Shaw, Misalliance, and the Theatre

Cary M. Mazer, University of Pennsylvania

Guest Dramaturg

During the first dozen or so years that Bernard Shaw was a working playwright, he was engaged in an ongoing struggle to find his audience, and to find a theatre to produce his plays.

In that time--between 1891 and 1904--he wrote close to a dozen plays. But he failed to find a theatre in which his plays could reliably be produced; and he failed to find an audience of theatregoers who could understand either the form or the content of his plays.

Shaw's plays failed to find their audience for two different reasons, for the plays he wrote in this first decade of prolific dramatic writing took two different forms.

Some of his plays were (to use his own term) "unpleasant"--plays, like Mrs Warren's Profession, about modern social problems (often called "blue-book" plays, after the traditional name for a parliamentary investigatory report), that were designed to force audiences to face unpleasant truths about themselves and their world. These plays, if they were staged at all, were produced by private societies, such as the Independent Theatre, the New Century Theatre, and the Stage Society--officially private "clubs" with "members" who could attend workshop productions, usually on Sunday nights, when professional actors had the night off and were free to lend their talents to the societies. (Because these were "clubs" with dues-paying "members" presenting "private" performances, rather than theatres charging admission to the general public, they could get around the censorship; Mrs Warren's Profession, for example, had been denied a license for public performances). The membership of these societies were generally intellectuals in the aesthetic and political vanguard--people who, like Shaw, were often socialists, suffragists, feminists, vegetarians, and anti-vivisectionists.

Shaw's other plays of the period were, in their form and structures, modelled after the dramatic and theatrical genres of the popular theatre. You Never Can Tell, for example, is a boulevard comedy in modern dress; Caesar and Cleopatra is an historical costume epic; and The Devil's Disciple is a heroic melodrama. Shaw's goal in these plays was to put new ideological wine into old dramaturgical bottles, to create a drama that could appeal to the star "Actor-Managers" who managed the fashionable West End theatres and starred in dramatic vehicles specifically tailored to their talents, a drama that could appeal to the mass popular audiences who patronized these theatres, seeking a good entertaining night out. Shaw wrote many of these plays with specific actor-managers in mind (You Never Can Tell for Charles Wyndham, The Man of Destiny for the popular and prestigious Shakespearean actor-manager Sir Henry Irving). But for the most part Shaw failed to convince these actors to produce his plays. With the exception of Arms and the Man, which was produced in a special season financed by a rich heiress (Miss Annie Horniman), and a few plays produced in America, Shaw's plays remained largely unproduced in England.

All this changed in 1904, when a young actor twenty years younger than Shaw, Harley Granville Barker, began a series of matinees of Shaw's Candida at the tiny Court Theatre on Sloane Square in Chelsea. Barker had appeared in Candida in a "private" performance for the Stage Society. Now, in exchange for directing a vanity production of a Shakespeare play for a theatre-manager's wife, he was given access to the theatre during the day for an experimental season of avant-garde drama in rotating repertory. Barker's experiment paid off, and he was soon able to move the successful pieces into evening bills. Over the next three years, Barker produced several of Shaw's earlier plays--Candida, Captain Brassbound's Conversion, Man and Superman (with and without the "Don Juan in Hell" act), How He Lied to Her Husband, You Never Can Tell, and The Man of Destiny--along with such new Shaw plays as John Bull's Other Island, Major Barbara, and The Doctor's Dilemma. And the Court Theatre became a magnet for the drama of other progressive playwrights, living and dead: Euripides (in new translations by Barker's friend Gilbert Murray), Henrik Ibsen, John Galsworthy, Elizabeth Robins, John Masefield, St. John Hankin, and Barker himself, who was a dramatist in his own right. Shaw was now part of a movement.

At the Court, Shaw found more than a theatre that shared his theatrical values. He found an audience--one that included women, progressives, intellectuals, and more mainstream members of the cultural and political intelligentsia. And with the freedom of this new audience, his dramatic writing changed. Major Barbara, Shaw's most important play for the Court, is carefully structured and ideologically audacious. One of its boldest strokes is its final scene, which is almost entirely a series of intellectual discussions, in which the characters hammer out their decisions and beliefs by sitting down and talking, brilliantly, about them with one another.

After 1907, Barker closed up shop at the Court and tried (and failed) to create a repertory season at the Savoy Theatre in the West End. And Shaw found himself dramatically adrift. It was not for the lack of a theatrical outlet for his new plays. Barker and his associates were at work in several theatres around London. And several majors cities were establishing civic repertory theatres based on the Court experiment (many of them funded by Miss Horniman), all eager to produce Shaw's works. Rather, Shaw was adrift because he was uncertain about where he could take the "discussion play" genre that he had created in the final act of Major Barbara. His first experiment with the discussion play after Major Barbara was Getting Married, which takes the form of a continuous conversation in a single setting, without intermission, thereby following the supposed Aristotelian "unities" of time and place. Barker produced the play in the West End in 1908. Aside from this experiment, Shaw doodled away at several occasional one-act plays, and wrote a self-parodic play-within-a-play, Fanny's First Play, which proved to be so popular that it had the longest continuous initial run of any of Shaw's plays. Getting Married had shown that Shaw had found a new form; but neither he nor his audiences knew yet what to do with it.

Then, in 1909, another opportunity arose. The American impresario producer Charles Frohman, who had produced the premieres of J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan in both London and New York, proposed to take over a West End theatre (The Duke of York's) for an ongoing season of new plays in repertory. The plays were to be written by such high-profile mainstream playwrights as Barrie, Arthur Wing Pinero, and Somerset Maugham; and by "new" dramatists--Shaw, Barker, Galsworthy, Masefield, Euripides (via Murray), and Henry James. The more mainstream plays would be directed by Dion ("Dot") Boucicault (the son of the Victorian melodramatist), who had directed Peter Pan; the others would be directed by Barker. Most surprising of all was Frohman's announcement that the theatre sought, and expected, to make a commercial profit.

Galsworthy and Barker already had plays underway, though as usual Barker was having trouble finishing his play, The Madras House, to his satisfaction. As was the usual practice among playwrights in Shaw's circle, Barker read the script-in-progress aloud to his friends. Like Shaw, Barker was experimenting with the freedom of form of the "discussion play." Unlike Getting Married though, The Madras House is not an extended discussion among a single set of characters. Quite the opposite: very few of the characters that appear in any one of the play's four acts reappear in any other. The Madras House is not one but four separate discussions, bound together primarily by their subject matter: women, marriage, and sex. Set in the world of the garment manufacturing industry, department stores, and haute couture fashion design, The Madras House examines the role of women as labor, consumers, marriage partners, and objects of desire.

Shaw attended Barker's reading, and instantly saw the theme for a play of his own. And so Misalliance was conceived and written as Shaw's answer to The Madras House, a discussion play about family, courtship, marriage and sex, set in the world of modern industry. In homage to Barker's play, Shaw makes Tarleton not a couturier but a manufacturer of underwear; and in homage to Shaw's play, Barker added a line about a character keeping a luncheon appointment with his friend Tarleton.

Frohman's Repertory Theatre at the Duke of York's opened in February 1910 with Galsworthy's Strife, followed by a program of Barrie one-acts (along with a Barker staging of an unfinished play by the Victorian novelist George Meredith). The plays by James and Maugham never materialized, nor did Barker's planned staging of Euripides' Iphigenia in Taurus. Pinero provided not a new play but a revival of Trelawny of the "Wells," a play from the 1890s which looks nostalgically backwards to the theatre of the 1860s. And, in addition to The Madras House and Misalliance, Barker staged Chains, a new play by the feminist playwright Elizabeth Baker, and a revival of his lyrical fairy-tale play, Prunella, co-authored with Laurence Housman.

Critics and audiences alike were baffled by both Barker's play and Shaw's, finding their ideology obtuse and their structures baffling. They could follow neither the point of the argument nor the shape of it. The critic of the Times called Misalliance "a debating society of a lunatic asylum," observing that the characters "do not keep to the point because there is no point to keep to." All the plays in the repertory, with the exception of Prunella and Trelawny, played to half-empty houses. After ten weeks, Misalliance had received only eleven performances and The Madras House ten. When King Edward VII died, Frohman was only too glad to have an excuse to end the experiment, and the management folded.

The failure of the Duke of York's repertory venture may have been due to a number of factors. West End audiences were, perhaps, not used to attending plays in repertory. And with a mixture of old and new plays by mainstream and progressive playwrights, the theatre did not succeed in generating an audience that could appreciate and identify with the theatre's overall mission. Moreover, Frohman, as a commercial manager, did not trust the primary reason for doing plays in repertory. When a repertory theatre presents several plays in rotation, the commercially successful productions can effectively underwrite the less popular plays, meeting the theatre's operating expenses while the more unusual plays establish themselves and find their audience. As Shaw had predicted when he and Barker were first invited to sign on to the venture, Frohman panicked when he saw some of the plays struggle to find their audience, and replaced them in the repertory with plays that he knew would draw.

This was particularly unfortunate for Shaw and for Misalliance. For in Misalliance Shaw had arguably begun to find a new form and structure for the discussion play. Misalliance is a not, strictly speaking, merely a discussion (though, like Getting Married, it follows the Aristotelian unities, with action unfolding in a single location over a single unbroken span of time). Nor does Misalliance follow the standard formulas or employ the standard dramatic devices and structures of contemporary comedy. Rather, Shaw was (I feel) successfully experimenting with a new way of organizing dramatic action, of showing characters acting on their desires and coming to terms with their lives and with one another. Shaw had had to find his audience at the Court before he could venture into the new territory of the discussion play. Now that he had found the form, his new play was being presented in a managerial setting that could not nurture it, for an audience that was not yet prepared to come along for the ride. It took years for Misalliance to overcome its reputation as one of Shaw's failures. It was not revived again until the 1930s. Only in recent decades has the play come to be recognized for its vitality, its humanity, and for the freedom of its form. And only recently has Misalliance become one of the more frequently produced plays by Shaw in the modern repertoire.

There is another level of irony in Misalliance's initial fortunes in Charles Frohman's Duke of York's Repertory Theatre. For the play's subject matter and dramatic milieu oddly parallel the theatre and audience for which it was written. Misalliance introduces new ideas in new forms; but it does so in the context of the mainstream, haute bourgeois world: the world of businessmen and colonial administrators, of inter-class engagements and weekend houseparties--the world, in short, of Tarleton's underwear. Just as the characters in the play must find a way to act on their sexual energies and human vitality while living in the real, everyday world of courtship and commerce, the play itself had to find a way to spread its wings in a theatrical management and in a theatrical community that could barely contain it.