Shaw, George Bernard (1856–1950) By Switzky, Lawrence
George Bernard Shaw was an Irish playwright, music and drama critic, and political theorist who pioneered the play of ideas as a dramatic genre, was instrumental in the formation of the Labour Party in England, and remains the only person to have won both the Nobel Prize for Literature (1925) and an Academy Award (1938, Best Adapted Screenplay, Pygmalion). The intellectual and social seriousness of his ideas, his effusive, literary dialogue, and his invention of new genres such as the discussion play were pivotal contributions to the modernization of drama.
Born into a Protestant family in Dublin, Shaw moved to London in 1876 and began ghost-writing a music column for The Hornet while also pursuing an unpromising career as a novelist and becoming involved with the Fabian Society, a British socialist organization that promoted a gradualist rather than revolutionary approach to social reform. In The Quintessence of Ibsenism, initially delivered to the Fabians as a lecture in 1891, Shaw articulated his nascent dramaturgical principles. He argued that Ibsen’s most important contribution to the development of modern drama was replacing the violent catastrophes of melodrama with discussion scenes in which characters sat down and talked about intractable social problems. Shaw’s views about modern drama were put into practice in his first three plays: Widowers’ Houses (1892), about slum landlordism, The Philanderer (1893), about divorce, and Mrs. Warren’s Profession (1893), about prostitution.