- “Shaw’s Corner” As a Theater
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ACT I. Foundations and Early Development
When Shaw’s death in 1950 led to “Shaw’s Corner” in Ayot St. Lawrence, Hertfordshire (a small village near St. Albans just north of London), going to the National Trust, the question was what use could be made of this country retreat? The house was not all that impressive in its architecture and atmosphere, it was in a somewhat difficult-to-reach part of England, and this came at a time when England was still in recovery mode after World War II. Add to this that key members of the NT Board, such as [End Page 234] Harold Nicolson, were not convinced Shaw would last and so questioned taking on this property. The fullest account of what happened in the early years of the NT’s managing of this property is perhaps to be found in Volume 4 of Michael Holroyd’s biography of Shaw, The Last Laugh, and an often laughable story it is of how things did not turn out as expected, beginning with the disappointment of F. E. Loewenstein, Shaw’s bibliographer and founder of the Shaw Society in 1941, that he was not given the house to live in and conduct as a shrine to The Great Man. Frustrating Loewenstein, the NT appointed Shaw’s housekeeper, Alice Laden, as the first “custodian,” but Shaw’s ghost so spooked her that she didn’t last long. Matters had been made worse by Shaw’s offer to provide an endowment being dismissed as unnecessary by some NT official (according to some in the Shaw Society who at the time attested in the Shaw Bulletin of December 1952 to what cannot be found in Shaw’s will), and then Shaw’s dispersing of his wealth to so many worthy causes (mostly unquestioned except for “alfabet reform”) that there was little left over for the property’s upkeep except salable artifacts.
And so to pay the bills the NT, rather neglecting the museum potential of the place after the initial enthusiasm for visiting it wore off and Loewenstein had given up his claim to it, for many years let out the house and/or garden for private use (Shaw had suggested as much in his will), but apparently mostly to people who were given a break on the rent if they opened part of the downstairs to paying visitors for a few hours a week for the viewing of Shavian artifacts (the first professional, salaried house manager not being in place until 1997). It seems that many of the Shaws’ furnishings and other effects, especially from the upstairs, where the custodians mostly lived, had been put in storage early on, and several decades passed before the NT seriously pursued the idea of making money on the property as a dedicated Shaw museum and theater (and eventually it did make money in the twenty-first century, but profits in the twentieth apparently occurred only in the first few years after Shaw’s death and then went into the general regional fund). The NT did not officially promote the birthday tributes at first, some of the early “custodians” finding them rather annoying, in fact, and the village was actually in an uproar over how visitors were ruining their idyllic countryside. So it was only the dedication and perseverance of the Shaw Society in its making of annual pilgrimages from London, beginning in 1952, to celebrate Shaw’s birthday with readings from Shaw’s works (with Eric Batson, the Society’s secretary, initially leading the trek and doing the readings), that eventually persuaded the NT to promote and market the event.
This occurred as well because, roughly concurrent with the development of the museum (although it’s not called a museum) and the return of some [End Page 235] of the stored items, the readings evolved, in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, from “appreciations” of Shaw and his works into productions of entire plays, and the Shaws’ large, attractive backyard became, on special occasions, an open-air theater. The date given in The...