George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950) was an Irish playwright, critic and polemicist, and a pupil of F. M. Alexander.
George Bernard Shaw was born in Ireland but moved to London in 1873 where he lived for most of his life. He wrote more than sixty plays, including Arms and the Man (1894), Man and Superman (1903), Pygmalion (1913) and Saint Joan (1923). His influence on British theatre was enormous, as his plays did not follow the tradition of Victorian melodramas and introduced a new realism and ‘the theatre of ideas’. He was a socialist, a vegetarian, and a pacifist, and argued for many controversial ideas such as eugenics (which Alexander dismissed in Man’s Supreme Inheritance). Among many causes Shaw tirelessly pursued, he collaborated with William Archer in a campaign to establish a National Theatre. (William Archer was a theatre critic and writer. His article on ‘The Open Mind’ is quoted in full in Man’s Supreme Inheritance.)
Lessons with Alexander
Shaw writes (see below) that he started having lessons with Alexander in 1938, but it could have been 1936 (see below). He certainly still had lessons by 1946. In his 1946 diary Walter Carrington makes reference to Shaw ‘badly wanted to see FM and he went to see him on Thursday 18th [April 1946].’[i]
With a lifelong involvement with London theatre it is plausible that Shaw may have heard of Alexander and his technique from a number of actors who had lessons with Alexander. For example both Herbert Beerbohm Tree and his daughter Viola Tree had lessons with Alexander (already pre-1907). Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree was the manager of Her Majesty’s Theatre and staged the premiere of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, in which Sir Herbert Tree starred, in 1914.
Maurice Baring who also had lessons with Alexander on the indirect recommendation of Shaw wrote: ‘I think his [Alexander’s] theories are sound, and I agree with Bernard Shaw in thinking him a genius.’[ii]
Walter Carrington’s 1946 diary also reports that Alexander told Shaw to eat some beef, but as a life-long vegetarian, Shaw could not bring himself to do that.[iii] (References to this story feature in Freedom to Change,[iv] and in Explaining the Alexander Technique[v]) The diary states that Shaw ‘two years later’ suffered from pernicious anaemia. As Shaw collapsed in May 1938 from pernicious anaemia, those lessons must have happened around 1936. Frank P. Jones refers to Shaw being eighty when he started having lessons, i.e. in 1936.[vi]
Goddard Binkley’s diary also contains stories of Alexander teaching Shaw.
March 13, 1952
I asked Alexander how old George Bernard Shaw was when he had ﬁrst come to him for lessons. Alexander thought for a moment, and then said he was seventy-nine years old. He went on to say: ‘When Shaw came to me, he was suffering from angina, and he could scarcely walk from here to across the street. He had to go a snail’s pace, lest his heart trouble him. But in three weeks of work with me, he was walking heartily from here to his hotel.’[vii]
Although Shaw was an extraordinarily prolific writer, he is only known to have made a passing reference to Alexander in his preface to London Music in 1888–89 when relating his experiences of learning to sing:
Alexander . . . ‘a musician-reciter . . . found himself disabled by a complaint known as clergyman’s sore throat. Having the true scientific spirit and industry, he set himself to discover what it was that he was really doing to disable himself in this fashion by his efforts to produce the opposite result. In the end he found this out, and a great deal more as well. He established not only the beginnings of far reaching science of the apparently involuntary movements we call reflexes, but a technique of correction and self-control which forms a substantial addition to our very slender resources in personal education.[viii]
Edward Maisel quotes Shaw as follows: ‘Alexander calls upon the world to witness a change so small and so subtle that only he can see it.’[ix] There is no source for this quote.
In a letter dated 28 December 1946, Shaw wrote in response to an inquiry from a war veteran for obtaining funds for training in the Alexander Technique:
In reply to your letter dated the 16th I cannot imagine how you could expect the Veteran Affairs Department to give you £500 and three years training to become a practitioner and propagandist of the Alexander yoga. You might as well apply for training as a spiritualist medium, a conjuror, or an acrobat.
In 1938, at the age of 87, I took a course of treatment from Alexander himself; and he not only taught me how to carry myself, but got rid of a reflex that had defied the most exhaustive manipulation by osteopaths. Lord Lytton’s estimate of 30% as the saving in efficiency effected by the treatment seems to me quite credible for pot-bellied patients.
Alexander’s manipulation, entirely different from that of the osteopaths, who can cure traumatic lesions but not reflexes, was almost imperceptible, and probably acted not physically, but by keeping my attention fixed on curing myself instead of persisting in bad habits of posture. As he had lived for many years in expensive quarters in London, charging three guineas a visit, he must have convinced his patients that they benefited by his handling. I do not regret having at considerable cost, gone through with him.
But as he was academically unqualified it is useless to ask a public department to class an apprenticeship to his practice as an official profession for war veterans.
Faithfully[signed G. Bernard Shaw]
George Bernard Shaw *26 July 1856 – †2 November 1950.