Bernard Shaw Before His First Play: The Embryo Playwright


"Tho' with great difficulty I am got hither, yet now I do not repent me of all the trouble I have been to arrive where I am." So Bernard Shaw quoted Valiant-for-Truth, "with his foot on the brink of the river," from John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, in a letter to the actress Elizabeth Robins. It was the 1890s. G.B.S. was on the brink of fame.

He had overcome limited schooling, Irish origins, unemployment and near-poverty, and a series of false starts as a writer, but he resolved to succeed on his own terms. He abandoned a striking "Passion Play" in Shakespearean blank verse. He conceded that the first of his failed novels was titled Immaturity "with merciless fitness."Shaw Jacket

The British Museum Reading Room became his university. He taught himself everything from Pitman shorthand to books, music, and the arts—becoming in succession the leading music critic in England, then the leading drama critic. His goal was the stage itself. All that he wrote would be fodder for his theatrical future. His first completed play, Widowers' Houses, ran only two performances, but he knew he was on his way.

Stanley Weintraub’s latest book evokes Bernard Shaw's formative decades as novelist, diarist, polemicist, memoirist, critic of music and the arts, and aspiring playwright. The fourteen segments about Shaw’s pre-playwright beginnings (from “Passion Without ‘Passion’: Shaw’s Abortive Jesus Play” to “Shaw Becomes a Playwright: July–December 1892”) have been written and edited over more than half a century. When not completely new they are much augmented. Readers of Shaw will appreciate having them updated and available together in this new volume, as well as in UPCC's eBook Collections, Johns Hopkins University Press.


Stanley Weintraub, Evan Pugh Professor Emeritus of Arts & Humanities at Pennsylvania State University and Adjunct Professor of English at the University of Delaware, is the world's foremost Bernard Shaw scholar as well as one of the most respected scholars in Victorian and early modern studies.

He is author or editor of more than fifty books illuminating the years covered by ELT Press's 1880–1920 British Authors series, including biographies of Victoria, Disraeli, Shaw, Rossetti, Whistler, Beardsley and T. E. Lawrence.



Stanley Weintraub, the “Dean of Shavian studies, has graced the literature with another elegantly written, meticulously researched, and uncommonly insightful book.” Through his “account of a typical day in his subject’s frenetic life, one wonders how Shaw retained sufficient stamina to engage in such activities from week to week. Weintraub deftly shows, he took all of the nonstop hustle and bustle in stride, a fitting prelude for everything that was to come.”

—H. I. Einsohn, Middlesex Community College
Choice, 1 September 2015


“No one has made a more significant contribution to the assembly of Bernard Shaw’s biography than Stanley Weintraub. By his long record of immense and important scholarship, Weintraub also confers upon the gold mines of information he references here the confidence that it is accurate.”

—John R. Pfeiffer, Central Michigan University
SHAW: The Journal of Bernard Shaw Studies, 35.2 (December 2015)


“For any general reader interested in Shaw, literature, the theater, or London history, Bernard Shaw Before His First Play is quality entertainment—and an opportunity to experience Victorian London through the day-to-day life of a gifted young man in search of a vocation. For serious Shavians, Weintraub’s latest book is an indispensable companion to his masterful two-volume Shaw: An Autobiography, which uses Shaw’s own words, culled from his writings, to tell his life story. And this book would make an excellent gift for a friend who has not yet made the acquaintance of the charming and brilliant playwright known throughout the world as G.B.S.”

—Jean Reynolds
English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920, 59.1 (2016)


“One of the achievements of Bernard Shaw Before His First Play: The Embryo Playwright is its intricate and insightful portrayal of the interrelation between the young Shaw’s life and his creations: Stanley Weintraub really does know Shaw, inside out. The other great achievement is the colourful kaleidoscope of social life in the London of the eighties and nineties. Reading this book, a lost world comes alive as we follow Shaw’s every move.” Bernard Shaw Before His First Play is one of Weintraub’s “most entertaining and original” books, “a fitting celebration of” his “wit, humanity, scholarship and sheer story-telling skills honed over decades of research and publication.”

—Anne Wright
The Shavian (London, 2015)


$70.00   224 pp.

978-0-944318-71-3  Acid-Free Paper

2015  No. 29 in the 1880-1920 British Authors Series

Also an E-Book at Johns Hopkins's Project MUSE

E-Book 978-0-944318-72-0


Navigation Bar