January 8, 1976: Shaw, Too True to be Good

Barbican Theatre

Again to the theatre: Shaw’s Too True to be Good, in a Royal Shakespeare Company production, with Ian McEllan and others of some note (my program is not by me as I write). My colleague and his spouse saw it with me, and it’s his opinion that the production opts for what is emotionally strong in the play at the expense of what is Shavianly intellectual. The style adopted is one of “playing it to the hilt.” It seems to me there are many attractive qualities in the play that are brought out by this style. The pace is fast, lines are crisp, there is a shortness and tightness to the playing —which however does not obscure what seems the some­what flaccid structure of the play itself. The structural line seems to be the result of Shaw’s view that human beings by and large yearn for freedom but have no idea how to recognize true human freedom, let alone knowing what to do to take advantage of it once they have it. Perhaps they never have it. Mean­while, the race is to the strong, self-assertive, clever individual. But no one will really win, because the cataclysm is upon us. The play becomes increasingly somber, like the wry side of a Coward comedy taking over as people realize that useless lines are useless; and it ends with McKellan’s character preaching in a new-Ecclesiastes style, offensively stentorian (deliberately, one thinks, on McKellan’s part), the end of the world, which comes in a deafening explosion at the curtain.

The setting suggests cataclysm too. Even in the first-act bedroom scene the walls are shadowed, garish whites and grays and blacks. The second and third acts, set in the desert, and at the desert’s sea edge, remind one of surrealist paintings. The play itself is, however, not surreal; it is typical (if not quint­essential) late Shaw, and has the thematic timbre of Heartbreak House and Saint Joan. It is not Shaw’s best. The Shavian hero and heroine here are muted, almost stunted versions of such characters as Joan and Bluntschli. Their efforts are amusing, effective in their own limited sphere, but ultimately not very telling.


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An American Playgoer in London by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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