George Bernard Shaw: A Very Short Introduction by Christopher Wixson – Review
By Sandra Callard
Oxford University Press produce a series of small books covering a huge amount of subjects aimed at readers who are interested in a particular subject and would like to know more about it. This could mean someone with a range of knowledge about their chosen subject or merely someone with a curiosity about a certain discipline which they would like to satisfy.
I knew a minimal amount about author/playwright/campaigner George Bernard Shaw, so had a look at this neat little book in the series which covered his life and achievements. He was born in Dublin of a middle class family, where he was a difficult pupil and received an unremarkable education. Boredom set in which resulted in him leaving school and acquiring a job as a clerk in a land-agent office.
His parents eventually separated and his mother went to live in London along with his younger brother. George stayed with his father but eventually left Dublin and a reasonably paid job, in spite of his boss offering him more money to stay, and joined his mother in London.
His boredom with his education led to him acquiring a taste for self-learning which he adopted throughout his long life of 95 years. He was thorough in his testing of anything that came to hand and gradually condensed his aims towards theatre, music and writing. He was extremely proficient in composing tracts and pamphlets decrying the dreadful poverty and destitution which permeated through areas of London, and which were distributed around the locality. He began public speaking on these subjects and, being a formidable man of 6ft 2in with a particularly loud and resounding voice, was soon attracting the crowds.
He joined the socialist group The Fabians, who believed in peaceful change, and he was amongst the leaders of this group who founded the London School of Economics. In 1891 the Sunday World said “Everybody in London knows Shaw” but Shaw himself disliked his name of George and would refer to himself as Bernard Shaw, but the press adopted the acronym of GBS.
He turned to writing novels and wrote five books, all with socialist foundations, while he was still with the Fabians. These were published but were not very popular, and he had more success with theatre reviewing where his dry and acid persona made attractive reading. He wanted British drama to move on from its trite and one dimensional presentations and enable its actors to show the flaws of humanity. Heroes are not born, they are made, and he wanted to show the agonies of those who were adopted as heroes went through in real life. He eventually wrote the plays he wanted the theatres to produce and his star was set.
Shaw’s plays are his crowning glory and the shamelessly light comedies including Candida, Arms and the Man, You Never Can Tell, The Philanderer and his wonderful Pygmalion have lit up the screen and stage ever since. He was an intensely prolific author of plays and books and his output is astonishing. His last play, Why Would She Not was written just before he died at the age of 95.
This book in the Short Introductions series is a remarkably informative publication. It is packed with every bit of information you could wish for regarding the life and times of George Bernard Shaw. The book is compiled in an uncomplicated style, whilst offering every pertinent detail of the life and achievements of this remarkable man. My knowledge of GBS has increased a hundredfold, as has my appreciation of his works.
‘George Bernard Shaw: A Very Short Introduction’ by Christopher Wixson is published by Oxford University Press, £8.99 paperback