Friday, July 26, 2013

Happy Birthday, Mick Jagger & George Bernard Shaw

It's Mick Jagger's birthday---the Stones account has produced a video of him on stage through the years---and @BritishMuseum just reminded me it is also the birthday of George Bernard Shaw.  How poetic. 

The Irishman who wrote a lot about "marriage and the hypocrisies of monogamy"—and the Englishman who seems to agree on those two points, who is a Shavian man flecked with the attributes of the Superman, fleeing and embracing the LIFE FORCE (usually in supermodels), with an appetite that propelled him to superstardom—were born on the same day.

Mick Jagger is now 71 years old, and as we see, a remarkable life force in his own right. 

And some thoughts on Shaw and seeing Man and Superman at the Irish Rep.

"If men will not be faithful to their home and their duties, they must be made to be. I daresay you all want to marry lovely incarnations of music and painting and poetry. Well, you can't have them, because they don't exist. If flesh and blood is not good enough for you you must go without: that's all. 

Women have to put up with flesh-and-blood husbands---and little enough of that too, sometimes; and you will have to put up with flesh-and-blood wives. [The Devil looks dubious. The Statue makes a wry face.] I see you don't like that, any of you; but it's true, for all that; so if you don't like it you can lump it."

Ana, Don Juan in Hell, Man and Superman

I swear that last line was uttered by Joanie Cunningham on Happy Days.

But no, it's from George Bernard Shaw (1856 to 1950), a Victorian socialist and literary force of nature who does not have a broad cultural reach these days, even though his ideas and language are so very contemporary, even in our 21st century. He was the Irishman who emigrated to London for good at 20, following his mother after his parents divorced, and as an ex-pat wrote novels (which didn't do very well), music and literary criticism, political tracts, and 63 plays, 11 or so of which are absolute masterpieces of the stage. He died at 94, having witnessed Queen Victoria, World Wars 1 & 2, the very beginnings of rock 'n' roll, and clearly, having inspired Garry Marshall.

I learned about Shaw in high school, thanks to a used book my father picked up for me: Ellen Terry & Bernard Shaw: A Correspondence. I was very sensitive then that there were no famous L.N.s, an idea my dad wanted to disabuse me of (although the fact that he had to reach back to a prominent British stage actress to do it wasn't lost on me).

That's the thing about Shaw: his is the world of the Fabian Society, the founding of the London School of Economics, the likes of Terry Ellen, Henry Irving, Mrs. Patrick Campbell. It's a world not that well known today. His countrymen Oscar Wilde perhaps fares a little better, with revivals of his most Ernest pieces, keeping the drawing room comedy somewhat in the contemporary consciousness. And we've had some similar sparks with Stoppard's 1993 Arcadia wrapped in Chaos theory and Ayckbourn 's 1973 Norman Conquests. Each "rom coms for eggheads" as Terry Teachout said of the new revival of Man and Superman at the Irish Repertory Theatre that I saw last weekend. If I can inspire anyone, it would be to go see this excellent night of the theater.

So, We've All Seen Pygmalion

Shaw's best known play is Pygmalion (1912) because Lerner & Loewe set it to music, keeping whole chunks of original dialogue to bring us My Fair Lady.

GBS has several themes he comes back to again and again: the absurdity of the English class system and its rules; the struggles between men and women; the necessary independence of women (an early feminist), a horror of hypocrisy and religion; "free thinkers." What makes him a master playwright is that he does not sacrifice entertainment for his soap box. He verbal wit is thrilling, and he is able to use it in service to "the big ideas." It's actually very subversive to put across such challenging ideas in such a pleasing and funny way.

I have seen 4 of Shaw's plays, and they were all exquisite moments in the theater, perhaps because his writing demands the very best from actors.

Heartbreak House (1919, first performed in 1920): I saw this in London at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in 1983 when my brother came to visit me. The cast: Diana Rigg, Rex Harrison, Rosemary Harris, Paxton Whitehead, Frank Middlemass, and Simon Ward. Just looking at the playbill still makes me skip a breath.

From Wiki: Heartbreak House is not often performed due to its complex structure, however it is argued that the genius of the play cannot be fully appreciated without seeing it in performance. Its subject-matter is the ignorance and indifference exhibited by the upper and upper-middle classes to the First World War and its consequences.

Arms and the Man: (1894). In 1985 John Malkovich directed a revival production at New York City's Circle in the Square Theatre starring Kevin Kline as Bluntschli, Glenne Headly as Raina and Raúl Juliá as Sergius.

Taking its title from the first line of the Aeneid, Arma Virumque Cano, it's a polemic on the futility of war, but the characters are so funny you are dazzled, and when its Kevin and Raul, well, the words sweep you off your feet.

Mrs. Warren's Profession: The play about prostitution where the word is never mentioned. Performed at the Irish Repertory 2006.

Man and Superman
A drawing-room comedy that goes to Spain, then Hell and Back again, finds John Tanner, a rich political-philosopher, his ward, Ann Whitefield, who has set her sights on him, which makes him flee for his life, and their small world of friends and family. Shaw had been asked to write something about the historic/literary Don Juan, and he alit on the Mozart opera with its Donna Ana, the charming Devil, and the Statue of the Commendatore, who drags him down to hell, all within a drawing-room comedy.

Heaven and Hell are much bantered about in Superman. As written, the scene, a dream sequence no less, is an hour and half long, with very long monologues from the Devil with GBS's view that H & H are simply a matter of sensibility and temperament. (You can read the entire act here.) The people in Hell find Heaven boring, and could move up if they so wanted. Of course the ghosts of Wagner and Nietzche waft into the scene to, which is a little blah, blah, blah to me, but still the twists and turns in the dialogue are so entertaining that I don't mind the philosophical musings (which is a G-rated word for it).

The other big theme is that of the Life Force, which George sees as animating women to trap men into marriage. He believes it has never been the man who seeks the woman, beyond the most base and basic seduction. It may be noted that Shaw married a fellow Fabian who so fervently did not want to bear children that the marriage was never consummated, and Shaw had a series of affairs with other married women. Free thinking indeed.

[Updated from 2012.]