George Bernard Shaw
George Bernard Shaw was born in Dublin in 1856.
In 1876 he moved to London and started writing dramatic criticism, particularly admiring of the work of Henrik Ibsen.
From 1879 to 1883 he wrote five unsuccessful novels.
In 1884 he got involved in progressive politics becoming an important member of the Fabian Society, an organization dedicated to the promotion of socialism. He was an advocate of social justice and supporter of the women’s right movement.
He argued for the simplification of spelling and punctuation and the reform of the English alphabet.
In 189 he married Charlotte Payne-Townshend.
In 1925 he was awarded the Nobel Prize.
Shaw died in 1950, at the age of 94.
Shaw’s ideasHe had been a competent music critic under the pen-name of “Corno di bassetto” and a theatre critic.
In his life there were three fixed points.
The first was his admiration for Ibsen whom he considered the first revolutionary playwright and he admired his plays because they were written with the purpose of denouncing social evils. He had produced one of the seminal studies on Ibsen’s dramatic production and he also saw in Ibsen that adherence to reality for which he fought and which he opposed to the dominating sentimentalism of the Victorian Age.
The second important point was his interest in music and worship of Wagner with his revolutionary total theatre, called Wort-Ton-Drama, which implied the use of all of arts (music, poetry and drama) in a single performance.
The third point was his interest in social reforms and political ideologist. After reading Marx he had become a fervent Socialist and he considered the theatre as the pulpit from which to spread his ideas. In particular he saw the theatre as the right vehicle for his ideas through which he chocked, entertained and involved his audiences while forcing them to reconsider current morality especially with regard to sexual and economic relations. Victorian complacency with its “virtuous” public institutions (the family, the church, parliament and the army) and its private vices (exploitation, prostitution, hypocrisy, injustice) became the target of his attacks.
Dramatic TechniquesShaw refused the machine of the “well made” play, which included resolution by mere accident and the autonomy of events from the characterization of the protagonists, and produced a double reversal of the traditional Victorian Drama.
First of all, instead of pleasing the audience he did everything in his power to shock them, to provoke a healthy reaction to the ideas he presented. In doing so, he used his satire not against his own characters but against his audience.
Secondly he did not make his characters behave according to the needs of the plot, but he made them submit to the laws of psychology only. His characters are active, capable of making decisions that affect events, not parts of a mechanism that works on its own. Dialogue is the main form of action and prevails over plot.
He also introduced long prefaces to his plays. These prefaces, some of which are as long as the play they introduce, contain the historical, philosophical, social and political foundations on which his plays are built, and are important documents to understand the general body of his ideas.
Shaw introduced the amplification of stage directions, which describe in detail not only the gestures, movements and the physical aspect of the characters and the places, but also deal with the state of mind, the emotions and the intentions of the characters.
Important in the Shaw’s style is the use of wit and paradox.
PygmalionPygmalion is the name of a character from an ancient Greek Legend. In Ovid-s Metamorphoses Pygmalion is a sculptor who scorns women and falls in love with a statue of ideal beauty he has made. The goddess of love, Aphrodite, transforms the statue in a real woman, Galatea, and the creator marries his creature.
Shaw’s Pygmalion tells the story of the phonetician Professor Higgins, who bets that he can turn a poor, illiterate flower girl – Liza Doolittle – into a gentlewoman simply by giving her lessons of English phonetics and syntax and by teaching her how to speak pure standard English. The experiment is successful and Liza is believed to be an upper-class lady. She later shows that his transformation in her is not simply linguistic, because she develops self-awareness and spiritual independence.
Pygmalion is provocative because, on one hand it shows that class distinction in only a question of manners, and on the other hand it stresses the power of education and culture in the development of personality. My Fair Lady is the musical version of 1957 which was later filmed in 1964 with Audrey Hepburn and it makes the relationship between Eliza and Higgings more romantic.
The main theme of Pygmalion is the construction of social class through language. In this play, language is seen from two different perspectives. For Higgings is a way of demonstrating that the difference between classes is merely a question of education, while for Eliza, at the beginning it represents a real possibility for social advancement. But the socio-scientific experiment, however, is not a real success. Eliza’s transformation into a refined lady is a real transformation, after which she cannot go back to her old life: she in now truly a lady, but having neither money nor the right family background, there is no place for her in high society. At the same time she has become alienated from her own working-class community. She finally rebels against Higgings because she feels he has betrayed her hopes.
Higging’s attitude towards his pupil is patriarchal and condescending. He has a poor opinion of women in general, he is completely incapable of understanding or responding to her real need and desires. In this way the play can be considered a criticism of the Victorian idea of women-s roles in society.
The language Shaw uses reflects an unusual mix of different registers and accents – from working-class language to the pronunciation of the upper classes. Eliza performs both these types of language, contaminating one with the other.