The word “playwright” has always evoked for me one name: George Bernard Shaw.
I discovered Shaw, or GBS as most Brits would call him, in 1975, after borrowing his Collected Works from the British Council Library. I would pull a chair onto a patch of grass on a lazy winter afternoon and be lost in a world of ideas so provocative that my mind would race. Our neighbor, Mrs. Verma, would come by, inquiring if it was a good book, and I would nod sheepishly.
My secret fantasy was to be able to see all of Shaw’s plays, on stage, in London. I was at such a low point in my life then that going to London seemed impossible. My only prospect seemed the Indian Administrative Service, for which I was studying with much ferocity but little heart.
I did not know then that within a year I would be accepted to U.C. Berkeley, that soon I would be able to see the plays of Tennessee Williams and Henrik Ibsen and Eugene O’Neill and Luigi Pirandello.
Alas, after I arrived on these shores, I kept wondering why no one ever performed Shaw, except for My Fair Lady, which was a travesty of an adaptation of Pygmalion because of its ending in which Eliza succumbs to Higgins instead of leaving him as she does in the original.
Shakespeare seemed all the rage here, with at least half a dozen productions occurring simultaneously.
I was therefore pleasantly surprised to discover recently that a production of Heartbreak House was about to end at the Berkeley Rep.
So I finally made my pilgrimage to Shaw.
What a treat it turned out to be.
I think of George Bernard Shaw as my soulmate because he was a social critic and a cynic. A genius in interpreting human motivations, he refused to conceal relationships between the opposite sexes behind a veil of morality. He dispensed with sentimentality, revealing the essence of the human condition. He stopped short of being preachy, yet set his plays against a global panorama of war and destruction. The British Raj, with its glorified exploitation, loomed large in the background, while, in the foreground, the idle rich bantered in their parlors, revealing weak, indulgent, self-pitying, deluded lives.
His plays, written in the 1900s, remain fresh today in their characters’ aspirations. In Heartbreak House, Mangan confesses, “People think I am an industrial Napoleon. That’s why Miss Ellie wants to marry me. But I tell you I have nothing. (The factories and machines) belong to syndicates and shareholders and all sorts of good-for-nothing capitalists. I get money from such people to start the factories. I find people … to work them, and keep a tight hand so as to make them pay.”
In Mrs. Warren’s Profession, Vivie, who is a Wrangler of Mathematics from Cambridge, says, “I can make calculations for engineers, electricians, insurance companies … I shall set up chambers in the City, and work at actuarial calculations and conveyancing. Under cover of that I shall do some law, with one eye on the Stock Exchange all the time.”
Shaw was first and foremost a feminist. He portrayed women as strong, independent, freethinking, no-nonsense, level headed creatures who made men squirm. His female characters transcended class and race and reduced peoples’ lives to the brass tacks. In Heartbreak House, young Ellie, who has fallen in love with a dashing adventurer, discovers him to be the husband of her host, Mrs. Hushabye, and asks, “But how can you love a liar?”
“But you can, fortunately,” Mrs. Hushabye replies. “Otherwise, there wouldn’t be much love in the world.”
Americans don’t perform Shaw’s plays for the very reasons that I love them; he was a socialist and a satirist. Accustomed to saccharin tales from Hollywood, Americans cannot stomach his biting observations about imperialism, aristocracy, middle class morality, political hypocrisy, religious fanaticism, and male chauvinism.
Shaw revealed the British working class’s ravages, when, justifying her ancient profession, Mrs. Warren said, “You think that people are what they pretend to be: That the way you were taught at school and college to think right and proper is the way things really are. But … it’s all only a pretence, to keep the cowardly slavish common run of people quiet … (My sister) worked in a white lead factory twelve hours a day for nine shillings a week … She only expected to get her hands a little paralyzed; but she died.”
Shaw’s prefaces are just as interesting as the plays for which they were written. In the introduction to The Doctor’s Dilemma, he writes, “It is not the fault of our doctors that the medical service of the community … is a murderous absurdity. That any sane nation, having observed that you could provide for the supply of bread by giving bakers a pecuniary interest in baking … should go on to give a surgeon a pecuniary interest in cutting off your leg …”
Shaw unflinchingly debated social issues of the day such as his country’s entry into needless wars, which is precisely why he is of utmost relevance today to an America facing the sort of decline Britain experienced at the end of the colonial era.
In his preface to Major Barbara, Shaw writes, “Undershaft, the hero … is simply a man who, having grasped the fact that poverty is a crime, knows that when society offered him the alternative of poverty or a lucrative trade in death and destruction, it offered him, not a choice between opulent villainy and humble virtue, but between energetic enterprise and cowardly infamy.”
Reading these words, I cannot help but think of Rumsfeld and Cheney and Halliburton and Blackwater.
We need Shaw to tell us today that “If a man cannot look evil in the face without illusion, he will never know what reality is, or combat it effectually.”