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Essays and Such

Irish Cultural Society

of San Antonio Texas

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Promoting Awareness of Irish Culture

George Bernard Shaw
2017
by John Betancourt
Shaw: An Irish Heirloom and World Treasure


gbshaw
Shaw: An Irish Heirloom and World 
Treasure, Feminist, social critic, 
Nobel Prize recipient, Oscar Winner, 
vegetarian, failed author, successful 
playwright: all of these are titles 
are familiar to the iconic Irish 
playwright of the late 1800’s and 
early 1900’s- though he might not have
acknowledged the uniqueness of such 
titles. Living through the cusp of a 
new century, Shaw embodied the 
changing times through his words, 
thoughts, and actions with the way he incorporated these into 
his writings. A man chained down by no other forces than his 
own inhibitions, Bernard Shaw was a catalyst for social change 
and cultural awareness whose influence merely began in Ireland 
but permeated the whole world.

	Much of George Bernard Shaw’s work was shaped by both 
his own experiences and the experiences of those around him. 
Shaw’s life began on July 26, 1856 in Dublin Ireland with his 
parents and two older sisters (NobelPrize.org). His family, 
while a part of what was considered the Irish gentry of the 
time, experienced economic instability because of his father’s 
impractical and finicky nature. His father’s path from a 
respected civil servant to an unsuccessful grain merchant caused 
the Shaw family to live in a state of genteel poverty- a state 
that called for the social behavior typical of an upper-class 
family despite the family not having the funds to live in such 
a manner (Brittanica.com). This was extremely degrading to Shaw, 
and this caused him to reject most conventional structures 
within his early life, including his schooling. By age 16, 
Shaw had found work in a land agent’s office (Brittanica.com). 
Shaw’s creativity and ingenuity would not be revealed until he 
moved to London, England in 1876 (Biography.com).

	Without proper training, Shaw struggled tremendously 
to become a writer. The creativity kindled by his mother, who 
worked as a music teacher, continued to be fueled by her as 
Shaw depended on his mother for financial help during his 
extremely unsuccessful stint as a writer of fiction. The passion 
of the artists and their works witnessed by Shaw as a boy in 
the National Gallery of Ireland could not be reciprocated by 
Shaw in his writing sessions at the British Museum reading room. 
This period of his life spent in poverty and dependence on his 
mother’s income catalyzed a creative response, inspiring Shaw 
to explore new mediums for his unassumed genius.

	As stated before, Shaw’s experiences and awareness of 
other’s experiences shaped the way he wrote and expressed 
himself. After his stint as a writer of fiction, Shaw turned 
to political activism by advocating for an intellectual revival 
of more humanitarian philosophy within European politics of the 
time. Shaw joined the Fabian Society in 1884 (biograhy.com). 
This organization was founded with the goals of advocating for 
the advancement of democratic socialist principles in a gradual 
and controlled manner (Fabians.org). Within this group, Bernard 
Shaw advocated for rapid social change and spoke out against 
injustices of the world in a manner that did not mirror or 
prescribe the same injustices against the institutions or people 
he was trying to criticize- an approach adopted by contemporary 
Catholic social justice initiatives. Shaw began receiving 
notoriety for his writings as he began writing for this society. 
One of his most notable works are the Fabian Society Essays on 
Socialism 1889. Within his work, Shaw was able to utilize his 
gifts as a writer to articulate the ideas and values held by 
this political group. One of these such values was peace. 
Bernard Shaw was a pacifist by nature, both he and this group 
abhorred any type of conflict that extended beyond verbal debate. 
The Fabian Society also spoke out against voracious cycles of 
capitalism and exploitation of the poor and working class. 
Shaw famously encompasses this ideology in his quote stating, 
“A government that robs Peter to pay Paul can always depend on 
the support of Paul” (ireland-calling.com). Shaw also spoke out 
against the lack of transparency in politics at the time and 
its implications on power stating, “Power does not corrupt men; 
fools, however, if they get into a position of power, corrupt 
power.” Along with, “All censorships exist to prevent anyone 
from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. 
All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, 
and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently, 
the first condition of progress is the removal of censorship” 
(ireland-calling.com). As evident in these quotes, Shaw and 
the Fabian Society detested the egotistical, chauvinist 
behavior displayed by the upper-class politicians who dominated 
government at the time. Shaw called for a peaceful political 
revolution where democracy could accurately reflect the will 
of the people, all people, through involvement of the common 
person within government.  While he and the Fabian Society 
never completely solved the injustices apparent during this 
time period (the issues of exploitation of poor, discrimination, 
misrepresentation within government, and others that still 
exist within contemporary society), their exposition of these 
issues to the public eye spurred the public to take the reins 
in creating social change.

	By the 1890’s, Shaw started to lessen his political 
activism in order to make his name as a playwright; however, 
the themes found within his political ideology extended into 
the dramas he wrote. The leanings cultivated by his 
participation within the Fabian Society can be found in 
some of his earliest plays, including Widower’s House, The 
Philanderer, and You Can Never Tell (Biography.com). These 
plays, appropriately referred to as “Plays Unpleasant,” were 
most notable for the incredible wit found within the dialogue 
and the construction of each character within each play. 
Shaw managed to correlate each of these plays with the 
criticisms he had of society at the time, integrating the 
themes of injustice or hypocrisy within each. Shaw’s later 
plays attempted to depict him as a diverse playwright by 
incorporating a more light-hearted approach to social 
criticism. This group of plays, which included The Man of 
Destiny and Candida among others, were predictably referred 
to as “Plays Pleasant” due to their comedic tint when 
exploring social issues (Britannica.com). While these plays 
were relatively well received by the public, despite some 
discomfort that came with such criticism of society at the 
time, they merely provided the foundation for the literary 
mansion that would be Shaw’s legacy.

	The apex of George Bernard Shaw’s career was found 
in his play, Pygmalion.  The iconic story of a common flower 
girl’s ascendance to aristocracy under the guidance 
of the linguist Professor Higgins and the phonetician Colonel 
Pickering, points sharp criticism at the concept of class and 
its role in determining so much about an individual’s life. 
The idea that a social construct so external to a person 
could be used to discriminate them was abhorrent to Shaw This 
disgust was articulated by the role of Eliza Doolittle, a 
common flower girl with a Cockney accent. By disguising her 
accent, which was characteristic of the lower class at the 
time, and adopting one of the upper class, Eliza was able 
to rise accordingly in all aspects of her life: social, 
political, and economic. The hypocrisy of democracy within 
a society that determines worth based on frivolous 
characteristics, or lack thereof, was exposed within Shaw’s 
play. The ease at which Eliza was able to fool the upper-class 
people within the play satirizes the social structures that 
prevent classes of people from integrating fully with each 
other. While provocative in nature, the value of the message 
ingrained within the beautifully written text, the witty 
dialogue, and the carefully constructed characters allowed 
for this play to become ubiquitously respected across all 
of Europe. Even in the United States, this play took hold 
as its themes resonated with the working class and others 
who were allured by Eliza Doolittle’s beacon of hope for 
the self-reliant. In 1938 a musical and film adaptation, 
titled My Fair Lady, emerged that won George Bernard Shaw 
an Oscar for his screenplay (Biography.com). Fame did little 
to hinder his career as he continued to write about his view 
of the world and comment on the world of others well into 
his old age.

     George Bernard Shaw died on November 2, 1950, leaving 
behind a legacy of 94 years of life, 60 plays, a myriad of 
art critiques, and enough political, social, and economic 
commentary to shape such thought within the 21st century. 
The embodiment of his quote, “If it’s drowning you’re after, 
don’t torment yourself with shallow water,” expresses how 
Shaw made his voice heard in a robust manner and inspired 
change that would enable quieter voices to be heard as well 
(ireland-calling.com). 


Bibliography 

"The Fabian Story." Fabian Society. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Mar. 2017.
 
Stewart, John I.M., and Stanley Weintraub. "George Bernard Shaw." 
Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., 
23 July 2010. Web. 26 Mar. 2017.

"George Bernard Shaw - Biographical." Nobelprize.org. N.p., n.d. 
Web. 26 Mar. 2017. 

"George Bernard Shaw." Biography.com. A&E Networks Television, 
16 Dec. 2016. Web. 26 Mar. 2017. 

"Popular posts." Ireland Calling. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Mar. 2017.

About the author: John Betancourt's  essay on "A person of Irish 
heritage and their Contribution" won the Irish Cultural Society's  
Annual Scholarship Competition for the year 2016 to 2017.