The Shavian moment

Why are there so many George Bernard Shaw revivals?

In January 1993, when the UK was in recession and unemployment exceeded 10 per cent, theatre critic Irving Wardle observed a number of George Bernard Shaw revivals: “His stock always goes up when we are in trouble”. Fast forward almost 20 years and little has changed. The past month alone has seen the opening of Heartbreak House at the Chichester Festival Theatre, The Doctor’s Dilemma at the National and The Man of Destiny at the Bridewell. Combine this with the recent production of Saint Joan at The Rose, Bankside, and we are in the throes of the most serious spate of Shaviana since Britain’s last economic slump.

In recent years it seemed as if Shaw’s critical reputation had turned irreversibly to dust. Long dismissed as a posturing old windbag, Shaw’s modern dramatic reputation was anticipated by John Osborne’s 1955 work Epitaph For George Dillon, in which a theatrical producer, on reading the play of the eponymous protagonist, says:  

Dialogue’s not bad, but these great long speeches – that’s a mistake. People want action, excitement, I know - you think you’re Bernard Shaw. But where’s he today? Eh? People won’t listen to him.

Indeed, Shaw’s 150th anniversary in 2006 passed with little fanfare; The Independent’s Paul Taylor even called Nicholas Hytner “a great and unsung humanitarian” for “saving us from such a commemoration” at the National. Elsewhere, the playwright’s authoritarian streak, his embarrassing blindness to the depredations of Stalinism and his views on eugenics caused him to be vilified not just by Glenn Beck and Jonah Goldberg but even by the US liberal organ Media Matters, which felt obliged to call him a “eugenics-supporting lunatic”.  Shaw, it seemed, was condemned to oblivion, to be known only as the inspiration for My Fair Lady and as the faceless generator of pages of maxims on BrainyQuote and ThinkExist.

However, our uncertain times, as per Wardle’s observation, are helping Shaw gradually recapture his former status as one of the most relevant and invigorating dramatists in the English-speaking world – a status once second only to Shakespeare. As Mark Lawson recently commented, Shaw - like his hero Ibsen, who is also undergoing a revival - is a social moralist, whose “issue” plays directly address our society’s moral disarray. Indeed, in the preface to Pygmalion, Shaw said that great art is “intensely and deliberately didactic”; like Jack Tanner, his mouthpiece in Man and Superman, he believed that “moral passion is the only real passion”.

In his lifetime, Shaw’s sense of moral duty underpinned his views on virtually every conceivable public issue. His almost unlimited relevance to our times is brilliantly captured in a recent statement from The Shaw Society:

Topics which might have exercised a 21st-century Shaw include the credit crunch and bankers’ bonuses, the Arab Spring, the scandal of MPs’ expenses, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the privatisation of public services.

To which the author adds: "(This list is not of course exhaustive.)"

Not all Shaw plays are as topical as these comments suggest. The Bridewell’s revival of The Man of Destiny is curious, as that play – an entertaining vignette about the personality of Napoleon – does not immediately tackle any pressing public concerns. However, for proof of Shaw’s ongoing relevance, we need only look at a play like On The Rocks. This late play concerns a coalition government of Liberals and Conservatives seeking to govern at a time of economic crisis and social unrest. As if this were not enough, it ends with a description of mounted police trapping protesters in a cul-de-sac – an eerie harbinger of kettling. “Can’t the police let them run away without breaking their heads?” asks Hilda, the Prime Minister’s secretary.

Two of the current revivals – Heartbreak House and The Doctor’s Dilemma – are cases in point. The former play, a Chekhovian pastiche written in response the Great War, portrays a complacent elite woefully unprepared for the cataclysm to come. The play is a study in impending doom, culminating in a sudden Zeppelin raid that leads the house’s leisured occupants to embrace their own destruction.

The sense of apocalyptic despair that pervades Heartbreak House is germane to our era of global instability and dwindling economic prospects. According to British Future’s Hopes and Fears report, two thirds of Britons felt pessimistic about the country’s future in 2012. No doubt many of them would nod in agreement with the play’s protagonist Captain Shotover when he asks, in his last great speech: “Do you think the laws of God will be suspended in favour of England because you were born in it?”

What’s more, the play also illustrates Shaw’s takedown of capitalism – a perfect fit for the age of Occupy. The character Boss Mangan is a self-seeking industrialist who has amassed his fortune through ruthless exploitation. Mangan is the clear object of Shaw’s ire; Captain Shotover, the most Shaw-like character, vows to “win powers of life and death” over his kind. When, at the end of the play, Mangan is killed in the air raid, it is hard not to interpret it as the symbolic destruction of capitalism itself.

In a similar vein, The Doctor’s Dilemma is a blistering indictment of capitalistic medical systems. In a recent interview, Nadia Fall – director of the current production at the National – made an explicit appeal to the play’s relevance at a time when “our NHS is being slowly dismantled”. In the preface, Shaw made clear his thoughts on clinical competition, writing that any nation that gives a surgeon “a pecuniary interest in cutting off your leg is enough to make one despair of political humanity”; this is one of the reasons why he subtitled the play “A Tragedy”. In this laissez-faire environment, every doctor ceaselessly flogs his pet remedy. Dr Walpole is obsessed with removing the “nuciform sac”; Dr Bloomfield Bonington’s preferred panacea is to “stimulate the phagocytes”.

The titular dilemma of the play – whose life to save in the face of limited resources – is almost spookily timely, given the unprecedented squeeze of the NHS budget. It is striking that the timing of the new production coincides with Birthday, the new play by Joe Penhall, which tackles hospital understaffing and inefficiency. Indeed, in a review of Penhall’s most famous play, Blue/Orange, Michael Billington compares that playwright’s attitude to the medical profession with Shaw’s in The Doctor’s Dilemma.

 
However, the significance of The Doctor’s Dilemma goes far beyond its critique of medical practice. More generally, it is an expression of Shaw’s iconoclasm. Shaw wrote in the preface of the play that all professions are “conspiracies against the laity”; law, economics and religion were all bywords for vanity and self-deception, working against the public interest. From Major Barbara’s exploration of charity to Saint Joan’s exploration of nonconformity, it is this subversive spirit, this relentless questioning of conventional wisdom, that informs all of Shaw’s works. “I never gave up an old belief without feeling inclined to give three cheers and jump into the air,” the playwright once bragged. As we find ourselves failed by our betters – in finance, in politics, in public life – Shaw’s plays are, well, exactly what the doctor ordered.
A dramatist for our times? George Bernard Shaw in June 1934 (Photograph: Getty Images)
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Mother of all bloodlusts: Sexual politics and Greek tragedy

New interpreteations of ancient stories show the deep roots of our thinking about sex and gender

During the 1960s Pier Paolo Pasolini made two films based on ancient Greek tragedy, Oedipus Rex and Medea. In the latter, Maria Callas played the heroine with predictably operatic bravura – dark eyes flashing out dark emotions, thrilling voice conveying ferocity and pain. Pasolini’s Oedipus, by contrast, was almost silent (there was dialogue, but very little of it) and unmitigated by consoling theatricality. Distant figures crept across a scrubby desert. Thebes’s mud walls rose, like an organic growth, from the bare ground. The leading actor’s face was thuggish and inexpressive. The soundtrack was dominated by the soughing of the wind. Pasolini used barely a line of Sophocles’s verse, but I remember the film as having a desolate grandeur unmatched by any of the theatrical productions I have seen since. It was nothing like the tragedies acted out by masked performers in 5th-century Athens, but its harsh beauty felt appropriate to the Bronze Age legends on which those tragedies were based.

Those legends are still attracting new interpreters. “The finest tragedies are always on the story of some few families,” wrote Aristotle. He was thinking of the House of Atreus, whose terrible sequence of internecine killings provides the material for Colm Tóibín’s latest novel; of Oedipus’s incest-entangled web of relationships, now unravelled by Natalie Haynes; of Medea, the heroine of David Vann’s Bright Air Black, a sorceress whose royal status, adventurous spirit and unearthly powers have all been eclipsed in the collective memory by her shocking transgression against family values – the slaying of her own children.

Sexual politics has been intrinsic to these tales since the Greek tragedians first explored them: 21st-century gender politics isn’t going beyond, merely keeping pace with, the thinking of the ancients here. ­Aeschylus framed the Oresteia as a conflict between mother-right and father-right and concluded with a judgement from Athena. The motherless goddess, born from her father’s head – woman but also all-man – ordains that humanity must find a way to reconcile the male and female principles. When Robert Icke, in his recent adaptation of the Oresteia, located the origin of the family’s trouble in Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter – the killing of a girl child for the sake of her father’s manly honour – he wasn’t making an anachronistically feminist point: he was faithfully following Euripides.

So there is nothing new about the way modern reinterpretations zoom in on the women. Colm Tóibín gives the husband-killing Clytemnestra a voice; Natalie Haynes does the same for Jocasta, the mother of her son’s children, and for one of her daughters. As for David Vann, he allows Medea to devour him and his readers: to read his book is to be swallowed down into her mad mind.

In House of Names Clytemnestra is the initial narrator. Tóibín has written about many mothers, including, in The Testament of Mary, the mother of Christ. None of them conforms to any sentimental ideal of the maternal. This one is particularly problematic. Clytemnestra was duped into delivering her daughter Iphigenia to a horrible death. She was an adulteress who took a lover while her husband, Agamemnon, was away at war, and subsequently murdered that husband. She killed the enslaved Trojan princess Cassandra out of jealousy. She so signally failed to win the love of her surviving children, Electra and Orestes, that they killed her.

Tóibín, writing in grandly simple, declaratory prose, gives her a raging energy and a bitter intelligence. The unfolding of the story she tells – that he tells through her – will surprise few readers, but he structures it subtly enough to maintain its tension. Clytemnestra speaks at first in flashback, recounting the ghastly tale of Iphigenia’s sacrifice from a much later point in time, while Agamemnon’s and Cassandra’s bodies lie exposed outside the palace walls. The violence is gruesome and Tóibín doesn’t spare us any horror, but the folding of chronology creates a kind of decorous formality.

Clytemnestra’s story is one we know. When Tóibín shifts his attention to her son Orestes the book becomes stranger, its narrative more original and its tone more hallucinatory. None of the canonical texts tells us much of what Orestes was up to in the interim between his father’s murder and his own return, years later, to avenge it. The ancient sources speak of him growing up in a foreign court. Tóibín ignores that tradition and has him marched off instead, along with a column of other boy hostages, and imprisoned in an infernal complex of caves. He escapes with a charismatic older boy, a teenaged guerrilla named Leander. They wander through a landscape of poisoned wells and killer-infested groves as inhospitable as Pasolini’s imagined desert.

The journey makes for a haunting story, largely because Tóibín tells it in spare, resonant prose, from Orestes’s point of view. He is a child and then a bewildered, emotionally stunted adolescent. Filtered through his consciousness, his dangerous exile and even more dangerous return to his mother’s court are at once materially vivid and bafflingly vague. He just doesn’t understand the political and sexual currents eddying around him, and his incomprehension makes them all the more potently alarming.

Tóibín’s other addition to the story is a reimagining of the usually opaque Aegisthus, Clytemnestra’s lover and accomplice. Here he is not just Agamemnon’s rival in love and power: he is his shadow and counter-image, a king of darkness. Confined in a dungeon beneath the palace, he commands a hidden, irregular army. Once released he becomes a sexual predator, roaming the palace corridors by night in search of men or women to suit his appetites. After Electra’s coup d’état Aegisthus’s legs are broken to prevent him from leaving to establish a rival power base. Immobile in his chair, he still dominates the council meetings.

It is probably too simple-minded to ­suppose, just because Tóibín is Irish, that we should read into this a reworking of Ireland’s history of clandestine armies and generation-spanning revenges. Yet the tentative hopefulness of his book’s ending, involving the fading of a grim ghost, a benign forgetting and a baby’s birth, does seem to speak (albeit quietly) of better times.

“Can you name another man who has ever done what you have done?” Thus Tóibín’s Leander to Orestes. A son’s killing of his mother is an unheard-of transgression. Orestes realises that he is being kept at hand by the ruthless new regime as a
potentially useful tool, because he “had proved to them that he was someone who would do anything”. Medea’s crime – a mother’s killing of her sons – is the mirror image of his own, and breaches an equally powerful taboo.

In Tóibín’s Mycenae, a culture defined by its gods is giving way to a secular society. Clytemnestra has stopped praying: “The gods have their own unearthly concerns, unimagined by us. They barely know we are alive.” By the end, her consciousness fading, the only deity she can remember is the inhuman rapist who defiled her mother – Zeus, in the form of a swan. Her daughter Electra laments that as obfuscating superstition dwindles, the world is increasingly exposed to the light of day. That enlightenment, Electra thinks, is a blight. “Soon it will be a world barely worth inhabiting.” The world David Vann’s Medea inhabits is subject to no such diminishing daylight. We are in a dark age.

Rachel Cusk recently updated Euripides to present Medea as a modern wronged wife. Vann does the reverse. He is not interested in drawing parallels with banal, latter-day domestic upsets: he is conjuring up a pre-classical sorceress cloaked in darkness, fornicating on the deck of the Argo amidst the decomposing remains of her dead brother’s body and opening her mouth to show the vile worm that lies where her tongue should be.

His Medea has doubts about the myths that supposedly explain her world. If the sun is her grandfather, how come the human race, which should be only two generations old, is so numerous? But she has no understanding to put in its place. Her eye is innocent, not in the judgemental moral sense but literally. She knows what the golden fleece is – one of the sheepskins used to pan for gold in the rivers of Thrace and left glittering with gold dust – yet she knows almost nothing else. Her wonder at the sea, and the way its water buoys her up, prompts a beautiful passage. Her freedom from guilt verges on the absurd. She is a kind of Martian, travelling to us not from outer space but from the deep past.

Vann’s novel shares with Tóibín’s book an interest in power: how to get and keep it, how legitimacy is trumped by assertiveness. Just as Orestes, returning to Mycenae, is baffled to find that, king’s son though he is, no one sees him as a potential ruler, so Medea and Jason share a naive belief that when they return with the sparkly sheepskin the old king will abdicate the kingdom to them. He doesn’t. The novel’s narrative swings round on the shocking passage in which it dawns on Medea that her betrayals and outrages aren’t to be rewarded with a throne, but have delivered her into slavery.

Vann’s title is borrowed from Robin Robertson’s version of Euripides’s Medea. Vann is indebted to poets, and he grants himself great poetic licence in his handling of syntax. His prose is as hacked and chopped as the corpse of poor King Pelias after Medea has bewitched his daughters into jointing him for a stew. It is as though Medea, barbarian from an immeasurably ancient world, has yet to reach the evolutionary moment when the human mind comprehended that causes had consequences, and sentences have main verbs. Vann writes always from her point of view. The resulting narrative can be wearisome, like spending time with someone too stoned to think connectedly, but it is also vivid, often appalling, sometimes piercingly
sad and frequently striking. This Medea is all sensory perception, no reflection. “The men wet and shining, skin burnt dark. Medea’s skin far whiter, turning red now, painful.” And so it goes on, right down to the final horror. “Hot blood on her hands, Aeson [her little son] jerking against her side.”

If Vann drags the reader with him into chaos and old night, Natalie Haynes seems intent on illuminating and rationalising the cluster of legends about Oedipus and his family. Haynes is an expert populariser. Her story is enriched by archaeological know-how. She gives us a clear account of the layout of the palace at Thebes. She describes markets and dresses, pots and meals. In its physical details, her story is a plausible reconstruction of urban life in a Greek palace-state – complete with obsidian mirrors and wax writing-tablets, dark rooms and sacrificial fires.

She has two narratives, arranged in orderly fashion in alternating chapters. The story of Jocasta’s marriage, widowhood and remarriage to a good-looking young stranger (who turns out to be her own son) is told in the third person, simply and realistically. Ismene, one of her daughter/grand-daughters, narrates the chapters that deal with her experience. She is attacked by an assassin. She looks on as her brothers compete for power in Thebes. She distrusts her uncle Creon. She doesn’t reveal, until the very end, when she is about to be reunited with him, that she knows why her father is a blind wanderer, and why her mother is dead.

The bipartite structure is efficient. The narrative progresses satisfyingly. But Haynes not only demystifies, she demythologises, stripping the story of its ­numinous charge. King Laius is homosexual: he orders a slave to take his place in the marriage-bed and impregnate his young wife (which means that Oedipus’s inadvertent killing of him is not actually a parricide). The sphinx is neither a fabulous monster nor a riddler: it is a predatory tribe. Jocasta kills herself not because she is shamed by the revelation of her incest, but because she has been infected with the plague and doesn’t want to pass it on to her children.

There are horrors certainly, but they are mundane ones. Eteocles’s corpse lies rotting in the sun when Creon denies it burial, but it is ghastly for its smell, and the circling vultures, rather than the offence against ­human dignity and divine decree. Even the characters’ names have been deprived of the resonance two and a half millennia of remembering have given them. Antigone and Ismene become here “Ani” and “Isy” – two ordinary girls in a tricky situation. The book is entertaining, but Pasolini it most certainly is not. Aristotle, who expected these stories to purge their audiences’ minds by overwhelming them with pity and terror, would have been sorely disappointed. 

House of Names 
Colm Tóibín
Viking, 263pp, £14.99

Bright Air Black 
David Vann
William Heinemann, 252pp, £18.99

The Children of Jocasta 
Natalie Haynes
Mantle, 336pp, £16.99

Lucy Hughes-Hallett is the author of “Heroes: Saviours, Traitors and Supermen” (Harper Perennial). Her latest novel, “Peculiar Ground”, is newly published by Fourth Estate

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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