National Theatre, Lyttelton
A sad, unhappy comedy, shocking in its time. Not so much a well-written play as an extremely serviceable one, and it proves its hardiness (despite Shaw’s inexpertness in contriving dramatic situations) — and its continuing pertinence today in this effective mounting. Not a superb cast, but, again, a serviceable one.
Joan Plowright’s tacky dowdiness is right for the role of Mrs Warren, but she is not up to the full range of the demands of the role. Her tirade in Act II could have been more effective, more shocking, than it was. Jessica Turner’s Vivie had the right makings of the role — a certain vigor and strength of will — but I missed real emotional depth. It’s a mistake to see her as cold and emotionless. She has all the makings of a great lover, but the world has ruined the possibility for it, and her only chance for self-possession is to abjure the intimacy of heterosexual relations. To her own felt cost. We need to see more of the cost, to make it effective drama. It is, after all, Vivie’s play, despite the title reference.
And Frank must unwittingly help her to her hard decision. This is a problematic character, full of Shavian complexity. Frank is, on the one hand, a will-less pleasure seeker — l’homme moyen sensuel, 1890’s style; on the other, he obviously has enough insight and independence of mind to get Crofts’ number immediately, and he has the intelligence to love Vivie, to the extent he can love anyone. But we need to see more clearly what his limits are as a lover and would-be husband. He, too, is afflicted with the devil-may-care bonhomie that sustains men like Crofts as well as like Frank. Shaw allows him disappointment at the end, but not real enlightenment.
All the insight is Vivie’s, and ours. So the love relationship has to be thwarted, but in Shaw’s not quite expert hands it is a little blurred in its outcome here. We need to see Vivie casting off all encumbrances for the sake of independence and integrity, but we need to see that Frank would be as bad for her in his own way as Crofts. What prevents Shaw from realizing that in Frank’s character is, of course, the revelation that Frank and Vivie are half-brother and -sister.That is plot, and action — “theme,” as it used to be called — but it unfortunately plays against the grain of character revelation here. In other words, Shaw has to forgo the opportunity to be definitive about how bad Frank would be as a husband for Vivie by making him taboo as a husband to begin with.
Postscript (January 11). It occurred to me yesterday that Frank is actually one of the first instances of that special Shavian character, the audience’s surrogate. He makes us like him because his brashness is a type of intelligence that is, in its sphere, a winner. But he is adept, most of all, we see, at leading “a man’s life.” And that is how he — and we — get our come-uppance at the end. In a conventional comedy he would be the hero with something to learn, and would have learned it in the crisis of Act IV so that his reversal in Act V would win him the girl he loves. But this is a four-act problem play, and we are left, not with Frank’s lucky triumph, but with his — and our — wretched defeat. He has lost Vivie, and so have we.
What makes the play work, to the extent it does, is that we lose her, and it is a sad loss. So much intelligence and insight and will, locked up away from society, where it would do most good, for the sake of the integrity that calculating actuarial tables brings her. So Frank is the agent for our seeing that, finally, the values that keep this society in motion are truly anti-social values, driving its best people apart from one another.