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The Top 5 Plays of George Bernard Shaw

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George Bernard Shaw began his writing career as a critic. First, he reviewed music. Then, he branched out and became a theater critic. He must have been disappointed with his contemporary playwrights because he began writing his own dramatic works in the late 1800s. Many consider Shaw’s body of work to be second only to Shakespeare. Shaw possesses a deep love of language, high comedy, and social consciousness.

#5 - "Pygmalion"

Thanks to its musical adaptation (My Fair Lady), George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion has become the playwright’s most famous comedy. It illustrates the comical clash between two different worlds.

The pompous, upper-class Henry Higgins attempts to transform the gruff, Cockney Eliza Doolittle into a refined lady. As Eliza begins to change, Henry realizes that he has become rather attached to his “pet project.” Shaw insisted that Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle do not end up as a couple. However, most directors suggest that Pygmalion ends with the two mismatched individuals ultimately smitten with one another.

Complete text available at Project Gutenberg.

#4 - "Heartbreak House"

Here, Shaw was influenced by Anton Chekhov. Shaw populates his play with humorous characters in sad, static situations. Set in England during World War I, the play centers on Ellie Dunn, a young woman who visits a leisurely household filled with philandering men and playfully idle women.

The war is never mentioned until the play’s conclusion when enemy airplanes drop bombs upon the cast, killing two of the characters. Despite the destruction, the surviving characters are so excited by the action that they find themselves hoping that the bombers will return. Shaw demonstrates how much of society lacks purpose; they need calamity in their lives in order to find purpose.

Complete text available at Project Gutenberg.

#3 - "Major Barbara"

Shaw felt that the essence of drama was discussion. (That explains why there’s so many talkative characters!) Much of this play is a discussion between two differing ideas. Shaw called it, “A conflict between real life and the romantic imagination.”

Major Barbara Undershaft is a dedicated member of the Salvation Army. She struggles to alleviate poverty and rallies against armament manufacturers such as her wealthy father. Her faith is challenged when her religious organization accepts “ill-gotten” money from her father. Many critics have argued over whether the protagonist’s final choice is noble or hypocritical.

Complete text available at Porject Gutenberg.

#2 - "Saint Joan"

Shaw felt that this powerful historical drama represented his best work. The play tells the famous story of Joan of Arc. She is portrayed as a vigorous, intuitive young woman, in touch with the voice of God.

George Bernard Shaw created many strong female roles throughout his career. For a Shavian actress, Saint Joan is perhaps the greatest and most rewarding challenge presented by the Irish playwright.

Complete text available at Project Gutenberg.

#1 - "Man and Superman"

Incredibly long, yet incredible witty, Man and Superman demonstrates the best of Shaw. Brilliant yet flawed characters exchange equally complex and compelling ideas. The basic plot of the play is quite simple: Jack Tanner wants to stay single. Anne Whitefield wants to ensnare him into matrimony.

Underneath the surface of this battle-of-the-sexes comedy lurks a vibrant philosophy which presents nothing less than the meaning of life. Of course, not all of the characters agree with Shaw’s views of society and nature. In Act III, a terrific debate takes place between Don Juan and the Devil, providing one of the most intellectually stimulating conversations in theatrical history.

Complete text available at Project Gutenberg.

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