It had been a terrific week of relaxation, wine, and thought-provoking entertainment, and before heading out on the brief drive back to Buffalo, we took in last Saturday’s matinee performance of George Bernard Shaw’s exercise in frivolity, Misalliance.
By the way, as I understand it, there is no particular connection between the great playwright himself and Niagara-on-the-Lake. The Shaw Festival was begun in 1962 by local lawyer, Brian Doherty, an avid G.B.S. fan, who had witnessed the artistic and economic benefits to another Ontario town just 125 miles to the west. The Stratford Shakespearean Festival had been created ten years earlier by Tom Patterson, a local journalist, and had garnered international acclaim while saving the town’s struggling economy. So… Why not? Like its older cousin, the Shaw Festival specializes in plays by its namesake, and in its repertoire produces at least two plays by Shaw every season. This year, out of six major productions, the playwright is represented by The Millionairess and Misalliance.
For reasons I no longer remember, I had an early connection to Shaw, the playwright, the essayist, the Irishman, and the social reformer. Fascinated by Joan of Arc since I was ten and living in France, I think St. Joan may have been the first play I ever read in high school. And during my college years of otherwise schoolboy goof-off time, I wrote major papers on two playwrights who ended by truly intriguing me: Paul Green, and George Bernard Shaw. I read everything they had ever written, and sadly, not much else.
Maybe it’s genetic. I found out much later that my mother had also written a major college paper on Shaw. It figures. This is the lady who defiantly dropped out of grad school to take up stunt flying and air racing in the 1930’s. Could the Misalliance aviatrix have been her first role model?
Misalliance is a day (To be precise, it’s May 31, 1909.) in the life of one of Shaw’s dysfunctional families, this one belonging to underwear magnate John Tarleton. There is a lot of very funny intellectual debate and chatter among its aristocratic members struggling to justify their existence. Little substance is to be found as they try to sort out who matches up with whom and test various parent-child, brother-sister and marital alliances — proposed, established and broken.
Then, at the end of Act One, an aeroplane (only invented six years earlier, remember) literally crashes into the roof of the country estate house, dispensing a daring stunt pilot and a brazen aviatrix with an unpronounceable Eastern European name. Everything is suddenly changed, including the entire sense of British social order. The play then turns into an exploration of social alliances, class distinctions and all the issues you might expect from Shaw. Central characters shift, and relationships are realigned. The aviatrix espousing individual freedom and power becomes the role model for Tarleton’s daughter, Hypatia, who had been promised to an aristocratic nerd. Now enamored of the common-man pilot, she demands of her father, “Buy him for me!”
We never learn whether anyone actually follows through with that impulse, or in the end whether anything at all really changes for the family. That “failure” apparently confounded Shaw’s critics, who no doubt expected meaningful social reform. The playwright himself evidently viewed it all as “endless patter,” and originally titled the play Just Exactly Nothing.
Joan and I came away with much the same feeling. Still, it was an amusing afternoon out of the rain, and we emerged into sunshine. It was also a nice, light-hearted ending for our five nights in Canada. And as we began our return to Mr. Jefferson’s academic community in Virginia, I admit to savoring one of the many memorable Shavian witticisms in the play: “What is the matter with universities is that the students are school children, whereas it is of the very essence of university education that they should be adults.” Mea culpa.