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My enthusiasm for George Bernard Shaw dates from 1950, when I was 12. On my way home from school it was my habit to buy a copy of the Star, one of London’s three evening papers, principally to check the cricket scores. One afternoon the front-page splash carried the bold headline: BERNARD SHAW DEAD. At the age of 94 he had fallen off a ladder while pruning his cherry tree, and he did not recover.

I reasoned that a man who warranted front-page treatment must be a writer of consequence, so I resolved to discover more. In a second-hand bookshop I found a copy of Everybody’s Political What’s What, written in 1944, and began to read.

I found it riveting. The first chapter is entitled ‘Is human nature incurably depraved?’ and begins: ‘If it is, reading this book will be a waste of time, and it should be exchanged at once for a detective story or some pleasant classic, depending on your taste.’ How better to grab the attention of a boy just starting to realize that politics is fairly important, and that trying to get to grips with it could be entertaining as well as instructive? The book’s style, though mischievous, is trenchant and persuasive. Shaw was nearly 90 when he wrote it, yet he had retained the clarity that, as I would discover, imbues his books, his plays and their long, argumentative prefaces.

Everybody’s Political What’s What covers all conceivable (and some barely conceivable) aspects of public policy. Shaw was a Fabian socialist of a distinctive genre. He supported equality and democracy but was sharply critical of the political party system and of most professions, including medicine, banking, religion, economics and any activity connected to warfare. I quickly decided that his political views would be mine as well. He had addressed many of those themes in his plays, which I began to buy in the maroon and white uniform Penguin Plays editions – still in print, although now in a different livery

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My enthusiasm for George Bernard Shaw dates from 1950, when I was 12. On my way home from school it was my habit to buy a copy of the Star, one of London’s three evening papers, principally to check the cricket scores. One afternoon the front-page splash carried the bold headline: BERNARD SHAW DEAD. At the age of 94 he had fallen off a ladder while pruning his cherry tree, and he did not recover.

I reasoned that a man who warranted front-page treatment must be a writer of consequence, so I resolved to discover more. In a second-hand bookshop I found a copy of Everybody’s Political What’s What, written in 1944, and began to read. I found it riveting. The first chapter is entitled ‘Is human nature incurably depraved?’ and begins: ‘If it is, reading this book will be a waste of time, and it should be exchanged at once for a detective story or some pleasant classic, depending on your taste.’ How better to grab the attention of a boy just starting to realize that politics is fairly important, and that trying to get to grips with it could be entertaining as well as instructive? The book’s style, though mischievous, is trenchant and persuasive. Shaw was nearly 90 when he wrote it, yet he had retained the clarity that, as I would discover, imbues his books, his plays and their long, argumentative prefaces. Everybody’s Political What’s What covers all conceivable (and some barely conceivable) aspects of public policy. Shaw was a Fabian socialist of a distinctive genre. He supported equality and democracy but was sharply critical of the political party system and of most professions, including medicine, banking, religion, economics and any activity connected to warfare. I quickly decided that his political views would be mine as well. He had addressed many of those themes in his plays, which I began to buy in the maroon and white uniform Penguin Plays editions – still in print, although now in a different livery. Later I started to collect Constable’s ‘standard edition’ of the works, introduced in 1931, with their neat red and green lettering on cream jackets, protecting a rust-coloured binding. The first of his plays I saw performed was Androcles and the Lion, in a school production. I wasn’t in it, although I coveted the role of the Lion, who had only to roar and to hold up a paw for the pesky thorn to be removed before embracing Androcles in a friendly clinch. The preface makes clear that the play is essentially a sideways look at Christianity, but I doubt that I then appreciated the nuances. In preparing to write this piece I consulted some of the volumes in the dedicated Shaw bookcase in our guest room. (Sadly, I can’t detect that our guests make much use of it.) Inside the Penguin edition of The Doctor’s Dilemma I discovered the programme of a production at the Theatre Royal, Brighton, that I had seen with my parents in September 1956. It was on its pre-West End tour and the cast included some of the theatrical greats of the time: Sir Lewis Casson (then over 80), Laurence Hardy, Michael Hordern, Ann Todd and Paul Daneman. Seat prices ranged from two shillings (10p) to 12s 6d. (62.5p). The programme reveals that this was part of a Shaw autumn binge at the Theatre Royal, with two more productions of his plays scheduled for October: the one-acters Fanny’s First Play and Village Wooing in a double bill starring Brenda Bruce, followed by The Devil’s Disciple, played by Tyrone Power. Over my lifetime Shaw has come in and out of fashion among the literati, and the Fifties must have been a period when his work was thought highly relevant. Frustratingly I was unable to catch the other two productions, since October was the month of my call-up for two years’ National Service in the Royal Navy. During the second half of my service I was stationed at Chatham, convenient for jaunts to London. By then I had become a regular reader of the New Statesman (I still am) and noticed in it an advertisement for the Shaw Society, which discussed the works of the master at monthly meetings in a room in Albemarle Street, Mayfair. I joined eagerly, and once or twice amused the other disciples by turning up in my uniform, bell-bottomed trousers and all. After the meetings we would adjourn for a cup of tea, a cigarette and more earnest Shavian talk at Lyons Corner House on Piccadilly Circus. In 1958 the musical My Fair Lady, based on Shaw’s Pygmalion, opened at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and the society made a block booking. From the theatre’s upper reaches we watched Rex Harrison, Julie Andrews and Stanley Holloway going through their paces. Although we were predisposed to disapprove of any undue tampering with the hallowed text, we had to agree that the show was a success, primarily because so much of Shaw’s dialogue had in fact survived. Even some of Alan Jay Lerner’s spirited lyrics are rooted in the play’s script. Shaw’s Higgins declares: ‘Women upset everything. When you let them into your life you find that the woman is driving at one thing and you’re driving at another.’ Lerner translates this as
Let a woman in your life And you are up against the wall! Make a plan and you will find She has something else in mind . . .
Again, Lerner’s Higgins laments in song:
An Englishman’s way of speaking absolutely classifies him. The moment he talks he makes some other Englishman despise him.
– an almost direct quotation from Shaw’s preface. I have of course seen many productions of My Fair Lady since then, most notably an Icelandic version in Reykjavik in the early Sixties. Translating ‘The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain’ into Icelandic must have been a challenge, but to judge from the audience reaction it was met triumphantly. My wife Olga does not wholly share my devotion to Shaw (‘Too wordy’) but she has generously indulged it for more than half a century, and we have together seen a large part of the canon. Sometimes our quest has taken us to unlikely places: I remember watching a fine performance of The Dark Lady of the Sonnets in a tiny room over a south London pub, with the rain dripping through a corner of the ceiling. During the Seventies we lived for some years in New York, where Shaw’s sharp intellect was in tune with the city’s Zeitgeist and his plays turned up regularly off Broadway. Every summer an outdoor production of one of the works is staged on the lawn of Shaw’s Corner in Ayot St Lawrence, Hertfordshire, where he lived from 1906 until his death. We have twice taken picnics there. On the first visit we saw Too True to Be Good, one of his weirder plays. It begins with a plaintive speech from ‘The Monster’, a character described in the author’s stage directions as resembling a human being ‘but in substance it seems of luminous jelly’. He turns out to be a microbe, complaining of having caught measles from an ailing young woman. Also involved is a man named Meek, who arrives on a motorbike in a colonial outpost and is based loosely on T. E. Lawrence, or Lawrence of Arabia. Like many Shaw plays it goes on a bit. By the time it ended, with a three-page speech from the main character, the sun had set, the wine had run out and we were pulling the rug around ourselves ever tighter. Undaunted, we went back a couple of years later to see The Apple Cart. This is about a feud between a king and his prime minister, bearing some similarity to the recent West End hit Charles III. Thankfully, the night was balmier and the play shorter than on that first visit. Over the years the National Theatre has produced its share of Shaw’s plays. The late Peter Hall, its director from 1973 to 1988, was fond of them, so there was no lack of revivals during his tenure. I remember in particular the 1975 production of Heartbreak House, my favourite of them all, reflecting the upheavals in British society in the wake of the First World War. Colin Blakely gave a wonderful performance as the dissolute Captain Shotover, albeit not as moving as Richard Griffiths in the role at the Almeida in Islington in 1997. After leaving the National, Hall for some years directed an annual short season at the Theatre Royal, Bath, where a Shaw play was invariably part of the repertoire. Olga and I enjoyed our day trips to Somerset to catch them. In 2002 Hall gave his daughter Rebecca her West End break in a splendid production of Mrs Warren’s Profession, an early work, written in 1893. She played Mrs Warren’s daughter Vivie – one of the many spirited, opinionated young heroines Shaw created in an era when feminism was in its infancy. Nicholas Hytner, who took over at the National in 2003, admits in his recent memoir, Balancing Acts, that he had reservations about Shaw: ‘I recognized his importance, even if I dreaded having to sit through endless performances.’ His conversion came through Saint Joan, which he staged in 2007: ‘From Saint Joan we had learned how little credence to give the old charge that Shaw was without passion. His people throb with the visceral excitement of argument. If an actor commits to it body and soul, argument becomes as passionate as a declaration of love.’ Saint Joan was quickly followed at the National by Major Barbara in 2008, but then came a hiatus. I happened to meet Hytner at a party in 2011 and suggested to him that it was time to revisit the works of the bearded sage. He asked what play he should mount and I replied that I hadn’t seen Candida for a while. He chose The Doctor’s Dilemma, then Man and Superman. The enterprising Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond has been fertile ground for GBS groupies, often at times of comparative drought elsewhere. The plays, with their emphasis on impassioned dialogue rather than spectacle, adapt well to its square auditorium with seating on all four sides. In December it staged Misalliance, one of his more preposterous confections, written in 1910 and featuring an assertive Polish acrobat and pioneering aviatrix whose plane crashes into the greenhouse of a country house in Surrey, as well as an intended assassin who hides in a portable Turkish bath. The contemporary relevance of the play’s powerful feminist message was duly underlined in a programme note. Nonetheless there were some in the audience, perhaps encountering Shaw for the first time, who manifestly found it all rather hard to take. They clearly identified with the final two lines, where the author slips in a characteristic joke against himself and his reputation for verbosity:
‘I suppose there’s nothing more to be said.’ ‘Thank goodness!’

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 57 © Michael Leapman 2018


About the contributor

Michael Leapman has been writing for national newspapers and magazines for sixty years, and is the author of seventeen books (all non-fiction).

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