Shaw's Sleeper--Dreams and Nightmares
Too True To Be Good by Bernard Shaw through Sunday
DON'T BE MISLED by the title of the current production at the Loeb. Too True To Be Good is no drawing room comedy, peppered with neat Shavian paradoxes and finished off with a neat Shavian conclusion. In fact, it's probably unlike any Shaw play you've ever seen. There are enough witticisms to keep the audience entertained--"I do not know how to live without my wife," says one character, "we were unhappy together for forty years"--but entertainment is not Shaw's principal concern. He denies them the familiar comfort of a traditional dramatic framework, and instead subjects them to a fantastic and confusing voyage through some ambiguous zone between dream and reality, pausing several times along the way for some extended sermonizing.
The play was universally panned when it was first produced in 1932. Shaw, at 75, was years ahead of the critics in his approach to the problem of putting a new kind of message into an appropriate dramatic form--in this case, that of an extended dream. Even today, hardened as we are to the absurdities and caprices of Beckett and Ionesco, this first "modern" Shaw play takes some getting used to.
Shaw himself attributed the "unusual intensity of resentment" that greeted the play to what he defined as its moral--"not, as usual, that our social system is unjust to the poor, but that it is cruel to the rich." In a characteristically long-winded preface that includes sweeping pronouncements on, among other things, the Catholic Church and the Soviet Union, he extends a scornful pity to those who possess a new kind of riches "detached from work, from responsibility, from tradition, and from every sort of prescribed routine, even from the routine of going to the village church every Sunday, paying and receiving calls, and having every month set apart for the killing of some particular bird or animal."
But here Shaw is clouding the issue slightly for the sake of a paradox. Pitying the poor rich is only one aspect of this play's moral. Shaw is denouncing an economic system that allows the few to live off the many, and he is saying that it hurts everyone--even those at the top. On an even more fundamental level he is bemoaning a society--in fact, a world--where it has become impossible to have any faith or sense of purpose. Perhaps it was this moral that so disgruntled the critics of 1932.
The plot on which Shaw hangs his message is fairly simple. The Patient, a whining invalid stifled by her mother's overweening care, allows herself to be kidnapped by her sexy new "nurse" and a smooth-talking preacher-turned-burglar, named, respectively, Sweetie and Popsy. The three set out in quest of "real life" and a good time, taking up residence near a British imperial outpost in some unidentified desert land. The Patient's mother eventually catches up with them but fails to recognize her daughter now disguised as a native servant girl and glowing with health.
AN IMPORTANT point to remember about this sequence of events is that they are all, or almost all, part of the Patient's dream. Since the dream has no clear beginning or end, the line separating reality from fantasy is left ambiguous. This appears to be a deliberate Shavian device, designed to reflect the ambiguity of the play's ultimate message about the possibility or impossibility of maintaining any kind of belief in the face of the horrors of modern civilization. In any case, the dream aspect of the play accounts for its fantastic, disconnected quality, its confusing jumble of themes and ideas, and its abundance of rather two-dimensional characters.
The Shaw Festival 1974, a Canadian repertory company, has struggled valiantly with the problems of staging the play, and has emerged mostly successful. The first act, in which the dream is not yet really underway, is the most difficult to produce and, predictably, this act is weakest in the current production. Director Douglas Seale--who, incidentally, helped keep culture alive in Baltimore several years ago as director of that city's only professional repertory company--has attempted to establish a dream-like atmosphere from the very beginning. The actors play their parts broadly, with much mugging, and the overall impression is of a farcial comedy--an effect that leaves the audience unprepared for the fundamentally serious fantasy that follows.
Part of the problem is that Seale has tampered with the text--perhaps in an effort to cut down the play's length, although it still runs almost three hours. In the original version, a character called the Microbe appeared in the first scene and addressed sarcastic comments about the action on stage directly to the audience, thus warning them not to expect any pretense of realism. In the Seale version, all of the Microbe's lines have been cut except his last one, which has been given to a new character dressed as GBS himself. It gets a laugh, but, taken by itself, it doesn't do much more.
Seale has also dispensed with the lines of another character in the first act, the Doctor, a self-confessed quack who cures his patients by means of their own irrational faith in science. "Faith is humbug, but it works," he tells the Microbe, thus introducing one of the basic themes of the play.
But once the stumbling blocks of the first act have been surmounted, or rather, stumbled over, the quality of the production goes steadily uphill. The tone becomes less frantic, and most of the actors begin to settle into their somewhat limited roles. As it becomes more obvious from the script that the play is meant to be a dream, less energy has to be spent showing the audience that it is a dream. The setting becomes more exotic, the events more improbable, and the dialogue grows into speeches, until, in the culminating scene, when the "dream has become a nightmare," the characters stand like zombies on a surrealistic landscape and address the audience directly. When Popsy, deftly played by John Horton, delivers his final three-page long "sermon," the effect is spell-binding and the audience itself is drawn into an almost trance-like state.
ALTHOUGH the Shaw Festival has managed to make the last two acts work as theater--and this is no mean accomplishment, considering the length of some of the speeches--they have not succeeded in laying bare Shaw's fundamental message. And perhaps it would be unfair to expect them to, because Shaw himself buried it in his final "stage direction," a postscript to "the reader" in which Shaw reveals that his own favorite character is not the preacher, who continues to preach despite his loss of faith, and who is the character most likely to be identified with Shaw, but rather the patient--"the woman of action."
So, while the audience is left with the despairing words of Aubrey ringing dolefully in their ears, the reader is reminded, in these closing sentences, of the Patient's cheerful determination to find "something sensible to do." She has learned, during the course of her dream, that responsibility and not freedom is the key to "real life," and, having shaken off the shackles of Victorian femininity, she sets off in equal partnership with her mother to found a "sisterhood."
But, although the Patient may be Shaw's favorite character, she is not the most admirable. That position must be awarded to Private Meek, a character modeled on Shaw's great friend, Lawrence of Arabia, and the only character who seems to have any control over his surroundings. While those around him speechify and sermonize, he runs the army outpost with superhuman efficiency and good nature. His totally incompetent commanding officer pays him what sounds like Shaw's ultimate compliment: "I see this man Meek doing everything that is natural to a complete man." Meek has found what the Patient has begun to search for: the satisfying responsibilities of a useful job with none of the restrictive trappings of high rank and class.
If the affirmative aspect of Shaw's message tends to get lost when the play is staged, that can hardly be blamed on the production. Shaw has left his conclusion deliberately ambiguous--to the audience--and nothing short of a reading of the stage directions will serve to make it explicit. But, considering that the play seems meant to be read rather than staged, the Shaw Festival has done an excellent job with Too True To Be Good. The quality of the acting is almost uniformly excellent, the sets and costumes opulent and appropriately dream-like, and the play as a whole well worth seeing--and even more worth reading.