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214 T Shaw’s Lady Cicely     and the Remarkable Mary Kingsley W hen Bernard Shaw in 1912 tried to account for the inability of his Captain Brassbound’s Conversion (1899) to achieve a popular success, he took the strange position that its subject matter was too familiar to the theatergoing public. As an appendix to the first printing of the play he had attached notes which identified his confessed sources, notably the memoirs of his adventurer friend Robert Cunninghame Graham as related in Mogreb-el-Acksa (Morocco the Most Holy), which Shaw suggested had been “lifted into the second act.”That had explained Captain Brassbound, but not the indefatigable Lady Cicely, a role he had written for Ellen Terry when she had complained after the birth of her son Gordon Craig’s first child: “Now that I am a grandmother, nobody will ever write a play for me.”1 The explanation for Shaw’s reticence in the matter of Lady Cicely’s prototype may have been that she was then still very much alive. (So was Cunninghame Graham, but he was a friend whom one thus had license to spoof.) Mary Kingsley’s adventures had been in the newspapers in the middle 1890s, but only in 1897 had come the publication of her Travels in West Africa. Her West African Studies appeared in the year Shaw wrote Captain Brassbound’s Conversion, which at first he had intended to title, after the female lead, TheWitch of Atlas—a Shelleyan suggestion as well as a reference to the Atlas range in northwest Africa.2 No witch, Mary Kingsley nevertheless prevailed in her African travels as if she were one, and Shaw pointed out in his 1912 program note that “the material” of his play had been spread before the public for some years by the sharply contrasted travels of explorers like Stanley and Mary Kingsley, which shewed us, first, little troops of physically strong, violent, dangerous, domineering armed men shooting and bullying their way through risks and savage enmities partly conjured up by their fear-saturated imaginations, and partly promoted by their own terrified aggressions, and then, before we had recovered the breath their escapes had made us hold, a jolly, fearless, good tempered, sympathetic woman walk- Shaw’s Lady Cicely and Mary Kingsley 215 ing safely through all those terrors without a weapon or a threat, and finding more safety and civility than among the Apaches of Paris or the Hoolligans of London. The saving grace of the Lady Cicelys and the Miss Kingsleys—and here the term can be applied quite literally—is their respect for the best qualities in human nature and their ability to discover such qualities in every individual they encounter. “I am quite sure,” Kingsley observed with her typical demure irony, “that the majority of Anglo-Saxons are good men and I am equally sure that the majorty of Negroes are good men—possibly the percentage of perfect angels and calm, scientific minds in both races is less than might be desired but that we cannot help.”3 Lady Cicely confidently sees kind faces symbolizing kind hearts so often that she is—vainly—cautioned to “restrain your confidence in people’s eyes and faces.” But seeing the best in each man and announcing it publicly became a subtle form of coercion in encouraging even the unlikeliest to behave better than might otherwise have been expected. Only privately had Shaw earlier indicated the depth of his indebtedness to a real-life prototype, and in the process his admiration for her achievement . The resourceful Mary Kingsley was a “born boss” of the type Shaw would dramatize in later plays—an instinctive manageress who prevailed in a man’s world through wile, wit and will. In July 1899 Shaw had finished Captain Brassbound’s Conversion and sent a copy to EllenTerry. Her reaction was disappointing. “I believe it would never do for the stage,” she wrote Shaw, dismissing the idea of her acting the Lady Cicely role. “I don’t like the play one bit. Only one woman in it? How ugly it will look, and there will not be a penny in it.”4 Shaw responded on August 8 with a letter that was more a verbal lashing than his usual cajoling: Send to your library for two books of travel in Africa: one Miss Kingsley’s (have you met her?) and the other H. M. Stanley’s. Compare the brave woman, with her commonsense and good will...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780944318478
Related ISBN
9780944318256
MARC Record
OCLC
830023703
Launched on MUSE
2012-07-18
Language
English
Open Access
No
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