shaw are very numerous. A tiny sample is given here.


Previous versions of this entry

Website design and build: STEEL

Site ©2011 Gollancz, SFE content ©2011 SFE Ltd.