The first time I ever heard a word of dramatic criticism was
when a reedy, timid schoolmaster named Mr. Houghton suddenly declared to his
class of sleepy 15-year-olds that George Bernard Shaw couldn’t write.
Perhaps Mr. Houghton, a disciple-no less-of the mighty F.R.
Leavis at Downing College,
Cambridge, was bored with his lot,
or perhaps he wanted to wake us up. But there he was, hammering Shaw’s iconic
reputation as we looked up in astonishment from our dutifully thumbed pages of Saint Joan .
No one had ever done such
a thing before! Criticizing Shaw was a form of blasphemy akin to announcing you
disliked a beloved uncle. But I remember his thrilling words of protest. “Think!”
Mr. Houghton encouraged us, as a polemicist advocates passionate dissent. “Is
Shaw’s Saint Joan a tragic heroine to you, or is she really a coy and simpering
A starlet! No one had ever talked this way before, and perhaps my bias against Shaw began
there and then, not with a saint but a starlet.
Shaw is still revered in England,
but the English worship at his shrine less than we do in America.
The prestigious Roundabout Theater production of Major Barbara with Cherry Jones at the American Airlines Theatre
has been treated pretty reverently; at least Shaw has. But two or three seasons
ago, an admired Peter Hall production of Major
Barbara in London emptied the
theater. “They say Shaw’s gone out of fashion,” Sir Peter said mournfully at
the time. “And we certainly proved it.”
Or, as the campy soldier cheerfully puts it in Peter
Nichols’ Privates on Parade : “That
Bernadette Shaw! She’s such a chatterbox!” He is over-chatty, there’s no denying it. He’s the only dramatist to
tell us what to think twice over: in the didactic
prefaces to the plays (which can be longer-and better-than the plays), and in
the plays themselves! But then Shaw virtually invented the modern theater of
vigorous ideas and debate-a forum for the 20th century.
George Steiner, for one,
pays fulsome tribute to Shaw’s renowned wit, his crisp Swiftian prose and his
then-revolutionary causes, from socialism to vegetarianism, from the rights of
women to his lasting ridicule of war. But even he acknowledges a dysfunction in
our own climate. “We prefer our creeds to be inward, problematic, obliquely
metaphoric,” Mr. Steiner writes. “Shaw’s combative trust in the ultimate
realization of truth, of robust decency, of clearly deniable ideals, strikes us
as both shallow and hectoring. The shift in consciousness distances us from his
But does it? Shaw’s windy
soapbox aside-a big, finger-wagging aside-there’s no emotional connection. In Major Barbara , there’s discomforting,
spirited debate about the morality of arms dealers versus pious Christian
charity, and there’s a preening flippancy. There’s the customary Shavian wit
and merry mischief, and there’s a pixieish streak of silliness that subverts
Shaw’s “grim absurdities” with noisy glibness. He flatters audiences, as Tom
Stoppard does when he remembers to.
John Osborne, another polemicist of the theater, loathed
Shaw in his blood, and lampooned his plays in jaundiced, high Swiftian style
during a favorable review of Michael Holroyd’s masterly biography of Shaw.
“They pander slavishly to the feeble, middle-class notion of ‘laughing at
themselves,’ a form of theatrical charity virtuously dispensed to clowns posing
as insurrectionist dreamers,” he thundered about the plays. “Shaw, of course,
played up to this applause like the court dwarf who’s fallen into a tureen of
So, you see, old G.B.S. brings out the best and worst in us.
A tureen of malmsey! (A starlet!) But what we don’t
have in Major Barbara is much
emotional depth-and, at that, in a drama that correctly prophesied the
multinational corporations of the world will rule us all. The all-powerful
corporation in Major Barbara belongs
to the billionaire arms dealer Undershaft,
and he’s a wonderfully challenging invention-arguably Shaw’s
Shaw himself, never
immodest, wrote to the actor, Louis Calvert, who originally played the part:
“Undershaft is diabolically subtle, gentle, self-possessed, powerful,
stupendous, as well as amusing and interesting. There are the makings of ten
Hamlets and six Othellos in his mere leavings.” That’s about right, apart from
the Hamlet and Othello. The charming devil incarnate, Undershaft surely never
gave a toss about sexual jealousy. (He could be sexless). And, unlike Hamlet,
he’s a man who knows how to kill. Killing is his calling card.
Rarely has a man been so uncompromisingly clear in his credo
“to give arms to all men who offer an honest price for them without respect of
persons and principles.” His daughter, Major Barbara, is in the business of
saving souls in the Salvation Army. Her faith is in God, his faith in “money
and gunpowder.” Undershaft’s religion, in other words, is money. Money supports
the Salvation Army. Ergo , money can
do anything, including save souls.
It’s salutary to recall that Alfred Nobel-father of the
Nobel Peace Prize-patented dynamite, which made him an immense fortune, which
enabled him to found the Peace Prize. But Shaw, via Undershaft, takes aim at
more than hypocrisy. His bold message and moral is that poverty is the only
He makes certain the
message is received in his preface to the play: “In the millionaire Undershaft
I have represented a man who has become intellectually and spiritually as well
as practically conscious of the irresistible natural truth which we all abhor
and repudiate: to wit, that the greatest of our evils, and the worst of our
crimes is poverty, and that our first duty-a duty to which every other
consideration should be sacrificed-is not to be poor.”
My problem with Undershaft is that he’s too persuasive by
half, winning every argument hands down. Shaw giddily makes him so convincing
and persuasive, he crushes all opposition. But look at the stagey types and
weaklings who surround him: There’s his sometime wife, Lady Britomart, a bit of
a character, who’s a grande dame with nothing to say; his son, Stephen
Undershaft, who’s a righteous, spineless Tory wastrel with no brains; his empty-headed daughter Sarah and her silly
aristocratic husband-two dim peas in a parodiable pod. The poor (who Shaw cares
so much about) are condescended to, as the lower orders invariably are in his
plays. He writes Eliza Doolittle stage Cockney
for actors, literally spelling it out in the script: “Yus, you dessay! I know.
Every loafer that can’t do nothink calls isself a painter …. “
Which leaves Undershaft’s sanctimonious
eldest daughter, Major Barbara herself, and her unlikely fiancé, dotty
Adolphus, known as Dolly, who’s a professor of Greek. This much I know:
Dolly gives academics a bad name. But Barbara’s righteousness lets down God’s
side. When she realizes the Salvation Army money is tainted, her romantic
devotion to the cause quickly collapses under Undershaft’s shelling. Then
again, her subsequent reconciliation and overnight transfiguration into
tolerant realist-“life is all one”-have always seemed more tidily, smugly
convenient than revelatory.
Daniel Sullivan’s Roundabout production is an uneven one
with one too many “turns” and some surprising overplaying. If it’s beatific,
send for Cherry Jones! But even this luminous actress couldn’t quite capture
Major Barbara’s fall (and rise again). David Warner’s Undershaft, however,
stands head and shoulders above everyone in a magnificent performance of
controlled irony leading seamlessly to the sustained passion of his Act III
soliloquy. Mr. Warner, the great British actor who disappeared from the theater
for some 30 years, is only now making his U.S.
debut. We welcome him back to the stage with open arms.