Farewell GBS

The first of TWO events in which we commemorate and celebrate the 70th anniversary of Bernard Shaw’s death, on 2nd November 1950, with a programme of two original dramatic pieces, presented by SHAW2020 and Helix Productions.

Our curtain-raiser for the evening was Darlington, 1950, with Jonas Cemm as Shaw and Laura Fitzpatrick as the Shavian actress Ellen Pollock. Anne Wright adapted this short opening piece from her full-length play Affectionately, Ellen. Ever, GBS, which Jonas and Laura premiered at the Actors Centre in London in May 2019.

Darlington, 1950 was followed by Words of Love and Loss for a Platform Spellbinder –  in which we are in the company of sixteen women recounting what Shaw meant to them – very different women, some famous, some unknown, from very different backgrounds, but united in their devotion to GBS. Writer and musician Helen Tierney and actress and Director Alexis Leighton, who together comprise Helix Productions, have devised this tribute, and they were joined by seven other experienced Shavian actresses.

The second Farewell GBS event held on 13 December 2020 features Shaw’s earliest and latest creative pieces. SHAW2020 started the show with Shakes versus Shav, which was the last play to be written and produced during Shaw’s lifetime. Then Michael Friend Productions presented First and Last Thoughts, which puts together dramatised scenes of Shaw’s early novel The Irrational Knot and the final scene of his very last play, Why She Would Not. Our programme spans exactly 70 years of writing, from 1880 to 1950 – very appropriate to this 70th anniversary!

The sub-title of Shakes versus Shav is “A Puppet Play” – and it was indeed written for puppets, or more precisely, marionettes – and specifically, for the Lanchester Marionette Theatre, created by Waldo and Muriel Lanchester, which was based in Malvern. In 1949, the Malvern Festival was revived following a pause of ten years. Founded in 1929 by Sir Barry Jackson of the Birmingham Repertory Company, the Festival centred on Shaw’s plays. Many received their UK premiere at the annual summer festival in this charming and historic market town with a magnificent priory, set in in hills and rolling English countryside.

Waldo Lanchester showed Shaw two marionettes, exquisitely moulded in wood, and  gorgeously costumed by his wife Muriel. One was Shakespeare, and the other was Shaw. Waldo asked Shaw if he would write a play for the two puppets – and the result was Shakes versus Shav, a ten-minute sketch in the manner of a Punch and Judy show in which the two playwrights fight – including fisticuffs – over which of them is the greater. As a young man Shaw showed great interest in the developing sport of boxing, and had a go at being a prizefighter himself – and of course poetry contests go right back to classical culture. Shaw was also fascinated by puppets from his childhood.

Shaw repeatedly and controversially claimed – perhaps tongue-in-cheek? – that he could be “Better than Shakespeare”. Explicitly pitting himself against the Bard of Avon. And often echoing Shakespearian themes. His Caesar and Cleopatra must inevitably have cast a glance at Antony and Cleopatra; and The Dark Lady of the Sonnets, written in 1910 for a campaign for a National Theatre, shows Shakespeare discussing his craft with Queen Elizabeth I. The play’s progamme included a narrative skit set backstage in the dressing room as actors prepare to play Macbeth – where a plaster bust of Shakespeare comes to life and rather debunks some more lofty ideas as to his motivation – revealing himself as a jobbing playwright.

Seven years after The Dark Lady came Heartbreak House, with echoes of King Lear.  Both Macbeth and Heartbreak House figure in Shakes versus Shav – Shaw’s last attempt to rival Shakespeare.

The Waldo Lanchester puppets still survive – six in all. Shakespeare and Shaw were joined by Macbeth and Rob Roy McGregor, a Scottish outlaw who became a folk hero, and the subject of Sir Walter Scott’s novel;  and by Captain Shotover and Ellie Dunn from Heartbreak House, which Shaw thought was his greatest play. The Shav marionette is in Shaw’s home in Ayot St Lawrence. Its extreme fragility means that it is rarely on show, but it had a cameo part in Gerry Hoban’s award-winning film about Shaw, My Astonishing Self The Shakes marionette is in the collection of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-Upon-Avon, and the remaining puppets are in the Staffordshire County Museum.

Shakes Versus Shav was presented on 9 August 1949 in Malvern’s Lyttleton Hall. The voices for Shakes and Shav were Ernest Thesiger – a stalwart of the Festival – and Lewis Casson. The play was revived in 1951 as part of the Festival of Britain, in the Festival Gardens on the south bank of the River Thames, and then again in 1953 at the Lyric Hammersmith.

This presentation by SHAW2020 in our Zoom puppet theatre, is with Jonas Cemm as Shav, Will Birch as Shakes, and Lainey Shaw Narrator and Puppetmaster. The Director was Joe Sargent. This  curtain-raiser of the evening has a seasonal touch of pantomime – but perhaps also a certain poignancy, as we say farewell to GBS.

In 1880 Shaw, a young man of 24 recently arrived in London to live with his mother and sister, was finding his feet and seeking out a way to make a living. For a while he worked for the Edison Telephone Company in Victoria Street. When it merged with the rival Bell Telephone Company he was offered promotion but declined, and attempted to make writing his income, starting with music reviews and letters in magazines.  His major achievements as music, art and theatre critic were yet to come, and his first play Widowers Houses was more than a decade away. He had already penned one novel, Immaturity, which already had a number of publishers’ rejections to its name.

Like Immaturity, his second novel The Irrational Knot drew on his own life and on London society. One of the two main characters, Susannah Conolly, is a talented singer like his sister Lucy. Susannah’s brother Ned Conolly, a pragmatic realist and totally unsentimental electrical engineer and inventor, is a reminder of the workers Shaw met at the Edison Telephone Company. The novel follows the twists and turns of Susannah and Ned’s liaisons and marriages, which bring them into society circles around the Countess of Carbury, with not entirely happy results.

Like all five of Shaw’s novels, The Irrational Knot displays what Stanley Weintraub called the ‘embryo playwright’ – full of dialogue and set scenes. All Shaw would have had to do was to use the dialogue as script and the descriptions as stage directions. What Shaw didn’t do at this point, Michael Friend has accomplished for him. Michael has impeccable qualifications to carry out this task, with a long career as actor and director – and steeped in Shaw. For twenty-five years Michael produced and directed the annual summer plays at Shaw’s Corner, delighting the audience who arrived in the afternoon equipped with picnics and umbrellas, and stayed on into the evening as darkness descended on Shaw’s garden and the plays’ final scenes.

For First and Last Thoughts Michael has dramatised three opening scenes fromThe Irrational Knot.

We start in south London, with brother and sister Ned and Susannah Connolly in their digs, as they prepare for their respective evening engagements. Ned is to sing in a charity concert for working people at the Wandsworth Town Hall, organised by members of the Carbury set including his own employer the young Earl of Carbury. Ned is an engineer, working on his invention of an electric-motor engine – but he also has a fine singing voice. His sister Susannah is a professional singer and burlesque artist going under the stage name of Lalage Virtue. She satirically quizzes him about the amateur concert and the evening’s programme, thereby introducing us to the characters who will shape the plot. In particular, look out for the names of Marmaduke Lind – and his cousin Marion Lind.

Scene two takes us to the stage door of the Bijou Theatre in London’s Soho, where Susannah as Lalage Virtue has just finished her performance. Following the Wansdworth Town Hall concert Marmaduke Lind has taken Ned Conolly to see Madame Lalage perform. Mistaken identities ensue: Marmaduke does not realise that Ned and Susannah are related – and Marmaduke, passionate admirer of Lalage– has also concealed his own identity from her. This results in a spat, and the planned post-theatre supper is abandoned.

Scene Three takes place some months later, in a house in West Kensington. Susannah and Marmaduke ‘Bob’ Lind  – his nickname is Bob – are taking breakfast together, and it is clear they are now a couple. However, complications await.

We now fast-forward 70 years, to last thoughts – and Why She Would Not.

Shaw dashed off his final playlet in a few days in July 1950.  Shaw wrote to his German translator Siegfried Trebitsch that it had gone off to the printers, and that he would send him a proof when ready, “unless I tear it up: for it is a pitiable little old man’s drivel.”  His fatal fall occurred before the proofs were returned. Biographers and critics have debated whether he intended to write a sixth scene – and therefore, whether the play is finished or not. There is an additional piece of dialogue, and one early source has “The End’ written in Shaw’s hand – so I think we can take it that in Michael Friend’s production we do hear the final words of Shaw’s final play. Our two characters are Henry Bossborn and Serafina White. Serafina, heiress to a family business of timber merchants, is rescued from a robbery in the woods outside the family estate by a mysterious stranger – who turns out to be Henry Bossborn. In gratitude her grandfather offers Bossborn, who claims to be a humble carpenter, some sort of job. Bossborn acceots – but on his own terms. He quickly transforms the firm and increases its profits, and also establishes his own property development business.  He persuades Serafina to let him demolish the old mansion, Four Towers, and replace it by an ultra-modern home. As we join the play in Scene five, Serafina confronts him with the subject of their relationship.