Whatever you think of Shawfest, it should always be applauded for single-handedly keeping Shaw’s work alive in North America.
This week, the Shaw Festival gave what the Toronto Star called a "dramatic response" to the commercial failure of Heartbreak House, one of the flagship shows of their current season. Although Shawfest will produce two plays by their namesake in 2012, neither will appear at the 869-seat Festival Theatre; both The Millionairess and Misalliance will appear at Shawfest’s smaller auditoriums. The Toronto Star has never suffered from tabloid style hysteria, but if this is the paper’s definition of a dramatic response then I really hope they never try to stage a play. Chances are it would be rather dull – almost as dull, dare I say it, as George Bernard Shaw’s plays sometimes threaten to be.
...they’re having a hard enough time selling the show without throwing in the word “fantasia” to confuse the middle-class.
Whatever you think of Shawfest, it should always be applauded for single-handedly keeping Shaw’s work alive in North America. If Stratford closed tomorrow, Canadians would still see productions of Richard III; but Shawfest remains one of the few companies with the balls to touch a fantasia in the Russian manner on English themes. This was how Shaw himself described Heartbreak House, though you won’t find it in any press kits: they’re having a hard enough time selling the show without throwing in the word “fantasia” to confuse the middle-class.
Although Shawfest has been moving towards commercial material (ie. musicals) they’ve continued to produce Shaw’s assortment of comedies, chronicles and unpleasent plays (“unpleasent” is his word, not mine). I’ve long wondered how long they could keep it up and it looks like the answer has come. Like all companies, Shawfest has to worry about the bottom line which is why their decision to move Shaw’s work into smaller venues is not dramatic but wise and understandable. It comes down to simple economics: don’t offer 869 seats unless you’re pretty sure they can be filled.
My inner academic adores him, but it’s hard to argue that he’s the man to call when you want to please a crowd.
From a marketing standpoint, there’s nothing sexy about George Bernard Shaw. My inner academic adores him, but it’s hard to argue that he’s the man to call when you want to please a crowd. Pygmalion will probably be produced until the end of time but the modern world just can’t get excited about Annajanska, The Bolshevik Empress. For all his dramatic skill, Shaw was a social critic; many of his plays have long-winded prefaces / postscripts and he spoke often of the theatre as a vehicle for social change. Social commentary doesn’t always stand the test of time, especially when the society being commented on is dead and gone. Asking a modern-day, middle-to-upper class crowd to care about the social problems of England from a century ago is, much like the prices of Shaw tickets in general, a tough sell.
The immense Back to Methuselah takes place over a thousand years, which is about the same length of time one needs to read it.
It doesn’t help that Shaw merrily wrote plays that are, to put it mildly, a theatrical challenge. The immense Back to Methuselah takes place over a thousand years, which is about the same length of time one needs to read it. Then there’s the infamous dream sequence in Man and Superman, which is so bizarre that it's often removed entirely or performed on its own (as Don Juan in Hell). His plays have large casts, are often difficult to stage and usually require both British accents and a deft understanding of early 20th century social mores. It’s hardly a surprise that Shawfest has left many of his plays unproduced for years – or that there are some which they have never attempted at all (see The Shewing up of Blanco Posnet).
Shaw’s pantheon are moved by their brains and while intellectual ideas are good for the intellects, they’re not why we go to the theatre.
Shaw’s plays are often didactic; in play after play, the emotion of the drama takes a backseat to the author’s intellectual goals. This is why audience response is rarely as strong as it is for something by Shakespeare. Shaw was a great lover / critic of Shakespeare, famously rewriting the fifth act of Cymbeline and finishing his career with the puppet play Shakes vs. Shav. The two have often gone head to head – or rather head to heart, since the Bard’s characters are always driven by their emotions. Shaw’s pantheon, on the other hand, are moved by their brains and while intellectual ideas are good for the intellects, they’re not why we go to the theatre.
Theatre can provoke social change but only as a side effect. Playwright Tony Kushner, who spoke at Shawfest this summer, recently discussed this very thing. “I feel there’s a power in theatre,” he told the Guardian. “But it's an indirect power. It's like the relationship of the sleeper to the unconscious.” He went on to remark that Bertolt Brecht, another socially conscious playwright, “was sincere in his desire to polemicise, but his greatness...is that he can move you to terror and pity.”
More often than not, his shows provoke a smug and superior smirk as we watch him lampoon society or spotlight hypocrisy.
Shaw, God love him, rarely moves us to terror or pity. More often than not, his shows provoke a smug and superior smirk as we watch him lampoon society or spotlight hypocrisy. He stirs the brain but has a tough time moving the soul. This isn’t to suggest he’s never done it. Pygmalion, Candida and Arms and the Man remain his most popular works and, not incidentally, they’re also the only ones to be adapted into musicals (My Fair Lady, A Minister’s Wife and The Chocolate Soldier, respectively).
This is a telling point. The old theatrical adage says that a character only speaks to get something she wants - when that doesn’t work, she sings and when that doesn’t work, she dances. It’s hard to imagine Mrs. Warren, Caesar or Major Barbara ever bursting into song. They’re too busy talking. Like Shaw himself, they are ultimately in love with hearing themselves speak.