By Andrew Walker
While the centenary of Samuel Beckett's birth is being marked by a global celebration, 2006 also marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of fellow countryman, and playwright, George Bernard Shaw - an occasion that Tony Blair celebrated by opening a window.
Tony Blair unveils Shaw's design (pic by Maria Moore/LSE)
"Prime Minister Opens Window" is not the most enthralling headline a newspaper's sub-editor could come up with.
But last week it would have been literally true, as Tony Blair unveiled,
at the London School of Economics (LSE), an intriguing relic of the life of
one of the most influential, and creative, minds ever to come out of the
For not only was Bernard Shaw - he dropped the hated "George" at an
early age - an iconoclastic playwright, journalist, polemicist,
scintillating public speaker, arts reviewer and campaigning socialist,
he also turned his hand to design.
In particular, Shaw produced an outline for a stained-glass window to
commemorate the Fabian Society, the socialist group which helped form the Labour Party and is still alive and kicking today.
But the Fabian window, which depicts the Society's founders - including HG Wells, Sidney Webb and Shaw himself - helping to build the "new world" can boast a mysterious history of which even Agatha Christie would be proud.
Bernard Shaw delighted in subverting society's norms
After producing its design, Shaw forgot to pick the finished article up
from the workshop. It was rediscovered in 1947, when the then Prime
Minister, Clement Attlee, unveiled it at Beatrice Webb House in Dorking.
But that wasn't the end of the story.
"The window was subsequently
stolen from the house in 1978," says the LSE's archivist, Sue Donnelly,
"It surfaced in Phoenix, Arizona, soon after, but then disappeared again until it suddenly resurfaced at a sale at Sotheby's in July 2005."
Re-purchased by the Webb Memorial Trust, it is now on loan to the LSE,
in whose Shaw Library it now resides. The rest of this year's many celebrations represent a wide-ranging commemoration of the life of a man once viewed as a prophet.
Nobel and Oscar
There are countless conferences, theatrical productions and even talk of a remake of the film version of My Fair Lady - the musical
version of Shaw's Pygmalion - starring Keira Knightley as the flower
girl-turned-socialite, Eliza Doolittle.
Shaw's credits, which include Man and Superman, Major Barbara, Arms and
the Man and Androcles and the Lion, established him as one of the
greatest, and most versatile, of all dramatists.
Ivan Wise, editor of The Shavian, the journal of the Shaw Society,
explains Shaw's place in the canon. "He remains the only man to have won
both the Nobel Prize for Literature - for Saint Joan in 1925 - and an Oscar for Best Screenplay - Pygmalion in 1938.
"In 1937, Churchill called him 'the greatest living master of letters in the English-speaking world'. Today, his plays are revived by Peter Hall in the West End, at his old house in Hertfordshire, and
at the annual Shaw Festival in Canada.
"Other than Shakespeare and Wilde, Shaw is probably the best-known English language playwright."
Shaw was a decidedly modern writer, infusing his work with social comment and employing the language which we still use today.
In Major Barbara, for example, the pragmatic industrialist, Andrew Undershaft, rails against the "deadly sins" responsible for poverty: "Food, clothing, firing, rent, respectability and children."
My Fair Lady - the musical of the film of the play
Mrs Warren's Profession deals with prostitution, perhaps for the first time in drama, in a level-headed, even sympathetic, manner.
And the intriguing Candida blends religious, social and sexual themes into a remarkable fable for our times.
Another person for whom Bernard Shaw still cuts the mustard is Jackie Maxwell, artistic director at the Shaw Festival in Niagara, Canada, which has been producing his works, together with those of his contemporaries, since 1962.
"Shaw's writings are, by nature, subversive," she says. "They're filled with people with strong points of view and he highlights the absurdity of how and why people make choices."
In addition, Shaw's works provide meaty roles for women, she says. "His women are hugely smart, much cleverer than the men, and all the characters are active, not passive."
As to Shaw's relevance today, Ivan Wise says: "Pick up any dictionary of
quotations and you will find dozens of Shaw entries on issues of current relevance.
Kerry Katona: A Pygmalion for our times?
"He wrote on the folly of patriotism, the immorality of politicians, the
evil of poverty and many other subjects that still occupy us today.
"And his best-known play, Pygmalion, concerns whether it is possible to pass off a flower-girl at a society ball, by teaching her to speak properly, which sounds like the pitch for a reality TV show."
Which - with My Fair Kerry, a recent television programme in which the earthy ex-Atomic Kitten star, Kerry Katona, was groomed to act like an aristocrat - is just what has happened.
His bon mots include gems like: "I'm only a beer teetotaler, not a champagne teetotaler"; "If all economists were laid end to end, they would not reach a conclusion"; and "A fashion is nothing but an induced epidemic."
But anyone who writes off Bernard Shaw as just a comedian, does so at their peril. Although it is 150 years since his birth, Shaw's work - including his fabulous and mysterious window - can still shed penetrating light on the human condition.
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
In his time a local parson wrote to him and asked him to send him his favourite recipe, GBS
complied and at the bottom of the letter he wrote
"I hope this is not just some trick to obtain my autograph". A few weeks later a letter arrive from the parson with GBH signature neatly cut out from the letter
John, North Shields
I enjoyed reading this article. One thing missing though was any information about the public debates about religion that GBS and HG Wells held with GK Chesterton and Hillaire Belloc in the 20s. The two sides were completely opposed in this matter although that did not stop GBS and GKC from being great friends.
When referring to any of Irelands great writers, please recognise that they are Irish, not one to "come out of the British Isles".
Ms. Grey, Ireland
Don't forget Shaw was also an excellent music critic and a very capable photographer.
Although Shaw was an entertaining writer and personality, some of his beliefs haven't stood the test of time. He was very naive about Communism, and he supported 'eugenics' - the deeply unpleasant idea about not letting so-called 'lesser' humans breed. His plays make very good theatre, but he was one of those intellectuals whose once fashionable views actually left a rather mixed legacy.
In the incredible world of Irish Theatre (Which has produced more verifiable geniuses then any other theatre in the world) Shaw was the greatest, a giant. I read recently an account by Mary Lutyens of him meeting Churchill for the first time at a dinner. They got into an argument and Shaw positively trounced Churchill (No mean feat) which probably led to Churchill's statement that you provide above. But Shaw's memory is equalled by his great friend and equal, G K Chesterton's fade into obscurity, at least as great a writer, why is there no commemoration of him.
Shaw's house, at Shaw's Corner, Ayot St Lawrence, Herts is always worth a visit to gain further insight into the man. It is a well preserved National Trust property. They also hold Shaw related events in the garden at certain times of the year. I am sure that they won't let his 150th anniversary pass without commemoration.
David Gower, Galway, Ireland
It is great to see that both Shaw and Beckett are still as popular today as ever. Along with Oscar Wilde and James Joyce, they are the finest writers to come out of Ireland, which has produced some of the greatest masters of this art.
GBS may have been an iconic playwright but I don't think it's right to describe him as "iconoclastic", particularly in an article about a stained glass window he designed!
Matthew Scully, London
Is it me? Or is the guy on the left of the full picture of the window playing 'air guitar' with a harp?
Robert Leather, Manchester
'Life does not cease to be funny when people die any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh.' - George Bernard Shaw
My favourite quote of his and so true.
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