How G.B.S. and Mrs. Campbell Amused Each Other, Endlessly

That posturing old windbag, George Bernard Shaw, is always in good hands when reincarnated by Donal Donnelly. Mr. Donnelly, one of the greatest character actors who ever lived, is appearing in Dear Liar at the Irish Repertory Theater, as G.B.S. opposite Marian Seldes’ grande dame of theater, Mrs. Patrick Campbell. Ms. Seldes can play the grande dame like few others. But Mr. Donnelly plays Shaw like no other.

He’s had lots of practice. His excellent one-man show, My Astonishing Self , first reincarnated Shaw for us almost a generation ago, and Mr. Donnelly has been playing him off and on ever since. If he isn’t Shaw–who is? He captures the soul of the man even for those who, like myself, find the elfish, endlessly witty Shaw a bit of a narcissistic bore.

One of the sharpest lines in Dear Liar –unfortunately, there are few to choose from–comes when Mrs. Campbell writes to the middle-aged Shaw that “when you were quite a little boy somebody ought to have said ‘hush’ just once.”

Shaw never loved anything more than the sound of his own voice. Mr. Donnelly imbues him with an appealing eccentricity, even so. But then, the wit and humaneness of this marvelous actor have long since been apparent in his supreme interpretations of Brian Friel. The play’s the thing, however, and the play’s the problem.

Jerome Kilty’s 1958 Dear Liar is the prototype of the cozily, safely middlebrow theater genre known as the “letter play.” (Mr. Kilty, on to a good, epistolary thing, wrote five letter plays.) The principle behind them is sublimely simple, like the invention of the personalized doormat. Take any famous partnership, preferably literary–say, the Tolstoys, the Chekhovs, John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion–and stage their letters. Hence Dear Liar and the love letters between George Bernard Shaw and Mrs. Patrick Campbell. It is but a short leap from them to A.R. Guerney’s ever-popular Love Letters . Plus ça change, plus c’est la même shows.

Letter plays are also handily cheap to stage. You don’t necessarily need a set, though Dear Liar has one (a drawing room with writing desk for her; a library with standing desk built like a lectern for cantankerous old him). You need letters (from which to read). This is the thing: The actors read. What a cheat! Letter plays aren’t plays; they are readings.

They are inherently untheatrical. They are easy to do badly. But, ideally, the letters should be read and not read. The actors must know the text while pretending not to know it. They must bounce off the written page to bring the dead letter to spontaneous life. In effect, the letters must be half-read. If not, letter plays can be as dispiriting as listening to the groom read the big speech on his wedding day.

Marian Seldes, here in imperious Duch-ess of Windsor mood, has rarely been accused of underplaying. She is costumed in the first scene as if graciously attending a candlelit ball. Perhaps Mrs. Patrick Campbell was really like this, but we doubt it. Actresses playing actresses are invariably, inevitably actressy. But are all actresses, I wonder, always flamboyant egotists with grand theatrical gestures to match?

Though–according to Shaw–Mrs. Campbell traveled everywhere with her Pekingese, Pinky Panky Poo, she was never “lovable.” (Her rival, Ellen Terry, was better liked.) She gushes with false modesty: “Your letters are a carnival of words,” she writes to Shaw. “How can I answer with my poor whining beggars? It will be dreadful when you realize the commonplace, witless charwoman I really am. And you with so many ‘great women’ about you now, Saint Joan and all …”

Her effusive charm is transparent, but not to gullible Shaw. “Oh Joey!” (She called G.B.S. “Joey.”) “If I could write letters like you, I would write letters to God.”

But would God reply? Mrs. Campbell’s correspondence reveals more of a mundane, preening mind than an eloquent intelligence (at least, as edited and adapted by Mr. Kilty). She flirts too knowingly, a tease from behind a fluttering fan. “Perhaps some day, if you are very good and behave properly at rehearsal I will write you a love letter …” Even by Victorian standards of propriety, it is all too much, too calculated and too long.

Ms. Seldes is tethered to her letters, and her reading, as yet, isn’t always assured or inspired. The letters rein in her big talent, as if compelling her to behave too primly. When freed at last from the letters by Mr. Kilty’s woefully imagined rehearsal of Pygmalion , Ms. Seldes is so relieved, alas, that she plays Eliza Doolittle with the gale-force impact of a Medea with a speech defect.

Mr. Donnelly fares much better in his reading, and, as I say, he inhabits G.B.S.’s spirit like a medium! He’s at a discrete advantage, reading his letters from the lectern as if chained to it like a Gutenberg Bible. There’s poetry in Mr. Donnelly, too (more, one suspects, than in the coy clownishness of G.B.S.).

His love affair with Mrs. Campbell was an unerotic mariage blanc . (“Lustless lions at play,” as Mrs. Campbell put it nicely.) The letters aren’t juicy. In fact, Shaw reveals a surprising un-Shavian touch of the Hallmark: “If I looked into your eyes without speaking for two minutes … I might see heaven.” But then, he can’t help acknowledging that it would be impossible for him to remain silent for two minutes even with an audience of one.

Mr. Kilty’s own interjections are bad enough, cliché biopic summaries intended to create period “atmosphere”: “Imagine, if you will, the end of the last century.” (Are you imagining it, if you will?) “Victoria is still on the throne; England, the most modern of modern nations; the world wars are still to come.” Etc. Etc.

But Shaw reveals himself to be merely passably witty: “All I ask is to have my own way in everything!” His “carnival of words” is more an excessive wordiness. The lengthy letter about his mother’s cremation smacks of a poseur’s second-rate party-piece concerning Death. Another letter is even a challenge to decipher.

“No; let me write; and do you pray for us both; for there is always danger when that devilment Love is at work! Ah! I wish you were with me, you’d keep me out of pickles such as I got into yesterday. Briefly …”

When Shaw says, “Briefly,” you best brew the black coffee. But that awkward passage–”you’d keep me out of pickles such as I got into yesterday”–only confirms John Osborne’s famously rude dismissal of Shaw who “writes like a Pakistani who has learned English when he was 12 years old in order to become a chartered accountant.”

Osborne, the old rebel (and author of Look Back in Anger ), contemptuously–and mischievously–pummeled Shaw as “the most fraudulent, inept writer of Victorian melodramas ever to gull a timid critic or fool a dull public.” Of all the plays, he admired only one, Pygmalion . His ferocious attack on Shaw’s “vulgar drivel” created a merry uproar in London and–more to the point–a re-evaluation of the plays.

This letter play, Dear Liar , is at least, a useful footnote to the intense debate about Shaw’s real talent. Even an audience of one–Mrs. Patrick Campbell–was audience enough for G.B.S. But are his overwritten letters truly witty? Are they any good?