- To Laugh or Not to Laugh:Shaw’s Comedy on Stage
On 26 December 1912 John Bull’s Other Island was revived at the Kingsway Theatre, London, for a series of matinées. In January 1913, when it received evening performances, Shaw composed an insert, dated “New Year, 1913,” that audiences received with the program.1 What would your response be if you attended an evening performance and, before the play began, read this extraordinary enclosure?
Addressed “To the Audience” and called “A Personal Appeal” from the author, Shaw begins by thanking the spectators for having received his plays with such “generous and unrestrained applause” that the actors sometimes had to “pause at the end of every line” until their laughter died down. Despite his gratitude, he would like to ask them a few questions: “Are you aware that you would get out of the Theatre half an hour earlier if you listened to the play in silence and did not applaud until the fall of the curtain?” Do they really believe that performances are improved by continual interruptions, even though such interruptions are complimentary to the actors and author? “Do you not think that the naturalness of the presentation must be destroyed, and therefore your pleasure greatly diminished” when audiences applaud and laugh again and again, which forces the actors to stop acting until the noise is over? Imagine an actress, he proposes, who is trying to focus her imagination on pathetic emotions listening to bursts of laughter of which she is supposedly unconscious.
Continuing his barrage of questions, he asks if they realize how a play that has been rehearsed to perfection in dead silence, with no audience, is dragged out tiresomely by an audience that refuses to enjoy it in silence. In rehearsal, his plays are exactly the right length, but if audiences repeatedly laugh out loud they make the play half an hour too long: “Have you noticed that if you laugh loudly and repeatedly for [End Page 324] two hours, you get tired and cross, and are sorry next morning that you did not stay at home?” Have they also noticed how nice people look “when they smile or look pleased” but how ugly they look when they roar with laughter? Smiles, he adds, “make no noise.”
He hopes they will not think him ungrateful when he says that while they cannot applaud his plays too much every time the curtain comes down, the more they applaud while it is up, the more annoyed he is. They would not stop a musical performance to applaud every bar they like; similarly, every act of a play is intended to be heard uninterruptedly from beginning to end. Therefore, “Can I persuade you to let the performance proceed in perfect silence just this once to see how you like it [?]” In this matter, he pleads that he is acting sincerely in the interests of the audiences as their “faithful servant.”
Very likely, your reaction to the question posed at the end of the introductory paragraph might be one or more of the following: laughter, a preparedness to laugh frequently during the play, thoughts along the lines of “Is he serious?” or “There he goes again,” and possibly a fleeting notion that Shaw might actually mean what he is saying.
Paradoxically—and paradox is characteristic of Shaw—he seems both to have wanted a comic response and to have meant what he said. On 27 December 1912, less than a week before he distributed his insert, he composed a letter to Louis Calvert, who played Broadbent in John Bull’s Other Island: “Although I have implored you a million times to give Nora a cue for ‘You’re very strong, and a gradle [great deal] too free with your strength,’ you barely remember to touch her. Instead of seizing her by the ankles and swinging her around your head.” Although this stage business is not in the published text of the play, it was devised by Shaw, who directed Calvert in its first production in 1904 and subsequently. Shaw continues: “When you say that Englishwomen are too prosaic, too material, you smile amiably instead of making...