My first experience with George Bernard Shaw (aside from knowing that he wrote Pygmalion, on which My Fair Lady is based) was seeing a production of Smash, a play adapted from his novel The Unsocial Socialist. Of course I had to read the novel immediately afterwards, which led to an exploration of Marx and Engels that preceded my discovery of Solzhenitsyn a year afterwards (and everything exploded, intellectually speaking, after that). I can't find my copy at present (what with all of my books packed up in boxes), but what I remember besides the politics was that it was a viciously hilarious, explosive battle between the sexes, a theme I would see reoccur in Shaw's other works, namely in Heartbreak House. Written some twenty-six years after The Unsocial Socialist and first performed in 1920, it finished its run at the Intiman Theater last night. Besides the thread of politics (and his Socialist beliefs) that run through his plays there remains a scathing critique on the society of that time, on the fading leisure class that was blindly poised on the brink of war, and on the Colonialism that was, unbeknownst to these people who were living in the far-flung reaches of the British Empire, about to come to an end. The first World War would be the beginning of the end, the falling twilight; the second one would call forth the last rites of the Empire.
I remember writing a paper my freshman year of college about Howards End, about the question that Forster had posed regarding who would inherit England. The novel predates Heartbreak House by nearly a decade but brings to the fore a similar idea of who England's future belonged to - the lower-class represented by the poverty-stricken Basts, the middle-class Schlegels, and the wealthy, upper-class Wilcoxes. In the end, the future lay with neither the upper nor the lower classes, but with the middle-class, who would inherit England (as represented by Howards End, the Wilcox family house). With Heartbreak House the future is unclear; the capitalist Boss Mangan is blown up by dynamite, so clearly he is not the one who will save England from itself. But then, who? Not the ineffectual, narcissistic Hushabyes, not the colonialist Lady Utterwood and her governer husband, not the idealistic Mazzini Dunn, not the aging Captain Shotover. Will it be Ellie, the young girl, heartbroken and determined?
When I heard that several of my most favorite theater actors were in the Intiman Theater production of Heartbreak House, I knew I had to go. And it was electric. Everyone was in top form, each playing the sort of role that they always play so well: Lawrence Ballard (the slightly sleazy capitalist), Michael Winters (the grumpy old captain), R. Hamilton Wright (the inept bumbling lovesick fool), Suzanne Bouchard (the seductive femme fatale). It reminded me again of what I love most about Seattle theater; you come to know these actors, look forward to seeing them again, watch them over the years. I was on the edge of the seat during the scene between Winters and Ballard, thinking back to their performance of Lonely Planet (written for them by Steven Dietz). Watching Bouchard and Wright, thinking back to the very first play I saw at ACT, The Revenger’s Comedies. Bouchard has always been good at the dramatic exit up stage, throwing the French doors open as she storms out. I laughed so hard (even harder than I did at the Seattle Opera's production of Cosi Fan Tutte last Spring) that the elderly couple on my left and the middle-aged couple on my right clearly thought I was completely insane.
Part of the pleasure was seeing these actors who I have seen again and again on various Seattle stages, whom I have loved since I was ten or eleven years old and who continue to completely captivate me now. And part of the pleasure was in Shaw's immortal words, which resonate even now, almost one hundred years later.