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Birthday Special: Why George Bernard Shaw remains relevant

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Mouzam Makkar and Steve O’Connell in Vance Smith’s Pygmalion

George Bernard Shaw might have been dead for as long as India has been a republic, but his ideology still rings true. On what would have been his 160th birthday, Preeja Aravind reminds us why GBS is still relevant

He was a wordsmith. He used to be a Fabian socialist. He was a master learner. Above all, he was a true artist-activist. A shy Irishman in London, George Bernard Shaw saw himself as an outsider. So, it’s not surprising that he combined a seriousness of purpose with Wildean wit — underlined with melodramatic plots and seemingly absurd characters — as sword and shield against the follies of society.

He wrote against the social evils of his time, which have only multiplied since, and are now more global. His peers called George Bernard Shaw a propagandist rather than an artist. The author and playwright might have lived almost a century ago, but his work — on topics that included war, religion, class, and feminism — are as relevant today they were in his lifetime.


For these times too

Amit Ranjan, Shavian and assistant professor at Delhi University’s St Stephen’s College points out the similarity between Shaw’s political tokenism in Saint Joan and Irom Sharmila’s abysmal political career.

“Irom Sharmila went on a hunger strike for 15 years and was seen as this messiah who wanted AFSPA to be repealed. The French asked Joan of Arc to fight the war. She fought it and won it, but then was taken prisoner by the Church, and eventually burned at the stake,” he says, adding, “After Joan’s death, everyone repents and names her a saint. Her ghost suggests that she can return now that she is saint. But no one wants her back,” Ranjan explains. “Sharmila, too, wanted to contest the polls which no one wanted her to fight. She got all of 50 votes.”

Shaw lived through two world wars — and had plenty of scathing commentary on both. He was quite unpopular for calling both sides of the First World War equally culpable. This denouncement was quite evident in his plays Arms and the Man and The Man of Destiny.

In Arms and the Man, for example, the male protagonist is a cowardly mercenary who would rather carry chocolates than ammunition. While the denouement is trite, it still manages a scathing commentary on romanticising war (“Soldiering, my dear madam, is the coward’s art of attacking mercilessly when you are strong, and keeping out of harm’s way when you are weak.” and “It is our duty to live as long as we can.”), constant social posturing (“When you strike that noble attitude and speak in that thrilling voice, I admire you; but I find it impossible to believe a single word you say”) and the hypocrisy of pretending that one class was more moral than the other “ . . . now I’ve found out that whatever clay I’m made of, you’re made of the same”).

Critics panned it, but Shaw’s audiences ate it up with a spoon.

Ralph Fiennes in Man and Superman

Shavian appeal

Shaw lived by the principle: “The secret to success was to offend the greatest number of people.”

And he lived it brilliantly. During his prolific career as a playwright, more than half of the plays written by Shaw were denied stage licences due to censorship issues. Yet, until Bob Dylan’s 2016 win, Shaw was the only author to have ever received both the Nobel Prize for Literature, and an Academy Award.

If he had lived to be more than 94, he would have won a lot more than that. Ironically, though, as he got older, he staunchly denounced all the honours he had received, including the Order of Merit.

It’s obvious that Shaw’s appeal knocks out boundaries of time and space. Sally Peters, in her essay in the Cambridge Companion to George Bernard Shaw, writes, “By his 70th birthday, Bernard Shaw was one of the most famous people in the world… he was recognised as much for his wit and eccentric personality as for his writings.”

E Nageshwar Rao, a retired professor at the Central Institute of English and Foreign Languages (now called EFL University) in Hyderabad, calls him the ‘Socrates of the 20th Century’. The Shaw Society in the UK is dedicated to presenting Shaw’s work to the modern world; it even publishes a journal called The Shavian.

Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady which is based on GBS’ Pygmalion

Bring him back to school

It’s no wonder then, that academics are trying to bring Shaw to school — which is ironic, considering the self-taught polymath hated nearly all forms of school-room education.

Mona Sinha, who teaches literature to undergraduate students at Maharaja Agrasen College, Delhi University, highlights the real and thought-provoking topics he took on. “It would be of great interest for literature students to understand what Shaw had to say. Most of his plays talked about the ludicrousness of the concept of a hero, the futility and farcical nature of war, and pointlessness of what the society deems as class distinctions,” she says.

Class distinction and feminism are again the underlying themes in Pygmalion — one of his best-known works, thanks to countless adaptations including My Fair Lady — the plot of which revolves around an English gent who tries to improve the life of a Cockney flower girl to suit his ideas. In today’s parlance, this might be equated with ‘mansplaining’.

Like we said, Shaw may have died more than half a century ago, but his ideas live on, and his words still speak to us today.