Monday, September 24, 2012

The Shaw Festival—Third Day

Our third day in Niagara-On-The-Lake was our busiest day:  an opera performance at 11:30 a.m. (Leonard Bernstein’s “Trouble In Tahiti”); a matinee performance at 2:00 p.m. (Githa Sowerby’s “A Man And Some Women”); and an evening performance at 8:00 p.m. (Henrik Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler”).

It was on this day, talking to a few people associated with The Shaw Festival, that we learned some intriguing facts about the operation of the enterprise, most remarkable of which was that the plays that fare most poorly at the Shaw Festival box office are the plays of . . . George Bernard Shaw.

A festival founded solely in order to present the plays of Shaw, and Shaw alone, but whose repertory and remit have been much-expanded over the last fifty years, now finds itself in the ironic position of seeing its namesake serve as the least-popular playwright on the annual schedule year after year.

We also learned that many persons associated with The Shaw Festival look askance at the dumbing-down of Canada’s other summer theater festival, The Stratford Shakespeare Festival, which this season offered such incomparable treasures as a production of “You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown” and a Homer Simpson version of “Macbeth”.  The more I hear about the deterioration of The Stratford Shakespeare Festival, the less inclined I am ever to want to visit that festival.

Everywhere, we heard nothing but good things about Jackie Maxwell, Artistic Director of The Shaw Festival.  She is said to be a tireless exhumer of long-forgotten works—witness this season’s “French Without Tears” and “A Man And Some Women”—as well as a superb administrator and excellent manager of talent.

Later this week, Irishman Joe Dowling, Artistic Director of The Guthrie Theater, will celebrate his 64th birthday.  Surely The Guthrie is in the midst of succession planning—and I hope that Maxwell, born in Northern Ireland but long a resident of Canada, is high on the list of persons deemed potential replacements for Dowling.

If Maxwell’s name is not on the Guthrie’s list, it should be.

If I were on the Guthrie board, I would interview Maxwell tomorrow.


Sowerby’s is a name unknown to all but the most assiduous playgoer.

Sowerby had one modest success during her lifetime—“Rutherford And Son”, her first play, which premiered in London in 1912—and otherwise enjoyed no commercial or critical success.

“Rutherford And Son” is the only Sowerby play that has ever been published.  It first appeared in print in 1912, and remained in print for many years (copies of the 1912 edition may be obtained via the worldwide web).  “Rutherford And Son” appeared in print anew in a 1991 anthology.  According to the program booklet of The Shaw Festival, “Rutherford And Son” is Sowerby’s finest drama.

It is believed that Sowerby wrote seven plays, but that number may be inaccurate:  Sowerby burned her personal papers shortly before her death, and it has become next to impossible to reconstruct her life and work.

Sowerby was forgotten decades before her passing—there was not a single obituary in London’s many newspapers when Sowerby died in 1970 at the age of 93—and a modest attempt to resurrect her work in recent years has enjoyed limited success.

The Shaw Festival has been at the forefront of the Sowerby revival.  Sowerby’s “Rutherford And Son” received a Shaw Festival production in 2004, with Sowerby’s “The Stepmother” revived four years later.  Now, after another four-year interval, “A Man And Some Women” has received its first North American staging.

“A Man And Some Women” premiered in Manchester in 1914, but the onset of war prevented a planned London production.  The play was not to be performed again until the 1990s, when it received two separate productions by British repertory companies in Bristol and London.

I found “A Man And Some Women” to be exceedingly influenced by the plays of Ibsen, hardly a surprise, since the works of Ibsen were at the zenith of their London popularity and influence in the years immediately preceding World War I.

Like characters in Ibsen plays, characters in “A Man And Some Women” live stifled lives, imprisoned by the conventions of social propriety.  Complicated family histories are revealed, bit-by-bit, during exceedingly-intricate plotting, another Ibsen trait.  As in Ibsen, onstage smoldering goes on for hours until a series of powerful conflicts erupts.  At the conclusion of the eruptions, a signal event occurs that shifts the ground on which the characters stand—in Ibsen, Nora walks out of her marriage, Hedda kills herself, and child Hedvig ends her own life when she discovers that she has lost her father’s love—and the play ends.

I found “A Man And Some Women” to be a very unsatisfying play.  The play was unoriginal and unimaginative, a formulaic family drama filled with bitterness, resentment and regret.  The humanity of Ibsen and Chekhov was not present.

The play was slow-moving, the dialogue was dull if not tedious, and the Ibsen-like eruptions occurred at the end of Act I, leaving Act II to serve as nothing more than a prolonged—and not very fulfilling—resolution of the outbursts of Act I.

The Act II resolution was, I believe, implicit at the conclusion of Act I—and might as well have been eliminated.  The result:  either “A Man And Some Women” was a one-act play needlessly expanded, or a two-act play poorly-constructed, with the ending in the wrong place.

Most of the characters in “A Man And Some Women” were profoundly unpleasant.  Even the characters that were supposed to gain a measure of the audience’s sympathy were, in my view, completely unappealing.  I suspect Sowerby must have disliked human beings, and lived an unhappy life.

The production was uneven.  A few of the cast members were quite good, and a few of the cast members were quite weak.  It became impossible to enjoy the play because the level of accomplishment of the actors onstage varied so greatly—a disparity that inhibited one’s immersion in the proceedings as well as forward-movement of the play itself.

I doubt that “A Man And Some Women” will receive a meaningful number of additional productions.  The play is an historic curiosity, not an important work of art.  There was little evidence that it was the work of a talented or important playwright.


Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler” was the only outright masterpiece on the Shaw Festival menu this year.  All other offerings—even Shaw’s “Misalliance”, an excellent play in its own right—were more than one notch below “Hedda Gabler”, one of the greatest of all 19th-Century dramas.

The Shaw production of “Hedda Gabler” was excellent in all respects—but it was not moving.  A great production of “Hedda Gabler” will leave the viewer shaken; an excellent production will leave the viewer merely full of admiration and respect.  (A bad production of “Hedda Gabler” will leave the viewer laughing.)

The Shaw “Hedda Gabler” was unmoving because the production focused on the heroine’s malicious and destructive qualities, with the heroine’s idealism sharply de-emphasized.  The play certainly worked as pure drama (despite an occasional touch of melodrama), but it became difficult to view the characters as tragic—and sympathetic—figures in a multi-layered tragedy.

Conflict was everywhere—and the characters at all times seemed to thrive on it a little too much.

Conflict will certainly hold an audience’s interest, but conflict is not what “Hedda Gabler” is all about.  The complexities of the play, and the complexities of the characters, did not fully register because of the out-and-out zest with which the cast members leaped into the play’s built-in conflicts.  My mother referred to the production as “two-and-a-half hours of hair-pulling”—and my mother was not far wrong.

The Shaw Festival had used a new English-language adaptation by British stage director Richard Eyre.  The adaptation, on a single hearing, struck me as undistinguished, and very much of its time.

It was a not-quite-great and not-quite-memorable production of “Hedda Gabler” that we experienced.

We left the theater unshaken.


The plays of Ibsen are not often staged today in North America.

The Shaw Festival’s “Hedda Gabler” was the first Ibsen staging I had seen in quite some time.  In fact, the Shaw “Hedda Gabler” was the first Ibsen production Joshua and I have attended together (as Josh was quick to point out)—which signifies that Josh and I have not seen an Ibsen staging in the last six years and seven months.

By and large, The Guthrie Theater has ignored Ibsen in recent years, as have other repertory theater companies in the Twin Cities.

I cannot understand why Ibsen is ignored.  In my view, Ibsen is a mainstay of the world stage.  His mature works should be performed constantly.

Josh and I may not have to wait another six years and seven months before we again catch an Ibsen play.

Josh and I may attend a yet-to-open Broadway production of Ibsen’s “An Enemy Of The People” next month while we are in New York.  On paper, the cast is unimpressive—but “An Enemy Of The People” is about the only thing on Broadway Josh and I will be able to sit through.

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