George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) Cecilia H. C. Liu Oct. 5, 2005
George Bernard Shaw • Born in Dublin, where he grew up in something close to genteel poverty. Young Shaw and his two sisters were brought up mostly by servants. • His father: George Carr Shaw, in the wholesale grain trade; a drunkard - his example prompted his son to become a teetotaller. - died in 1885. • Mother: Lucinda Elisabeth (Gurly) Shaw was the daughter of an impoverished landowner. - 16-years younger than her husband; She eventually left the family home to teach music, singing, in London - died in 1913.
George Bernard Shaw • Shaw finished his formal education at the Dublin English Scientific and Commercial Day School. At the age of 15, he started to work as a junior clerk. In 1876 he went to London, joining his sister and mother. Shaw did not return to Ireland for nearly thirty years. • In 1877-78 Shaw educated himself at the British Museum. He began his literary career by writing music and drama criticism, and novels, including the semi-autobiographical IMMATURITY, without much success.
Shaw and the Fabian Society • A vegetarian, who eschewed alcohol and tobacco, Shaw joined in 1884 the Fabian Society, served on its executive committee from 1885 to 1911. • A man of many causes, Shaw supported abolition of private property, radical change in the voting system, campaigned for the simplification of spelling, and the reform of the English alphabet. As a public speaker, Shaw gained the status of one of the most sought-after orators in England.
Prostitution in Victorian Britain • a. Modern scholars support Shaw's claims that women turned to prostitution as better than the alternatives; that they organised themselves, helped themselves (as the Warren sisters do) and had contacts with the highest classes, and protection from them; and that most prostitutes hoped to retire to respectability. • b. The nineteenth-century theatre portrayed prostitutes as repentant but tragic figures: e.g, Dumas fils , La Dame aux Camélias (1852), which became Verdi's opera La Traviata (1853); Pinero, The Second Mrs Tanqueray (1893). Mrs Warren is different in not apologising for her profession; instead, she is proud of herself.
Performance Ban • Embarrassment of this subject and the temptation to treat it with horror or jokiness. • Shaw tries to counter this by adapting Ibsenite realism. Influence of Ibsen on Shaw, especially his social problem plays (e.g., An Enemy of the People (1882)) in terms of: (a) realism of presentation; (b) seriousness of social issues raised; (c) technique of unmasking of characters and society.
Central revelation of play is Crofts' speech to Vivie in Act III where he shows that 'all decent society' is based on exploitation of the poor, especially women (i.e., prostitution is a symptom of economic not just sexual exploitation). • But unmasking is essentially a comic technique (e.g., the discovery that the Rev. Sam Gardner was one of Mrs Warren's clients, end of Act I).
Vivie's response to Crofts is revolutionary - she refuses to join the rest in the society he describes, but sets off to look for a new life. This conversion referred to as 'a serious call' in Act IV (p. 273) and has a religious quality; compare attitudes of characters in later plays by Shaw, e.g., Saint Joan (1923).
Is Mrs Warren's Profession a comedy? • a. Not a romantic comedy, despite discussions of marriage and conflict between lovers and parents - no wedding at end! • b. Not a satirical comedy, since Mrs Warren, Crofts, et al., are not the abnormal contrasted with the normal, but the normal itself. Vivie tells her mother 'You are a conventional woman at heart' (p. 286); i.e., Mrs Warren occupies the same moral ground from which society judges her. • c. Perhaps a divine comedy (despite Shaw's atheism), as the play shows an optimism about goodness. The apparent evil of society is a temporary error and the play describes a universe where benevolence and redemption, though difficult, are possible, to those who see it clearly and commit themselves to living honestly.
Works Cited • Comedy in English Literature. 4 Oct. 2005 <http://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/~www_se/personal/cjmm/Shaw.html>. • George Bernard Shaw. 4 Oct. 2005 <http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/gbshaw.htm>.