Words Darren Hawes
Illustrations Luke Stuart
“Without art, the crudeness of reality would make the world unbearable.”
An address in Fitzroy Square, the creation of many novels, plays and essays, George Bernard Shaw represents the epitome of Fitzrovian: the bohemian writer from Ireland. The man whose work H.G Wells once likened towards “an idiot child screaming in a hospital.”
Shaw’s first play, simply referred to as Passion Play (1878), didn’t go anywhere, existing only in fragments now. His second, and appropriately titled, short play, Un Petite Drame (1884), didn’t do too well either. But his third play, Widowers’ Houses (1892), saw Shaw gain a reputation as a playwright and allowed him the funds to move to an up-and-coming area of London – Fitzroy Square.
In fact, Shaw produced over fifty plays in his lifetime, alongside five novels and a multitude of essays, ranging from socialist treatises to musical criticism. If anybody can be celebrated for their creative endeavours it is most certainly George Bernard Shaw: The man whose success is built upon imagination, which, as he put it in Back to Methuselah (1921), “is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine and at last you create what you will.”
From 1887 to 1898, number 29 Fitzroy Square was where Shaw called home – later to be the residence of Virginia Woolf, this address has been home to two of the most creative minds of the twentieth century. Born in 1856, Shaw would live until he reached 95 years old before succumbing to his mortality on November 2, 1951.
Shaw was raised in the city of his birth, Dublin, Ireland. His mother, Lucinda Elizabeth Shaw was a professional singer who came from a middle-class, land owning background. For George Bernard Shaw’s father, however, there’s a different story. George Carr Shaw was a merchant, when he wasn’t attempting to work for the council: his endeavours were rarely successful, although it gave him a modicum of respectability that was only enhanced by marrying up. Suffice to say, Lucinda left her husband in 1873 to teach singing in London.
George Bernard Shaw didn’t really enjoy his time at school, owing to a feeling of its utter worthlessness that went beyond childhood frustration; he was to write in a letter in 1917 that, “Schools and schoolmasters, as we have them today, are not popular as places of education and teachers, but rather prisons and turnkeys in which children are kept to prevent them disturbing and chaperoning their parents.”
Indeed, this animosity towards formal education is realised in Shaw’s novel, Cashel Byron’s Profession (written 1882, but published in 1886). Young Byron decides at an early age to remove himself from school and pursue education in the real world, declaring to a prospective employer, “I have been at school; but I didn’t learn much there.” He would also see formal education as a form of ‘class warfare’ between parent and child, reducing offspring to a slave-like status as he explains in a 1910 Treatise on Parents and Children.
At 15, Shaw left school, after having attended many with varying degrees of success. And, in 1876, at age 20, he decided to move away from Ireland and followed in his mother’s footsteps to London. It wasn’t long before Bernard Shaw was introduced to the area that was to become Fitzrovia. A combination of ill health and her son’s sudden fortune as a writer found Lucinda moving just around the corner of Fitzroy Square, Fitzroy Street.
In London, Bernard Shaw would witness first-hand the subject he was most interested in; social problems such as poverty, healthcare and class privilege. The latter finding its voice in the 1917 play Pygmalion (later to be adapted into the musical hit, My Fair Lady) which also brings to light the feminist message that was just gaining ground then. With lines such as, “If you can’t appreciate what you’ve got, you’d better get what you can appreciate.” Bernard Shaw’s cynical wit became synonymous with his ideas.
He remained in his Fitzrovia residence until 1898 when he met Charlotte Payne-Townshend. Also Irish, Townshend was of the same high born variety as Bernard Shaw’s mother, the two met as part of Bernard Shaw’s political activities: it was between 1879 and 1902 that he worked as a local councillor for the St. Pancras area of London. In relation to his position in politics, Bernard Shaw would state that his aim was to, “Just do what must be done. This may not be happiness, but it is greatness.” The same approach he took in his many creative endeavours.
In 1902, upon leaving politics, George Bernard Shaw and his new wife decided to leave London behind, although they maintained the residence at no. 29 Fitzroy Square for occasions that meant Bernard Shaw’s presence was required, what with his numerous plays to be performed just down the road in the West End and multiple philanthropic events he would attend with his wife. Upon such events, deemed an excuse for the ‘champagne socialist’ to drink and discuss the ills of the world from the comfort of an exclusive club, George Bernard Shaw would respond: “Alcohol is the anaesthesia by which we endure the operation of life.”
The later years of his life would be spent in Hertfordshire with his wife. Although, interestingly, it is said that Bernard Shaw never got around to consummating the marriage, apparently at his wife’s insistence. He would, however, partake in affairs of the extramarital variety. Such activities would continue even into his twilight years: “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”
Overall, George Bernard Shaw is a character entirely fitting to Fitzrovia. Eccentricity meets creativity. A veritable multi-tasker, with a thirst for knowledge that breaks the boundaries of a stilted formal education. At 94, Shaw would proclaim the now-famous words of “I think I’m going to die now.” Before slipping into a one day coma and eventually passing on in body.
All that’s left for me to write about is: read George Bernard Shaw, find out where his many plays can still be found performing, for they can. Hell, watch My Fair Lady if you think it will do him some justice. And above all else, never forget these words: “We are made wise not by the recollection of our past, but by the responsibility for our future.”