Friday, July 26, 2013

The Letter's The Thing

I just read Dear Liar, a play, such as it is, dramatizing the correspondence between George Bernard Shaw--whose birthday is today--and Mrs. Patrick Campbell.  There's always a danger that the reading of letters will be inert as dramatic material, so the playwright, Jerome Kitty, helps it along with a fair amount of narration explaining what was going on in-between, not to mention generous helpings from some of Shaw's work itself.

Shaw and Mrs. Pat had a strange, complicated relationship. (She remained Mrs. Patrick Campbell for her professional career even though her first husband, who'd left her at one point, died in the Boer War.) She was one of the top actresses of the British stage in the 1890s when Shaw was just getting started as a playwright. It tooks him years to become estasblished, but he always had his eye on her, hoping to interest her in one of his works.  He finally caught her attention with an intentional potboiler, Pygmalion.  They were ready to do it in 1912 when she was in an accident and the production was put off for a couple years.  After the play premiered in Vienna (in German) she was finally ready to play Eliza, and she helped convince Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree--one of the top actor-managers in the West End--to appear as Higgins. (As Shaw makes clear, you can't have just one star in Pygmalion if you want it to run).

But something else happened during their exchange of letters.  Shaw fell for Mrs. Pat, hard.  He was in his mid-50s, but acting like a schoolboy, even though they never had a physical relationship.  The main trouble was Shaw was married (though he and his wife had no physical intimacy either).  Mrs. Pat also felt for Shaw, but she married another during the rehearsals, perhaps to put the matter to rest. In any case, the show, even with the three big egos fighting behind the scenes, was a great success when it opened in 1914.  It was probably her best known role (even though she was almost fifty yet playing a teenager) and probably his most popular play.

That's the first act.  The second act is rougher, as World War I breaks out.  Shaw gets a lot of flack for publicly opposing the war while Mrs. Pat loses her son.  As they age, Shaw gets only more famous (writing Saint Joan and winning a Nobel Prize) while she not only gets to be the age where it's tougher to pull off leads, but also gets a reputation for being difficult.  The two fight more often as well, especially over what's to be done with their letters. Shaw doesn't want or need them published, but they both kept them.  Which is why we have this play today, which is a decent if brisk look into two complicated lives.


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