A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions
 
 
 
 

George Bernard Shaw

  When Bernard Shaw died in 1950 at the age of ninety-six, his plays had been famous, or infamous, for over half a century. His first produced play, "Widower's Houses," in 1892, exposed slum landlords. Shaw wrote that the first performance was both "applauded" and "hooted," at which he made a curtain speech that was discussed in the newspapers "for a whole fortnight . . . . I had not achieved a success, but I had provoked an uproar; and the sensation was so agreeable that I resolved to try again."

   A decade later, "Mrs. Warren's Profession," was staged at a private London club after being banned by the English censor because the profession in the title was that of a prostitute who chose her vocation over poverty. So well known did the outspoken Shaw become that a new adjective, "Shavian," joined the language, meaning daring in subject matter and cleverly satiric in writing. A man of many interests, he attributed his energy to his life-long vegetarian diet.

   There has never been a Shaw revival because his plays have held the stage continually since they were written. In 2000, "Widowers' Houses," staged by Fiona Shaw (no relation) was produced by the Royal National Theatre and toured England, "Heartbreak House" and "The Doctor's Dilemma" played at the Chichester Festival Theatre, and the Royal Shakespeare Company offered "Back to Methuselah" at Stratford-upon-Avon. In Ontario, Canada, at Niagara-on-the-Lake, the Shaw Festival presented "The Doctor's Dilemma" and "The Apple Cart."

   George Bernard Shaw was born in Dublin on July 26,1856. His father George was a Protestant, a government pensioner, part-owner of a failing mill, and a drinker whose comic gifts his son appreciated. His mother Lucinda endowed young Bernard with her own love of music, which says Shaw, was her "salvation." She studied voice with music conductor and teacher George Lee, who came to live with the Shaws. When Lee's book on voice production became a success, he left for London in 1872, followed by Lucinda and her grown children. She supported them and herself by teaching music.

   Shaw educated himself by avidly reading philosophy, economics and literature in the reading room at the British Museum. Interested in politics and sociology, he trained himself to become a brilliant public speaker, so that he might speak out on these subjects. He supported the Fabian Society, a new liberal organization whose founders included Beatrice and Sidney Webb.

   The Fabians aimed at the transformation of English society not through revolution but "permeation" of the nation's intellectual and political life. Through them he met Irish heiress Charlotte Payne-Townsend, whom he married in 1898. From 1897 to 1903 he served as a councilor for the borough of St. Pancras in the Bloomsbury district of London, dominated by the beautiful St. Pancras Church. His house in nearby Fitzroy Square is marked with a plaque. Tall and red-bearded, Shaw cut a striking figure, and spoke in behalf of social reform two or three times a week, asking no fee.

   Serving as a journalist, he edited the Fabian Essays in 1899, after which he wrote music and theater criticism for The World and then The Saturday Review. His forward-looking theater reviews, published in three volumes in 1931 as "Our Theatres in the Nineties" contain advice still pertinent for today's actors and directors. Shaw deplored the cutting of Shakespeare's plays by Henry Irving, the leading Shakespearean actor of the nineties, and ridiculed the elaborate scenery whose erection dictated deletions of the text as well as long "waits" between scenes. With his love and knowledge of music, he also appreciated the lyricism of Shakespeare and criticized actors' diction and rhythm that failed the poetry. He wrote novels like Cashel Byron's Profession, which were unsuccessful.

   At the British Museum reading room, a chance meeting with William Archer, the translator of Ibsen, led Shaw to become a dramatist. In Ibsen, to whose plays Archer introduced him, Shaw found the crusading spirit, the realism of character and situation, and the structure of suspense that he admired and emulated. Archer suggested that they collaborate on a play, but Shaw soon took over, the two mutually agreeing that the joint effort was a mistake, and the play became "Widowers' Houses." Shaw based the play on his own experience as a rent collector in his early days in London, and it is highly critical of slum landlords who carve up houses into single- room dwellings for entire families. "Mrs. Warren's Profession" is less relevant today regarding Mrs. Warren's choice of profession, but the main theme is the timeless conflict between parent and child, between the daughter Vivie, a "new woman" and her mother, Mrs. Warren, who defends her profession as being dictated by poverty.

   Shaw was fortunate that at the time of these two plays, banned by the censor for their frankness and scorned by the commercial theater for their message, the Stage Society was formed, as a private club for performances of plays "of obvious power and merit." In addition, in 1904, Harley Granville-Barker and J.E. Vedrenne began their management of the Royal Court Theatre, which soon became a home to Shaw's works and which is still flourishing and presenting new plays at its newly remodeled home in Sloane Square. .

   Besides the wit and humor with with Shaw makes his serious points, there is always paradox to surprise the audience. To the patriarchal Edwardian audience, he suggested in "Candida" that the wife was the stronger in a marriage where she must choose between the romantic young poet Marchbanks and her husband, the Reverend James Morrell, who would be helpless without her. Twenty-two-year-old Granville-Barker played Marchbanks, as his first Shavian role, and he also directed most of the eleven of Shaw's plays offered at the Court. The two men remained close friends until Barker left the theater to work on his volumes of Shakespearean criticism, with special emphasis on staging the works.

   In "The Devil's Disciple" Barker played the title role of Dick Dudgeon, described by Shaw as "like all genuinely religious men, a reprobate and an outcast." Dick is pitted against the historical General Burgoyne, who here is sardonic and witty regarding the war in which he is engaged - the American Revolution. "Caesar and Cleopatra" presents as its main character another historical military leader, as does "Man of Destiny," with Napoleon. Shaw's Caesar, he says in his preface, is true to history as Shakespeare's is not. As acted by Claude Raines in the movie version, the mature Caesar is wise and understanding, indulging the young Cleopatra but not overwhelmed by her, and alert to all the dangers attendant on high places, recognizing that "He who has never hoped can never despair."

   A "dramatic parable of Creative Evolution," "Man and Superman" had its debut at the Royal Court in 1905 and was Shaw's longest running play of its time. In Shaw's own mischievous and witty way, he demonstrates that even a superman who disdains marriage is helpless against a superwoman who has made up her mind to marry him. The "life force," contends the play, is too strong for hero Jack to resist. Shaw 's work not only answers Darwin's theory of "blind" evolution by restoring a "sense of divinity," but his plot cleverly uses Mozart's "Don Giovanni," which the former music critic considered "the perfect opera." Jack Tanner is Don Juan, Anne Whitfield is Donna Anna, and the faithful Octavius is nicknamed Ricky-Ticky-Tavy by Anne. In the "Don Juan in Hell" episode of Act III, which is as long as the rest of the play, they assume their operatic names, and Donna Anna's father, the Commandatore, also appears prominently. In Hell, the four engage in a lively discussion, each presenting his or her own point of view. The Devil warns, prophetically, "Beware the pursuit of the Superman: it leads to an indiscriminate contempt for the Human." In an outstanding presentation in London, John Clements played Jack and his wife Kay Hammond was Anne. The "Don Juan in Hell" episode was performed on alternate days.

   "Major Barbara" had its debut in the same year at the Royal Court and Shaw's description of the play as "A Discussion in Three Acts" might have kept audiences away if the playwright were not so well known. As in his other plays, Shaw delights in presenting both answers to a question, here, which benefits mankind the most, the Salvation Army or a manufacturer of armament? One would expect the answer to be easy, but Shaw argues for both sides with such conviction that one is not surprised when Barbara realizes she can do more good working for spiritual uplift at the village created by her manufacturer father than she could at the Army shelter for down-and-outs who are as conniving as her father. In 2001, a New York production by the Roundabout Theater starred Cherry Jones as the Salvation Army Major and David Warner as her tycoon father, Andrew Undershaft.

   "The Doctor's Dilemma," Shaw labeled "a tragedy," describing not the genre of the play but the incompetence of some members of the medical profession, as has recently been exposed in Great Britain. He satirizes the jargon of the profession, the "bedside manner," and unneeded operations, and seriously considers as the "dilemma" of the title whether one human being is worth saving over another when only one can be saved: an artist of genius but low character or a hardworking doctor of practical use to society.

   "Pygmalion" Shaw wrote with the intention of having Eliza played by the actress Stella (Mrs. Patrick) Campbell, with whom he had been carrying on a correspondence love affair. The play was a triumph on its first performance in 1912, with Stella as Eliza and Herbert Beerbohm Tree as Professor Higgins. In Shaw's satire on class distinction, Higgins succeeds in his experiment to turn a Cockney flower seller into a duchess. Shaw insisted that the play end with Higgins adamant in his belief that Eliza was only the subject of his experiment but Tree injected affection for her. Outraged, Shaw confronted the actor, who insisted, "my ending makes money; you should be grateful." Shaw retorted, " your ending is damnable; you should be shot."

   "Heartbreak House" is Shaw's tribute to the Russian playwright whose works he admired, Chekhov. Written as World War I broke out, the play has a living-room setting that resembles a ship. It is presided over by octogenarian Captain Shotover, and peopled by his attractive, flirtatious daughters Hesione Hushaby and her philandering husband and Lady Utterword, visiting after a long absence. Visitors include young Ellie, who seems innocent and weak, a contrast to the daughters, but actually Ellie is a woman who knows what she wants, in this case a rich husband. Although her romantic, ineffectual elders idealistically argue against such an alliance, Ellie retorts that it would mean a better life than the poverty she has known. Outspoken and outrageous, Captain Shotover is so Shavian in his remarks that he is usually made up to resemble the playwright. Shotover has no illusions about the onset of war; as Shaw points out in the preface, "the dumb capables and the noisy incapables" should have acted, but did nothing, nor did the idle rich, "helpless wasters of their inheritance, like the people in Chekhov's 'Cherry Orchard.'" At the end, as the bombs explode and then subside, Mrs. Hushaby says, "What a glorious experience! I hope they'll come again tomorrow night."

   "Heartbreak House" was warmly received at the Chichester Festival Theatre, and is a favorite work for revival, each of the characters a "star" role. At Chichester, Joss Ackland's interpretation of Shotover was praised by John Peter of the Times: "[a] monstrous, craggy figure. . . . AcklandÉunderstands Shotover perfectly. He is playing a difficult, self-centered, basically pompous old man who is quite harmless on one level but lethal on another. . .a crusty savior/destroyer, a fabulous, half-baked prophet of doom and a visionary clown whose misanthropy and misogyny are only on the surface, expressed in entertaining, malevolent aphorisms." Clare Higgins and Anna Carteret played the daughters

   The premiere of "Heartbreak House" took place in 1920 in New York, where "St Joan also had its debut, in 1923, both produced by the Theatre Guild. Winifred Lenihan was Joan. Many revivals have followed , with the title role enacted by such stars as Katherine Cornell, Siobhan McKenna, and Barbara Jefford. Shaw wrote it for Sybil Thorndike, who appeared in the English debut. Shaw bases his account on history, and typically, gives good arguments to both Joan and the church that denounced and martyred her. He was criticized for the Epilogue, showing Joan's rehabilitation by the church that had condemned her, but this turnaround is typical of Shaw's plays and he could not resist, especially when, as here, he is historically correct.

   "Back to Methusaleh" is seldom seen because of its length. Most recently, the Royal Shakespeare Company produced it at Stratford-upon-Avon. "Back to Methusaleh," Shaw states, goes "back to the legend of the Garden of Eden." He describes the theme as "a second legend of Creative Evolution without distractions and embellishments. . . .my beginnings of a Bible for Creative Evolution." Like the recently announced mapping of DNA, Shaw's Brothers Barnabas foresee longevity for the human race. The first section, "In the Beginning" treats Adam and Eve as they discover language and art, and the final section, "As Far as Thought Can Reach," treats the future, with some of the characters previously introduced achieving longevity.

   Shaw died in 1950. When the National Trust sent Harold Nicholson to see whether they should take over the running of Shaw's house in Ayot St.Lawrence, which he willed to the Trust, Nicholson reported, negatively: I do not think that Shaw will be a great literary figure in 2000 A.D." Fortunately, the Trust ignored his report, as thousands visit the home yearly, and applause rings out on stages all over the world for the witty, profound, and timeless plays of George Bernard Shaw.