A George Bernard Shaw Retrospective
by Louis Proyect
George Bernard Shaw
(From the cover of Time, Dec. 24, 1923)
(Swans - March 23, 2009) As Charles Marowitz observes in this special edition of Swans on GB Shaw, his plays are rarely performed nowadays. As a film critic, I was interested to see what was available on home video especially since reading Richard Seymour's The Liberal Defence of Murder for a Swans review left me with an unresolved attitude toward Shaw. Despite the playwright's socialist politics, Seymour makes the case that he was closer to Christopher Hitchens than he was to Swans, pointing to a passage in Shaw's Fabianism and the Empire that calls for better management of the Empire rather than ending it:
Our concern in this Manifesto is not specially for the wage-earning class, which is taking its own course and reaping only what it has sown, but for the effective social organization of the whole Empire, and its rescue from the strife of classes and private interests.
Shaw's plays represented a dual challenge to me. Were they the masterpieces that my high school teachers insisted they were (Shaw was not taught in my college at all)? Were they weak politically despite Shaw's socialist reputation? As it turns out, these questions could not be answered with a simple yes or no. It is far easier to answer another question, which is whether his works still have the capacity to entertain and inspire. On this, I can offer an emphatic yes. On the politics, one can say that Shaw was limited by his Fabian preconceptions but since his plays dealt with class contradictions inside Great Britain rather than relations with the colonial world, they are not only unobjectionable but positively inspiring. Nobody hated the class system more than Shaw, at least those making their living as writers -- that is, until the Great Depression turned a whole new generation of writers against the decaying social system.
Before launching into a discussion of the six videos I managed to take in, let me make a few observations about Shaw as artist. The first thing that struck me was how so many different genres appear to be influenced by Shaw, from the screwball comedies of the 1930s to PBS Masterpiece Theater's "Upstairs, Downstairs." As a shrewd observer of the social conventions of the rich and the poor, he found their conflict an endless source of artistic inspiration even as he was on record for calling for their abolition. Perhaps there is no British playwright who has a better knack for mining both the foibles and the strengths of the servant class than Shaw -- except of course for Shakespeare.
The other thing worth noting is Shaw's linguistic gifts. Listening to his dialog is a reminder of how much Anglo-American culture has declined since the 19th century. Just as there will never be another Beethoven, there will never be another Shaw. His ability to find the perfect turn of phrase for the occasion was obviously the outcome of his exposure to great British literature. Anybody who has read Jane Austen will be struck by Shaw's flair for the ironic observation. Furthermore, when you see some of the more inspired screwball comedies of the 1930s, you will recognize immediately that a Preston Sturges not only read his GB Shaw both in high school and in college, but absorbed the literary and dramatic style completely. Nowadays, in the decline of Western civilization across the board, a Hollywood screenwriter is more likely to have learned his craft by watching television situation comedies.
Except for Devil's Disciple, all of the videos under review are available as DVDs from Netflix and among them all but Pygmalion originated as BBC teleplays. Devil's Disciple is available on VHS at video stores still stocking them, as well as public libraries. As a rule of thumb, the BBC productions are hampered by their "stagy" character but distinguished by the quality of the acting, including performances by John Gielgud and Maggie Smith.
1. Arms and the Man (Recommended)
This fluffy romance is set during the Bulgarian-Serbian war of 1895 and the opening scene introduces us to a Serb officer, a Swiss national named Captain Bluntschli (played by Pip Torrens, who looks, moves and sounds more like the young John Cleese than any Swiss you have ever seen). He has taken refuge in the bedroom of Raina Petkoff, the daughter (Helena Bonham Carter) of a Bulgarian general. Even though the action eventually moves into the other rooms in the Petkoff estate, it retains the character of a bedroom farce as Bluntschli vies with another Bulgarian officer and perfect twit named Sergius Seranoff (Patrick Ryecart), who has been cheating on Raina with the family maid.
I found the romantic rivalries much less interesting than the interplay between Louka the maid (Patsy Kensit) and the servant Nicola (Nicholas Chagrin) over how the servant class gets along in the world. Nicola is much better prepared than Louka to accept his role as underling. When Louka threatens to disclose her affair with Seranoff to her employers, Nicola warns her that not only would they not believe her, they would fire her on the spot:
Who would give you another situation? Who in this house would dare be seen speaking to you ever again? How long would your father be left on his little farm? Child, you don't know the power such high people have over the like of you and me when we try to rise out of our poverty against them. Look at me, ten years in their service. Do you think I know no secrets? I know things about the mistress that she wouldn't have the master know for a thousand levas. I know things about him that she wouldn't let him hear the last of for six months if I blabbed them to her.
2. Devil's Disciple (Recommended)
This 1959 Hollywood adaptation of GB Shaw's play dispenses with a number of the minor but interesting characters and tries to cater to conventional expectations by padding the original story with a lengthy battle scene including gunpowder detonations and fistfights galore.
Perhaps the biggest problem with the movie is Shaw's original material, which is reminiscent of Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities. Set in a New England farming village during the end of the American war of independence, the two main characters are "enemy insurgents." One is Dick Dudgeon, a self-styled devil's disciple who has openly rebelled against the British as well as the religious and moral pieties of his age. The other is Reverend Anthony Anderson, a local preacher who faces the gallows for having the nerve to bury a rebel in his church graveyard -- Dick Dudgeon's father no less. When the British come to arrest Anderson, Dudgeon deceives them into believing that he is Anderson and willingly goes to jail to await execution. Like Sidney Carton in Dickens's melodrama, this is a far, far better thing Dudgeon has ever done.
The best thing about this movie is the performances with Kirk Douglas as Dick Dudgeon and Burt Lancaster as Reverend Anderson. I'd like to believe that these two stalwart Hollywood liberals were pleased as punch to be performing in a movie based on a play written by one of the 20th century's most unrepentant socialists.
3. Heartbreak House (Recommended with reservations)
This is the oddest of the lot. Written in 1919 and conceived as an allegory on WWI, the play is structured around the rather pointless behavior of a bunch of upper-class twits at a country estate over a weekend. If the BBC production did not throw in stock footage of aerial bombing as each act drew to a close, one would not be able to make any kind of connection to WWI except for the final moments of the play when the palatial estate comes under fire.
In a sense, this play might be considered a somewhat unsuccessful attempt to pull off what Buñuel did to much greater effect in Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. The characters (including an old codger played by John Gielgud) are complete gargoyles learning nothing about each other or themselves as the play meanders toward its conclusion. Its saving grace, however, are flashes of truly brilliant writing in which Shaw heaps scorn on its unpleasant principals.
In the final scene, as the house is about to be overrun by enemy soldiers, one of the characters ironically named Mazzini, who was a radical in his youth, explains why he and his peers were unable to prevent war:
I joined societies and made speeches and wrote pamphlets. That was all I could do. But, you know, though the people in the societies thought they knew more than Mangan [a crooked industrialist and houseguest], most of them wouldn't have joined if they had known as much. You see they had never had any money to handle or any men to manage. Every year I expected a revolution, or some frightful smash-up: it seemed impossible that we could blunder and muddle on any longer. But nothing happened, except, of course, the usual poverty and crime and drink that we are used to. Nothing ever does happen. It's amazing how well we get along, all things considered.
4. The Millionairess (Recommended)
This is a scorching indictment of class society with Maggie Smith in the lead role as Avril Angers, a haut bourgeois woman who lords it over everybody she meets. In the opening scene, she elbows her way through people who have the nerve to walk on the same pavement as her. She is on her way to meet with a lawyer who she has hired to draw up her will. Because her husband has left her for another woman, she plans to commit suicide. As becomes obvious before long in the lawyer's office, she is prone to over-dramatization.
In another scene when she is having lunch at a small hotel with a suitor intending to replace her unfaithful husband, the man unfortunately speaks ill of her dead father -- one of England's richest men who left her 30 million pounds. This leads her to beat the man about the head and shoulders and throwing him down the stairs for good measure. When an Egyptian doctor who is a guest at the hotel hears the commotion, he rushes to the scene to provide medical aid. She demands that he treat her instead of the injured suitor, claiming emotional distress. As often in such plays, there is love at first sight as the millionairess falls for the exotic stranger.
In no time at all, she suggests that they get married. He says that he will not consider this unless she figures out a way to start out with a few pounds and turn it into a thousand, a challenge ironically that she posed to her own husband before they were wed. In the case of the Egyptian doctor's mother and her father, such a test is designed to prove the mettle of the suitor.
Determined to win her prize, the millionairess takes a job as a maid in a hotel and learns firsthand what it means to be a worker. This role reversal not only evokes Depression era comedies like Sullivan's Travels and My Man Godfrey, it is difficult not to see them as Shavian in character.
Although I learned about it too late to include in this survey, I hope to have a look at the 1960 movie based on Shaw's play that stars Sophia Loren as the millionairess and Peter Sellers as the doctor, now transformed into an Indian. I imagine that it has little to do with the original, but worth seeing out of curiosity.
5. Mrs. Warren's Profession (Strongly recommended)
The profession in question is prostitution and one would be hard-pressed to find a more enlightened treatment of the world's oldest profession at any time in history, even though the play does not mention the word prostitution or whore once.
Shaw approaches the problem of prostitution from a socialist and feminist perspective, making the case with elegance and wit that selling one's body in capitalist society is a better deal for most women than working in a factory. Furthermore, unless class oppression is ended, it is unlikely that poor women will resist the temptation to become whores.
The two main characters are Mrs. Warren (Coral Browne) and her daughter Vivie, a proud and independent woman whose college education was financed through her mother's profits.
When Vivie learns of her mother's profession, she demands an explanation, which her mother gives without apologies:
VIVIE. Yes: you had better tell me. Wont you sit down?
MRS WARREN. Oh, I'll sit down: don't you be afraid. [She plants her chair farther forward with brazen energy, and sits down. Vivie is impressed in spite of herself]. D'you know what your gran'mother was?
MRS WARREN. No, you don't. I do. She called herself a widow and had a fried-fish shop down by the Mint, and kept herself and four daughters out of it. Two of us were sisters: that was me and Liz; and we were both good-looking and well made. I suppose our father was a well-fed man: mother pretended he was a gentleman; but I don't know. The other two were only half sisters: undersized, ugly, starved looking, hard working, honest poor creatures: Liz and I would have half-murdered them if mother hadn't half-murdered us to keep our hands off them. They were the respectable ones. Well, what did they get by their respectability? I'll tell you. One of them worked in a whitelead factory twelve hours a day for nine shillings a week until she died of lead poisoning. She only expected to get her hands a little paralyzed; but she died. The other was always held up to us as a model because she married a Government laborer in the Deptford victualling yard, and kept his room and the three children neat and tidy on eighteen shillings a week -- until he took to drink. That was worth being respectable for, wasn't it?
6. Pygmalion (Strongly recommended)
This 1939 movie has the distinction of having a screenplay written by GB Shaw based on his own play for which he won an Oscar. It is really the gold standard against which all other Shaw movies should be measured and none comes close. If you are going to watch only one movie based on a Shaw play, this is the one.
It stars Leslie Howard as the snobbish phonetics professor Henry Higgins who agrees to turn the flower girl Liza Dolittle into a proper lady by teaching her manners and diction. A first-rate musical titled "My Fair Lady" was based on Shaw's play but I doubt that it could do justice to the brilliant dissection of class society in the original.
Shaw's sympathies are totally with Liza Dolittle who fights to preserve her humanity in the face of Higgins's disgusting objectification of her as raw material for his experiment. Once again, this story has inspired other movies in the same vein, including the memorable Trading Places that features Eddie Murphy as a petty thief who becomes transformed into a commodities trader simply by placing him in social circumstances that allow him to be accepted on the same terms as other elites.
Leslie Howard is simply brilliant in this role and so is Wendy Hiller as Liza Dolittle, a British actress I had never seen before. Both are equal to the best actors in the BBC productions but are blessed by the opportunity to have worked with material crafted by Shaw himself. This is an excerpt from the play that will certainly inspire anybody to rent the movie without delay, especially if you are looking for the same kinds of biting commentary on class and gender found in "Mrs. Warren's Profession" and other Shaw plays that I hope to soon discover.
LIZA. I sold flowers. I didnt sell myself. Now youve made a lady of me I'm not fit to sell anything else. I wish youd left me where you found me.
HIGGINS. [slinging the core of the apple decisively into the grate] Tosh, Eliza. Dont you insult human relations by dragging all this cant about buying and selling into it. You neednt marry the fellow if you dont like him.
LIZA. What else am I to do?
HIGGINS. Oh, lots of things. What about your old idea of a florist's shop? Pickering could set you up in one: hes lots of money. [Chuckling] He'll have to pay for all those togs you have been wearing today; and that, with the hire of the jewellery, will make a big hole in two hundred pounds. Why, six months ago you would have thought it the millennium to have a flower shop of your own. Come! youll be all right. I must clear off to bed: I'm devilish sleepy. By the way, I came down for something: I forget what it was.
More on G. B. Shaw
How I found Shaw, by Isidor Saslav
GBS: The Future Of A Rebel, by Peter Byrne
Probing GBS, by Charles Marowitz
Giftless Amateurs Bug Shaw And Shay, by Art Shay
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