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Are We Sure About Shaw?

Was George Bernard Shaw a prophet or a bore? As major revivals of Major Barbara at the NT & Pygmalion at the Old Vic introduce his dramas of ideas to a new generation, Michael Coveney investigates the playwright’s changing fortunes.

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With George Bernard Shaw’s early play about the Salvation Army and the arms trade Major Barbara opening in the National Theatre repertoire this week – following last year’s sensational, well-garlanded production of Shaw’s Saint Joan – and with Peter Hall’s freshly Whatsonstage.com Award-winning Theatre Royal Bath production of Pygmalion en route to the Old Vic for an extended summer season in May, it might seem that the old sage of Ayot St Lawrence is back on the theatrical map big-time.

Shaw’s popularity surged after the Second World War. His plays, always with star casts, were a fixture on Shaftesbury Avenue until about 30 years ago, when West End comedy suddenly grew up (with Michael Frayn, Simon Gray and Alan Ayckbourn) and theatre generally shook off the Victorian and Edwardian drawing room shackles that Shaw, ironically, had devoted most of his theatrical life to undermining.

A verbose virgin

In his 1977 play for the Royal Shakespeare Company, Privates on Parade, Peter Nichols created a monstrous army drag artiste, Captain Terri Dennis, who summed up the changing attitude: “Oh that Bernadette Shaw! What a chatterbox! Nags away from asshole to breakfast time but never sees what’s staring her in the face... she never even lost her maidenhead till she was 58 or something.”

So there it was: Shaw branded a verbose and out-of-touch virgin with nothing much to say to the modern world. That world had got larger and more complex, youth was on the march, bands on the run, and the theatre changed beyond recognition in his day. But it’s still just about possible to think of George Bernard Shaw, who died in 1950, as a phenomenon in British public life in the first half of the last century.

Shaw was, in a sense, our Voltaire, described by the great Shavian critic Desmond McCarthy as “a perpetual fountain of wit, intellectual energy and controversy” throughout his long life. He was an irreverent, vegetarian humanitarian with a low opinion of his fellow men but a high one of their potential, and an intensely developed sense of social justice.

Glittering profusion of plays

And his plays poured forth in a stream of glittering profusion once, as a critic, he had prepared his own path. He described his three momentous years on the Saturday Review in the 1890s as “a siege laid to the theatre of the 19th century by an author who had cut his way into it at the point of a pen and thrown some of its defendants into the moat.”

Some Shaw plays have never receded from the repertoire, some are probably beyond redemption. Heartbreak House, with its Chekhovian tapestry of great characters and sense of foreboding, is often revived. You Never Can Tell remains a fresh comedy and was craftily resurrected recently by Peter Hall for Edward Fox to steal a scene or three as “barmy” Waters, the wise and crafty manservant (though Ralph Richardson was the non-pareil in that role). I’d love to see Too True to Be Good again, or full-dress revivals of John Bull’s Other Island and The Doctor’s Dilemma.

But who could possibly breathe life these days into The Millionairess, which Shaw wrote specially for Edith Evans, or find anything fresh in the coy comedy of Arms and the Man, once revived at least twice a year around the country? Even Nicholas Hytner, artistic director of the National, confesses he took a look recently at The Apple Cart, a political extravaganza once played by Noël Coward and Margaret Leighton, more recently by Keith Michell and Penelope Keith, and found it “intolerable”.

National dalliances

Hytner, though, like Peter Hall before him, is rediscovering Shaw, growing out of his schoolboy distaste for what he describes as “his facetiousness and emotional evasiveness.” He sat his father down and asked him, as a young socialist in Manchester (he’s now 80), what made Shaw so valued. “Because whatever he said made us think,” replied Hytner senior.

Hytner now suggests we are emerging on the other side of lines drawn up in the 1960s that banished the civility and high spirits of Shaw’s writing almost on political grounds. The theatre had other business. Our heads were buried in the present. We forgot, for a while, the past. The challenge now, he reckons, is to look for the emotions that might be being evaded in Shaw.

“I was struck and surprised,” says Hytner, “by how febrile his life was and hadn’t realised how wound-up his relations with women were. I’ve always been bowled over by the energy of those Victorians and Edwardians when our own generation spends so much time ‘vegging’. And once you start to root the rhetorical expansiveness in the intellectual and emotional experience, the evasiveness becomes very interesting.”

On Major Barbara, Hytner credits Shaw with being truly prophetic rather than accurately contemporary. “The truth is, despite what Shaw’s manufacturer Undershaft says, that the arms trade at that time had trouble keeping up with the demands. Whereas now, 100 years later, you really can say that armed conflict is as much a product of the demands of big corporations as it is of governments.”

The National has always dallied with Shaw. There was a monumental Back to Methuselah designed by Ralph Koltai in the Laurence Olivier days. Frances de la Tour played Saint Joan during the Hall era. Howard Davies directed ]Alan Howard] and Frances Barber (naked in a tin bath when ordered to be brushed up clean) in Pygmalion during the Richard Eyre regime. This was followed, of course, by the Jonathan Pryce-Martine McCutcheon West End-bound My Fair Lady under Trevor Nunn.

But Hytner admits that the presence of Philip Pullman, a great Shavian, on the National’s board since his involvement with His Dark Materials, has galvanised his policy. He says he had to twist Marianne Elliott’s arm a bit into directing Saint Joan – a production that, Michael Billington said in his Guardia review , “should nail for good the idea that Shaw was just a didactic old windbag” – and was struck by how gripped the audiences were by the arguments even when they didn’t know where those arguments were going.

Major Barbara has been presented before at both the RSC and the National. Judi Dench played Barbara in 1970 at the Aldwych and Penelope Wilton in the Lyttelton in 1982; they both had the same Undershaft, Brewster Mason, a wonderfully imposing, seigniorial actor but possibly less mischievous or intellectually spry than Simon Russell Beale might prove in the part. But a sense of duty has often hung around Shaw revivals. Saint Joan suggested there might be a new sense of discovery and the time is “now”.

Post-modern cultural ignorance

Billington goes further. “The trend since the late 1980s towards visual and physical theatre,” he says, “meant that Shaw was thought of as not visually exciting or plastic. Last year’s Saint Joan showed how you can combine elements of gesture and argument. I’m afraid we’re steeped in a post-modern cultural ignorance of Shaw. It’s high time to overthrow that.”

In the end, Shaw will always be performed because he offers such great parts for actors. Billington cites the recent New York revival of Major Barbara starring David Warner and Cherry Jones: “It became a play about a father trying to make contact with his daughter, almost as in a Verdi opera. I’d never thought of the play like that before. It was a revelation.”

Major Barbara opens at the NT Olivier on 4 March 2008 (previews from 26 February), as the opening production in the 2008 Travelex £10 Season. Pygmalion is at the Old Vic from 15 May to 2 August 2008 (previews from7 May).

A longer version of this article appears in the March issue of What’s On Stage magazine (formerly Theatregoer), which is out now in participating theatres. Click here to thumb through our online edition. And to guarantee your copy of future print editions - and also get all the benefits of our Theatregoers’ Club - click here to subscribe now!!


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