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Giving it what it needs

ART TIMES Jan/Feb, 2004

Take a look at the production photo that accompanies this essay. Don’t read the caption just yet. What play might that be? What author? Chekhov? Strindberg? Ibsen? O’Neill? Surely some playwright very much associated with deep, rich emotional relationships?

Well, it happens to be Shaw, Candida to be precise; in the shape of a recent production by Michigan Classical Repertory Theatre directed by Melanie J. Wilson. It is, in fact, the moment when Candida asks Marchbanks, "Am I your mother and your sisters to you, Eugene?" It could be thought of as the moment of decision, the moment the whole play has been tending toward, the moment when the three people who form the triangle at the heart of the play make up their minds what their relationships are to be, and are not to be.

George Bernard Shaw is certainly one of the world's greatest playwrights, and undoubtedly one of the true masters of the stage in the English language. His wit, cleverness, ingenuity and sharp eye for character, especially in his women, have made many of his plays staples of the world's repertory. Best known to American audiences as the author of Pygmalion — the play used as the basis for My Fair Lady — several of his plays, including Candida, Mrs. Warren's Profession, Arms and the Man, and Major Barbara, rank among the world's finest comedies.

Shaw is at his most characteristic and most effective when he takes a commonly held, universally acknowledged idea and turns it upside down and inside out. For example, in Arms and the Man, he demonstrates that the best soldier is not a dashing, romantic, courageous hero, but a calm, efficient coward who thoroughly understands war. In Major Barbara, he shows that the true benefactor of humankind is not the young woman who is the altruistic, philanthropic sergeant in the Salvation Army, but the rich, conniving and amoral weapons manufacturer, her father. In Candida, he shows that the worldly, handsome, experienced, intellectual public speaker, the man seemingly in complete command, is in fact terribly vulnerable to the dreamy, poetic, impractical, romantic young man — still little more than a boy — when it comes to winning and keeping the love of a woman.

Shaw's gift to the world is comedy, and his comedy, like all good comedy, is always about something serious. With his wit, insight, and mastery of dramatic construction, he has given us the pleasure of plays such as Candida — plays that will outlast us all. But what are we to do when it comes time to present these plays?

The key to that question is in fact the key to something that must occur in the production of any play, something that is the province of the director. One of the most important decisions a director must make is, what does the play have, and what does it not have? No play has everything. The director’s effort must then be devoted to providing what the play lacks.

For example, in directing and of the three plays in Garcia Lorca’s village trilogy (Blood Wedding, Yerma, The House of Bernarda Alba) there is no need to make the play wrenching — it already is. What must happen is the play must be made beautiful. The play is guaranteed to be wrenching — just stand still and recite the words clearly and a great deal of the terrible will appear. But there is no guarantee that it will be beautiful, and it will fail if it is not. In Synge’s Riders to the Sea, there is no need to make the play reveal the nature of loss and death in the Aran Islands; the need is to make the play reveal the nature of death and loss asit occurs anywhere in the human experience. Likewise, in Shaw, there is no need to make his work intellectual; it already is. Stand still and speak clearly, and a whole cornucopia of fascinating ideas will pour out. But will it be human?

That is where the director comes in. Finding the vulnerability, the tenderness, and the painful choice between relationships that lies quiet and still beneath the surface of Shaw’s wit, irreverence and ingenuity is the key to making his work succeed. Without that, a play by Shaw has all the charm of a syllogism and the emotional appeal of a straightedge; with it, his plays become full and richly human, spanning the space from mind to heart in the most wonderful way.

So that is the place to begin — not with, "What are the strengths of the play?" For the strengths of a play can usually be relied upon to come to the fore on their own. "What does it need?" That is the place to begin, and with any luck, that is the place to end as well — giving it what it needs to become the fully rounded experience it deserves so well to be.

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