The new year begins with a burst of Bernard Shaw. Last week, Widowers’ Houses at the small Orange Tree, the playwright at his most socially forensic. Next month in Man and Superman at the National, at his most vaulting, mixing philosophy and comedy. Now another tiny stage, the Tristan Bates, has enterprisingly staged two of Shaw’s least performed works. Both of them short and surprising.
Village Wooing turns on a threepenny bit in one hour and three acts. It is one of his most simply charming plays: an anti-romantic Shavian romance. On a luxury cruise ship in the Mediterranean a grumpy writer with a big beard is assailed by a garrulous young woman. He is bent over his work of producing chatty guidebooks and has no time for live chat. “It is your privilege as a woman to have the last word. Please take it.” She thinks Athens and Rome were “all right”, though a bit tumbledown, and is content to be returning to her village shop.
The second act reunites the pair by apparent chance in this beguiling emporium, which sells hot-water bottles, acid drops and asparagus, and is also the village’s telephone exchange. Every now and then the woman goes off stage to deal with phone calls in a specially vowel-perfect voice, as if she were auditioning for Eliza Doolittle. The closing sequence shows the two of them working together in the shop and heading towards marriage: she wants sensual pleasure; he has his big brain fixed on transcendence.
At least I think he does: his biggest speech would be much improved by a snip to its overweening and unfathomable guff. Robert Gillespie’s lively production, with Matilde Marangoni’s minute, detailed design – in which every cake of soap and cabbage is arranged to tempt – captures the play’s agility. It has some of Shaw’s most nimble phrases – who is the greater man of letters, an author or a postman? – and his most surprising shifts of feeling. Madeleine Hutchins catches the terrifying brightness of the postmistress very well, though Mark Fleischmann is too muted and over-deliberate as the writer, and the early exchanges too slow to fully ignite as comedy.
You might think that the writer was based on Shaw himself: why else should such a grump be presented as irresistible? Actually the model was Lytton Strachey. Yet he had himself and his work very much in mind in the fascinating How He Lied to Her Husband. Has any other dramatist written a play solely to send up one of his or her works? Seven years after Candida, one of Shaw’s most irritating dramas, had been his earliest success, giving rise to “Candidamania”, Shaw delivered a brisk satire on his sanctimonious heroine, her “half-baked” clergyman husband and her wet young swain. Produced here using an unusual version which makes the parody explicit – “that beast of a play” sends the heroine’s husband to sleep – it is a snappy “playlet” (Shaw’s word). Surely next time Candida is staged this should be produced as an appendage?
And next time Shaw is put on, why not get the author’s name right: that’s to say, as he wanted it? The playwright explained: “Professionally I drop the George. Personally I dislike it.” There had been too many Georges in his early life. George Carr Shaw, the ineffective man from whom he took his surname; George J Vandeleur Lee, the all-too-powerful singing teacher and “philosopher of voice” who took up with Shaw’s mother and was thought by some to be his blood father. “Don’t George me,” he commanded. So let’s not.
•Village Wooing/How He Lied to Her Husband are at the Tristan Bates theatre, London WC2 until 31 January
|Written by||George Bernard Shaw|
|Date premiered||16 April 1934|
|Place premiered||Little Theatre Company, Dallas|
|Subject||an odd couple spar with one another|
|Setting||A cruise liner; a village shop|
Village Wooing, A Comedietta for Two Voices is a play by George Bernard Shaw, written in 1933 and first performed in 1934. It has only two characters, hence the subtitle "a comedietta for two voices". The first scene takes place aboard a liner, the second in a village shop. The characters are known only as "A" and "Z".
- A, a genteel young man
- Z, a working class young woman
First conversation: On a cruise liner, A, an aesthetic young man, is writing. Z, a young woman, appears and tries to engage him in conversation, which he resists. He explains that he is writing about the cruise for the "Marco Polo Series of Chatty Guide Books". Z asks whether she will be included in his account of it, and replies that she will. She says she is thrilled, but must now give an account of herself, explaining that her father was a man of letters, as he was a postman.
Second conversation: In a village shop, A enters. He is served by Z, but does not recognise her. He gets into a conversation with her, and talks about having met a persistent woman on a cruise. Z asks him to tell her more about this woman. She eventually persuades him to buy the shop.
Third conversation: In the village shop again, A is now the owner of the shop, and is working on writing a checklist of reasons for staying there. Z argues with him about whether he is a shopkeeper or a poet. Eventually the pair decide they ought to be married. Z phones the church to make the arrangements. The play ends as she is about to tell the church their names.
The play was first performed on 16 April 1934 in Dallas, Texas, by the Little Theatre Company. Two weeks later, on 1 May, it was produced for the first time in England by the Wells Repertory Players, at Tunbridge Wells with Christopher Fry as A. Sybil Thorndike and Arthur Wontner gave the first London performance some months later at the Little Theatre in the Adelphi.Village Wooing was first shown on television in 1952 with Michael Golden as "A" and Ellen Pollock as "Z". There was an ITV version in 1979 starring Judi Dench and Richard Briers.
Shaw was not very impressed with his own play, which he wrote while on a cruise. He wrote a letter to his friend Blanche Patch saying "Tell Barry Jackson -- but no one else -- that my efforts to write resulted in nothing at first but a very trivial comedietta in three scenes for two people which only Edith Evans could make tolerable." Patch suggests that the play was influenced by his own experiences on the cruise and that the character of Z was based on Mrs. Jisbella Lyth, the postmistress in Shaw's village, Ayot St Lawrence. In a letter to Lillah McCarthy Shaw said that the male character was a "posthumous portrait" of Lytton Strachey.
Mrs Lyth later commented that she went to see the play when she was told she'd inspired it, but she much preferred a play by John Galsworthy that was shown with it in a double-bill, ,
I was supposed to have inspired him for this play, but I don't know when he ever saw me wooing anybody! ...At that time I ran a café here, in addition to my duties as postmistress, and Mrs Arthur Wontner and her children came in one day for tea. She said, 'You're the lady who inspired G.B.S. for the play, and you must go up and see it'--so I did. Following it in the same programme was one of Galsworthy's plays called The Little Man, which I enjoyed much more than Village Wooing. I don't say Mr Shaw's aren't good plays, but I think they lack suspense. In spite of that, I wrote and congratulated Dame Sybil Thorndike on her wonderful portrayal of a postmistress in a little village shop. She autographed her picture for me and wrote on the back that she was most interested to know that she had been playing me, and would come and see me one day.
Shaw's friend Archibald Henderson agrees that the action in the village shop cum post-office was inspired by Shaw's experiences with Mrs. Lyth, but thinks the character of Z was mainly based on Shaw's wife Charlotte Payne-Townshend,
Like Charlotte, "Z" is an adventurous uninhibited young woman of the new dispensation, who knows what she wants, is breezily amusing in her frankness; and after "A" has come like a homing pigeon to the village and purchased the shop, plucks him like a daisy, as did Charlotte, who, as we recall, purchased the marriage license...The vision of marriage drawn by "A" is memorable as a literary facsimile of the "marital compact" for the fin de siecle union of the Shaws. The "romance" of the marriage of "A" and "Z" reveals consummation, not as mere sensual gratification of the senses, but as a mystic rite of sublimation, in the discovery of life's aesthetic magic and wonder.
Critic John Bertolini sees the play as an allegory of the relation between writer and text, "In Village Wooing Shaw dramatizes his own creative process as a writer of comedies, by figuring the subject of comedy, courtship and marriage, as the marriage of writer and text." The marriage at the end is "the paradigmatic one of all written comedy, hence the play is the closed circle of its own writing and reading."
- ^Archibald Henderson, George Bernard Shaw: Man of the Century, Appleton-Century-Crofts, New York, 1956, p.575
- ^ abBlanche Patch, Thirty Years with G. B. S., Dodd, Mead, New York, 1951, p.92
- ^Holroyd, Michael, Bernard Shaw, Random House, 2011, p679.
- ^Allan Chappelow, Shaw the Villager and Human Being: A Biographical Symposium, Macmillan, New York, 1962, p.81
- ^Archibald Henderson, George Bernard Shaw: Man of the Century, Appleton-Century-Crofts, New York, 1956, pp.574-5
- ^John A. Bertolini, The Playwrighting Self of Bernard Shaw, Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale, IL., 1991, p.166.