On our final day of theatergoing at The Shaw Festival, George Bernard Shaw’s “Misalliance” was the matinee play we attended.
“Misalliance”, an examination of marriage, is one of my favorite Shaw plays. Set at a country estate on a single afternoon in 1909, the play is both serious and amusing as it presents the tale of eight different marriage proposals, all extended within the frame of a few hours, involving only nine characters.
A play with an inherently-preposterous plot foundation, “Misalliance” is in fact one of Shaw’s most satisfying works. The dialogue is often inspired, the range of personality types wide, the situations ever-shifting, complicated—yet convincing. “Misalliance” has a great Act I conclusion—a biplane crashes through the conservatory roof, depositing into the assemblage a Polish pilot and a colorful Polish aviatrix—and a great Act II conclusion, when an unsettled male character flies off with the enchanting aviatrix, an act signifying freedom and release.
The Shaw Festival production of “Misalliance” was not good.
Simply put, the cast was not up to the play’s demands—which had also been true of our first night’s “French Without Tears”—and one had to ask, throughout the play, why such-and-such actor had been cast in such-and-such role.
Further, the setting had been changed from 1909 to 1962, which rendered much of the plot and dialogue senseless. Breaking free of the conventions of The Victorian Age was not an issue that carried much relevance in 1962—nor were biplanes particularly prevalent in the 1960s (or conservatories, for that matter).
Oddly, “Misalliance” was the one Shaw Festival production in which the stage design was not at the very highest level. The costumes were wrong, the settings were wrong, the lighting was wrong. Everything had been misjudged.
“Misalliance” was, fundamentally, one of those productions in which nothing came together—an occurrence that sometimes happens in theater. It is one of the hazards of the stage.
Our final evening performance was William Inge’s “Come Back, Little Sheba”, a marital tale of suffering and grievance.
As a general rule, I am uninterested in “kitchen sink” drama—which, happily, long ago died out, at least in North America. Kitchen sink drama thrived, in cinema and theater, for a decade and a half after the conclusion of World War II, after which it mercifully passed from view (in the U.S., if not in Britain, where it continues to hold on).
Moreover, I am not keen on Inge plays. Inge plays have many failings, among which is that they are insufferably maudlin—and “Come Back, Little Sheba” is nothing if not maudlin.
In a good production, the play can nonetheless be made to work—and the Shaw Festival production was a very fine production indeed. The actor and actress portraying the unhappy, unfulfilled, middle-aged married couple gave excellent performances, performances fully worthy of Broadway or London’s National Theatre. The actor and actress were so fine, they alone made the performance worthwhile. I was riveted to the onstage proceedings every minute—and, to judge by how quiet was the crowd, so was the rest of the audience.
“Come Back, Little Sheba” is discomfiting. It is discomfiting both because the two lead characters are so profoundly unhappy—and because the audience is invited to feel sorry for them.
It is the latter quality, alas, that constitutes a severe strike against the playwright. There is no nobility or redemption to be gained merely by inviting an audience to feel sorry for two unhappy human beings. Such is the natural realm of daytime drama, a field with limited objectives.
True drama must strive for more exalted aims than the soaps—and, even in a high-quality production such as that presented at The Shaw Festival, “Come Back, Little Sheba” was revealed as a work of little merit.
Fine as were the leading performances, I would much rather have been sitting through an obscure play by Eugene O’Neill.