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Shaw, George Bernard

Entry updated 4 March 2024. Tagged: Author, Theatre.

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(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); 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 vision of a free Ireland, which Shaw advocated despite forebodings; The Doctor's Dilemma (performed 1906; as main title of coll 1911) revolves around a genuine cure for tuberculosis through the Invention of a powerful phagocyte (see Medicine); Press Cuttings (performed 1909; 1909 chap), a play about women's rights set in the Near Future, is close to sf; 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. The destruction of the old world order in Heartbreak House (written 1916-1917; as title of coll 1919; performed 1920) may have seemed backward-looking because of the play's delayed publication, but in reality the catastrophe of World War One only intensified the proleptic case it made for cultural heartbreak. The titular house has the appearance of a poop deck, pointing the Ship of Fools imagery that shapes the catastrophe it adumbrates. The play is a lament for the failure of the civilization of the West to prepare for the future, and very early manifests the Aftermath mood that dominated the 1920s; the Inventions of its aged protagonist are, after the fashion in the Scientific Romance from which this play takes some of its shape, death machines. That it was only first performed in 1920 and in America is a sign of the passionate ostracism aroused against Shaw in the denial culture dominant in the UK for half a decade beginning 1914 (from its opening salvos, the "final" War had deeply affected the noncombatant Shaw, who turned 60 in 1916); during these years, expressions of doubt about the course of civilization in the context of the Great War were met with loathing.

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.

Though the play is otherwise nonfantastic, in the epilogue to Saint Joan (performed 1923; 1924) a spokesperson from 1920 manifests (by Timeslip) to announce Joan's canonization. From this point Shaw's plays 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 ideologically motivated charge that their dissolution of realist conventions demonstrated the senility of their author was only countered by the more balanced Bernard Shaw (1947) by Eric Bentley (1916-2020), which focused on their planetary gaze. 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), an Archipelago fantasy that climaxes with "the angels weeding the garden" of the islands 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 some very lightly disguised contemporary dictators and the British government as a peace conference plummets into farce: the drama ends with the End of the World. 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 the six skits presented Farfetched Fables arrive by stages at a distant future distinct from that envisioned at the end of Back to Methuselah, with Homo sapiens no longer tormented by the bewilderments of Sex, but also useless; these last expositions were assembled as Buoyant Billions, Farfetched Fables, and Shakes versus Shav. (coll 1950).

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 whose protagonist, having been converted by the usual sexually repressed and otherwise unprepossessing missionary (see Imperialism; Sex), embarks on a quest to find a worthy god. The Old and New Testament versions arouse her disdain; she interviews Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936), whom she spooks; eventually she meets and marries a self-mockingly garish version of Shaw himself in his red-haired youth, and they have children (see Race in SF) together. The book was banned in Ireland. 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

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