Pricking the Preening Flippancy of George Bernard Shaw

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

starlet ?”

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

prose.”

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

malmsey.”

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

best.

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

crime.

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.