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Blarney Stone

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George Bernard Shaw

Shaw, the son of a corn merchant, was born in Dublin on 26 July 1856. His mother was a talented mezzo-soprano whose singing teacher, George Vandeleur Lee, joined the household and provided Shaw with a useful musical education. In 1873 Lee moved to London, and Shaw's mother followed. Shaw had become an estate agency clerk, but he disliked Dublin and joined his mother in 1876.

A small legacy allowed him to develop his writing skills, and he completed five early novels, notably Love Among the Artists and Cashel Byron's Profession. The latter was serialised in a socialist magazine, but book publishers showed no interest until Shaw became famous. During this period Shaw embraced both socialism and vegetarianism. He joined the Fabian Society in 1884 and formed a close friendship with Sidney and Beatrice Webb. Overcoming his shyness, he became an orator equally effective in Hyde Park or the Albert Hall.

Another friend was the drama critic William Archer, who found journalistic work for Shaw, reviewing books for the Pall Mall Gazette and as art critic of The World. Archer imbued Shaw with his own enthusiasm for the plays of Henrik Ibsen, and Shaw developed a lecture to the Fabians into The Quintessence of Ibsen (1891). He also became an entertaining music critic for The Star under the pen-name Corno di Bassetto and wrote on the theatre for the Saturday Review.

Shaw's first play was Widowers' Houses (1892), a study of landlordism. His second, The Philanderer, was not staged until 1907. The lord chamberlain then banned Mrs Warren's Profession, which dealt with prostitution; it was not seen in the West End until 1925. However, Shaw had a modest success with the comedy Arms and the Man (1894), whose opening night applause was broken by a single dissenting voice. "I quite agree with you," Shaw retorted, "but what can we two do against so many?"

Before the end of the century he had written Candida, The Man of Destiny, You Never Can Tell, The Devil 's Disciple, an American success in 1897, Caesar and Cleopatra and Captain Brassbound's Conversion. In 1898 he married Charlotte Payne-Townshend. A wealthy Fabian, she nursed him through serious illness and provided the financial security which allowed Shaw to concentrate on writing plays. They moved to Ayot St Lawrence in Hertfordshire in 1906.

Shaw had offered John Bull's Other Island to the Irish Literary Theatre in Dublin in 1904, but W. B. Yeats turned it down. Harley Granville-Barker accepted it for the Royal Court Theatre in London, where a run of successes finally established Shaw as a major playwright. Arthur Balfour, the prime minister, saw the play four times; King Edward VII laughed so much he broke his seat. It was followed by Man and Superman (1905), Major Barbara (1905) and The Doctor's Dilemma (1906), in each case with Shaw as producer. The Shewing-up of Blanco Posnet (1909) was staged in Dublin after the lord chamberlain had banned it as blasphemous.

Shaw's next great success was Pygmalion (1914), which after his death was transmuted into the musical comedy My Fair Lady. The play was suspended on the outbreak of World War I, during which Shaw incurred unpopularity with "Common Sense about the War" in the New Statesman, suggesting that soldiers of every army might do well to shoot their officers. He criticised the execution of prisoners of war after the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin and similarly opposed the execution of Roger Casement.

Shaw's post-war successes included Heartbreak House (1921) and Saint Joan (1923), and he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925. His best work was now over, but The Apple Cart (1929) and Too True to Be Good (1931) contain typical Shavian argument. He also explored political, economic and religious ideas in books such as An Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism (1928) and The Adventures of the Black Girl in her Search for God (1932). Shaw died at Ayot St Lawrence on 2 November 1950.

A Shaw museum has been opened at his birthplace, 33 Synge Street, Dublin.

From the Appletree Press title: Famous Irish Writers.

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