the better truth

the better truth

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Heartbreak House (2013 Unadilla Theater, VT)

Heartfelt House

I went to see a production of “Heartbreak House” in a rural theater in the middle of the Vermont countryside.  Topical social satire rarely stands the test of time. George Bernard Shaw’s 90 year old indictment of the English ruling class surprises in that it still has currency. Shaw captured the dissonance of a mannered old world slipping into the tumult of a ruling class aristocracy without manners and boundaries.   Shaw’s original audience, suffering the new horror of WW I’s mechanized warfare, would have recognized the young ingenue’s metamorphosis into a callus operator.  No doubt even the most priggish blue-blood must have felt the blinders slipping away into a brave new world.  Henry James and Edith Wharton spent entire tombs in which the denouement reveals a woman’s honor has been compromised. Shaw speeds the plow and the young woman is undone, so to speak, half way through the first act. Whereas earlier writers might have had the wounded leading lady crawl into the shadows, Shaw’s heroine charges towards the limelight.  The supporting cast is equally novel in their approach to social grace: all three of the established couples have open relations and the patriarch is married to someone of a different race. In fact  the only character who has a conventional matrimonial union schemes to have his only daughter married off to one of his contemporaries. In fact he makes no bones about the fact that his friend is a scoundrel.  When confronted with the darkness of his actions his answer is simple: my friend has a great deal of money.  Such brazen honesty would have been a ticket out of polite society in the Gilded Age.... but not in the upcoming Jazz age. This post WW I era is similar to our own time in terms of the shift of social norms.  I was born when blacks and women were officially sanctioned second class citizens; homosexuals were criminals, telephone answering machines did not exist and copying machines were a new invention. Someone who was 30 in 1919, when “Heartbreak House” opened, would have grown up witnessing the following ‘new‘ inventions: the electric grid, the telephone and the automobile.  The effects on society were equally dramatic: women, in most Western Democracies, were granted the vote and the ‘Downton Abbey’ set was feeling the ever-present push of the merchant class. In this paradigm shifting moment Shaw had something to say... and it still has resonance for the internet age.

Shaw had an unconventional personal life: born of modest means he married an heiress who shared his passion for socialism and women’s rights.  His wife refused to have sex which led Shaw to have a number of affairs with married women but it is unclear if any of his relationships were consummated. In addition to being a playwright he was an author and a formidable music and theater critic.  “Heartbreak House” was actually written before the war but he held off production until after hostilities had ceased. This was not someone too concerned with offending popular sensibilities so one might attribute the delay to a difficulty in finding a producer.  The original title of the play was ‘A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes’.  It would have been an mouthful but it does deliver the timbre of the piece: if Oscar Wilde had been touched with Chekov’s sense of irony. The result forces the audience into wry smiles and brief laughter rather than guffaws. The characters are equally repulsive and likable. The challenge for the cast is that there are no real heroes or villains which demands an intense level of focus in order to create the lifeblood of all good theater: empathy. The Unadilla cast did an admirable job of embodying the strange melange of brimstone and treacle. This arts organization operates on shoestring budget and utilizes some non-professional performers.  Even amidst these constraints the result is admirable. It is not easy to mix actors with varying degrees of experience especially in an intricate ensemble production. Kudos to the people on the front lines but it is also important to acknowledge the visionaries behind the scenes.  In a world obsessed with money and liability there exists a maverick with the grit and determination to build two theaters in the middle of nowhere. I have lived in the neighboring town for years and became completely lost in the dense forest occasionally punctuated with open pasture.  It is 5 miles from the nearest paved road. Audience members, even with packed houses, are outnumbered by the sheep and highland cattle in the surrounding fields. No doubt G. B. Shaw would have found a kindred spirit with such pioneers. This was a man who abhorred conventionality and the pursuit of money in equal measure.  His head-strong lack of regard for accepted wisdom has, at times, diminished his legacy. His embrace of Stalin combined with his fondness for eugenics is problematic for the contemporary reader. Nevertheless his fierce advocacy for women’s rights and his unending dedication to helping the underclass, are extraordinary for a man of his time.  Inevitably one must draw comparisons to the other Anglo-Irish playwright/breaker of societal norms: Oscar Wilde. They were two years apart in age.

If there is anyone who seems ‘heroic’ in Heartbreak House it is the old sea-captain. This character embodies Shaw’s own hardscrabble musings.  His harsh truism come with a tinge of  resignation. This isn’t Henry V. This is Richard II with Richard III’s swagger.  It should be noted that author possess the modern sense of irony by saddling his ‘superman’ with a serious drinking problem and the name “Shotover”; in addition he has such blind narcism that he fails to even acknowledge his opponents. Actually the adversaries are created out of whole-cloth with the actual person in front of him transforming into a bemused stand-in.  His daughter is not his daughter - until she is. The singer’s father is always a complete stranger with a similar name. Note that Capt. Shotover, in allegiance to the modern day survivalists, has his dynamite... just in case. He understands the world and knows he has lost... but he isn’t defeated. At this point it is interesting to compare his witticisms with Oscar Wilde’s:

G. B. Shaw: Old men are dangerous: it doesn't matter to them what is going to happen to the world.
-Capt. Shotover, Heartbreak House

Oscar Wilde: Men become old, but they never become good.
 -Duchess of Berwick, “Lady Windermere's Fan”

G. B. Shaw: When our relatives are at home, we have to think of all their good points or it would be impossible to endure them. But when they are away, we console ourselves for their absence by dwelling on their vices.
-Hesione Hushabye, Heartbreak House

Oscar Wilde: Relations are simply a tedious pack of people who haven't got the remotest knowledge of how to live, nor the smallest instinct about when to die.
- Algernon Moncrieff,  The Importance of Being Earnest

In short: Shaw is clever and funny;  Wilde is funny and clever. The difference in their writing reflects the mirror images of the men’s personal habits: Shaw was a teetotaling vegan while Wilde was, well, wild. Shaw died a celebrated figure in the 1950s, six years shy of his 100th birthday. Wilde died broke at the turn of the century after fleeing England due to a sex scandal. Shaw’s rage at the ruling class is studied and pointed. Wilde had a different approach: “if you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you”. Ironically they killed him despite his good humor.  And Shaw survived despite his more direct lines of attack. In the end “Heartbreak House” has resonance but lacks tenderness. The kind of work that comes from someone who can give wonderful lectures on humanity - but never consummates a passionate relationship. Perhaps a better title would have been “Brain-break House”. This is not to say Shaw is cold - he is a keen observer. Unfortunately he failed to be a ‘player’ in manner of Wilde. The latter’s ability to genuinely feel the heartbreak makes for a stronger connection with the audience. Fortunately the players at the Unadilla had strong enough feeling to carry the day. Their hearts were in the right place... it showed. Perhaps they should consider walking on the Wilde-side. 

1 comment:

David Strong said...

Nicely done! It is a challenge for rural theater that operates on a shoe-string to let people know what they are doing. Your review is the first I heard that the play was being performed - only 10 miles away!
Very informative about Shaw and Wilde, as well.

What about starting a local, rural weekly newspaper that could feature your cultural commentary?