A George Bernard Shaw Retrospective
by Charles Marowitz
George Bernard Shaw
(From the cover of Time, Dec. 24, 1923)
(Swans - March 23, 2009) Is George Bernard Shaw passé?
There have been relatively few revivals of his work and the few there have been did not produce tantalizing ripples. You are more likely to come across a production of My Fair Lady than you are Pygmalion, on which the Broadway musical was based. Is it possible that contemporary taste has lost interest in GBS's raucous socialism, his Bergsonian "life force," and his brilliant verbosity?
These questions arose in my mind after seeing a recent revival of Candida at the Colony Theatre in Los Angeles and noting the fact that major revivals of GBS's work no longer dominate either Broadway or the West End the way they once did when actresses such as Sybil Thorndike brandished her armor and Katherine Cornell cast her spell.
Candida was something of a breakthrough for Shaw. It came after a rather cool reception to Arms & the Man and was conceived as a vehicle for Janet Achurch, a quasi-dipsomaniacal leading lady with whom he was originally enamored but soon lost patience with, calling her at the end "a moral void -- a vacuum." As for the play itself, Shaw (according to biographer Michael Holroyd) saw it as "A Doll's House in reverse, showing the household doll to be the husband." But the delineation of his central character was a breath of fresh air when it was performed in London by the Stage Society in July l900. Candida is the very fulcrum of the play in a much more dominant way than Nora is in A Doll's House -- although both women prevail over pathetic husbands.
The story is deceptively simple. A vicar takes a bedraggled poetic youth into his happy home, who then proceeds to loosen the marital bonds that kept the married couple firmly entwined. Believing that the hyperbolic youth has subverted the couple's domestic felicity, a triangle is created between the three characters and, despite a genuine attraction between the woman and the poet, Candida reaffirms the relationship between herself and her husband, and the youth, browbeaten and chastened, wanders off into the night leaving marital rejuvenation to do its work.
Shaw was, in some sense, the first true feminist playwright of the 20th century. His women in plays such as Widowers' Houses, Man and Superman, Saint Joan, and Major Barbara are consistently strong and sometimes even overbearing. Shaw, in his private life and despite his wit and male prowess, was swallowed, masticated, and occasionally spat out by actresses such as Ellen Terry, Florence Farr, and Mrs. Patrick Campbell. During the suffragettes' clamor for equality, he was quoted as saying: "Clever and attractive women do not want to vote; they are willing to let men govern as long as they govern men." In short, he knew that once enamored, the prowess of men was as nothing compared to the inexorable power of women.
Candida is a prime example of this mindset. Although in the play's denouement she acknowledges both the services and sacrifices of her god-obsessed husband, it is still the wife -- the Virgin Mother, the authoritative Head of the Household -- who casts her vote in favor of her vicar and against the precocious youth, Marchbanks. It was, in Shaw's view, always the woman who surreptitiously ruled the roost and the threat that she might at any moment discard her mate was considered one of her most potent weapons.
The l8-year-old poet Marchbanks (once played by a very young Marlon Brando on Broadway) was allegedly based on Thomas de Quincy -- although Shelley and Yeats were also thought to be models. But it is just as likely that Marchbanks represents Shaw's own frustration at being denied the pre-Raphaelite freedom to follow his wildest impulses due to being tucked into a comfortable marriage with the heiress Charlotte Payne-Townsend.
That is perhaps why Shaw was so attracted to powerful men -- be they Napoleon or Joseph Stalin (a photo of whom hung over his desk). It was a hungering for power, which, in his romantic and marital life, was denied him. And perhaps a good thing too -- as subliminally, it fired his imagination into producing some of the most stimulating plays of the century.
What the play seems to be saying is that so long as normal domesticity prevails, marriages can be soldered together, but once a romantic willfulness enters the scene, the elements of the marital contract must assert itself. Husbands and wives can live in blissful harmony -- so long as the denial of subversive passions can be curbed. It is because Marchbanks must be banished and the vicar and his wife reunited that this play emits a somewhat dank, timid, conservative odor. One cannot help speculating as to what would have happened to Candida if the arrival of romantic abandon had not been so firmly repulsed. Did she regret asserting her loyalty to the vicar simply because they were legally bound to one another, and would she, after a time, fantasize on what life would have been like with a younger, more intellectually imaginative lover? It is that sort of speculation that adds a certain dimensionality to Shaw's play, giving it reverberations I believe the playwright never consciously intended.
I am grateful to the Colony Theatre for reviving Candida -- although the Vicar was somewhat stentorian and Candida herself more flighty than maternal, the intellectual iridescence of the play was still there to be shared and enjoyed.
So to answer my own question at the start of this piece, I would say: If Shaw has become passé, it reflects poorly on contemporary arts & letters -- as Shavian perceptions are as practical and pertinent today as they were a century ago. It was Shaw who recognized that the "haves" were regularly living off the hides of the "have-nots" and he spoke and wrote against that inequality all of his life. We need not only his work, but his example, to guide us out of the swampland.
More on G. B. Shaw
How I found Shaw, by Isidor Saslav
GBS: The Future Of A Rebel, by Peter Byrne
A Guide To G. B. Shaw On Home Video, by Louis Proyect
Giftless Amateurs Bug Shaw And Shay, by Art Shay
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