WAS GEORGE BERNARD SHAW the supreme English speaking playwright genius of the twentieth century? Sure he was. Just ask George Bernard Shaw.
Howard Burnham’s latest online memorable personality is an Irishman who didn’t mind tooting his own horn as a music critic or as drama critic or playwright grabbing the spotlight away from theatrical superstars. The show is called Pshaw: Bernard Shaw at Ninety. It supposes the gadfly genius talking about his life and works to Movietone News, presumably in 1936 when he won an Oscar for his screenplay of Pygmalion.
Burnham artfully rolls out a brisk and witty biographical sketch about a man who won international fame for his waspish Hibernian bluster and razor sharp way with an insult or anecdote, sometimes at the cost of factual accuracy.
Burnham picks up the wild and winsome farce of GBS, telling how strolling home after a performance by an Italian ballet dancer named Vincenti and deciding to stop in a Bloomsbury Square to try and imitate some of the pirouettes he’d just been watching. (It’s possible.) But was it really true that gradually two London policemen and a delivery boy joined him, one by one, to form a ludicrous male corps de ballet? (Hmmm?)
And what are we to make of Shaw’s explanation that his lifelong marriage happened by accident when he and a Socialist colleague named Charlotte Payne Townshend were caught in a London downpour and took shelter in a nearby Registry Office, where the registrar mistakenly assumed they were there to get married and forthwith tied the knot. (Embellished?)
The engaging half-truths Shaw seemed to play for laughs and shock value. But the performance does justice to a deeper truth hidden in the erudite Shavian malarky. Reviews he wrote for the Pall Mall Gazette and later for the London Saturday Review search out artistic pomposity even in the work of contemporary big names like soprano Adelina Patti, whom he took to task as “too big a girl” for her coy ingénue platform tactics. It’s an informed iconoclasm that persists in stage scripts like Mrs Warren’s Profession first published in Plays Pleasant and Unpleasant.
Woe betide you if you were theater manager and stage idol like Sir Henry Irving opening in a new play by none other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In his review for the Saturday Review GBS told readers that the acclaimed thespian star of A Story of Waterloo employed the “two-dimensional cardboard” mannerisms of nineteenth century acting to present “not a performance but a costume.”
Shaw pilloried Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, the original Henry Higgins in Pygmalion, for rejecting the script’s ending, in which Eliza walks out and marries the goof Freddy Eynsford Hill, and substituting a new final moment that suggests an Eliza-Higgins marriage. Tree dismissed Shaw’s angry protest on the grounds that “my ending makes money.” And he was right. Every performance that I’ve seen, and I’ve seen a lot including My Fair Lady on stage and screen, has used Sir Herbert’s version. Shout and rave as he might, Shaw’s Oscar-winning screenplay has Wendy Hiller returning, shying a pair of slippers at Leslie Howard and declaring that she “washed ‘er fice” and “ands afice afore she came.” For a dyed-in-the-wool socialist Shaw was a past-master of the philosophy of ‘Follow the Money.’ Participants in Shaw revivals, public or amateur, will tell you that he and his estate after him charged double the going rate for royalties of his plays.
An Academy statuette, which he claimed he used as a doorstop, can’t have harmed his income either. Howard Burnham’s GBS reminds us that he had the unique distinction of being the only person to win both an Oscar and, earlier, a Nobel Literature Prize for his Heartbreak House.
Shaw claimed that play was like something by Chekhov, only better. He also said that his masterpiece, St Joan, was better than anything Shakespeare ever churned out, even including King Lear. But Howard also reminds that his quirky portrayal is of a man whose greatest creation may not have been a collection of plays but a sublime Irish artful dodger named George Bernard Shaw.
It’s an eventful and engaging show. The visuals are wonderful. You are never in doubt about who is being discussed, referred to, imitated or insulted, or where it’s happening. The images are clearly labeled and, where the mood turns silly or sardonic, the actor/writer has found caricatures to match the jokes. As always, Burnham plays all the speaking parts, at least all that are of the male gender. I was a bit taken aback when someone in the Q&A session after the performance seemed to request a future play about Virginia Woolf. Howard tactfully speculated that he might have a go at her husband Leonard.