- Shaw for the Here and Now
Shaw characterized himself, with some truth and some irony, as "an old Victorian." After all, he was born in 1856. Queen Victoria would reign for forty-five more years. Yet, deep into the next century, no longer our own, he would write, in closing the Preface to Back to Methuselah—and he would be nearly a Methuselah himself, living on to 1950—"It is my hope that a hundred parables by younger hands will soon leave mine as far behind as the religious pictures of the fifteenth century left behind the first attempts of the early Christians at iconography. In that hope I withdraw and ring up the curtain." That self-assessment says much about Shaw's views of his work and hopes for its future.
Shaw expected to be surpassed but not entirely superseded. He thought of his plays not as artifacts fixed in period, but as parables, which gave them staying power. Was he too sanguine? Are some of G.B.S.'s plays too rooted in their times and places to be given new lives for new audiences and readers? Can we still ring up the curtain on them? Are some of them only now for literary archeologists? Are many, if not all, of his plays replete with possibilities for the here and now?
Looking largely at the plays, although Shaw was creative and lively in other forms, can we see the potential to reach beyond his words on the printed page to a new century and its consumers of culture? Is there a market in the here and now and hereafter for Bernard Shaw?
Shakespeare has been creatively restaged, recast, and rehabilitated. Richard III has been set in the 1930s with the culminating battle in the Battersea power station on the Thames; Henry V in World War II, Troilus and Cressida during the Crimean War rather than in Troy. Shaw's great Russian contemporary, Anton Chekhov, wrote only four plays still regularly performed, but much of Chekhov has been re-set from his own Ukraine to rural Ireland, the beaches of the Hamptons, the hill country of West Virginia, a hippy Manhattan nightclub, a plantation in the deep South, a dingy Moscow apartment, and starlet-focused Los Angeles. Why not Shaw? [End Page 11]
While it is true that during his lifetime he guarded his works from tampering by directors and editors, and that his estate, the Public Trustee, continues to jealously guard his copyrights, he was willing, even eager, to make creative changes to make his works more meaningful for readers and audiences. He was a pioneer in putting extensive, novelistic stage directions into his published plays, not to tie the hands of directors but to make his plays as readable as novels. He altered his texts with new editions, not necessarily to protect copyright but to make them more cogent. Scenes he added to Pygmalion for the screenplay are often now used on stage. He rewrote Major Barbara in the anxious days before World War II, for the film and for a new generation, placing it in the interwar 1930s rather than as a prophecy of an earlier world war. In it are motorcars and other evidences of the period. The play can be adapted to any age of anxiety. He wrote an alternative opening for Caesar and Cleopatra and an alternative ending for The Millionairess. His The Philanderer has now been performed with the ending he rewrote and the ending he discarded. He wrote a charming new prologue for The Devil's Disciple that was never used in the film version but would be delightful and informative if put into new productions. His political play Geneva, like the Depression-era equivalents labeled "living newspapers" across the Atlantic, needed regular updating so that the characters could keep pace with events. Why not now? Shaw has given us creative opportunities by principle and by practice.
Examples since Shaw abound. A review of a 2003 production ofthe great, much underrated John Bull's Other Island refers with some awe to the actor Gerrard MacArthur's Larry Doyle characterization as "a disturbing creation. Haggard, cynical, self-hating, MacArthur...