Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. Festival Theatre. Directed by Jackie Maxwell.
Shaw’s first “pleasant” play, and one of his most indestructible comedies. We are in the presence of an emerging master of comic stage art, as sturdy and reliable a play as any in the repertoire and affording manifold opportunities for actors to shine. There is not a hint of weakness or inadequacy in this fine cast, and the director seems to have taken a broad hint from Shaw, who famously said that he scored his plays for Soprano, Alto, Tenor, and Bass, and given her characters lots of aria-like opportunities. Shaw also built in lots of opportunity in the script for funny business, including the marvelous thing with Raina’s photo, addressed “to my chocolate cream soldier, a souvenir,” which Captain Bluntschli, prosaic fellow that he is, fails to discover in the pocket of the coat borrowed (unbeknownst to him) from Major Petkoff’s closet; that coat, the trumped-up reason for Bluntschli’s return to the Petkoff household now that peace has come — he could more easily have sent it by post — becomes, in a kind of spoof of the inanimate linkages that provide the glue to the structure of many a well-made play, the agent that eventually will bring Bluntschli and Raina together.
In fact, the play masquerades as a well-made play, full of contrivances material and structural — for example, the new electric doorbell of which Catherine Petkoff is so inordinately fond — even while it carries out Shaw’s first attempt at a radical reordering of the conventional class society. In a nice turn-about, he forces Sergius, who “never apologizes” and never goes back on his word, to make good on a series of rational statements that get him into deep trouble with himself and his comical status as a failed Byronic hero (see the long novelistic stage direction in which Shaw introduces him) but in the end find him taking the scheming servant Louka as his affianced bride. In a conventional romantic comedy — boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets the same girl — Raina would have settled her differences with Sergius, and the result would have been a nice little family of miniature Rainas and Sergiuses doted upon by the Petkoff grandparents; that is, no advance for society at all. But the intrusive presence of the Shavian realist, Bluntschli (romantic at heart though he is — this is gradualism, after all), interloper extraordinaire, has the effect of changing the mix, for good. Raina ends up marrying the outsider, who has exposed her absurd operatic pretenses once and for all, because he is the only man who has ever taken her “quite seriously” and so allowed her to be unambiguously herself. This is evidently (we are to be persuaded to think) going to result in an advance in the state of society, even while the play appears to endorse the conventions of love and marriage, middle-class style.
I have been over these things a hundred times with my undergraduate students, over the years, and one might think I had gotten tired of them; but in the guise of Shaw’s vital comic talent, they remain fresh and appealing. We’ll be seeing another Shaw play this trip — Too True To Be Good — and we shall see whether the comic vitality remains intact.