An author who, in his day, was regarded as so witty that his
name ultimately bequeathed a new adjective to the English language-"Shavian,"
meaning characteristically witty and perceptive-George Bernard Shaw was born in
Dublin in 1856, where his mother fostered in him at an early age a love of
music. Early in his adulthood, he became associated with the Socialist movement
in Britain. In 1884, he joined the Fabian Society, an organization that rejected
the classic, Marxist theory of class struggle in favor of a more gradual
"permeation" approach to changing society and its institutions. At about the
same time, Shaw also became a friend and follower of William Morris, who was
not only a noted socialist but also a poet and a renowned artist. Largely
through his Kelmscott Press, Morris advocated a return to the aesthetics of the
Middle Ages-a goal that would influence Shaw's Saint Joan, as readers
can note in the preface.
Shaw spent the 1880s as a literary, theatrical, and musical
critic before turning his hand to writing plays. "Though he had no particular
love for the theater of his own time, [Shaw] was not slow to recognize its
value as a platform which could be used to further the interests of the causes
he had espoused" (Oxford Companion to the Theatre, p. 762). His
admiration of the Scandinavian playwright Henrik Ibsen (who also advocated for
social change through such dramas as A Doll's House and An Enemy of
the People) also led Shaw to begin his work as a dramatist. His first play
was produced in 1892. "Thought, not action, was the mainspring of the Shavian
play; but, as audiences were eventually to realize, it was thought seasoned by
wit and enlivened by eloquence, which in the long run provided more rewarding
entertainment than the theater had been able to offer for a very long time" (Oxford
Companion to the Theatre, p. 762). Along with Saint Joan (first
produced in 1924, the year before Shaw was awarded the Nobel Prize for
Literature), some of Shaw's other major works for the stage include Pygmalion
(upon which Lerner and Loewe based their 1955 Broadway musical My Fair
Lady) and Arms and the Man, a satirical look at Victorian social
mores and values.
Shaw was married to his wife, Charlotte Payne-Townshend, in
1898. She died in 1943, and Shaw died seven years later in 1950.