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The Shavian moment

Why are there so many George Bernard Shaw revivals?

George Bernard Shaw
A dramatist for our times? George Bernard Shaw in June 1934 (Photograph: Getty Images)

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.