Happy Birthday George Bernard Shaw

On 26 July, City Connect celebrates the anniversary of the birth of George Bernard Shaw. He is well known for his play “Pygmalion” which was made into the popular Hollywood musical “My Fair Lady” starring Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison. However there is a lot more to Shaw than meets the eye. Read more about this fascinating playwright below.

Biography

George Bernard Shaw (26 July 1856 – 2 November 1950) was an Irish playwright and a co-founder of the London School of Economics. 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 address prevailing social problems, but have a vein of comedy which makes 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. 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. For a short time he was active in local politics, serving on the London County Council.

In 1898, 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.

He is the only 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 (adaptation of his play of the same name), respectively. Shaw wanted to refuse his Nobel Prize outright because he had no desire for public honours, 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.

Pygmalion: A Romance in Five Acts (1912) is probably Shaw’s most famous play. It is about a professor of phonetics called Henry Higgins who makes a bet that he can train a bedraggled Cockney flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, to pass for a duchess at an ambassador’s garden party by teaching her to assume a veneer of gentility, the most important element of which, he believes, is impeccable speech. The play is a sharp lampoon of the rigid British class system of the day and a comment on women’s independence, packaged as a romantic comedy.

In ancient Greek mythology, Pygmalion was the creator of a sculpture which came to life and was a popular subject for Victorian era English playwrights, including one of Shaw’s influences, W. S. Gilbert, who wrote a successful play based on the story in 1871, called Pygmalion and Galatea.

Pygmalion was the most broadly appealing of all Shaw’s plays. But popular audiences, looking for pleasant entertainment with big stars in a West End venue, wanted a “happy ending” for the characters they liked so well, as did some critics. During the 1914 run, to Shaw’s exasperation but not to his surprise, Tree sought to sweeten Shaw’s ending to please himself and his record houses. Shaw returned for the 100th performance and watched Higgins, standing at the window, toss a bouquet down to Eliza. “My ending makes money, you ought to be grateful,” protested Tree. “Your ending is damnable; you ought to be shot.” Shaw remained sufficiently irritated to add a postscript essay, “‘What Happened Afterwards,” to the 1916 print edition for inclusion with subsequent editions, in which he explained precisely why it was impossible for the story to end with Higgins and Eliza getting married.

He continued to protect the play’s and Eliza’s integrity by protecting the last scene. For at least some performances during the 1920 revival, Shaw adjusted the ending in a way that underscored the Shavian message. In an undated note to Mrs. Campbell he wrote,

“When Eliza emancipates herself — when Galatea comes to life — she must not relapse. She must retain her pride and triumph to the end. When Higgins takes your arm on ‘consort battleship’ you must instantly throw him off with implacable pride; and this is the note until the final ‘Buy them yourself.’ He will go out on the balcony to watch your departure; come back triumphantly into the room; exclaim ‘Galatea!’ (meaning that the statue has come to life at last); and — curtain. Thus he gets the last word; and you get it too.” (This ending is not included in any print version of the play.)

Shaw fought uphill against such a reversal of fortune for Eliza all the way to 1938. He sent the film’s harried producer, Gabriel Pascal, a concluding sequence which he felt offered a fair compromise: a romantically-set farewell scene between Higgins and Eliza, then Freddy and Eliza happy in their greengrocery/flower shop. Only at the sneak preview did he learn that Pascal had shot the “I washed my face and hands” conclusion, to reassure audiences that Shaw’s Galatea wouldn’t really come to life, after all.

Images and biography text reproduced from Wikipedia under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License

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