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.)”
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.
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.